You Need Non-Practice!

Sales Pitch: Non-thought and non-practice constitute a set of antidotes to ideological entrapment and identity formation within the social and cultural apparatus of our age, and to the reactionary identities that make up the emotionally charged extremes of today’s dominant identity groups, and is an ideal companion to the practice of coming to inhabit the consequences of anatman, when explored at the Great Feast.

This piece mixes old and new insights in order to elaborate a more explicit understanding of how non-thought (non-contemplation), and non-practice can be a combined practice for working on the self and in a way that fits with well-executed explorations of anatman (no-self, not-self & other takes). This resource engages with the challenge of the social formation of selfhood and acts to resist inculcation into the paradigms of identity that are available to us in the social spaces that we inhabit, from dharma halls to social media tribes, from politics to activism, from intellectual life to practice life. Complex life, complex practice indeed. This piece is followed by a series of posts featuring insights, practice tips and questions for the interested, shaped by my own meddling, drawn from non-philosophy and non-Buddhism.

This first and longest post will also be available as an audio-cast.

Old Frank

To approach Francois Laruelle’s work on non-philosophy is to quickly find yourself in a world of new ideas, absurd linguistic demands, and complex manoeuvres intended to make non-philosophy a practice of itself. Laruelle is constantly striving to put his ideas into practice through his writing and this can make it a rather odd sort of adventure to participate in: His persona and cultural products can appear very slippery as a consequence and difficult to grasp. In a sense, Laruelle is challenging us to practice non-philosophy ourselves through his many works and in doing so discover its liberational capacity and immensely creative potential. In a funny sort of way, his work is an elaborate koan; the form of the writing is the expression of the act it describes. Despite appearances, non-philosophy, or better what emerges from it, is less complicated that it may first appear if we approach it as curious practitioners willing to take his ideas as invitations to enter specific kinds of practice spaces, not of the sort you might get from a koan, but no less enigmatic, or disruptive of our sense of who we are. Though not many of its proponents would likely consider it so explicitly to be a practice that can be harnessed towards the transformation of self, I will suggest otherwise throughout what follows.

For those without PhDs or membership of radical thought groups in Paris, Berlin, Philadelphia or New York, non-philosophy may initially appear as an insurmountable challenge yet many of its ideas are intuitive and will resonate once lifted from the strange codex Laruelle employs to defend his thinking from philosophers and the circular, sometimes insular, nature of philosophy. For those who are philosophically trained, Laruelle may be dismissed as yet another French charlatan producing intolerable prose, or a distraction from far better thought taking place somewhere else, or as a recycler of ideas already present in previous philosophers, and they may be right, but only in part, and as Vicky Pollard, would say, “Yes, but, not but…”. For Buddhists, he may appear as a waste of time, yet another western ‘philosopher’ who spends his days in intellectual masturbation, and whose ideas are of no use to us practical folks. That is one way to view him. In each case, however, to settle on such a reading would be to miss out on a remarkable opportunity that I have yet to find elsewhere.

Laruelle provides a means for picking apart the mechanics of identification with worlds of knowledge and practice. Worlds that end up, almost always it seems, capturing subjectivity and harnessing it to their own ends. So that when insight, freedom, or justice are sought through a given world of knowledge, say Buddhism or Progressivism, the practices and outcomes that result struggle to become other than images of liberation, wisdom, or equality, imagined ideals, if you will. This results in practices of performance in which the fantasy replaces the actual radical potential held within the knowledge world it was drawn from with the fantasy becoming a simulacrum, or in the realm of spirituality and religion, multiple holy simulacra ready to be purchased on the market of salvation as cures for the human condition.

