Bear with me please. This post goes in a number of directions but each is linked and important. It is also representative of an Italian rhetorical style which begins with a good deal of preamble before making the central point at the end. This is a writing style that requires a degree of faith on the part of the reader, and is certainly unfashionable in today’s culture of bite-size nuggets and stimulation triggering.
I’ll assume that if you make it to the end, you are a thinker, and if not, enjoy your social media fix and close the door on your way off this page.
Starting off: down with that sort of thing
When I examined my own set of practices in the last years, I was often been brought back to the flurry of insults thrown at certain meditation traditions, teachers and practices by the non-Speculative Buddhism chaps. I also recall a frequent utterance made that was aimed at claims of results or pro-positive feelings that might emerge from them: “So what?” they would ask. Was this a question, a sneer, or an expression of disinterest on their part? Perhaps it was a mixture of all three. Either way, I took such brusk commentary as a useful reminder to avoid repeating three mistakes; using meditation as a retreat from the world, assuming it was obvious that meditation was always good, and that meditation was what it was being defined as by my fellow Buddhists. Since those days, I have been concerned with the idea that meditation techniques and the framework used to discuss, understand and expand on them be connected more closely with immanence and the non Buddhist world of knowledge and insight, and that the concept of immanence not be taken for granted or encoded within Buddhist lingo. What does it mean to be present to life? What does it mean to be present to the world? What does it mean to engage with something called the present? We take so much for granted; we take so much on blind faith. How often do we stop to ask questions of the exultations that beckon us on into practice? How often do we challenge what can seem so natural? These were just some of the questions that challenged me and brought back a sense of excitement into thinking about meditation, spirituality and Buddhism anew.
To question your assumptions is an essential aspect of practice. This is quite different from forming yourself into the image of a good Buddhist. Questions can radically upset what we take as given. How do you feel if someone undermines everything you hold dear? How do you feel if someone exposes your practice and view of yourself as a practitioner as fraudulent? When our assumptions are challenged and the normalisation of a personally held view is prodded vigorously, typical reactions tend to ensue. They usually include the famous three: retreat, avoidance, or defence. How many are capable of opening to the critique at hand instead, and accepting it may destroy what you hold dear and that this may be exactly what you need in your life? Who is willing to see critique as an opportunity rather than a personal attack in this age of outrage and victimhood? Surely humility involves being willing to be wrong and shown what is hidden behind our ignorance. To be shaken by the world is an invaluable opportunity for genuine transformation. It’s a shame most of us are culturally trained to avoid it. It’s even worse when we bullshit ourselves into justifying our excuses for cowardice in excusing ourselves for disengaging when life invites us to step up.
And after all, the conclusions drawn by those critiquing do not have to be taken on blind faith or as an eternal end. There is that wiggle room. They may be wrong, or symptomatic of a specific ideological critique, which will always be limited, so not a necessary replacement or a new final truth. That doesn’t mean that their view is not the right one to bring balance to our delusions or offer an opening to a wider expanse in which we can see more clearly. There is immense value in being challenged and when identity is wrapped up in our actions, choices and modes of practice, a decent one can wake us up, shake loose the cobwebs of assumption and comfort, or reinvigorate our commitment to what we know to be important and valuable. Too many fail to grab at such an opportunity when it arises and instead receive critique as negativity, or as violence, or as something to shield themselves from.
That said, I may now appear to contradict myself. I guess that one challenge I set myself in my writing here is to apply some of what I learnt from the SNB chaps in a way that may be more palatable for the average Buddhist or spiritual adventurer. There are ways to seduce interlocutors into entering new spaces of thought and action that are less obvious and less aggressive than a bang on the head. I would like to think that I am offering something of a public service here by exploring the themes I do in a straightforward and non-aggressive manner: this doesn’t mean I’m trying to be deliberately nice and I say so without expectation that I am right or even effective in attempting to do so, but I enjoy the play at hand and it doesn’t hurt to be clear with one’s intentions. That said, some of the thoughts I explore would certainly be worrisome for those who take traditional Buddhism and their place in it very, very seriously. Even though I would hope that readers do so with an open attitude, I wonder how much the ideas explored at this site present themselves as openings rather than abstractions.
Universal and species wide phenomena or local and strictly sociologically formed: who owns what? Isn’t it all an attempt to find certainty somewhere somehow? God knows! But here goes.
