Notes Towards a Coming Backlash

perdrougge3

Notes Towards a Coming Backlash: Mindfulne$$ as an opiate of the middle classes

By Per Drougge*

The “Western Buddhist” stance is arguably the most effective way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. –Slavoj Žižek 2001: 13

This is what we are obliged to posit here: the historical tendency of late capitalism—what we have called the reduction to the gift and the reduction to the body—is in any case unrealizable. Human beings cannot revert to the immediacy of the animal kingdom (assuming indeed the animals enjoy themselves such phenomenological immediacy). –Fredric Jameson 2003: 717

Introduction

An earlier version of this article appeared in a Swedish anthology, Mindfulness: Tradition, tolkning och tillämpning (“Mindfulness: Tradition, Interpretation, and Application”), back in 2014. As it is a kind of “nethnography,” or at least cites numerous online sources, I’d been thinking of posting a hyperlinked version of it on my own website; the web is really a much better medium for this kind of text than a printed book. I never got around to it, however, so I was very pleased when Glenn Wallis suggested I post an English translation on this blog. A man of many talents (and languages), Glenn also made a preliminary translation, to which I’ve added some corrections and updates.

Just like in the US and many other places, mindfulness has become part ->

Meditation: An Intimate Act

April[Comments are permitted on this post.]

By April Resnick

Right now, for the next few moments, I am interested in talking about the act of sitting. That’s it. And for me, there is no way around it. Meditation is an intimate act. I have rarely heard it discussed in these terms. Still, it keeps showing up for me as an intimate act. Intimacy is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “marked by a very close association, contact, or familiarity.” When I first walked into a meditation hall I was looking for peace. What I found was contact, and it was not peaceful. I was looking for something “spiritual.” What I found was contact, and it was not spiritual. I was looking for something to ease my pain. What I found was contact WITH that pain, and it was not easy. I quickly discovered this was not a soothing act, but one that brought me intimate association with all the things I had dissociated from so long ago. I immediately had a choice: either pay attention or not. I could choose contact with my breath/body/mind/stimuli and its embodied nightmares, or not. It was as simple, and as vulnerable, as that. The choice continues to be this simple for me, up to this very morning’s meditation.

When I choose to sit still, quiet, unmoving…my body is vulnerable, biologically and evolutionarily speaking. Millions of years of violence and predation have taught us that when we squat, whether to shit or to meditate, we are exposed. There is no guarantee when I shit, or when I sit, of safety or comfort. Yet still I do it. My guard is down, my gaze is down, my sympathetic nervous system is dialed down and my parasympathetic system takes over. (This is why our stomachs churn and growl, why we burp, and why we fart during meditation. Our body has decided we don’t need blood supply shunted to our muscles to quickly run away from certain doom. So it sends blood to our digestive system instead.) When I sit I am, physically speaking, the perfect prey. The very simple physical act of sitting still, the choice to stay still and quiet, the choice to direct my attention solely to the breath is a biological act of bravery and vulnerability, every single time. This was my first contact, my fist act of intimacy. I made contact with vulnerability.

On some level that initial sitting down, whether solitary or in a group, becomes an act of trust. It can be trust in the environment, trust in the facilitator, even trust in myself and my practice. I may trust that no predator will leap out from his hiding place; that no teacher will allow my violation while I stay vulnerable; that regardless of what is going on around me or inside me, I will make the right choice between stillness and movement should the decision become necessary. There is no intimacy, close association, without this trust (or at least the illusion of it.) So when I sit, I extend that trust to others, to myself, to my practice. And I make contact with fear, and then I make contact with trust.

Once the sitting still is accomplished, the bodily sensations arise. I make the choice to allow myself contact with these sensations. Although it sounds elementary, this is no easy task. I am sure that I once experienced bodily sensation freely, as a child, before bodily dissociation during abuse was the only option for psychological (and perhaps physical) survival. But now, slowly, with each session of sitting I have been able to reconnect to my body in a way that does not evoke hatred, shame, self injurious behavior. I have let myself be vulnerable, let myself trust, and so then I am able to feel the sensation of clothing on certain areas of my skin without screaming. I am able to feel itches, tension, and pain in areas of my body that would have once caused violent self harming. The pulling away from these sensations still exists, but I am able to feel THAT in my body as well, long before they transition to sudden or violent reaction. Each session of sitting, although to different degrees, allows me safe contact, close association, familiarity with the bodily manifestations of being a human, a human struggling with PTSD. I am intimate, familiar now, with the havoc that still reverberates in my body after the abuse. Sitting does not make it less painful; sitting cannot erase the felt sense of the abuse that still arises. But, it does allow for safe contact, a full experience of that pain, rather than the habit of dissociation from it.