My job here is not to convince critics that they are wrong or misguided about Laruelle’s project, or should be practising differently. I am concerned primarily with those folks who seek a third way to dichotomies and side-taking, and who feel something is deeply amiss in groups that demand conformity to modes of being that alienate the individual from their own capacity to think, feel and act for themselves. Additionally, my desire is to present non-thought and non-practice as fundamentally concerned with a topic central to practitioners such as Buddhists, philosophers, and spiritual practitioners, and even intelligent activists, namely that of human freedom, with particular attention to an aspect of freedom that has been neglected by these groups. The sort of freedom that is not an end in itself, but rather a practice that can be embodied or incarnated as an ongoing movement through the rich, complex, social and cultural human made world we all inhabit. It is a means for avoiding getting stuck in the way-stations that are endless in a life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. I would argue that handled well, non-philosophy acts as an antidote to ideological entrapment more broadly. It doesn’t eliminate it or take us to some land where ideologies no longer reign, but rather provides a set of tools and principles, a style of thought, that creates wiggle room to allow us to become far more creative thinkers, phenomenologically diverse, and liberate us from the allure of becoming Buddha Zombies, Activist Mascots, Parroting Spiritualists, or whatever other identities are currently traded on the market of selves today.

Practised well, such thought provides a form of liberational practice that cannot be found so well articulated in Buddhism and only really echoes quietly in the potential of more radical philosophical, spiritual and religious thought elsewhere. Ultimately, non-philosophy as practice provides the means to allow the spiritual and religious to be reinvigorated with the potential that is inevitably lost when new practices solidify into ideological machines designed to produce subjects that adhere to highly predictable structures of thought, desire, feeling and being. This is the virus that inhibits traditions from practising what they preach; from producing awakened beings, for example, or truly independent minds capable of acting on the world, or birthing genuinely innovative solutions to the endless problems our species faces.

I recognise these are big claims, so I guess I’m going to have to try and illustrate how it all might look, in practice. Shall we toddle on?  

Bastardisation & Improper Reading

Some confessions to make

I am not a Laurellian. I have read some of François’s actual writing, primarily Dictionary of non-Philosophy, A Summary of Non-Philosophy, and where I have read more substantially, it’s been works by writers on the man and his ideas. Considering that his dictionary could be seen as a user’s manual, this is not necessarily a problem. Non-philosophy makes far more sense as a practice when you start using it on yourself as opposed to a theoretical cul-de-sac for pondering complex theory in a disembodied realm of ideas. I have read all of Glenn Wallis’s work on the matter very, very carefully.

My first meeting with Laruelle’s work came through the non-Buddhism project that this site has invested much in and gained so much from, and this signals my rather practical take on Laruelle’s work. This links to my claim that it can be and ultimately is a practice that works directly on the self, specifically through the self’s attempts to solidify identity, and being, through allegiance with worldviews, and philosophical, religious or spiritual stances. Ultimately, the elaboration here is reflective of my own ongoing, practice of non-thought and non-practice with this personal practice bent. I am trying to do what Frank did and must therefore think alongside the materials and practices that I have wrestled with. I will not show off the complex coinages that Laruelle is infamous for, such as being-in-one or non-autopositional, unless I can reconfigure the concept in my own words, for I am not a Laurellian and have no desire to reproduce his convoluted prose, or become a member of that club. In doing so, this will be an illustration of my own wrestle with the kinds of practices that this creative thought necessitates before it becomes genuinely useful, transformative, and disruptive.

In taking Laruellian thought as a practice, it inevitably leads to the transformation of the materials we hold sacred and believe to be self-sufficient and complete. These materials include the many beliefs and ideas we hold about a tradition we are explicitly or implicitly part of, our general stance towards the world, our politics or lack thereof, our spiritual or religious path (or lack thereof), and our sense of who we are, are not, or must be. In this sense, non-thought and practice does what many traditions and paths claim in offering a means to think about, engage with, and evaluate the world, but it does so with a dogged commitment to turning the solidification of self in line with those projects on its head. It seeks through its slippery forms of thought to deny us the joy and indulgence of certainty and a final goal. It brings alive the impossibility of taking a break from the world through inhabiting an unreal ideological life form. In this sense, non-practice and thought are driven by an anti-ideological push whilst denying being solidified into an anti-ideological practice. This ambiguity, or seeming impossibility, is merely a necessary condition for this thought to produce something new.

