Can meditation have something in common with video gaming? It appears that it can. And that something what brings together those two seemingly distant spheres of human activity is an increase in gray matter. Yes, just have a look at the results of studies published last year in Molecular Psychiatry and compare them with some of the conclusions presented by the authors of the article entitled “Mind of the Meditator” that has just appeared in the latest issue of Scientific American. For all those of you who, with some understandable reluctance, abandoned your Nintendos in favor of thickening your brain tissue and honing your concentration skills through practice of meditation, this could be surprisingly welcome news. It seems that now you can safely skip those grueling hours of sitting practice and simply return to grow your grey matter with your old pal, Super Mario.
But before you happily dust off your consoles and plunge into the game, let’s look at Mind of the Meditator from a slightly broader and critical perspective. Promise, it won’t be long.
One of the most mind-boggling aspect of articles intended for broad public consumption, such as the one discussed here, is that the authors, focusing on nothing else but “treating depression and chronic pain and […] cultivating a sense of overall well-being” (p. 40), that is, a version of “relaxationism” — see no problem at all in associating their meditative methods with the other-worldly discourse of liberation codified as x-Buddhism. Mark Singleton, a scholar of the contemporary yoga movement who actually coined the term “relaxationism,” writes that it refers to “(t)his blend of biomedicine, psychology, and esoterica [which] is very generally propagated as ‘wisdom of the East’. A critical distinction, he adds, is rarely drawn between modern relaxation techniques and ancient practices. In fact, the line often seems to be intentionally blurred to lend a method of “Asiatic cachet.” (p. 289) If there are some distinct interpretative frameworks that relaxationism draws on they are offered, rather, by New Age religion and Western esotericism. A concern with synthesizing religion and science, for example, was already present in Renaissance Hermeticism. As another contemporary yoga scholar, Elizabeth De Michelis writes, following groundbreaking work on New Age religion by Wouter Hanegraaff, “this ongoing attempt at synthesis mirrors a deep-seated human unease vis-a-vis the deep epistemological split brought about by the rise of modernity within Western (and nowadays global) societies.” (p. 21)
So if one tries to look through the prism of Singleton’s arguments at the rhetoric presented in the article by Ricard, Lutz, and Davidson, one soon realizes that their meditative techniques may in fact have little to do with any premodern version of x-Buddhist tradition, as they claim, but is just another version of what William James and other nineteenth/early twentieth century European and American authors called “salvation through relaxation.” In other words, it is a belief in the salvific function of proprioceptive awareness which, as Singleton writes, “is far less an integral package dispatched through the millennia by Indian sages than a symptom of the religious and economic crisis of our time.” (p. 302) Within this esoteric framework relaxation leads a practitioner to an inviolable epistemological certainty and wisdom, whereas tension, (like ignorance) prevents it. For, as James argues in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, relaxation of body and mind is “the fundamental act in specifically religious, as distinguished from moral, practice” and “is capable of entering into the closest marriage with every speculative creed.” (p. 285)
It would not be a mistake then to argue that this notion of bare awareness – a notion that has become the foundation of a global movement of Buddhist modernism that sees meditation and living in the present as the essential core of its x-Buddhist doctrine – is “the closest marriage” for relaxationism today. And furthermore that a broader reason for this eclectic creed is that it dovetails so well with the libertarian age in which we currently live (cf. Lilla in the references). Like the obsessive meditative focus on the present moment, dogmatic libertarianism, with its principles of the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom and distrust of public authority – sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. Paradoxically it has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. Like the modernized, transglobal Buddhism, in libertarianism there is no place for political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes.
