Practice is a funny sort of word and for some of those engaged with Buddhism it may have immediate connotations that render it a sort of insider term. The sort in which we automatically believe we are pointing at the same thing despite never making its meaning explicit. In groups, this is clearly useful, but in impersonal communication, like this, it is helpful to at least attempt to be explicit in one’s intended meaning. Taken in a broader sense, perhaps its broadest, it simply means trying things out, or repeatedly doing something. In the practising life, it can be seen as more, of course: as ongoing commitment to activity and activities that transform you the individual, a given group, society, or even the world. The wonderfully German and rather unconventional Peter Sloterdijk describes it as a process or training that transcends and transforms a person through working on the self, and broadens the concept out beyond religion, self-help and therapy to include art and manual work among the many disciplines. Sloterdjik also reminds us that practice is an ancient form of human activity, distinctive, since the Greeks at least, in explicitly denoting an activity that is self-referential: one that shapes and transforms the person through discipline, unifying the contemplative and the active into a single practice.
Why mention a philosopher, academic and public intellectual like Sloterdjik? A lot of Buddhists I have spoken to over the years seem to think that such a description is self-evident and academic works that revisit meditation, practice and so on are unnecessary, and inferior: We already have the goods in the form of Buddhist teachings and practices, they might say, adding on that they are already more than we could ever manage. The answer to this is partly given in the first sentence of this post. A further answer picks up on concepts from non-buddhism such as sufficiency, but also that old chestnut, ideology. Part of the reason for appreciating the work of an intellectual like Sloterdjik is that he places what is often excessively self-referential back into its historical and cultural context. In so doing, he is in fact liberating concepts such as practice from the cul-de-sac of insider meaning making that can make them of little use to wider society. Works such as ‘You must Change your Life’ offer a spring clean to the conceptual baggage and over-reach of spiritual and religious traditions that may exist within their own worlds and project their visions and ideals onto the wider world as complete systems of knowledge and practice. For those who find such enclosed spaces of practice and thought problematic, the Great Feast really is the antidote and anyone thinking anew on such important ethical concerns as change and practice really does deserve our attention and gratitude.
Practice does not need to be conceived of as something special and precious even though it may well be. We do not need to romanticise or add some sort of spiritual monosodium glutamate to it so it becomes the only truly worthy component of a well-lived life. The practices of the humble are still found in those corners of society where hands touch materials to craft, to cook and bake, to restore, to dig, to decorate and paint and most of those practising thus rarely consider what they are doing as the holy thing everyone else should be doing too though many who meditate or engage with mindfulness, yoga or enlightenment culture really do think so. What’s more, though in many ways personal transformation has been turned into a sort of monolith to the neo-liberal ideal of the self-perfecting individual, with its transactional, consumerist values, it actually has very deep roots in human dignity found through care and craft with often little thought of personal reward. The act is in service to the act. To produce art, to create something beautiful is to refine one’s capacity to honour the process underway, and be of service to the family, the community, or the potential within society. Sometimes, it is merely to allow art to be art, and practice to be practice.
Sloterdjik, in many ways, is reclaiming the transformation of self from the groups who parade it around as its de facto owners: the gurus, online wellness experts, Mindfulness sales people, New Age wonder peddlers, and self-proclaimed enlightened holders of the holy grail of self-perfection or self-liberation. This leads to an indirect visit to the Great Feast. Although he may not think along such lines, Sloterdijk transforms the question of ownership by establishing historical roots that capture far more of our shared human history of practice than just that contained within the healthier visions of Buddhism, or that even the Greeks can provide, and in so doing democratises the notion of transformation and work on the self.
Such a move resonates strongly with me.