Non-practice acts against universals. It denies the right of universal truth to establish the boundaries of existence for man. It subsequently denies that any tradition, philosophical, religious, scientific, political, has the right to do so either. In recognising how this is an implicit tendency in all traditions, secular and spiritual, it builds a set of ideational tools for navigating the framework that makes up the tendency. Some have claimed that non-thought is similar to middle-way thinking. This is a mistake both theoretically and practically. To practice the middle way is often to embody aloofness. It concocts delusions of superiority hidden behind the mask of equanimity. Theoretically, it avoids disruption and transformation for a commitment to inhabiting the ground between established orders. It, therefore, contrary to many who claim otherwise, can end up becoming yet another iteration of identity formation on the sly (re-read the sub-heading of this section if that got you riled). Non-thought is inherently disruptive. It is the unwelcome dinner guest that upsets, disturbs and breaks conventions, but brings vigour & transformative possibilities wherever it eats. It is a Tilopian antagonist.

Non-thought asks us to become uncomfortable and inhabit a far more varied terrain than the two pillars of meaning making thrown up by dichotomies; a non- terrain that returns the human to the material world and asks him or her to give up seeking final goals and getting stuck in binaries of thought, feeling and identity. This includes such final ends as awakening, enlightenment, or even the end of suffering. Is this thus an affront to Buddhism? I would suggest it is a challenge instead, to make what is spoken of real. To practice rather than imagine or idealise, and in so doing discover whether such possibilities are actually possible in this human life that you are currently living with its own tides and challenges and material conditions, or a mere fantasy rooted in the forms of ignorance dominant at a given moment in human history and thus perhaps worth discarding. Rather than live within the components of a story in which the world is already made, with conclusions drawn, protagonists assigned; non-practice says do it too and see what happens, and do it within the company of the many and not the few, and with the components that make this life unique in its configurations of connections. In this way, it is an invigoration of ideas, of vision, of possibility, and of practice itself. There is no final goal, but the active creation of invigorated practice that can mutate and end up in multiple destinations.

Why be disrupted? Proposing a practice

Where to start? What would a beginning look like?

There are endless directions that could be taken next. With a background in teaching and coaching, I am driven to inform would be adventurers of the dangers that lie ahead. The work here is not a universal solution to current problems, or the next big thing, or a replacement for current practice. It is also best suited to those with significant practice experience under their belts. Despite being formulated as a practice on the self here, it is not therapeutic, or designed to increase well-being, or make you a nicer person. Embarking on a tour of our pet myths, beliefs and attachments in a disruptive practice is not to be undertaken lightly. Taking ideas and practices seriously is dangerous terrain. Adopting the practice of thinking along with rather from and to is an odd sort of discipline. For those who are fragile, neurotic, or unstable, disrupting the anchors that hold your inner or outer life together would likely be a terrible idea. This will also be true for some of those who may feel relatively stable in themselves. Buddhism has within its resources and history endless stories of the dangers of practice, but within the therapeutic nature of much modern practice, these stories get played down, ignored, or turned into amusing tales or considered premodern myth making. Death, constant change, a lack of a true, stable, forever you; these are extremely disruptive truths that are easier to approach superficially, or within narratives which make them tolerable or pleasant. Touch on their real world consequences, and you can find serious anxiety rear its head, terror in spades, panic and other dark treats we all tend to avoid.

I argue that much that is called practice is actually a form of performance; the idea of the thing is entertained in elaborate rituals that make them far more palatable, and never truly disruptive. We get to return to our day jobs, relationships and Netflix binging after a weekend retreat, meditation session, or talk having used practice for general maintenance. We also have the commercialisation of Buddhism’s core insights into well-being tropes, bliss-making absorption into your inner-self, suspension of thought: not necessarily bad objectives for fragile folks leading miserable lives. But one could argue that this is not exactly what was intended by the great Buddhist masters throughout history in their quest to understand the intrinsic nature of suffering. The commercialisation of Buddhism and religion into spiritual practice is sign of the incredible attachment our species has to transcendence, the first of the topics I will explore.  