All this produces an extremely dangerous situation: instead of disclosing how the present emerged from a comprehensible past and how it is now moving toward an intelligible future – like the political ideologies born out of the French Revolution (a progressive one culminating in a liberating revolution, and an apocalyptic one ending with the natural order of things restored) – libertarian dogma, by fetishizing the present – here and now! – prevents any revisions when political developments happen, as they always do, to threaten its plausibility. One should look no further than the current denialism around the issue of global warming to see how destructive this kind of present moment utopianism can be. Has the obsessive non-judgmentalism of the proponents of the Mindfulness Industry something to do with the maintenance of this apolitical libertarian utopia of our age? Would it be an exaggeration to state that both of those contemporary trends serve to immobilize the masses in the illusory cage of the present, thus preventing what is most needed today: mobilization and movement against the unjust and catastrophic status quo?
One might also ask who exactly (besides former cell biologist Ricard) belongs to this group of more than 100 monastics participants in the scientific experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Medison and other universities? Why, as serious followers of the path leading to liberation from the bondage of this-worldly experience, do they even care to subject themselves to mundane scientific investigation? Why do they strive to share their religious know-how with the lay world, something that was unimaginable to premodern x-Buddhist monastics and especially to the tiny sliver of the sangha that actually practiced meditation in permanent solitary retreat? What agenda do this group of monastics led by the Dalai Lama really represent today? Aren’t they a part of the modernist transnational spirituality that first emerged in the late nineteenth century as a way, as David McMahan says, “to enchant the secular disciplines that early Buddhists modernizers used in staking their terms.” (p. 15)? Aren’t they part of the pet project of an emerging transnational educated elite who have the capacity to introduce it into the global mediascape? As McMahan further reminds us, “it is among this population that the new Buddhism of enchanted secularity has grown for over a century and continues to thrive today.” (p. 18) It begs the question as to why this elite is taking such an interest in bringing those other-worldly monastics into laboratories to have their brains scanned? Is the noble intention to help all beings find happiness the only reason for all of that?
But before we get to what is determining such an undertaking, lets first ask one simple question which might force itself upon a reader who is not so ideologically blinded: aren’t the remarkable results presented in The Mind of the Meditator self evident? One of the article’s important points is about “meditation’s benefits” evidence which show up in magnet resonance imaging as “neuroplasticity”. Reading through the article one wonders if the findings about neuroplasticity are not, at this stage, just trivial. Wouldn’t it be an expected outcome that a being, which depends in its life functions on physical features, shows changes in these features when actualizing and indeed specializing certain areas of its contingency. Has anybody ever tested the brain of a dog trained to find explosives or drugs, in comparison to a dog which rarely leaves its owner’s sofa? An owner, furthermore, who sits there smoking crack and watching soaps all day long? And what does the brain of a crack smoker looks like in comparison to a London cab driver with 1000s of hours of driving practice? If we then read that “physical changes in the brain – an altered volume of tissue in some areas – occur through meditation,” so what? And if we read on and learn that practitioners “also experience beneficial psychological effects such as the ability to react faster to stimuli and show themselves to be less prone to various forms of stress,” again: so what? There are a myriad of examples of how humans learn to react faster and better, more efficiently and with less stress in relation to their environment. Remember Zen at War by Brain Victoria. In this book Victoria portrays Zen soldiers who developed remarkable indifference to the suffering of their enemies and who were able to kill at will without hesitation and remorse. Zen already proved how remarkable meditation can be. And regarding the development of human skills in relation to their environment, we don’t have to search far either. European sailors like James Cook were astonished at the ability of their indigenous pilots to navigate open waters in the Pacific. An Aborigine can live without a problem in the Australian desert, a place where no white man would ever put his foot without a great deal of preparation and support. People navigated to the moon with barely the equivalent of a Commodore 64 computer on board. People climb the highest mountains with only the clothes they stood in. They count Pi to the 1000s decimal… not to speak of those on this planet who are forced to live under exceptionally bad conditions and who have to learn to interact with stimuli which would cause us to immediately collapse. So what is so new in the exceptional feats of those guinea piggy meditators, apart from the fact that “they react faster to stimuli and are less prone to various forms of stress”? The answer is, there is nothing exceptional in the findings as presented here by the Scientific American. The “In Brief” at the bottom of page 40 is just plain common knowledge. As it has been said about x-buddhism: It is putting nothing in boxes and selling it.