Growing up poor and working from eleven years old onwards, I spent secondary school, college and further education working in my free time. To see men and women and older boys and girls engaged in manual labour, and to learn from them as I worked alongside them was an invaluable experience. I went from delivering papers, to stacking shelves, to putting up pins at night in a pub, to firing off clay pigeons to local farmers, to peeling spuds in another pub’s kitchen, to eventually driving forklifts, and trucks, and stacking more shelves. Even as I got a half-decent education later on and moved into working class proper, and then onto the lower middle-class for the first time, I continued to feel more comfortable with builders and drivers than with lawyers and office workers. This is not a romantic reading of the working class; I could never be so condescending. I simply found it easier to relate to people who worked with their bodies and physical materials than those operating on more abstract levels. And the intelligence of those who were used to being in their bodies all day was always more tangible, and somehow valuable to me. It is also key to why phenomenology was my first real venture into philosophy, and why Merleau-Ponty’s explorations of the body were a breath of fresh air and useful antidote to the self-indulgence of the New Age practices and groups I moved in and out of for a while.
When continuous routine bordering on monotony is the working life a person lives, as it often was for me and them back then, to fashion a practice from such work is to find dignity in your actions and develop care within your relationship to it and to those you work with. At a basic level, long-term meditators are using practice to maintain an ability such as inner-calm or inner-stability, or to improve on or build further capacity, such as training attention, or developing greater sensitivity to other’s suffering. Manual labourers and the working class more broadly have been increasingly fed the line that they should adopt mindfulness to make peace with their dead-end existence; just think of the Amazon meditation prison, sorry, I meant mindfulness practice cubicle. But rather than repress the dull misery of work, to stack a shelf, fold a newspaper, cook a steak, drill pieces of metal, or to wash dishes, can all be taken as integral to a practising life and actively so when done with care. Zen may speak of such acts and place them within stories of selflessness, but there is also a commitment to the craft than can be made that gives value and allows for the transformation of self to occur without everyday awakening being the mysterious goal. Activities that can be refined, and refined further, shape us and craft our perception and bodies. Washing dishes can be an art; not because a wellness magazine says so, but because it is a daily chore that we carry out, and to do so with dignity is to make it a practice of sorts. None of this requires condescending romantic praise, or the imposition of mindlessness in the form of present moment fetishization. Finding a commitment to craft, technique and excellence is a rehumanising practice that many know perfectly well already, and many intuitively grasp just how much such a commitment can preserve their humanity and that of the group. For those chomping at the bit to jump to politics and go on about social justice, not everyone with a working class existence is slaving away for the corporate machine. The good fight continues, but here the topic is the practising life.
Would it be trite to suggest that we are all practitioners and life is the practice? Yes. Whether individual or collective, practice produces projects and processes that cause a feedback loop of ongoing transformation thus reminding us that it is not an isolated act in and of itself but is relational. This is a truism yet mentioning it serves the purpose of disrupting the notion of the individual as practitioner that is in and of itself and whose transformation is solely interior. The solipsism so rife in the practice communities of spirituality, New Age misfits, and the less convincing segment of self-defined activists, is the production of practice envisioned as at root a celebration of the self. This point on relationality also serves as a reminder that we co-construct the world of thought, feeling and ideas through participation, and that our practices emerge from the worlds we choose or are compelled to commit to, and that perception is conditioned by and narrowed or opened by each. It is also helpful to consider practice as chosen. To sign up to a given practice does not exclude the recognition that many long-term practitioners arrive at: life practices us. Rather practice becomes such through some gesture of intentionality. Going through the same routine yet again with a deep sigh of resignation to existence is not transformational and generally excludes deliberate intention. Whether you buy this distinction or not, setting and acting out intention gives direction to change and I would be surprised if you had not noticed this in your own life.
At this point, I might as well mention the role neo-liberalism has played in forming many into unwitting practising creatures driven by the myth of full personal realisation and forever-increasing productivity. A mood is created by dominant ideologies and their narratives seep into our internal spaces and filter our perception. We become food for the thing and our ways of being and acting change in alignment with the dominant force produced by the ideological thrust of a given historical moment. We might describe this process as productive of dark practices; for they are initially hidden and operate as impulse and compulsion. They provide a seductive pull into different ways of being, perceiving and acting. Explicitly in today’s decaying neo-liberal fantasy, we are compelled by market forces, as well as globalisation, hyper-competitive job markets, and the hyper-rhythm of work and entertainment to constantly keep up with the pace of obscene change. We can feel compelled to continuously reinvent ourselves in accord with market demand, or risk ending up a failure rejected by the market.
