So, in many ways we are playing a game similar to Peter Sloterdjik; we are attempting to explore practice from a fresh perspective, and claiming practice more broadly as a part of our very rich, very wide human culture. Buddhist practices and notions thus become explicitly a sub-set of human culture and our task is to return them to that wider sphere of meaning so we may orientate ourselves more effectively. Thus we begin again with practices that resonate with familiar forms, but those same forms become far freer and agile because their home is not located solely inside Buddhism, but within the wealth of human culture within which Buddhism itself is situated.
We can see Buddhism as a sort of cultural sphere located within a wider sphere of religion and spiritual practice, which is located in yet another wider sphere of human transformation, desire, hope and fear. It overlaps with philosophy and its many spheres, and psychology and its plethora of stories and methods, and certain sciences with increasing or decreasing resonance and critique. Seeing this way is not about trying to get the best Buddhism possible, or secularising Buddhism so it might be free of its cultural weight: It is really a movement towards placing Buddhism, its history and present, within a context that is far larger and richer. Buddhism is not deprived of its parts; there is no dissection or plastic surgery. To use a concept so common in Buddhist discourse, Buddhism is seen more clearly for what it is, and so it remains integral. It continues to exist as a realm within which you can deep dive, yet hopefully do so more consciously of the wider worlds in which it is located and has been since its inception.
A Buddhist practitioner could make a gesture towards this observation thus:
“Breathing in, I expand my imaginative framing of Buddhism out beyond its borders into the world where it must brave the winds of critique, and engage forms of knowledge that may be alien; breathing out, I return Buddhism into the human hands that crafted its thoughts and forms of practice, and find meaning in their creators’ struggles.”
Just so you know, amongst all the folks I have worked with in coaching, and met in practice spaces, clever folks who know it all are the least likely to change or commit to any practice that might disrupt their identity. When reality knocks, they usually close the door.
Why is this important to mention? Isn’t it obvious? Epistemic humility is directly related to a willingness to be wrong and to listen in order to learn. Knowing relates to power to role to identity to meaning. It can be difficult to set all that aside for a moment without turning it into yet act of self-serving knowing.
Remaining open to the capacity of others, of all stripes, cast and experience to show or tell of things we may be unaware of is a discipline that requires renewal. The capacity to do this could be understood as a fundamental characteristic of being present to life: a far more admirable goal than merely being attentive to the so-called present moment.
In my previous pieces on doubt a piece was missing which sets up a fundamental recognition in the practicing life. It connects to the point made about foibles, individual proclivities and the need to build a path through your own experience. This understanding combines a non-prescriptive take on a/the path, or a/the way, and the need for it to always be rooted in a/the calling the individual feels and perceives, and that is central to his or her life. This is more of the baby. Some will have a knee jerk response to such wording but it may be misplaced in this context. To speak of an individual’s feelings, perception and calling is simply to ask what is real to them, salient, and demanding attention in a given context or phase of life. And it is asking how practice must respond to each. This is not to sacralise these three aspects or make the individual the crux of meaning to which the world must be subservient. The context is far larger. Ultimately practice must work on our real world conditions and not an ideal of the human.
Where do your own pressing thoughts, feelings and perception lead you in any given moment? How does each operate as a field of practice?
The characteristics are almost always specific, contextual and emerge from your own personal history. I am obviously not referring to the mundane plethora of material that makes up our day-to-day subjective experience, but rather that which calls us in, moves us towards new or attention-demanding question, desire or experience. Saying this is not claiming the truth is somewhere deep down inside or that your inner voice has the answer. Rather, you bring your own experience to practice, and the two must make room for each other. To merely impose practice on the complex matrix of materials that make up you and your world is to render practice a form of survival strategy, straight jacket, or mere identity formation.
It personally took me a while to figure all this out.
