Simone Weil: Attention as Generosity

First off, I should admit to being a pretty poor intellectual, though any solid attention aimed at my writing would reveal my imposter-like habit of feasting on other’s idea. But that is how I am; I like to take a spoonful of something incredible, chew on it until it softens and melts in my mouth, so it becomes inseparable from my own body, my own ever-changing way of being in the world. It is then that I might honour its creator and think or feel something worthwhile, something fresh and unknown. We could steal a bone from Tara Brach’s world and call it radical eating.
This is the ideal of the Great Feast: we must all be generous diners, feasting well on the kindness of those others who have questioned and birthed this world in all its human sadness and glory into being. We are meant to be inspired, to be filled with revelation, but it need not be pointed to God, or the solipsistic pursuit of personal freedom, or the heady thrill of pop activism. Grace defines those who refuse the allure of the frenzies of our age, but engage carefully, to the point of mastering a soft touch, where needed, and a heavy blow when necessary; though in this man’s case, of the non-physical sort.
I am not sure I am an Anarchist despite Glenn Wallis’s rather seductive invitation to think of one’s self as such in his most recent book on the topic (check out the interview). I am too ignorant to make up my mind about the sort of political stance I should commit too when they all appear so imperfect and so deeply flawed. I am muddling through at best and seeking to participate where I feel most driven to do so. I am though always appreciative of Glenn’s careful and considerate thought and this piece on Simon Weil is a delight to read and touches on very deep themes that transcend much of the utilitarian discourse surroundings its material and insights. I recommend it. If Glenn continues to write so sweetly (in the dining sense of the word), his will be a feast worth dining at.

Our New Classroom

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Simone Weil (1909-1943; pronounced vay) was an extraordinary person. If you do not know her life story, I highly recommend watching Julia Haslett’s moving and deeply personal movie, “An Encounter with Simone Weil” (at the bottom of this post). The movie opens with the filmmaker channelling Weil to ask, “What response does seeing human suffering demand of us?”


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Happy EASTER

Have you been enjoying a bit of fasting, self-denial and religious thought over the last six weeks in preparation for some chocolate today? Probably not. But I can’t help but think it may not be a bad thing to do in this day and age to at least try a bit of social media fasting, some News fasting, some internet fasting. My dips back into Twitter and Facebook have proven my minimal engagement there to be worthwhile: Facebook has become a dated, sad looking affair, and Twitter seems to have driven everyone slightly mad. Leaving the hyperreal worlds they represent has been liberating to say the least. This is the last I shall mention of this for a while. “Mi sono sfogato” as the Italians say.

As we enter Easter, life seems more chaotic than ever over here and the demands on my time just keep increasing. Italy is in yet another lock down and I am personally finding it difficult to respect the rules after a year of confinement: It’s as if every home has become a sort of pressure cooker, and having my in-laws living in the apartment downstairs means the pressure is coming from more than one location. I have been secretly exploring all of the hidden angles and urban walks my adopted home has to offer and there are so many of them; providing opportunities for meditative walks, contemplative meanders through hidden woods, and shamanic ceremony that connects to themes in the first episode.

I have also been spending more of my formal practice on concentration as a way to manage the level of challenge life keeps throwing up with long days spent in lock down with family, neighbours, online work, home schooling, in-laws and too much time staring at screens. Even our two cats seem stressed by this third wave of the pandemic. This change in practice focus connects to the second episode.

Two episodes; Two very different themes.

My desire to get Jane Affleck onto the podcast was inspired by a piece she wrote for The Side View. It had a title that caught my attention, Meditative Awareness and the Symbiotic Real.  The basic idea was that meditation and meditative relationships with the environment can behave as an antidote to anthropocentrism; an extension, if you will, of our over-focus on the selfing process that Buddhism is so concerned with. If ideology is collective selfing, anthropocentrism is species level selfing; this theme is set to be a central one in practice as this century unfolds so expect more guests on here to discuss it. With Jane, we talk about the intimate relationship with the environment that can be fostered and the way that relationship can challenge experiences of selfhood and many of the traps that accompany a self focussed approach to the practising life. We explore how art and the process of creation are integral to this process too.

P.S. I chatted with the Side View’s founder a while back and had a rather unusual conversation with him you might like to revisit after this one. Follow the link down the rabbit hole if you dare.