For me, intimacy, contact, the ability to notice and fully experience the detail—that is what is happening when I sit. Does it extend beyond the cushion, yes sometimes it does. Is contact always easy or pretty or nice or comfortable, no it is not. But, I am interested in contact, not comfort. Contact first and foremost. What that contact looks like cannot be the goal, but the contact itself must be. The very act of intimacy that happens regularly during my meditation, the ACT of contact itself, that opportunity for familiarity with this 5’ 4” carcass, that is my goal. Reclaiming an intimate familiarity for a brief moment, that was taken so long ago. What happens when I get up, when I stop sitting? I like to think perhaps the ability to allow contact with the rest of the details of my life. I would like to think that all of the time spent on the cushion allowing myself intimacy with the good, bad, and the ugly that shows up somehow makes it easier to allow similar contact in my daily life. I would like to think that the ability to allow intimacy that I am practicing while meditating just might extend itself beyond that brief practice. I think, maybe, just maybe, it is.

So I will sit. I will practice allowing contact with whatever shows up. And then, I will get up and go live my life, grateful to have had the opportunity to rediscover and cultivate intimacy with that very life. That is, for me, where it must start. Beyond that…I will just have to wait and see.

*

Sensitive to the Whole

I am reconnected to my body
In a way I must have been
When I was seven
Before eight years old
Hands turned cold
And I became frozen
Backed in a corner
Of myself
For survival
One by one pulled out
The cords that connected
Neurons to nerves
But now the stillness
The waiting and watching
The safety of silence
Has allowed a re-wiring
A warm humming of the living
That carries me out of that corner
— April Resnick

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April Resnick has her BS in Nursing and is currently working on her Masters of Applied Meditation Studies. She has worked in the fields of surgery and labor and delivery as a nurse.  She is also a veteran of the USAF, who served on active duty, and as a reservist.  April has been meditating for 5 years.  She has instructed meditation at Penn State Abington, for staff, and Intercommunity Action Center, for adults in the Philadelphia living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  She is also a writer currently posting poetry to her blog www.sometimesihatemycat.com.   Her current area of interest is the intersection between meditation and creativity, as well as the use of meditation in the management of PTSD, and its practical application in the recovery from childhood trauma.

More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville

wall5More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville
(Thoughts After Reading Glenn Wallis’s Post “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall”*)

[Unmoderated comments are permitted on this post.]

by Alan Seltzer

[Beckett] has just spent three weeks in his country house. He took walks, played the piano often, read a little. He has been reading Heine’s last poems, and he tells me that they are like lamentations. But he prefers doing nothing. Spending hours looking out the window. He is particularly fond of the silence. He also describes the sound of cartloads of beetroots as they pass his house. (Juliet 37)

Samuel Beckett was a practitioner of meditation, but he would not have labeled himself as such. He valued stillness and he valued silence, though they could at times be unbearable for him. My thought is that Beckett, in his work, might provide some useful insights into ways of thinking about meditation. How or whether he viewed silence and contemplation in relation to his art, I don’t know. There are references in interviews and conversations about his engagement with silence. The above passage is from Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde by Charles Juliet. It references a conversation with Beckett on November 11, 1977, when Beckett was 71 years old. In the passage Glenn quotes in his post on Beckett (May 18, 2013) from Lawrence Shainberg’s “Exorcising Beckett,” Beckett states that he has been staring at walls “for fifty years.” But he observes about wall staring, when told of Shainberg’s Zen practice, “you don’t have to know anything about Zen to do that.” And that is the point. Beckett’s “practice” needs no doctrines, no rituals, no beliefs, no prescribed methods, no anything. And certainly no hope, no expectations, no goals. And, of course, he would not even consider his silent sitting a practice at all. When Shainberg describes his own Zen practice, Beckett responds with perplexity: “Why, he asked, did people do it? Were they seeking tranquility? Solutions?” Beckett did not, could not, seek either. As Shainberg says, Beckett was curious about Buddhism, and there were aspects of mysticism he liked (Juliet 39), but he could never accept any system or doctrine. And perhaps the main reason was that he saw no hope or solutions for the human condition. He asserts this repeatedly in his work and elsewhere. He tells Juliet, for instance, in their conversation of October 24, 1968, that he has not read Eastern philosophers: ” ‘They suggest a way out, whereas I felt there was none. One solution–death.'” Continue reading “More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville”

On Reading Hegel as a Corrective for Meditative Malpractice

tumblr_m4iypr5qUt1qcu0j0o1_400This summer, I am making a commitment not to meditate.  At least, not to meditate in any way that Western Buddhists would identify as Buddhist meditation.  My meditation practice, I have decided, will be to do a slow and careful rereading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, attempting to think dialectically about every argument Hegel makes.

