A New Subject?


By Labelling as heresy all views of which it disapproved the Church successfully passed off its orthodoxy as a unique scale for weighing the true meaning of words, beings, and things. It nevertheless felt inadequate and disarmed in the face of certain attitudes that it deemed “meaningless and demented”. With some unease the Inquisition attached the words “free spirit” and “madness” to men and women who renounced all spiritual and temporal authority, seeking no more than to live in accordance with their desires…….    Raoul Vaneigem: The Movement of the Free Spirit.


This post addresses points about meditation Matthias and Tomek brought up in a recent comment tread. My thoughts were further stimulated by Tomeks video links and related printed material and by Matthias’s list of points on meditation. (links below). The following is structured on a series of questions (the section headings) to emphasize the exploratory nature of the content and its provisional character.

The Personal/political?

The philosopher Evan Thomson has  formulated an understanding of emptiness based not on Buddhist sources, but on the findings of cognitive science and biology.

[...]Cognitive science speaks of the ways in which the processes that bring about our experiences of the world, including our sense of self are dynamical, distributed across space and time and extend across the complex couplings of the brain, the rest of the body and the environment. Although it may seem as if there is a single abiding self that functions as the controller of the mind, cognitive science indicates that what we call the mind is a collection of constantly changing emergent processes that arise within a complex system comprising the brain, the rest of the body and the psychical and social environment, and in which we find no single abiding and controlling self…….Thomson, Evan, Talk given at the Buddhism, Mind and Cognitive Science Conference, Berkley.

It may be that the emphasis on the non– substantial and impermanent nature of the self owes much to Buddhism, in the  way in which he frames the question. Nevertheless we can confirm such a statement independently of the circular reasoning of Buddhist philosophy. Should we want to make use of it, such an understanding is available to us. It can function as a basis for an overtly secular and immanent spirituality, enriched by the insights of ecological and environmental thought, and by developments in contemporary philosophy.

Such a discourse is possible , for me at least, only by a decimation that reduces the terms of any particular discourse to what Laruelle calls a determination in the last instance, a first name that does not presume to capture the real, but functions as a clone of the real. For now, probably on an incomplete understanding of Laruelle’s thought, I think of such decimated terms as provisional signifiers, or orientating conceptual markers. I hope it becomes clear as you read this post what Laruelle means by a first name or in the last instance. Part of the intention is to deflate the terms of any discourse and allow them to speak of the real minus the absolute. Such a process allows a form of work on existing discourses, work that tries to extract the transcendent presumptions of philosophy.

We can distinguish first names from the postulates of philosophical systems by their axiomatic function. An axiom is any statement that serves as a starting point from which other statements are logically derived. Axioms cannot be arrived at by deduction. Axiomatic terms have no logical precedents; they follow from no other terms simply because they are starting points. Laruelle, for this reason, speaks of non-philosophical terms as determinations in the last instance. Philosophical postulates, in contrast, are the result of a series of logical precedents brought together as philosophical theorems—a series of related postulates that say something conclusive, in absolute terms, about the real.

No doubt non-buddhism, on this account, could be charged with a form of relativism, or even eclecticism. Such eclecticism, if that’s what it is, appeals to me as a corrective to x-buddhist sufficiency, a temptation to which any ex x-buddhist might be prone, myself included. Philosophical sufficiency and its ideological counterpart, or should I say bastard child, is not easily abandoned. Glen Wallis adds to the non-philosophical analysis an affective dimension, a concept that invites much thought about the relation between emotion and absolutist ideas. Psychiatry, psychology and cognitive science likewise. But we don’t need science to tell us so. Simply look at your own mind and behaviour. At this level, at any rate, this injunction, which of course is not exclusive to Buddhism, seems to work well outside of x–buddhist systematization. Human beings have done something similar for as long as civilization has existed and probably before.

At any rate, for anyone involved with x-buddhist thought and practice, there is often a residue of the nostalgic, and it is not only in jest that Glenn Wallis described x–buddhist “vibrato” as a siren song (I can’t remember where). Much the same might be said for Marxism or any other “ism”, an especially important point for those who would advocate an activist politics.