I mentioned in the last post that there is no essential, unifying truth or form to meditation and that the term is useful only as a category noun when we are speaking outside of a given tradition. I also claimed that practices can be examined apart from their traditions. This is based on the view that meditation techniques are always created by humans for humans and that at the human level, that is thinking of we human-animals as a single species, we share a great deal across language and culture, including bodies, emotions, a thinking mind, perceptual apparatus, social needs, biological imperatives, finitude, and so on. These very human facets of our existence are not unique to any race or culture. This is debated but I cannot hold to the view that there are emotions only experienced by a narrow band of the human race, or that bodies give rise to different feelings and sensations in different regions of the globe that are off limits to others if the same conditions were to be present. Societies socially form individuals, right, and feelings can be promoted or demoted, emotions made socially acceptable or not, but those same emotions, in terms of physical sensations, are potentially open to all beings and the basic tonality of emotional possibilities are universal to our species; outside of physical impediments. Bodies are pretty much the same everywhere too: Two arms and two legs and a single head in most cases, with the exceptions hardly warranting belief in anything goes. Meditation practices can be symbolic and involve the active use of imagination and there we find specific cultural forms but the activity of working with symbols can be seen as archetypal, or concerned with species-wide practices. If a meditation practice starts with a human body and human mind, then it can potentially be experienced by any human that possess the two.
Religious Studies tends to avoid generalised or universal views of religion and its practices these days and has followed the more general academic tendency within the humanities to see human phenomena as always historically, culturally and socially situated. This is visible in the sorts of critique being used by activists at present and has unsurprisingly given rise to identity politics and an impoverished view of man (Yes, I used that noun deliberately: so there!), which is newly dividing up the world into tribal divisions at the expense of enlightenment values and insights, and claims to universality. I think the local and culturally formed, historically and socially situated are interesting avenues to explore but can also be extremely limited and limiting and can be seen as bracketing religious and spiritual practices off, freezing them in time, and labelling them as the exclusive property of a given people. There is in this apparent appreciation for diversity and respect for the local the desire to grasp at the simplicity of isolation and the reification of cultural practices and beliefs, but can’t phenomena be both? Can’t the local be seen as a unique expression of a species wide trend, question, desire or other? The local and universal are idealised ends on a spectrum of human practice and possibility after all. They are only at odds within seemingly opposing ideological interpretations and value assignment. Within simplicity we can locate the two as at play and as opening or closing possibilities of thought and imagined possibilities. It is from this view that practices can be explored apart from a tradition.
Humanity Plus…Humanity 2.0…? Humanity..e basta!
As you will have noticed, I am deeply concerned with our shared experience of humanity and judging by the content of the recent podcast interview with Mr Hokai Sobol, it is necessary to be clear about what is meant by the term humanity. He made a distinction between what is human, meaning everything that is part of the human world, and our humanity, which includes the humane. Jordan Peterson would define what I’m trying to get at as our human potential; what humans may strive to become as archetypal manifestations of what has been historically imagined as the best of our species. I’m not sure if that is exactly what I’m saying. I’m not sure that I see vulnerability, rawness, simplicity, appreciation, curiosity, and other very human qualities as lending themselves to being conceptualised as the potential best of us; unless such an imagined possibility is as rich with introverted qualities and descent as it is with extroverted qualities and assent. These are not real movements, necessarily, but gestures to the world. There are of course other, very human expressions that display some of our worst tendencies such as bigotry, intolerance and hatred, yet denying any of them or labelling them as evil has proven to be unhelpful in deepening our understanding of our complex species and its rich psychology and the point is to not slip back into the old age myth of good V evil. So what’s the difference between what are typically defined as negative and positive characteristics? Though seemingly obvious, it deserves a bit of thought. One answer to the question is found in the relationship between what one experiences as self and what is experienced as other; whether it be a fellow human being, one of the other beings from the animal and insect world, or the non-sentient material world in which we are situated with all its activities and goings-on.
There are simple as well as complex ways for describing what can be understood as an effective and wise engagement with these others. We seem to be predisposed morally to judge and value each others’ actions. There are clear evolutionary purposes for why this should be and the impulse to value, judge, and compare emerge and are shaped in the social and familial contexts. A tendency towards ethical behaviour has been observed in babies so that in many ways we are socialised out of some of our ethical impulses. Within this push and pull of biological and social influences, ideals such as basic goodness have value as long as such a view is understood as an ideal and an ambition, rather than an absolute statement of fact. Assuming we are all always basically and intrinsically good seems rather naive but seeing the potential for basic goodness that can be discovered by anybody is a noble prospective and offers up a chance for a view of ethical behaviour without religious overtones. If we are born with certain ethical impulses, it would seem to me that there is an unvoiced layer of concern and connection to the world around us that is devoid of language and unburdened by conceptualisation in its primitive, primal form.
Alarm bells go off for those who are acutely allergic to claims we may have some universal foundation for characteristics of our being that any assertion that there could be the potential for basic shared goodness is seen as grasping at some eternal soul: you’re slipping in some permanent stuff there fella, stop it at once! That warning is useful and to be taken on board by those spiritual people who fall into the transcendence trap and dream of a happy ending to the spiritual endeavour. However, I think we also need to be wary of the social constructivist theory being the only one in play. Our humanity is also our biology after all.