Anyone approaching Laruelle’s thought must tread carefully. The efforts of Laruelle to think differently become a challenge that we must remain attentive to: Can we think originally ourselves? Can we practice with some trace of originality? Can we accept the challenges that come from disruption to our inner status quo? The ease with which we slip back into parroting lazy forms of thought and emotion is ever present, as is the act of practising the idea of the thing rather than the thing. In practical terms, we must produce the act of non-philosophy without lazily copying or parroting the man’s actions and form. As we should ideally be doing with Buddhism and its practices: keep it fresh, and real to the now that is this iteration of a human existence.

16 thoughts on “You Need Non-Practice!

    1. Hi,
      I personally find your comment interesting though a bit of explanation why would be useful. One reason is that it got me reflecting on elitism and what its opposite would be and what an alternative to both would look like. The text, at least to me, doesn’t seem at all elitist. Who would be the elite? Where are they? Anyone can read this blog or listen to the podcasts.
      Matthew

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  1. A minor critical point:

    ” We also have the commercialisation of Buddhism’s core insights into well-being tropes…”
    ” one could argue that this is not exactly what was intended by the great Buddhist masters throughout history in their quest to understand the intrinsic nature of suffering. ” …

    It seems many if not most if not all versions of Buddhism (the x-buddhisms….) strive to present the “real” meaning of Buddhism – the “core insights” of the “great Buddhist masters”. You know, the real deal. Genuinely transformative, “truly disruptive”…. And shitting on the other Buddhisms that aren’t the real deal is a pretty standard way to go – that the other buddhists aren’t doing practice properly, just doing their performance rituals…

    I say “minor”, because maybe this doesn’t detract from the aims of this series, where Buddhism is an entry point to, well, something. Though as a sales pitch personally it leaves me cold. Each to their own.

    “producing awakened beings…truly independent minds…birthing genuinely innovative solutions”.

    Yes, big claims. And “slightly more awakened, a bit more independent, somewhat more innovative” isn’t so compelling as a sales pitch. So why not go big?

    I am sceptical at this point on a. the possibility and b. the desirability. But, hey, let’s see.

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    1. Hi,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      The issue of what is real, authentic, true Buddhism/s of whatnot is not an argument I’m focussed on or would feel any authority to pronounce on. I am interested in the articulation of a notion of practice that is not merely the production of a parroting subject; though if a person feels like becoming a parroting subject, why not? I think there is room for everything and as you say, each to their own. Buddhism for me is a cultural site of many things and a companion at the Great Feast for this author and site. It is required to relate to other worlds of knowledge and practice, however, and this is part of the antidote to discussion of true forms.
      One of the ideas that emerges in the writing I produce, and that I have written facetiously about before, here, is the notion of hyperreality and the use of ideas of practice as a refuge from the real potential of a practice. Rather than a claim to superiority or the true thing, it is a push towards an honest evaluation of what is actually going on. There are personal and social consequences of entertaining the idea of the thing as a means to avoid an honest discussion of engagement with the thing; lots of things there!
      As an analogy, I could be a terrible teacher who believes he is teaching the topic at hand but am actually preaching at students, not engaging them in the topic, misinterpreting their results and carrying on regardless in the belief I am a fantastic teacher. I could also be quite different in my approach, educating myself about the complexities of pedagogy, experimenting with different teaching practices, committing to engaging students and using this as a process of feedback to understand how effective my teaching is and the effects it has on those I teach.
      Likewise, I can parrot a tradition’s idea of compassion, repeat mantras endlessly and have no real engagement with the process but believe I am practicing compassion and draw conclusions. In this case, no problem, you’re not damaging the education of countless students. I could though consider exploring the role of compassion in Buddhisms, in other religions, in secular society, explore the degree to which it can be cultivated, understand its nuances, experiment, dialogue with the process, engage with others in and outside a group or tradition. The latter in each case is Great Feast material and is more easily carried out if individuals and groups are not captured subjects, to use a phrase common to non-buddhism. This style shift is what I am attempting to get at in the writing, i.e. a practice change. Even the question of authenticity can become a practice item and within the way I am approaching this topic, it would be an exploration of how such notions, or resistance to them, effect my subjectivity, have consequences, give rise to certain lines of thought and feeling, and block or deny others.
      I guess you could use terms like superficial and deep too, but I think they actually create yet another dichotomy in which the complexity and fluidity of these sorts of dynamics would be lost.
      In terms of commercialisation, there are concrete forms of this such as McMindfulness, and cult-like organisations such as the NKT that behave like Scientology, where great claims are made, and what is believed to be created as an outcome is all too often something very, very different. That is where talking about what is real, authentic, genuine is understood through critical engagement and dialogue, which is implicit to the whole project of non-practice.
      I’ve tried to be clear and respond to your critique. Let me know if I’ve failed.
      Matthew