Tina Rassmussen is one of our first meditation teachers on in a long while. Well, being a practice based series, this was inevitable. Tina was co-author of a book on jhana states and concentration that I have had on my shelf for a long time. Concentration is not the topic of our conversation, however. Here are some of the themes we explored;

  • Compatibility issues between neo-Advaita and Buddhism
  • Generational conceptions of practice; from Boomers to Millennials
  • The need to evolve our understanding and ways of thinking about and describing awakening/enlightenment
  • The phases and stages of a practising life
  • Roadblocks, hurdles, maturation; limitations
  • Critiquing the language we use to talk about self, ego, awakening
  • The way belief shapes practice, perception, expectations and the contours of subjectivity

Enjoy the spring everyone and let’s all wish a swift end to this pandemic.

Links

Jane Affleck https://www.jane-affleck.com/

Adam Robbert, Side View founder https://soundcloud.com/imperfect-buddha-podcast/64-ibp-adam-robbert-on-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life

Tina Rassmussen https://luminousmindsangha.com/who-we-are/  

Complex World Complex Practice

Pollock, Jackson (1912_1956) © Museum of Modern Art, New York Painting 173×264,2 Abstract Art Number 1A, 1948

What are we to make of the times we live in? How are we to approach practice? No, not just meditation, but life as practice, knowing and not knowing as practice, relationship with ideas and concepts as practice. I know a few decent enough answers to these questions, as many of you do too, yet there is something missing in these complex times where the self and politics have nestled inside each other so comfortably, and where the online world has supplanted so much and in some ways reality itself. This nestled space is certainly a practice arena too; one many are absorbed into as their primary source of meaning making in the current cultural ferment and varied expressions of the culture war. Though this idea of war is rather limited and very American and presumably we’ll need a war on war soon. The truth is our current age is marked by many, many intersecting worldviews crashing into each other, and they go beyond the dichotomies evident in the culture war’s excesses. Our age is characterised by complexity and a need for practices that can engage with the complex as the starting point for any serious thought. Simplistic narratives and dichotomies are a distraction from an historical moment which demands so much from us.

The multiplicity of our age & accompanying reality disjuncture represent a picture of the postmodern characteristics of our age. After all, the excesses that characterise this period of human history are rooted in a fascinating conflict between the realities of our material and human worlds, and the hyperreal fantasies that run through the cultural products, practices and visions hyperreal experience give birth to: Fantasies that run all the way from far-right to far-left and all of the dysfunctional stop off points in-between. These worlds do exist, but they consist of alternative realities where the imaginary and the real can be so far apart that they are impossible to square. The ability to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy, what is desired and what is imminent may be the defining issue of our age and one that shapes the contours our future follows, towards what I suspect will be a new age of harsh pragmatism dominated by the cynical, anti-democratic antics of China, and the West’s slow reaction to them.

One of my reasons for getting off of social media was the well-known role these platforms play in the dysfunctional eruptions of our current ferment and their capacity to distract us from thinking deeply about our current collective state. They pull us further into polarised thinking, and feeling, and this happens even to those of us who dabble ever so lightly, tweet rarely, and glance only occasionally at Facebook or Instagram. It is difficult to avoid becoming a pawn in the role-play that characterises the polarisation evident in many western countries, even if you spend minimal time on social media. I personally hate being a pawn, I despise being enrolled in clubs and events I did not sign up for, and sucked into causes that may be good, or right, but are rooted in the reactive subject or hyperreal fantasies. When I realised I was being dragged into the anti-woke camp (no, not the alt-right), I had to put my foot down and cut the oxygen feed of Twitter, the sugar rush of Facebook, and the less savoury recommendations coming at me from Youtube: I admit it, they caught me off guard in a slow, insipid fashion.

Continue reading “Complex World Complex Practice”

78. IBP: Glenn Wallis on Practice & Anarchism

It’s interesting to think that the Imperfect Buddha podcast was really motivated into being by a dearth of critical material on contemporary Buddhism. Some noted academics were putting out books, and papers on Buddhism and philosophy could be found occasionally that made sense to a non-academic audience, but accessible, critical material that connected theory to practice was minimal.

