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.Continue reading “Doubt Part 2: Practising Your Life”