The term “activist politics” though, might be misleading. Where does the social  end and the personal  begin?  Past attempts by authoritarian systems to collapse the personal into the social on a theoretical and a practical level, have been disastrous. I am thinking of the attempts by the Stalinist and the Maoist regimes to politicize ordinary life. It led to a dictatorship of politics, claustrophobic conformity, ideological indoctrination, and an expanded state apparatus. On the other hand there is no doubt that the social is thoroughly integrated into the personal, in the sense that, even your most private thoughts are in some way conditioned on the social. That being said, they are private, and no state, for ideological reasons, has yet developed methods of inner surveillance and control. Give them time, though! We should remember that, in one way , the state already has access to our minds. We introject, from birth, the norms by which we live. The structure of the family is a microcosm of the social, complete with an authority figure, the Father, and a division of labor, power and wealth. This is true even with the demise of the patriarchal family structure and its replacement by a more diffuse and flexible structure in which roles are less strictly defined. Isn’t such a change continuous with changes in the social realm?

One could say, on this account, that the personal is a particular manifestation of the social. But the formula, could be turned around-the social is one particular manifestation of the personal. Various forms of philosophical Idealism take this position and try  to honor our autonomy, our individuality, our personal freedom and our capacity for free thought and independent action. Marx, in his thesis on Feuerbach, tries to restore to the materialist position a sense of the active, conditioning nature of subjectivity over and against a crude form of reduction to the material, either as biological process or economic base. Quite early on he grappled with the problem of how to avoid a mechanical application of Hegel’s idea of a unity of opposites to the social sphere without producing an “iron law” of history. Subsequent developments in Marxist theory confirmed his early intuition that crude forms of a reduction to the material were as great a misunderstanding of the nature of the human as its idealist counterpart.

At a philosophical level, this question of the social and the personal is one version of the ubiquitous unity of oppositions — self and its conditioning factors, form and emptiness, the material and the idea, the individual and the social, good and evil —- a survey will confirm that such a structure of opposites in unity operates across the range of categories of human experience, as defined by philosophy. By default, in other words, oppositions and their synthesis is the stuff of philosophy–what Laruelle calls the transcendental material of philosophy on which non-philosophy works. For me, as will soon be clear, this dichotomy, on any level, cannot be resolved by philosophy without producing the decisional structure and by implication, some form of absolutist claim on the real. For non-philosophy such dichotomies can only be solved axiomatically.

The term immanence is a first name for the state which precedes such bifurcation in thought, and from which thought , as an instance of the real, is already and always immune. In practice, life dissolves the opposition between the personal and the social. We already live beyond and before such terms as freedom and necessity, the individual and the social. Immanence, extracted from such bifurcation, is philosophically incomprehensible, since philosophy just is the production of such dyads and their synthesis consequent on a transcendental move; or double move, since the transcendental just is thought as the subject /object dichotomy. And thought is de facto auto self-alienating by virtue of being transcendental– to think just is to bring into being the subject and its object, and this is the originating mediation of the real. We are unavoidably alienated, in this sense, as thinking beings.

The Real is the only certainty of ourselves we necessarily experience as such, and that experience of certainty is made of “the sheer lived” we all are in the last instance. Thus, I am referring to the notion of certainty in its sense of immanence – of the inalienable, inalterable, inexorable “being there,” of the lived each “human-in-human” is in the last instance. This utter experience, this absolute Lived is overwhelming. It is invasive since it is an elemental force, or rather it is pure force. Therefore, it is necessarily mediated, and mediation is by definition aworking of the transcendental (i.e., of signification or of Language). For the mediation to take place the human-in-human must execute the auto-alienating gesture of instituting the “Stranger” which will re-present and mediate the suffocating Real one is in the last instance. One is necessarily alienated.   Kolazova: Figure of the Stranger.   

To recognize this is to put a break on philosophical capture before thought proliferates as postulate — as systematized thought. What, in essence , is philosophy if not this elevation of the ordinary transcendental of thought to the level of a presupposition?–that philosophical thought and its object are, according to philosophy,  identical through difference. Philosophy presupposes an identity between thought and the real, as object of philosophical thought. This is true even when Philosophy defines the object as unknowable, as in much of x-buddhist thought. When philosophy defines the object of thought as unknowable it does so on its own terms as a form of negative adequation. But you need to pause here and try to think a further thought– that this thinking into being of the subject /object dichotomy which is thought, is already and always an instance of the real, of lived experience, of the human of flesh and blood —–of thoughts as thought of a thinking living being, as , in its own right, an instance of lived experience.