There are so many spiritual practices out there and I think this is generally good. The seemingly endless process of practice formation is a reminder of human creativity and our desire to act on ourselves and our world. For many of us, all of these practices are fully rooted in origins of earth bound human-animals struggling with the human condition, and claims of other-worldly origins are seen as the stuff of imperfect humans and made of this Earth too. In seeing practices this way, they become far more interesting and curious. From traditions full of infinite tantric practices, to an infinite array of meditation techniques, new and old, it can be fascinating to explore human ingenuity but also difficult to know which practices to eventually commit to. Especially when many practices in Buddhism and other traditions exist in hierarchies of highest this, advanced that, and rarest of the rarest techniques; in this regard, the language is not so far from my son’s discourse on Pokemon cards, and can elicit similar patterns of covetousness in practitioners that young players exhibit when trading and swapping cards. I have met many a practitioner who naively believed that the best practices, and therefore the ones most suitable for him or her, were clearly the most advanced ones. I guess this was an early sign of the narcissism that became more visible amongst spiritual folk later on. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I fell for the same story for a while myself and would eventually find that the best antidote to such confused judgement is to lead all these practices to the Great Feast.
To democratise all practices and bring them to the Feast is to test their ability to withstand scrutiny and exist in an extended family of meaning. It involves reviewing the bases upon which they stand and the axioms that inform them as themes within the wider cultural challenges of our species. It ultimately demands they speak for themselves with justification and otherworldly claims from tradition being insufficient. When it comes to the practitioner, the loss of self-existing justification means these practices find their worth, and true value, by being placed in relationship with the pressing issues of a human life, and its place and time. And of course, many of these practices, if not most, will have little practical utility when this is done for much of their meaning is found in the culture of a tradition. This is a strong argument for tradition, which on a good day provides context, history and a view of a path with clear signposts on the way. I certainly don’t mean for practice to be subservient to the individual as a consumerist, or need to fit their particular pattern of desire in a given moment, or even be anti-traditionalist. Though perhaps consumerist at first glance, this style of looking and questioning is really dialogical. You are not shopping for a product, but asking practices what they do to the life you are currently living. You are establishing a dialogue with the ongoing process of human-practice interaction. For those committed to a given tradition, this process might be useful anyway, though it can also risk being destabilising.
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.
“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” Voltaire
“We have to allow ourselves to realize that we are complete fools; otherwise, we have nowhere to begin.”ChögyamTrungpa
You know too much, yet understand too little. And it’s the same for me, and everyone you and I happen to know. This is our modern epistemic crisis: we are bogged down with too much data and an excess of certainty about things we really know very little about. We borrow second, third hand opinions and waltz around with them as if they were our own: Flouting postures of certainty that we have no right to. Or we retreat into simplistic ideologies and let others do the meaning making for us. And it’s not just the refuse of human guff we are sorting through on social and mainstream media, from conspiracy theories to anti-vax ignorance, we are exposed to an excess of informational input through the internet today that our mammalian brains were simply not evolved to digest.
Think about that for a moment, our brains are literally not up to the task of managing the constant stimulation that accompanies online life today, and the complexity it constantly points to but never quite grasps. We are in a sense reacting to it all or shielding ourselves from it. We are also incapable of grasping the weight of the new rules that govern the immense waste pile of human ideas, spluttering and folly that is the internet. Collectively we have only partial answers to these rules at best. All the same, as practitioners, such rules are a sort of initial means for grappling with our own struggles and the collective difficulties that we are pulled into by living in this hyper-connected, hyperreal age. One is to practice epistemic humility and question what we superficially accept as given. Another is to reclaim an oft derided human state known as doubt. For the practitioner, doubt can be taken as a practice space to be cultivated, inhabited and, when necessary, invoked. For Buddhists, it can be harnessed as a practical antidote to the solid sense of self that forever lingers in the background of our consciousness when we are far too sure of ourselves and the ideas we sign up to.
To inhabit doubt is to inhabit a space of not knowing that is undefended by beliefs and opinions. In this space the unexpected becomes possible and the precious opportunity to be genuinely surprised by life can be found. This is perhaps no different from the old adage to be an empty cup, or the archetype of the fool, but all the old wise sayings in the world can’t do the work for us. They easily become knowing tropes or mere performance of ideals; something which has always been easier to do than grapple with the real thing. Ideally, you figure this stuff out for yourself and build a path through your own experience and not the borrowings of others. You may even allow yourself to be shaken by life, seduced by wonder, and the lesser known face of the triad, be stunned by just how ignorant each on of us is.
What follows are a series of posts that respond to this living human condition. In alignment with the practical nature of this season on the podcast and here, I will offer up practice ideas too. Some of you may find them useful. Eventually, these posts will also appear as audio-casts over at our new home on the New Books Network.