In part, this is motivated by having recently read Zizek’s Less Than Nothing, which offers a fascinating and compelling  interpretation of Hegel’s thought.  In part, it is motivated by the enormous increase of attention to Hegel in the English-speaking world, and the numerous stimulating recent books on Hegel, such as Jameson’s The Hegel Variations and Pinkard’s Hegel’s Naturalism: Mind, Nature, and the Final Ends of Life.  In addition, I came across a pdf of Pinkards new translation of the Phenomenology, and realized, thumbing through my yellowed copy, that it has been close to twenty years since I’ve read it all the way through.

Although the summer is just beginning, and I am proceeding slowly through the book, I am already convinced that a bit of time spent with Hegel could be a useful corrective for the current state of Western Buddhism.

We are all familiar with the constant admonishment to “spend more time on the cushion” as a cure for whatever it might be that ails us.  Buddhism in the U.S. has turned its focus to guaranteeing the pleasures of the body (witness the current issue of Buddhadharma), if we will only consent to abandon the life of the mind.  Any thought is called “clinging to views,” and argument or critique violates the suffocating misunderstanding of the concept of “right speech”; we are told to feel, never think, to perceive with bare attention, to dwell in the ineffable and learn complete acceptance of whatever is.  All of this will relieve our “stress,” break our “addictions,” and give us states of bliss of varying duration and intensity.

Years ago, when I was returning to an active interest in Buddhism after a couple of decades of being a bookstore Buddhist, I read a little collection of texts on meditation translated by Thomas Cleary.  In his introduction to this little collection of Chan and Zen meditation manuals, Cleary describes the “fifth and highest type of meditation…called pure clear meditation arriving at being-as-is”: “This is considered the most penetrating insight and the nearest that an individual consciousness can come to true objective identity”(ix).  Rereading Hegel’s Phenomenology recalled this definition of the goal of meditation–a goal I had at one point assumed to be the goal of most people who practiced Buddhism–because Hegel intended this book to do much the same thing as what Cleary describes the five types of meditation as attempting to do. Continue reading “On Reading Hegel as a Corrective for Meditative Malpractice”

Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall

wall[Meditation] is a faith, with the sufficiency of faith, intended by necessity to remain empty but which necessarily evades this void by its repopulation with objects and foreign goals provided by experience, culture, history, language, etc. Through its style of communication and “knowing” it is a rumor—the [Asian] rumor—which is transmitted by hearsay, imitation, specularity and repetition.1

That passage came to mind while reading texts and watching video on the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website.2 Laruelle is talking about philosophy, but the statement works equally well for meditation (and its varieties: contemplation, mindfulness, centering prayer, even yoga, tai chi, and so on). Much of what I read and heard about contemplation on the Center’s website struck me as reasonable enough. A typical example:

Contemplative Practices cultivate a critical, first-person focus, sometimes with direct experience as the object, while at other times concentrating on complex ideas or situations. Incorporated into daily life, they act as a reminder to connect to what we find most meaningful.

That’s reasonable—as an opening. An awful lot of questions would have to be asked about the statement, though. What, for instance, is this “first-person focus” of direct experience? What, for that matter, is “direct experience”? Anyone who has been reading this blog knows how attuned some of us are to the machinations of unacknowledged ideology. For instance, concerning this overlap between first-person accounts and experience, a reader recently wrote to me:

[T]here is a built in petitio principii that makes the viewpoint unfalsifiable. The ideology includes a meta-message regarding the autonomy of (meditative) experience as a veridical source of knowledge. This seems to be what [B. Alan] Wallace is up to with his emphasis on “first-person” experience, arguing from an assumption that such experience is autonomous and not already formed by ideology.

I agree with that assessment. It succinctly identifies the big question for meditation: is it a vessel for ideology or a science of ideology?3 Does the practice, in fact, produce new knowledge, about, say, subjective experience or the intransitive world, or does it merely reinforce the views provided by doctrine? I’m still holding out for the former (barely). So, I’d want to ask the people at the Center why, if they believe that meditation-contemplation holds such natural human promise (as the director says, in effect, on a video), do they incessantly populate it “with objects and foreign goals provided by experience, culture, history, language, etc.”? Why not let the practice do its work, unencumbered by over-determining doctrine? I am not going to offer a critique of the Center’s site here. I am more interested in the wide-spread x-buddhist phenomenon of what Laruelle calls here “re-population.” Continue reading “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall”

On the Grammar of Meditation: Parataxis

parataxis2Here, mute world.
There, dharmic tale.
Near here, inching ever closer,
the persecuted human.

Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life is, by nearly every account that I have heard or read, painful to watch. It is frustrating, boring, uninteresting. Nothing happens.  No story is told. Imagine—a movie without a story!

These are curious reactions to a film that enables us to be present at the creation of the universe, watch dinosaurs fighting in pristine forests and frolicking on the shore, be voyeurs of a darkly suffering family in 1950s suburban Texas, and witness the stellar conflagration that ends it all.

Yet, it is true: no story is told. In this lack, the film shows us a way to exorcise the enchanters haunting x-buddhist meditation.

Exorcise it of what, exactly? First of all, of the controlling narratives which invariably cleave to it. I mean the heroic narratives about its origin, value, use, benefit, purpose. Once we evacuate the narrative from the practice, we can exorcise it of the subordinate grammar that supports the narrative. What is left is a form of severe parataxis. Severe, but just. It is an existential grammar without coordinating or subordinating connectives. It’s this next to that. No hierarchy. No and, for, with, because. No therefore, since, and then, as, if. No essential sense or meaning—the fires that fuel the narrative juggernaut.

Malick’s paratactic cinematic grammar is a model for our meditation grammar. Continue reading “On the Grammar of Meditation: Parataxis”

The Epistemic Meditator

blackarrowCan meditation produce knowledge? Or is it a vessel for dogma?

The latter is without question the case. How else should we understand the perfect confluence of some x-community’s practice with its doctrine? It never fails. It appears to be as inevitable as it is complete. Whether Trappist, Quaker, Zen, TM, Shamanic, Wiccan, Vipassana, MBSR or any other form, what happens in meditation never fails to validate the claims of doctrine. Let me converse for five minutes with any meditator, and I can tell you to what system of thought he or she subscribes. Meditation, it seems, is a potent tool for inculcating ideology. And the meditator, as good subject of that ideology, cannot hide the fact. S/he cannot but expressively ventriloquize the terms and beliefs that populate the practice.

If it is demonstrably the case that meditation can be employed as a tool for indoctrination, is it necessarily so? Can the term “meditation” be used to designate a human practice that produces knowledge? If so, what conditions might be required?

On the back cover of her new book, In-Cite: Epistemologies of Creative Writing, Camelia Elias, writes:

The epistemic creative writer is not merely an expressive writer, a writer who writes for creative writing programs at diverse university colleges. Rather, the epistemic creative writer is the writer who understands that in order to say something useful you must step out of the space that engages your ego. Awareness of what really matters comes from the contemplation of the futility of words. Before the word there is silence. After the word there is silence. But during the word there is knowledge that can be made crystal clear. [Links at bottom.]

Similarly, the “epistemic meditator” is not a ventriloquized subject, one who practices obediently within a particular tradition and dutifully absorbs the views of that tradition. Rather, the epistemic meditator is one who understands that in order to think or learn something important he must step out of the very space within which the community’s subjugating practice does its work. That space is demarcated by the words of the community’s doctrine. Words are the furniture and infrastructure of the x-buddhist fortress. By accident or by design, those words are compelling and coercive. “What really matters,” for example, is already given in x-buddhist postulates. It is, in fact, provided at the very inception of “Buddhism.” X-buddhism’s origination myth has the Buddha-figure attaining to saving knowledge. And so the first tracks of borrowed thought are lain. “Awareness of  what really matters” is not awareness at all: it is rather acquiescence to tradition’s formulation. The x-buddhist who “sees” that “all is suffering” (or whatever) is merely seeing what he, by his affective acquiescence, has decided to see.  What he has “seen” is the ostensible value of a particular formulation. If contemplation reveals “the futility of words,” the first words to fail are those that say what contemplation is.

Before the word there is silence. After the word there is silence. X-buddhism, like all systems of thought, is nowhere to be found in this empty silence. Yet, x-buddhism, the paladin of emptiness, is nothing if not a loquacious filler of the silence. Continue reading “The Epistemic Meditator”

“A Sickness unto Death”

BrainNon-buddhism is instrumental. It’s a whetstone for chisels, a forge for hammers. Its tools are meant, as Glenn recently put it, to

deflate, flatten, and simplify the object of the application: x-buddhism. Then, you can place x-buddhism’s raw material next to mute reality. You can also democratize totalitarian x-buddhist material by putting it in dialogue with local knowledges. It is in enabling such acts of decommissioning that non-buddhism is a radical practice, “radical” meaning rendering some x-material minimally transcendental.