 If thought is by definition, the thought of an object, than thought cannot jump over itself , as it were ; it cannot escape its own limitation. Since there is no thought that is not the thought of things constituted as thought, thought can never arrive at the pristine un-thought real. This limitation is, of course, only a problem for philosophy. It is in fact the Raison d’être of philosophy.

The originating term of non-philosophy, its thought in the last instance , is that thought is nothing other than an instance of the real. This thought —- of the  co-relation of thought and the real —- is an axiomatic term that allows work on philosophy.The axiomatic term for this  unthinkable real is the One as lived finite experience or immanence. Immanence allows for no interior or exterior, no thought and its object, and no correlation of thought and the real. There is no thought about the One, since no thinker exists apart from the One. Such a thinker is always already in One. Since nothing is separate from it, the One is beyond both separation and union. As an axiomatic first name finite lived experience, or the human in the human, defies philosophical categorization. For philosophy such a term literally fails to make sense.

In order to think the new subject as the practice of this axiomatic thought, Laruelle names philosophical systematization — the proliferation of thought as transcendental-material — as World .This world just is  the system of symbolic representations, its laws, its proscriptions on thought and behaviour, its rules and regulations, morals, ethics, taboos, its mundane and super mundane truths, its procedures, scripts, discourses and meanings,  into which we are interpellated at birth. Laurelle names the world as co-extensive with  philosophy. Within this world the non-philosophical subject will necessarily appear as the stranger, that alien thought which is a clone of the real, a last instance or first name, who’s orientation away from the world and towards the actual or immanent state of the world as the lived of the finite human, will seem to the world, and to philosophy, as heresy, as heretical thought,

The Real Situation?

In ideology, or more  precisely, in the social practice that is ideology, the biology of the brain, the instinctive drives, and the symbolic system come together. If social conditions are ripe,  an explosive mix ensues. This is the nexus within which meditative practice might have a role for a subject intent on precipitating radical change. We can, of course, in x-buddhist fashion, become aware of the relation between idea and affect, discursive thought and negativity, habitual thinking and reactivity, within the domain of “personal life,” ( and that would be a good start) but, for our purposes, this is far too limited an approach.

Absolutist ideologies wedded to forms of visceral hatred are not only recent phenomenon, rooted in the imperial conquest of the Arab states and Persia and the resulting conflict—I refer to  fundamentalist Islāmic ideologies who’s excesses are daily news. We, in Europe and America, should not indulge in the luxury of a short memory. We have our own history of excess, our own home-grown ideologies, religious and secular, of the right and left; a history of violence, conquest, war, repression and genocide on a scale against which the grotesque actions of Islāmic fundamentalists pale. Fascism and Stalinism are the most obvious examples. If we want a radical subject, we need to hold this question of violence at the forefront of awareness. One has only to look at the ongoing conflict in Syria to see how an attempt at social change (in its first stage peaceful) can degenerate very quickly into horrendous butchery, when confronted by an intransigent dictatorship and deeply rooted structures of inequality of wealth and power. Throw into the mix entrenched ideologies for and against change and you have the conditions for violence on a grand scale.

This question of the relation between idea and affect, ideology and excess, means and ends, is not only an ethical question. Rather we need to place the ethical  within the tripartite context of idea/affect/behavior, or, in collective terms, ideology/biological drives/collective action. I speak here of the problem of revolutionary violence and not of the violence of the establishment, which has proved time and again its willingness to go to genocidal lengths to keep its power and privilege, and which seems incapable of a reasonable response to a sustained challenge. For radicals this is an old question, of course, and there have been many attempts to forge a revolutionary ethic in the context of an intransigent establishment intent on ruthless repression. This is a complex question and there is no space here to give it the attention it deserves. I simply want to pose this question–have the decimated terms and practices of Buddhism anything to offer us?

In this context, anyone who envisages a radical shift in power needs to take into account the change in the nature of urban warfare brought about by the ready supply of new and highly destructive weaponry, which even a child (literally) can learn to use in a day. This fact alone probably precludes the sort of putsch, supported by mass action, that seemed possible in the past (the Bolshevik revolution being the most well-known instance) Short of a miracle no such radical social event will now unfold as a quasi-peaceful triumph of the popular will, and, in the process, leave a city standing. This is especially true in the United States, with its entrenched divisions of wealth and privilege, its military industrial complex, it’s already ubiquitous security apparatus, it’s proliferation of weaponry, its regionalism, and its disparate mix of races and culture. Are the prospects for a peaceful transition to a new dispensation any less likely in Europe? I think not.