Another more important question is about the presuppositions the Scientific American uses to support its claims. This question is about the transcendent other-worldly dogmatic patterns infused into this discourse without any further consideration and which form a base argument, a kind of axiom on which the rest is build. Or to put it another way: it is exactly about a certain world view, a philosophical decision, a circular reasoning which is presupposed in this article without further questioning and which integrates what is afterwards said into a certain discourse – especially into a discourse which establishes an authority which isn’t, thereafter, to be questioned. The question is how authority about what is to be discussed is raised in the first place. In the “In Brief” (p. 40) we read:
“Meditation is an ancient pursuit that, in some form, is a part of nearly every world religion.”
Such is the first claim made in this article about meditation. It is a plain assertion – not an assumption, a hypothesis, or even a theory. There is not even a reference to any further reading. The statement is presented as a fact. A fact which is presented as a universal – without proof. To make it short: This is the claim of the colonial master. The gesture of the well educated white Europe male telling the world how it is. The claim is a universal which suppresses every other local view about a world in which humans live. The stated claim of such a universal today – after Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault etc. – is naïve. But nonetheless such claims are en vogue again, otherwise a publication like the Scientific American would be unlikely to put them forward. Donald S. Lopez in Prisoners of Shagri-La has analyzed how Eurocentristic universalism is stealthily fed back into Tibetan Buddhism, and especially into the discourse of the Dalai Lama (cf. chapter The Prison). The point here is that such claims about the universality of meditation and religion are gestures of an authority which tries to evade being questioned as to the basis of its authority, its origins and its objectives.
It is clear, for Matthieu Ricard at least, what the objectives of religion and meditation are. For him, as a Tibetan Gelug monk, it is the belief in a transcendent sphere beyond the material world and its emergent entities. It is the strict belief in a dualistic world view in which the mind is the final element determining everything else – a mind which is, in the last instance, unfettered by any material influence. Meditation is the practice of actualizing this pure mind, which in its earthly manifestation only exists in a kind of polluted and degraded variant. Meditation, in the case of Ricard is, moreover, the means by which he can resolve the uncertainties which confront the individual after s/he has died and must transit the Bardo — that sphere which the mind must enter after losing contact with the body, at least according to Tibetan Buddhism. In order to successfully travel through the Bardo, the mind must be trained in meditation.
This then is the background of Ricard’s meditation: the believe in a transcendent sphere which is absolutely determining the material. In other words a Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. Coupled with that is the believe in personal reincarnation. Regarding the “provocative and ultimately productive” relation with science, as it is mentioned in the opening paragraph of the article, the strong determinism of the Gelug worldview is especially interesting in the present context. The Gelug worldview requires a discrete cause for every effect. But such a relationship of a cause and effect is negated by the theory of superposition in quantum mechanics (to give only one example), which Gelug philosophy therefore cannot accept. This is one of the many reasons why the Gelug worldview isn’t compatible with science! (Cf. Tom Pepper’s Feast Interrupted where the author analyzes the strict duality of Gelug philosophy)
The strong determinism of the Gelug world view in particular has to be taken into account if one wants to see the ideological structure which frames this text. The vague definition of meditation is part of the structure. Together with the regular evocation of the Dalai Lama and the proclamation of universals, it serves to establish a sphere of authority within which the discussion must now be undertaken. This sphere of authority shields the topic from disclosing the defining structures in which it is formed, (its sociality for example), and the specific economic setting within which it develops, and so on. We learn that meditation is “the cultivation of basic human qualities” (cf. p. 42). These qualities “remain latent as long as one does not make an effort to develop them”. But aren’t these “qualities” just more universals? Do they mean homo sapiens inherits something which makes her fully human only when she develops it? From where does homo sapiens get these basic qualities in the first place?
