“Kindness. The only possible method when dealing with a living creature. You’ll get nowhere with an animal if you use terror, no matter what its level of development may be. That I have maintained, do maintain and always will maintain. People who think you can use terror are quite wrong. No, no, terror is useless, whatever its colour – white, red or even brown! Terror completely paralyses the nervous system.” Mikhail Bulgakov
The current cultural eruption has led to a wide range of new and fascinating concepts emerging in common discourse, with the latest ones entering everyday language at a speed that is impressive and unheralded. We have one complex concept emerge to then be immediately superseded by another; concepts that actually need considerable and sufficient elaboration to be made sense of. Each would ideally receive sustained examination and critical engagement rather than be adopted as factual means for navigating complex phenomena.
When everything is political though, this is not permitted, or even considered necessary. In the battle underway, soldiers need weapons. They don’t need to know the history of the tool in their hands, the engineering that went behind it, the variety of weapons they might choose from, they just have to pick it up, aim, and fire.
If we lived in slower times, the dysfunction I speak of in this series might have been avoided. Better, wiser articulations might have emerged. Ideas and concepts might have been ingested and digested far more slowly. Kinks ironed out. Critique heard, refinements made, fallacies pointed to, and an appreciation for the limits of theory embraced. We might define such moves as forms of wisdom, rooted in the maturation of understanding through real-world application.
Practice ideally leads to theory evolving, mutating and eventually closing the gap between its inbuilt assumptions and blind-spots, and the reality of the wider world beyond its ideological boarders. But in accelerated and polarised times, this process has become unpopular, and we find ourselves instead in a politicised social landscape filled with sloganeering, attack and defence dialogue, and ideological assertions masked as facts. In politics, such behaviour may be forgivable, or even necessary, but in the practising life it presents a fundamental unease that cannot be swayed with a call to act on behalf of the good.
“They were arguing about something very complex and important, and neither of them could refute the other. They did not agree with each other in anything, and that made their argument especially interesting and endless.” Mikhail Bulgakov
Saturday, July 25th, 10am-2pm EST / 4-8pm Europe /3pm-7pm UK. Online via Zoom.
On Saturday, the 25th July, your truly will be running a workshop on rethinking practice at the Great Feast for Incite Seminars. The podcast provides more information on the event and Incite Seminars.
From the event page;
Western Buddhism and spirituality more broadly provide us with a rich menu of practices, messages and visions of the human condition and what is possible and even desirable to do, avoid, and strive for within a human life. Yet, as many of us have come to realize, these practices, messages and curative fantasies do not always live up to expectation. The overly prescriptive ideals of what it means to be human, what practice is, and what we should be doing with it all too often reduce the Buddhist practitioner to the role of a passive performer of tradition and can lead to a loss of faith, disenchantment, and the feeling of having been conned. Can critique and disenchantment lead us to creatively reclaim our sense of ourselves apart from tradition, and discover new lines of inquiry, practice, and ways of relating?
In this hands- and minds-on workshop, we will explore the possibilities of making a new relationship to Buddhist practice through the concept of the The Great Feast of Knowledge. This concept, articulated by Glenn Wallis, asks what happens when we invite any kind of thought, practice, insight or claim to exit its ideological bubble and interact with the great, vast planes of knowledge, human struggle, and discovery that sit outside the walls of its meaning-making apparatus? What might happen if we were to bring figures like the Scottish philosopher John Grey or the postmodern concept of hyperreality into our meditation practice? What would it mean to go on retreat with the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, or the work of Social Anthropologist Tim Ingold?
A key idea from Francois Laurelle that will be useful to us here is the democracy of thought, which served as an inspiration for Wallis’s Feast. Laurelle poses that all thought is equal, and for us that means that our own thought can participate at the feast if we can just muster up some courage. There is a price to pay, of course. You must expose your inner-world, and your private practice, your secret desires, needs, and fears, to the wider world and risk their disruption, and even destruction. Armed with epistemic humility and renewed curiosity, whatever happens, the Great Feast brings us back into the collective struggle of our species to come to terms with the human condition.