The Buddhist Geeks podcast had taken a sort of technological turn and I found it not at all interesting and soon realised I was listening to no podcasts on Buddhism at all. As I tend to do, due to some character fault or some such thing, I rolled my sleeves up and took care of a need: I assumed that if I was after something more intellectually stimulating and responsive to the obvious problems that were visible in the world of contemporary Buddhism, and spirituality, then there would be other like minded folks out there too.

Roping my old buddy Stuart into the thing was great and I enjoyed our conversations, research and analysis. Since his departure, the podcast has taken various turns and turned some of those turns into happenings: They are the culmination of much thinking, meditation and practice. 

Two figures have been on the podcast more often than any other and were in different ways the inspiration for those turns. They are both important figures for me and have helped me along in my own practice immensely (directly, and indirectly). Both gave me a way to reconnect to Buddhism after almost abandoning it entirely ten odd years ago.

It would be easy to consider Hokai Sobol as the practice side of a couple with today’s guest, Glenn Wallis, making up the theoretical member. Anyone who knows these two even a little would know that to be an absurd notion. Both are highly intelligent, deep thinking, practising folks and they have been on the podcast so often because they think differently and are fiercely independent in doing so. Although I have got most of the guests from my wish list on over the years, I would still like to wrestle these two into a conversation on the podcast some day. You never know.

In the meantime, Glenn returns to talk about practice and share his take on the practising life in line with our other guests in this year-long practice season. Is it likely he will be offering advice on how to get your thumbs in the sweet spot for mudra work? No. Is it likely he’ll be sharing his own take on mastering the Jhanas? Nope. But no one would be daft enough to expect that from him. Practice forms are infinite and forever tied to our human condition and it is to those avenues of inquiry that we stroll in our conversation. We discuss the non-buddhism practice group, Incite, and his latest book on Anarchism; a topic I challenge him on.

Nothin’ exists outside the podcast

If things were simple, word would have gotten around.”  Jacques Derrida

I am currently engrossed in Peter Salmon’s recently published biography of Jacques Derrida and rather enjoying its stroll through the life of one of the most challenging and notorious philosophical thinkers of the last century. Derrida’s thought is infuriatingly complex for almost everyone, and his ideas have been put into the service of all manner of ideological project due, in part, to its slippery nature. Today’s guest is not unlike Derrida in his capacity to confuse, frustrate and outright annoy. His work on non-Buddhism has been cast as mental masturbation, over-intellectualising, and other playground insults that usually indicate the hurler is of the lazy sort when it comes to firing up the old intellect. “To practice!” such insult throwing folks might encourage us; just sit, breathe, pay close attention to the abdomen, nostrils, upper lip, mantra, image, subtle state, emptiness, bliss, and, whatever you do, don’t think too much, don’t explore thought, don’t engage it, keep it at bay, bring attention back to the breath, the sweet spot, right there. That’s it, now rest.

This is a vision of practice: A very fine one. Lovely. Great. I adore it myself.

But thinking is a practice also. And avoiding thinking is a practice too. And both can be put in service to all manner of goal; many of which we have spoken to and critiqued in the life of this podcast. There’s also more. Some folks have discovered it. And it is something quite remarkable. Developing meditative capacity can actually lead to a far more robust capacity to think, to reason, to elaborate theory, to think deeply and broadly, and to share company with the great minds of any practice tradition (in the very broadest of senses of practice). Silencing the mind can actually enable clarity, presence and sharpened senses to engage with the tentacles of thought as liberating, insight-exploring, creative wonder, and as the recognition that real problems emerge from poorly developed thought and its unthinking application.

But, for those thinking all this is rather obvious, this process should not merely provide the ground for the confirmation of Buddhist insights (as so many popular books on Buddhism and science have sought to do), but rather act as a leap off point into the Great Feast and its many, many, unfinished, human projects. Awakening out of self-absorbed narcissism, of the sort Buddhism specialises in addressing on a good day, can mean that the exploration of human knowledge, past, present, and potential future, can become an endeavour that no longer circles around the ‘I’ as locus of meaning, or Buddhism as the source of final, sufficient knowing. Thought instead can begin to liberate, and help us to identify better its many formed sufferings and entrapments, and support and perhaps even create new dharmas. For Buddhism is not up this task on its own in case you don’t happen to know.