The text mentions, for example, “love and compassion” as basic qualities. But, apart from more vague notions, aren’t we given here just more proclamations of universal truth? It seem so, but to the contrary “love” is, to say it the Foucaultian way, the result of a certain discourse and a certain dispositive and it depends on a certain historic apriori in which it is formed. The object “love” as we know it today doesn’t pre-exist, in the sphere of Plato’s ideas for example; it is formed only in the process of a discourse, and within a complex bio-social setting. Importantly we cannot think discrete causes for the effect love (or anything else). And neither is love a discrete element which could be extracted from a context. Love is a resulting quality in the bio-social sphere, which forms within the complexity of a multitude of conditions. This could even be formulated, from a buddhist perspective, in terms of dependent arising. In fact Nagarjuna in his Mulamadhyamakakarika doesn’t generally allow either discrete elements nor causes or effects – only “conditions”. At least this is so in the view of Jay L. Garfield. Seen in this way “latent human qualities” are either essentialist thinking, or the text is exceptionally badly formulated. Regarding Gelug philosophy the former is certainly the case.
So, even with a cursory examination, the essentialist structure of the text becomes clear. Another point is hidden deeper but is even more important. With it we finally touch the economical structure that determines this thinking in the last instance. This becomes apparent when we question the ontological relationship of the pictorial “Varities of Contemplative Experience” (p. 41) and the human object it claims to depict. The differentiation becomes quite important when it comes to the behavior of the human object which is deduced from representational information and its underlying data. The unquestioned assumption in the text is that such behavior can quite easily be deduced. But this is not so easy and what actually can be deduced from such information should be very thoroughly discussed. When we talk about the data from which the pictorial varieties are generated on the one hand and the human on the other, what we have before us are two totally different kinds of ontological spheres. Data is zero-dimensional and a-temporal, the human is multi-dimensional and temporal. The problem is that the one cannot be reduced to the other but the assumption that it is possible is silently supporting the text. The point is well known and thought through, (cf. for example the short but instructive discussion by Catherine Malabou in What Should We Do with Our Brain?) The text states that we can deduce from data how human behavior can and should be determined. The text assumes that it is possible to easily think a discrete causation from the results of “neuroimaging and other technologies” to the human. But this is a premature jump to a conclusion in the context of the difference between zero-dimensional data and the multi-dimensional human. It is not at all clear how we go from simple experiments, which comprise just one action – pressing a button when distraction in the midst of a concentrative task becomes apparent – to complex human interactions. All it is possible to say is that some effect might take place if we assume a behavior based on deduction from the data. The point is, if it is assumed that the deduction from data to behavior can take place in a direct and mono-causal manner, we have before us here a relationship of the economic sphere – capital – and the human, in which capital as the motor of quantification is generally determining the economy and neurobiological research in particular. In the last instance behavior then is determined by capital – without the knowledge or awareness of those involved in the research we look at here. The turn we see is how quantification gets a direct take on human behavior. Such alienation is of course nothing new, but the important point here is the new field it seizes. We see how – finally – capital is able to interfere directly with human cognition.
It is about automated cognition now. There always has been a gap in the line of command from the capital to the human. The consciousness of alienation has , up until now, never been shut down altogether. Pockets of resistance remained possible because of the consciousness of alienation – for example about how an alien rhythm is forced upon the human by the assembly line, and how this rhythm excludes other rhythms and how its economic value is the ability to milk a surplus value from the lived human. Control was forced upon the human from outside and the clash of this force with the will to get free from exploitation was a visible sign that some things contradict each other and that all is not right. But within the so called societies of control that have developed since the 1980s, the consciousness of alienation has gradually diminished. Nowadays control isn’t a question of external force anymore. The control enforced upon an alienated human is control from within which is disguised as the freedom to choose whatever one wants. The cult of happiness dictates in a gentle and subtle way how the human should be and, most important, it teaches that if one is not happy, the error lies within oneself. It is not social relationships, exploitation etc. that is to blame. It is ones own fault if one doesn’t reach out for a never ending blissful life. The only inkling that all might not be ok comes from so called personal malfunction — from forms of chronic depression and the fatigue of being oneself. This is for now the last gap in the line of command from capital to human capital: the question why people do get burned out, over stressed, sleepless, nervous, exhausted and finally fall into a state of severe depression if they allegedly have all they need? The answer given by the societies of control is that they fail on the level of thinking – they don’t get their cognition right.