This experimental and explorative workshop may serve to help those who are disillusioned by the whole project of Buddhism, or the spiritual, to find a way forward that remains critical but infuses personal practice with new life. Post-traditional and non-Buddhist tools will be explored initially, though we may manage to make some our own in the process.
“What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” From The Master & Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Great Feast Forgotten
Can the Great Feast of Knowledge save us from our worst excesses at this moment of political and reactionary ferment? I would like to think it could help. But it would require the regular diners to do their part and remind visitors of the customs of dining and etiquette practiced therein. The feast is at its liveliest and most heartening when everyone participating follows some basic guidelines.
Do tuck in! But remember not to shit in your plate. Piss in the corner. Punch the other diners for merely burping. Or take over the kitchen and enforce your own country’s god awful cuisine.
No, that will not do.
Here are some tips for decent feasting;
First of all, remember the critics! A good food critic is worth a thousand meals they say. Try the food for yourself as they might be utterly wrong in their judgments, but they are essential when evaluating a potential meal. The best of them provide unexpected insights, history, context, and appreciation for the hard work it can take to cook up a complex dish. And an insightful critic can help you avoid indigestion: A most common problem these days!
Secondly, dine with guests who know a surprising thing or two about the meal you’ve ordered. Always listen out for unexpected diners and see if you can hang with them for a while to learn more about ingredients and their origins. They bring variety to the monotony of the familiar and can make the real difference between a successful evening of dining, and a disaster of epic proportions.
Three, ask how the meal might be improved. Yes, you are entitled to your own opinion, and it may be you that surprises the company you’re in by offering up a refinement to the dish, reinvigorating a classic, or offer surprising innovation to alt-cuisine. Of course, you may also end up spouting bullshit, but here, someone will help you to note the bad odor in the air and change verbal percorso.
Fourth, don’t get stuck at the table. Move around, see what else is happening at the other tables and stop for a while to chat. The more social connections you build at the Feast, the more likely you’ll come back and dine further. It really is important to network you know.
Fifth (for now), pay attention to the quality of the ingredients. Sometimes the food has gone bad and you may not even realize it. Be sure to examine your plate carefully for signs of rotten food. Don’t be shy in sending your dish back to the kitchen if it’s clearly rancid. Do remember that some of the kitchen staff are new to cooking, and a bit of patience will be needed if they are to learn.
Sixth, don’t force others to eat when they are full. Remember digestion! To overeat, to eat too fast, to skip meals; these are all unhealthy eating habits and spoil the pleasure of dining.
Finally, try to share the conversation. Droning on about why your diet is the best of all and should be adopted by all the other diners is rude and presumptuous and most guests hate it.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, idling at the traffic lights waiting for part 1 to begin.
In a world of easy dopamine vices, it can be insightful to look up the meaning of words in a number of dictionaries and marvel at the variety of definitions given. Definitions that can at times be miles apart, unexpected, or differ in small ways that may be of upmost importance if precision were to determine the success or failure of a thing. This variety reminds us, in a small way, just how strong our tendency is to fix the world into easy categories, and simplistic definitions, and how much of a habit this is for us all. It reminds us how our simplification of the world causes us to miss its multiplicity, its complexity, its visible and invisible relationships, and the ever-present role of history in our present, even as we push on, trying to ignore or escape the past. For a word, as any linguist knows, tends to wriggle out of the boundaries within which it is placed; Take the word gay for example. And that’s just a word. How about a concept? Intelligence. Or philosophy or art? Post-modernism. A movement? Anti-racism. A religion? Buddhism. Or, how about that incredible mass of wriggly humans that we are, all wriggling together for thousands of years with varied pasts, presents, dreams and futures.
Such variety. Such a mix.
And yet, for some folks, too many of them actually, words, concepts, movements, people, and even the world itself, can be summarised rather simply, captured within a single phrase, narrowed down and placed inside a nice conceptual box, or even caught by a solitary word.
“Done and dusted,” they bellow. “Got that figured out,” they chime.
Really? One might reply. How interesting.