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      1. Thanks for your response.

        So while interesting in its own right, it doesn’t quite respond to my point – though I blame myself here.

        I just listened to the recent podcast with Glenn, and I think this helps to address my question better. In particular, making things explicit, the need for reasons. It also helps to address tonal issues – some modes of expression work better in oral form compared to the written version – perhaps this piece works better in aural form (I havent listened to the new recording but I guess it does).

        The title of the post is “you need non-practice”. I see it as an introduction to a series, and a motivational starting point, with later posts elaborating on what non-practice looks like.

        What I was focusing on was the motivational and rhetorical tools to engage in a motivation to non-practice. Given the buddhistic leanings, then it appeared to follow tropes of buddhism of “authenticity” etc…which I saw as a method of capture for those with those leanings. I didn’t really think it reflects your views so much, as you describe in your response.

        Yet a motivation is needed (?) – a sales pitch.

        When it comes to a motivation, there has to be a starting point, something shared which taken as ground. Axioms if you will. Often these can be implicit. And as implicit, they sometimes these can be hidden and hard to uncover.

        Here, it seems that the starting point, the shared goal that unites is “that of human freedom”.

        I guess the motivation for my initial response was something not sitting well with the call for “you need non-practice!”. Because that need seems to be based on an implicit assumption of the shared goal of human freedom. Of course, shared goals are needed for social coordination and communication so its inevitable this occurs.

        I would imagine non-philosophy has a way of addressing this issue though, but I dont understand it well enough to see that.

        Ok, trying to formulate a question here, how about: how does non-philosophy/practice non-philosophise its own “ground”?

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  2. Hi, Matthew,
    A few reasons why I see elitism in what you wrote.
    Here is a paraphrase and reworking of something Abraham Lincoln said, “God sure loves ordinary people because he made a whole lot of them.”

    The sales pitch at the beginning is rife with assumed knowledge and a vocabulary inaccessible to a very large portion of the population. and that repeated through the piece.

    “Best suited to those with significant practice experience under their belt”
    You also listed groups of people this approach wouldn’t be suitable for. This reminds me of the situation found in traditional Buddhist societies where a monastic subset got the real stuff while the ordinary busy working person got rites, rituals, gods and spirits and good works as a placeholder until a future incarnation where you got the time to really get to work. Except I think in your approach you don’t get that consolation.

    Also it was quite unclear as to what non-practice, non-thought, non-contemplation looked like in action. Maybe nothing? One clue seemed to be the realization of “death, constant change, and a lack of a true stable forever you” as core.

    “the tools I have fashioned myself” “User’s manual” “Each of the following items” I saw little actual content in these areas, but then realized you may have more on the way with possible revelation of of the three nons.

    World this be accessible to the majority or are they too benighted to benefit and need to be content with the various rites, rituals, gods and spirits and good works, the typical crutches used by most on the journey of life?