What, in this context, are the qualities a radical subject would need to negotiate such an environment, in times of upheaval and change? I take it, of course, that a commitment to radical change is a real commitment to change in the real world (the one we actually inhabit) and not an allegiance to a fantasy of change in which good will inevitably triumphs and entrenched interests of power and privilege will either magically melt away or be somehow transformed into their opposite by the persuasive power of an enlightened discourse. Nothing of that sort will ever happen, or ever has! What, in other words, does it mean to be a radical activist intent of real change in this world as we find it? More importantly what does it mean for you and me, with our undeniable capacity for anger, aggression and irrationality, enabled by biological evolution and our collective perchance for crude forms of ideological absolutism wedded to visceral hatred?

We think ourselves immune! And yet, if we examine our minds and behaviour in situations of conflict, we might have pause for thought. This might be difficult, admittedly, especially if I am white, professional, middle-class, an academic, or just plain wealthy and used to wielding social power in a situation where my behavior remains uncontested by my fellow human beings. I could give up my wealth and power, of course, if only temporarily, and radicalize my ideas and practice; I could seek situations where I confront injustice and poverty. Not any imaginary sort of poverty, but the real sort that brutalities human beings and turns them into drug users, child abusers, potentially irrational and violent adversaries and resentful ingratiates; the sort of hopeless case I might want to “gate” out, and save my children from. I could test myself in these situations and see how I fare; what intensities of hatred and resentment I might resuscitate; what capacities for care, restraint, and courage I might discover.

Returning to the question of the personal and the political, and conceiving of what might be called a micro-politics of attention, I could regard the personal and the political as a dialectical tension I must constantly negotiate in the context of familial, work and communal relations. I could examine my everyday interactions and monitor the level of my sense of powerlessness, impotence, anger, resentment, indifference and confusion. I could examine the behavior of others and extrapolate from my own experience to envision what is happening on the inside of the contemptuous, angry or indifferent human being who happens to intrude on my habitual propensity to narrow the field of my attention. From there it only requires a little imagination to envision what might happen as social tensions increase consequent on a deterioration in the economy, the political situation, security, etc caused by a massive shock to the global economy. In all likelihood such a shock will not be long in coming.

If, of course, you do not believe the situation is grave, all of this will seem like the boy crying wolf. In that case I predict a rude awakening for you. If you think I am being over dramatic do some research into the preparations already underway for such a scenario by the powers that be, especially in the light of the massive disruption which will result from a combination of climate change, depletion of resources, new aggressively capitalistic economies such as India and china and the challenge they pose to Europe and the United States in the context of decreasing supplies of raw materials, shrinking markets, and massively volatile population movements on a global scale. On any account we are moving rapidly into a period of change, a cyclic process that is not unprecedented, either in terms of our social history ( civilizations have fallen) or our long evolutionary history (we have already endured cataclysmic climate change as a species)

How, then, can we avoid the allure of absolutist ideas wedded to instinctive aggressive drives confronted with social breakdown, insecurity and popular unrest? Or, on a more modes scale, how can we negotiate the day-to-day tensions, stresses and ordinary suffering of the human animal, conditioned on biology— aggressive habitual responses of anger, territoriality, and withdrawal,— coupled with discourses conditioned on socio/economic structures and processes which mask violence, inequality, and exclusion. Can “spiritual” methodologies and especially meditation, have anything to offer here? You might be able to see that even the suggestion that we should consider this seems a pathetically weak response to the situation I have described. That might show the desperate nature of our predicament as a species, or it may simply be the response of someone who has not realized the power of an idea wedded to a determined cultivation of restraint, patience, determination and practicality–the qualities always and already displayed by the truly radical, who are at work even as we speak, ignored, of course, by the media and not therefore registered as such in our collective awareness.

I don’t have any answers to this question, only an insistent awareness that we could ask the question in a way that allows for practices, individual and social, that might  function as an effective break on habitual responses in situations of conflict. This is urgent given that it is one of the aims of any radical programme that it seeks to confront and unmask the lie of a false security and a bogus social peace; a veneer that masks massive structural violence, injustice and calculated repression. We want, in other words, to let the genie out of the bottle, but are we ready for the consequences of such a move? Can we handle the appearance within our midst of such an power-event and stay cool, collected, energized, rational and effective?