We could put this down to a number of causes. A lack of imagination might be one (if we were to be generous), intellectual poverty (if we were to be harsh), or epistemological immaturity: perhaps as a consequence of being waylaid in one’s learning, or as an expression of the joys of youthful ignorance (remembering that youthful ignorance can last a lifetime). It can also come down to a question of time in today’s frenetic and demanding world. We all need to know so much, and yet often lack the pace and rhythm of life to give knowledge the attention it needs, digest it slowly, reflect and mature our understanding turn information into more than mere data. Within the practising life, it would appear, all the same, that we have ourselves an eminently workable condition – learn, and learn some more, dedicate time throughout your life to learning well, make plenty of mistakes, fail, grow, keep on learning, and discover the limits of what you know, and then (and so importantly) the limits of what we know, all of us; including our favourite image makers and heroes.
And so it begins. This is clearly the preamble, but to what? A short series on the world we currently inhabit with a view to how the practising life might engage it. Can we think away from the enticing polarised landscape we are often pulled into by social media, the media and the politics of the moment? It’s not enough to remain aloof, or indifferent, so what do we do? Not, what should we do, that’s not up to me, but how could we relate, openly, with curiosity, with presence, with care, with intellectual honesty, with a refusal to kowtow to the unthinking games of politics on display. They sound like worthwhile endeavours. Engage politically, but avoid the allure of merging with the crowd to the point of losing your capacity to think, and critique, and feel differently, and the cheap payoffs promised; or dive deeply into a tribe and swim in their idealogical formations and performance; both can be worth a try if you can hold your shit together. Heaven forbid I should advise you to do otherwise.
What I will do though is explore out-loud, and possibly fail. Either way, I’m willing to have a go.
This is not only a paper bound, screen bound written affair. If you’d prefer to listen, there’s an audio version of this text, with a twist. Here it is if you want to head off in that direction, if not, read on.
The Preamble: context 01
The truth is that writing about these themes in today’s world is not easy. This is not personally because of the call-out or cancel culture, which doesn’t really effect folks like me who are on the margins of niche culture. It is not to do with allegiance to an identity group: identity politics in its American and British manifestations is pretty much non-existent here in Italy. Rather, it is because of the contentious relationship we Europeans, and especially Brits, have with the United States and the leakage of its culture and norms into our world: We are simultaneously part of the great American experiment, and apart from it; partly able to respond to it, partly able to step outside its influence and catch a much needed breathe; one that is unfortunately often unavailable to those deep within its quagmire. Presumably this is the condition of being under the umbrella of a super power, and truth be told, it is probably a better experience than having been under any of the world’s previous superpowers. Though I might be wrong about that.
Responding to the cultural and political leakage is often a must even if we are not Americans ourselves or would like to stop caring about what happens in the States: superpowers loom large and are near impossible to avoid. Having relatives and friends in the States, as I do, is actually less important from this perspective. I used to visit regularly but stopped after 9/11 when the rules to enter the country became so absurd, and have remained a proper outsider since. What ties me to the country most is actually the odd, ‘special’ relationship that has long existed between the UK and the US: A kinship that goes beyond just a shared language.
A new episode is here. The lingering challenge of conspiracies, fake news, and the emergence of information silos means that we as a global society are being confronted with a major challenge to our relationship to information, to facts, and to the epistemological challenges we have always been burdened with regarding knowledge and the act of knowing. Conspiracy Theories are with us to stay and if you look at them for longer than a glance, they begin to mutate, twisting into odd shapes that can appear familiar and alien all at once. We cannot afford to look down our nose at them any more, they are part and parcel of the world we inhabit, and we must contend with the wider issues they raise.
In this episode, recorded under quarantine, the Imperfect Buddha podcast explores the wider, hidden implications of the conspiratorial mindset and the challenges it represents. We look at its close relationship with spirituality, religion, and the New Age. We go deep into the psychology, the epistemological challenges, and explore practice ideas and the ethical duty we may all do well to consider exhibiting towards those enchanted by global conspiracy. We have tried to avoid treading familiar ground and the practice suggestions are not only for conspiracy theorists; they are for us too. For as we suggested in our episodes on cults (whose members share many characteristics with dogged conspiracy theorists), we have our own role to play in the world of conspiracies.
Feedback as always is welcomed. Feel free to support the podcast by making a small donation. O’Connell Coaching is available to those in need – Conspiracy Theorists are welcome too.