The society of control successfully shifted control from external to internal. The only remaining problem was how to quantify human cognition to be able to teach it in a one-size-fits-all-manner, how to steer itself in a more fine grained manner. That is the scenario article lays out. The Varieties of Contemplative Experience defines what kind of measurable cognition there should be in order to be able to successfully steer oneself through the cycle of awareness and distraction. The article furthermore lays out the path to self regulation from stress into relaxation and how it is to be measured and controlled via bio feedback. In the ontological relationship of the pictorial Varieties of Contemplative Experience and the object depicted, the latter is now determined to its fullest extent by the former. What we have before us now is a full one-way determination from capital to neuro-plasticity to the human. The human becomes capital to its fullest extent and the gap between quantification and human behavior is finally closed. In such a way the human becomes fully integrated into capital as quantifiable human capital.
Importantly, in the case presented here, this is an unconscious determination. Ricard, Lutz and Davidson at no point seem to be aware that it would be necessary to discuss the relationship of their science with what in the last instance determines it. Their science is just a given – just as the universals they proclaim in their article are also a given. All this, by the way, is in stark contrast to the pretentious motivation of x-buddhism to alleviate all suffering (first noble truth) and to analyze the reason of this suffering (second noble truth). Nowhere in the so called sciences initiated by the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard do we see anything which comes near to these noble objectives (and remarkably, as stated repeatedly, it suffices to have the desire to alleviate suffering). Instead it is a purely mechanical undertaking which is shamefully oblivious to how it is determined and what it will help to achieve in the end: automated cognition of the human capital.
Apart from this it remains to be seen if the findings presented in this article are of any value at all. One has to be doubtful. A meta study discussed in this tricycle article makes one skeptical if ‘meditation’ is able to do anything which goes beyond the results of a healthy dietary regime and regular exercise. See here for the abstract of this study. The result may very well cause one to become even more depressed about all this. Seen from this point the three references at the end of Ricard, Lutz and Davidson’s article might be nothing but a very subjective and arbitrary alibi by the authors.
It is true, it seems, that our grey matter is subject to plasticity. There seems to be enough evidence for this. But in the light of the meta study just mentioned it remains doubtful what activity is of greatest effect, not only in regard of altering our grey matter – diet, exercise, playing Super Mario, worshipping at the alter of the Tibetan noble savage – but more importantly regarding compassion, insight into the human situation of the being and last but not least a sense of humor regarding the weird and cruel lives we live. It seems like cab driving is still the most efficient training. It seems like the mindfulness industry and its Super Mario Monks have a long way to go to come even near the humor about, insight into, and compassion for humans a poet like Jim Jarmusch is able to show via his protagonists in his film Night on Earth.
Ricard, Matthieu; Lutz, Antoine; Davidson, Richrad J. November 2014. Mind of the Meditator, in Scientific American.
Lilla, Mark. 2014. The Truth About Our Libertarian Age.
Pepper, Tom. 2011. Feast. Interrupted.
McMahan, David L. 2012. The Enchanted Secular: Buddhism and the Emergence of Transtraditional ‘Spirituality’. The Eastern Buddhist, 43/1&2
Singleton, Mark. 2005. Salvation through Relaxation: Proprioceptive Therapy and its Relationship to Yoga. Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vo. 20, No. 3
Victoria, Brian. 1997. Zen at War.
Lopes, Donald S. 1998. Prisoners of Shangri-La, chapter: The Prison.
Garfield, Jay L. 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika.
De Michelis, Elizabeth. 2004. A History of Modern Yoga, Patanjali and Western Esotericsm.
Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What Should We Do with Our Brain?