 When we concider the alternatives  in the context of Laruelle’s non-philosophy, an opportunity arises to build a discourse and practice in which we avoid the dangers of dogmatism, decisional thinking and relativism. We have access to almost inexhaustible resources. Haven’t we enough raw material at out disposal? The outline of such a discourse has already been sketched in a negative form. I mean the work already done on the decisional nature of x-buddhist thought, its ideological co-option and the critical underpinnings of any thought that would try to construct a discourse based on a new non-buddhist template. The work we need to do is, in one sense , a matter of putting form to the framework already established. What I think we need is to try to fill in some of the gaps, or to join the points together into some sort of coherent pattern, loose enough to allow reorientation, second thoughts or unforeseen avenues of exploration, but structured in such a way that the outline of an alternative to the out worn and, for me at least, discredited discourses of much contemporary x-.buddhism, becomes visible.

A New Subject

When a mediator sits down to meditate he sits with preconceived notions of what it means to meditate. These notions are part of a complex discourse that not only provides a method but also describes a particular subject-one who will traverse the path of meditation and in the process acquire laudable attributes, or character traits, such as wisdom, equanimity, compassion, while freeing himself from the corresponding negative traits —– ignorance, habitual reactivity, hatred . The central liberative notion concerns emptiness —–  the dependent origination of all phenomenon and the absence of an abiding, permanent, or substantial self or essence. It is not, of course, the “mere”idea of emptiness that is important for x-buddhists, but the realization of emptiness through the practice of meditation.

We should not forget, though, that the practice of meditation is always presented as one element in a structured path, most explicitly described, perhaps, in the lam-rim teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, although all traditions have similar prolonged programmes of study, ethical cultivation and meditative practice. Apart from its role as the quintessential Buddhist statement on the ontological, the idea of emptiness plays a structuring role within these teachings. It presents realization as the ultimate fruit of the path. The notion of emptiness, whether in the concise formulation of the Heart Sutra, or the  complex formulations of the classical Buddhist philosophers, functions teleologicly by ensuring the forward momentum of the path traversed by the practitioner over long years of dedicated effort, while subverting that very process in its commitment to a radical non-substantialist ontology, a corrosive that dissolves the structure while, paradoxically ensuring its survival.

The idea of realization is closely bound up with meditation, and despite contemporary x-buddhist insistence to the contrary, realization is a conceptual formulation which meditative practice confirms.  Such confirmation is articulated in the form of language, and this is true of what we think of as the practice lineages of Zen, dzogchen and Mahamudra. Indeed, we can understand meditation as the re-enactment of the doings of a mythical founder and not the empirical investigation of an objectively existing experiential reality via introspection. At any rate we could be skeptical of the overblown claims about realization, and the elevation the attributes of the realized master to which most modern x-buddhist subscribe.

Having said that I do think it is possible to reduce reactivity and suffering by disciplined practice of one or more of the meditative methodologies available to us. What seems important is to integrate this with a discursive understanding enriched by the findings of the exact sciences,the human sciences, and by the insights of contemporary philosophy. As pointed out earlier we could see meditation in the context of the decisional structure revealed by non-buddhist analysis and trace the emergence of a particular x-buddhist subject; and we could place this subject within its social and economic context and, in the spirit of Althusser’s concept of interpellation, show how such a subject is unavoidably co-opted to serve the interests of late capitalism; how such a subject just is the late capitalist subject par excellence.

We can follow-up by asking the question: what would a new discourse look like and what sort of subject would this new discourse produce? Lets call this subject, for easy reference, the non-buddhist subject, with the proviso that, as Laruelle tirelessly points out, any naming of a subject is possible only as a determination in the last instance, a first name that implies no absolute capture of the human, but is a way of speaking of lived human experience in ways that avoid the presumption of philosophy and its decisional structure. What then would this non-buddhist subject look like? What discourse would it articulate and what would its practices be on a personal and social level?

X-buddhists answer the question of the relation of form and emptiness by reference to an epistemological possibility other than the practice of rigorous thought–that by virtue of meditative practice the Buddhist practitioner comes to realize, in a direct way, knowledge of reality;  this knowledge is, of itself, liberative; it frees us from the habitual reification of a separate and abiding self, and, in consequence, from suffering.