Two, not one
As any good Buddhist teacher knows, twos always coexist as idealised oppositions and are in many ways one and the same simultaneously. We might call it the paradox principle in that unicity and togetherness co-exist and are inseparable. This sort of view becomes more acceptable when we begin to erode the subject-object distinction that divides the world up into discreet forms that are self-existing. In this way dialectical dynamics become the arenas of human experience, therefore, there is a basic potential for goodness and at the same time an all too human potential for selfishness, jealousy, and all the other wonderfully negative emotions we are all familiar with. This sounds rather like the old Christian dialectic of good Vs evil again but rather than it be a battle, we are simply presented with a landscape of choice with all of the grey areas in the middle being the terrain upon which we find ourselves.
Rather than impose idealised views onto explorative practitioners, we can take such possibilities as being facets of the landscape of human possibility, each with its own set of consequences. Therefore, if we deny there is any inherent goodness or potential within human beings, consequences come about as a result and we deny an imaginative possibility. If we believe strongly there is a transcendent essence to everything, then consequences come about as a result, and we push away that which is contrary to our view. If we believe that there are simple, tangible expressions of shared humanity that we can connect to across the cultural and linguistic divide, and with anybody, then, once again, consequences come about as a result, and they seem, at least to me, to be productive of something of immense value.
If you have lived a fair few years on this Earth already, then you have probably picked up on the consequences of positing a fragmented world in which individuality is taken to the extreme, leaving us imprisoned and forever separate from one another: which is, by the way, the neo-Capitalist’s orgiastic fantasy.
The individual crafted and released into the world through modernity should be honoured as sacred (as an antidote to the unthinking human impulse to impersonate lemmings and sheep as soon as collectivism becomes the big truth of our existence), but be tempered by a very strong and tangible sense of and commitment to our shared humanity. It seems to me that a worthwhile path to follow is one in which we imagine we can connect to our fellow human beings more fully and deeply; emotionally, physically, intellectually, and socially and ritually. An imagined world in which we can cross divides thus becomes the terrain of practice and liberates the real possibility of caring deeply for our world and meeting it as fully as we are able to the point where our sense of isolation becomes weakened and our basic humanity becomes a cause for hope as well as connection in the brief moment we have on Earth.
When I look at my friend that is deeply upset by her father’s death, I feel her sadness. Who wouldn’t? When my child is amazed at the peculiar behaviour of insects he has witnessed for the first time, I feel his joy and awe too. Yet, I feel the same emotion with children that are not mine. It seems to me that most humans, if not so self-absorbed, are capable of connecting to others and sharing in the landscape of feeling and emotion that is available to us when we drop the hard defences that separate us. We are not divided from each other in any absolute sense and therefore so much of what we experience is shared. Yes, many folks find themselves incapable of connecting to their fellow humans and they consequently suffer. Yes, many people switch off to not feel the suffering of their fellow humans or animals, but this almost always makes them less humane, less in touch with their humanity, and there is nothing particularly unsurprising in this. Most people are half asleep and walking around for all intents and purposes as partial humans. Isn’t one of the most powerful and inspirational purposes of a path to provide a means for us to connect to the natural humanity that allows us to bridge the divide between ourselves and the many others that populate the world?
All of these words may help rehabilitate an intuition that drives many spiritual folks. The more intellectual and spiritually driven chap and chapess can easily be convinced by the cynics to discard the so-called silliness or folly of reaching out across the divide and embracing our shared humanity. The cynics often claim it is naive and foolish to carry on in such a manner. My view is that this is a mistake. Not all heart-felt yearning to connect to other humans, or animals, or the woods, or the sun or any aspect of nature is illustrative of wishy-washy, middle-class romanticism, which is another impoverished view of our fellow humans. The cynics remind us to be far more careful with our assumptions and it is for this reason that much of my writing here has been concerned with dismantling the common myths and delusions held by Western Buddhists. The cynics remind us to think more carefully and use our brains and not just find retreat in a new version of Sunday mass called “My meditation”. This is great! They’re right and we should take note. We shouldn’t be bullied into discarding our heartfelt desire to connect, however, or our intuitions that there is more to life than the social realities that are dominant. We can be provoked and inspired by the necessary criticisms and critique of those who are more knowledgeable, better educated, and more widely read to challenge the comfort zone of spiritual escape and its confirmation biases and to demand more of ourselves and our practices. We might even have the courage to engage with their input as dharma instructions; that is, as insights that can open the way for us.
There is a place for human dignity and we can cultivate such a quality within the dialectic of form and emptiness. Within that terrain, we can be strong enough to welcome in the destructive insight of the non-conformists and withstand its purifying embrace; not as an act of resistance, but as genuine purification.
There is no need to be cowardly as you explore the phenomenal world of which you are part and parcel.
Onwards! I’ll get round to saying something more concrete about meditation soon enough.