This principle seeps into the world of meditation too, and Ron Purser has written wise words on it. It is unfortunately ubiquitous in the online world of social media where kids, teens and young adults are driven to constantly compare and refine themselves in images of unreachable perfection. They are forced into dark practices of mutilation of their image of self and their social role in mirror worlds of unreality. For practitioners, the distorted image of being is visible in ever-happy faces absorbed into dark practices of meditation and yoga zombification or self-exalting narcissism. Its latest incarnation is of the pure, righteous warrior fighting the ever-shifting, fashionable oppression of the moment on social media, primarily in their own imagination. In each of these compulsions, the human is lost, their growth and actions subverted into hyperreal orgies of the imagined good: It is hard to imagine that dark practitioners would not emerge from such worlds. They are an inevitable outcome of all that forced good. The podcast has spoken of their presence in the world of Buddhism; the New Kadampa Tradition, Sogyal and his enablers, the various sexual predators, money grabbers, and manipulators. You could argue that those building apps to feed the obedience of mindfully trained practitioners to be subservient to the system are in service to the dark world of practice too.
Yet a decent stance against this cultural and economic wave is not rooted in merely opposing such principles, but involves navigating them intelligently and with care. The latter being a helpful antidote to the dehumanising principle that runs through the neo-liberal push to commodify every aspect of human culture and being, and demand it govern itself by the rules of the market. Rebellion can be large-scale and political but it is also personal and communal. Individuals can be part of small-scale communities that build friendships and relationships rooted in other values, rhythms and projects, without being anti- for anti’s sake and therefore shaped and governed by that system’s values and demands as yet another reactionary subject. The same challenge remains: will we merely be the unthinking product of greater forces playing out their dysfunction? Can we push at the edges of the bubble created by the dominant ideology in a given situation? Can we think and feel at the edge? Can we root ourselves in a history of our species far greater than one that is familial, national, religious, or continental?
Stop blabbering about worldly concerns Matt, what about the practical stuff you promised us?
Sure, let’s see what might be said. The practices here are not a final solution to any of the above. They do emerge out of the writing that has led to this point, but they are a not a one-size-fits-all solution to neo-liberalism, or the rest. They are certainly not a replacement for community or helpful guidance when needed. Another piece could address more directly anti-neo-liberal practices, mindful work, the role of monotony, boredom, and anything your imagination can connect to. I’m sure you can come up with some of your own ideas of practice if you’re familiar enough with any of these topics. I recognise that many seek clear, straightforward, practical answers and practices. I generally do too. But a general piece of writing like this is rooted in an ethics of respect for the diversity of an individual’s life experience and current circumstances, along with an appreciation for complexity.
The context is fundamental in any practice. The conditions must be considered when choosing or engaging a practice far more than any promise made by their promoters; living or dead. The history that underpins any notion of practice and its current value beyond an individual just practising is fundamental to unlocking the dysfunction that is part and parcel of any ideal and technique, its potential to transform, and its potential to dehumanise. I am, as regular readers should recognise, attempting to see what is possible when all this is considered. The world is full of ready-made practices. No need for me to add more to the pick and mix display.
As I lay out the practices below, please bear in mind that neither you nor I can write with everyone in mind, even if we might like to. Remember that baby? The one we are trying not to discard in the form of Buddhism. This is what this piece is. Well, at least this might be what it looks like when you let the little love keep bathing rather than put her up for adoption by the mindfulness crowd, or throw her into the hands of corporate America’s embrace of sanitised Buddhism. Of course, other things may happen to. The baby may fart mantras, or vomit terma in new forms that amaze and inspire and repulse in equal measure.