Doubt Part 3: Great Feast Practice

Doubt Part 1

Doubt Part 2

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.

Continue reading “Doubt Part 3: Great Feast Practice”

Doubt Part 2: Practising Your Life

Doubt Part 1

Doubt Part 3

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”

Doubt Part 1: I Don’t Know

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.

Continue reading “Doubt Part 1: I Don’t Know”

83. Stephen Batchelor on Secularizing Buddhism

Today I speak to Stephen Batchelor, figurehead for Secular Buddhism, well known author, and Scot. I present the lovely man some of the critique aimed at his work in the book Secularizing Buddhism, and from my previous interview with Richard K. Payne. We also discuss some of his intellectual influences, touch on phenomenology, Gianni Vattimo, and whether Stephen is fixated on the past in his relationship with early Buddhism. Stephen was game throughout for what turned out to be a constructive and illuminating conversation.

Next up will be one of Stephen’s collaborators and philosophically informed secular Buddhist teachers, Winton Higgins, all the way from Australia.

Matthew O’Connell is a life coach and the host of the The Imperfect Buddha podcast. You can find The Imperfect Buddha on Facebook and Twitter (@imperfectbuddha).

It’s a changing world: The Imperfect Buddha Podcast is moving home.

So folks, the Imperfect Buddha Podcast has a new home, at least the audio does. We’re leaving Soundcloud, heading off to new pastures, crossing the pond. The new home will be at the New Books Network. Episodes will continue to be posted here at the site too.


It’s currently the home for intelligent conversations intended to raise the level of public discourse and provide something along the lines of public education for thinking adults. So, if you wish to carry on listening to this lovely little pod, go and subscribe over at the site, and take a look around at their other offerings.  

Our plan is to fire up the old podcast and bring you regular conversations and think pieces with a curvature towards the practising life and the application of the ideas and possibilities we have explored and will continue exploring.

Our next episodes over there will feature two interviews with folks from the world of Secular Buddhism; Winton Higgins and Stephen Batchelor, and two think pieces; the first Practice Item and the second, which is on practising with doubt. There may even be a third.

The podcast continues to be sponsored by O’Connell Coaching. Get in touch if you’re interested in engaging with the topics this podcast has explored and their impact on the practising life. Or perhaps you simply wish to start up a practice without the need to give up your critical faculties.