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.