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    1. Hi Jeff,
      I suspect you missed a couple of points made in the text. One being that this is the intro and the practice points are to follow, with the first one already in the works. Though the writing will continue with a similar style: but is it genuinely elitist?
      To use your word, I think your claim is interesting for what it assumes. Partly because I am an example that stands against such a claim. It also seems to assume that ‘ordinary’ people would not be capable of grappling with the concepts, words and exposition of the text. And I am left wondering why? Certainly Mr Lincoln’s America has had a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism, but that is surely a cultural obstacle rather than a statement of ability or capacity.
      Firstly, I am not an academic, philosopher, and have never studied Laurelle formally, as I made clear. I struggled really hard with many of the concepts present in these pieces of writing and through that struggle came to gain insights and open up the sorts of practice spaces I am exploring: I worked through the grind and earned knowledge as a result. I assume no special capacity and imagine anyone with the inclination, curiosity, and perverse determination needed, can grapple with any of this material if they have such a bent. Yes, most folks don’t, but the mere fact it is potentially available to anyone with the inclination would undermine the claim of elitism.
      As an important aside, an underlying theme within non-philosophy and non-buddhism is the democracy of thought. The idea inherent to both projects is a form of radical democracy that actually stand against elitism, and notions of this or that, and the simplification of the world through lazy dichotomies. That said, genuine democracy, as much as it is able to exist, is really hard work, requires a struggle, long-term commitment, hard work and transformation. One of its main enemies continues to be poor education and the failure of institutions to think.
      More than elitism, I would suggest it’s a question of being a selective work likely to appeal to a few. I am not proposing any alternative to mainstream this or that or the majority, as I stated in the text, so it might be worth viewing this as a passion for the topic to which I am dedicated. I am left thinking how such a passion has a relationship to similar passions shared for non-mainstream music, literature, art, sport, craftwork, and so on. In that sense, the writing is a practice in line with Sloterdijk’s view on the practising life.
      Some people who adore obscure post-punk, hard to find industrial, incredibly sophisticated ambient or whatnot can certainly feign elitism and look down on ‘the masses’ as ignorant and trashy or whatever for their music tastes, but it’s not required.
      Matthew

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  3. Hi Jeff. In your explanation, it sounds like you see Matthew’s argument not so much as “elitist” as “advanced.” Is that possible. Obviously, “elitism” has nasty connotations that advanced doesn’t. This may sound weird, but as someone who has defended himself from a similar accusation of elitism for many years now, I actually see remarks like Lincoln’s as a more dangerous, because hidden, form of elitism. Somehow, the Lincoln’s of the world know the sad little limitations of the hoi polloi and, being–what?–the more equal of the equally “ordinary,” is capable of speaking for them? I prefer a professor I know who teaches at a college where 100% of the students are first generation university students. She recently asked them to study the Gadamer-Habermas debate on communication. Countering charges of “elitism” all the time, she reminded her students that, believe it or not, Gadamer and Habermas are having a conversation not unlike the ones they have “on the stoop.” It’s just a conversation with a long, complex history. But, for her, the elitism rests with those people who somehow believe that her students are not capable of understanding the conversation in all of its complexity. Can I recommend an article? It’s called “Skimming the Surface: Critiquing Anti-Critique” by Benjamin Noys. You might be able to download it here: https://www.academia.edu/22591019/Skimming_the_Surface_Critiquing_Anti_Critique

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  4. Thank you, Matthew and Glenn for the time taken and thought seen in your responses. I await further explication.

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  5. Boynamedsue

    Hi,
    There is a lot in what you have written here but the title of the text seems to be the real issue and we can fix that easy enough: It’s a tongue in cheek provocation. If you happened to be familiar with past episodes, that would likely be more obvious.
    I would not assume to know what you need or make universal claims to that end. I think the metaphor of the Great Feast can lead us to putting together a pretty decent list of many things we would generally need in most cases, but other than that I am not selling anything.
    I thought I had more or less made that explicit in the text, but I may have failed!
    In terms of axioms, again, I would argue they are hinted at throughout the text but if you want to dig into this more and see Glenn elaborate an expression of axiomatic principles for non-buddhism, you can find lots of material at the non-speculative Buddhism site. Things get more complicated there, but there is also a lot to chew on. If you follow the link below, you can download the original pdf on this matter and there are axioms a plenty there. Feel free to ask if you have other perplexities.
    Matthew

    https://www.academia.edu/1063006/Nascent_Speculative_Non_Buddhism

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