The aim is to “decommission” some religious material, to uncook a bit what’s been cooked up, and give us a peek at the x-meat when it’s still raw. This rawness becomes visible to the degree that the material has been rendered “minimally transcendental.” Such uncooking, Glenn suggests, can be accomplished just by bringing religious material into unprotected dialogue with other kinds of local knowledge.

Take the idea of “enlightenment.”

One straightforward way to render the notion of “enlightenment” minimally transcendental would be to assume the (not unlikely) hypothesis that “enlightenment” is, medically speaking, a pathology, a sickness, a defect, an accidental side effect of a bug in the human system.

If enlightenment is a kind of weird, local, peripheral pathology of my already strained humanity rather than the summum bonum toward which all reality bends, then . . . what?

That’s the non-buddhist question: then . . . what?

In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Harvard-trained neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes what it was like, from the inside out, to suffer a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain.

It turns out that, on Taylor’s own account, this kind of massive physiological trauma looks like “enlightenment.” Continue reading ““A Sickness unto Death””

The Mirror of Practice

What concrete answers can you offer to the following question? It is a question that goes to the very heart of this blog:

“Can Buddhist practice be the one place where we are still allowed to open our eyes to the truths that shape our lives everyday? Can it teach us not to hide from the truth inside a cloud of incense, mindfully experiencing our bodily sensations?” (Tom Pepper, comment #28 on “Running from Zombie Buddhas“)

This blog is concerned with the human. Buddhism claims, too, to be concerned with the human. So, why does this blog not simply offer a straight-forward presentation of Buddhist thought and practice? The answer is: because of the human.

Non-buddhism is an exploration of the suspicion that, as it is, Buddhism ultimately fails the human. Many reasons for that failure have been offered here, and more are on the way. They include the failings of both traditional and contemporary, largely secular, forms of Buddhism (and crypto-buddhism); for example: ideological occlusion; facile moralism; emotional prescriptiveness; program subscription; shallow scientism; insistence on sufficiency; unacknowledged transcendentalism (in the religious sense);  hidden ascetic mores; collusion with late-capitalist consumerism, and much more.

Can x-buddhist postulates be employed in creating a place where we are still allowed to name and explore human truths and craft them toward correspondingly truthful ends? Continue reading “The Mirror of Practice”

No More Meditation!

Speculative non-buddhism poses a simple question: shorn of its transcendental excess–its adventitious conceptual representations–what might x-buddhism offer us? That question suggests a methodology. It starts by deflating the lofty doctrinal postulates, hovering above our heads like the Hindenburg, and watching them come crashing down. As they lie there, prostrate on the ground, we can have a closer, less doctrinally-determinate, look.

In the present post, Matthias Steingass continues a lively discussion about the prospects of raw, doctrinally-shorn, x-buddhistic materials for practice. This discussion started with the post and comments (particularly those by Tom, Robert, and Erick) on “Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology, and Nihilism,” continued with Matthias’s article “Meditation and Control,” and has since arisen on the comments of virtually every post here, regardless of the post’s topic.

Although he does not cast it explicitly in such terms, Matthias’s piece is, in my eyes, an example of what we can do with non-buddhism. Maybe it is fairer, and in fact more to the point, to say it is an example simply of what we can do with thinking–thinking being what happens when we drain from cognition the charism surging in from the x-buddhist power grid.

I hope the reader will pay especially close attention to the programmatic remarks Matthias makes toward the end of the essay. There is something concrete there that we can build on, something promising that we can explore in action. (Glenn Wallis)

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No More Meditation!

Matthias Steingass

There is a lot. Calm, the coming and going of explicit thought, feeling, sensation, mixtures of this and its phasing in and out of syntactically correct renderings, spots of non-thought presence, the wandering of the focus of attention, physical effects, effects which might be reflected in behaviour, insights, ideas, dullness… but no meditation.

Let’s turn the thing around. No introduction to “meditation” but search for experiences which might point to or are certain specific properties of being conscious. There are experiences which one can describe. It is not from semantic content to experience but vice versa. The point is, one has to find a way to describe experience in a fresh way. Talking about “mindfulness” is not talking about mindfulness: it is talking about something one has learned to say about mindfulness in a series of expensive seminars. The other thing is not learned but is a given – and it is for free, which, in our economic culture, means it has no value. What is the point to know that I am right now? That is at once a trivial and at the same time very important question. This is nothing mystical; it is present experience – for which one can find expressions. Interactional expression is the creative scribe which maps out and structures – with all the colourful complicating reciprocity that this brings with it.

But let us abandon the word and then look for experience as not looked for but experienced – and just let’s say “No!” to “meditation.” Continue reading “No More Meditation!”