This, as we have come to see via the non-buddhist analysis, is a chicken and egg situation in which the supremely ocular Dharma, by a transcending move, is able to confirm that the nature of reality as described by the Dharmic dispensation. In other words the self just is empty by virtue of an insight into its own nature via its own epistemological resources; chiefly its perfection of meditative introspection. We are left, in other words, in a state in which, as paradoxical creatures, we manage to exist and not exist at the same time; we manifest the absolute by means of our finite, conditioned, relative state. When we ask x-buddhist what on earth all of this could mean and how we, as rational beings, might resolve such a conundrum, they advise us that we need to apply ourselves to meditation so that the paradox might resolve itself, or rather dissolve itself—no mind no problem, as Zennists are so fond of quipping. Meanwhile, of course, our existential condition as finite beings doomed to extinction and caught is causally conditioned cycles of psychical, mental, and social suffering remains unaffected by this change of mind, although , of course, x-buddhists will protest that such a trick of words makes a world of difference. In this they expose themselves as philosophical idealists, whether they have the wit to know it or not.

As touched on earlier we need a radical non-philosophical procedure that frees us from the constraints of a thinking caught in bifurcation, oppositions and unities, cleaving the One of immanent lived experience into subjects, objects, processes, and forces — in short, into the myriad oppositions in unity which are the endless iterations of philosophy, to which the lived human must conform. As for meditation we might forego it delivering anything but the most mundane truths —– the only truths that are useful. This abandonment is the practical consequence of our exchange of absolute Dharmic Truth for truths arrived at by inference from experiential and empirical investigation.

Freed from its capture by x-buddhist philosophy, can meditative practice deliver benefits? Lets take it for granted that the concept of emptiness/interdependence, as understood by and extracted from the sciences will function as the discursive context within which any practice of meditation takes place. What would such a practice deliver to a subject intent on some form of radical or revolutionary social action? And lets confine ourselves to mindfulness for now, and ignore the many other useful traditions and methods.

We will need a working definition of mindfulness that avoids the limitations imposed on it by the mindfulness industry, therapeutic applications, and x-buddhist philosophies of capture, circularity, and decision. Richard K Payne describes mindfulness by paraphrasing of the work of Georges Dreyfus, but for our own discussion I will paraphrase Kayne. Refer to the originals for clarification. (link below)

Turning to descriptions of the mental process of attention found in the abhidharma literature, Dreyfus identifies the stages of attention as: orienting (manasikāra), which turns attention toward an object, mindfulness, which “retains the object and keeps the mind from losing the object” concentration (samādhi), which is “the ability of the mind to remain focused and unified on its object” He describes mindfulness and concentration as complementary parts of the process of attention. Concentration stabilizes the mind by constricting it to a particular object, while mindfulness is expansive, allowing one to be aware of the qualities of the mental process (caitasika) as distinct from the object of attention. He goes on to describe two structuring aspects; the cognitive ability to retain an object, either in present attention or in memory. He refers to this as “mindfulness proper,” to distinguish it from the evaluative function that is also part of mindfulness in Buddhist thought. This latter evaluative dimension of mindfulness, which Dreyfus refers to as “wise mindfulness” involves distinguishing between “wholesome and unwholesome mental states”. Richard K Payne (link below)

A New Practice of Mindfulness?

Richard Kayne Makes the crucial point that this method is embedded within a classical Buddhist discourse in which the goal is liberation. Note that the goal is clearly defined and accessible via language; the practitioner achieves it by seeing into the impermanent, non-abiding and insubstantial nature of the self.  Needless to say we will use this template minus the accretions of history and decimated of its transcendent element. In this context mindfulness extends an already existing potential of ordinary human beings. Such forms of artful living come naturally to some; others might need to assiduously cultivate it  as a conscious practice.Note that the distinction between the cognitive ability to retain an object in the present or as a memory of the object and the evalutive function, grounds the mindful method alternatively in neuro/biological processes —- conditioning the cognitive structure— and in social/symbolic processes —-conditioning the norms by which we evaluate any particular experience, thought, or impulse as “wholesome” or “unwholesome”

A good working marker-concept for mindfulness as a general cartography is provides by Glenn Wallis:

Sati (present moment awareness, mindfulness) Ancestral anamnesis The truth of the non-correlational memorial sacrifice.[...] it is the lived corollary to the liturgical reminiscence of the Christian believers, who make sacrificial memory of God’s salvic deeds. As such it is the recognition in thought of the horizon which enables thought. This horizon appears as consciousness of our irreversible concurrence with the natural world. Natural science employs ancestral statements to illuminate this horizon, thus catalyzing our recognition.[...] This horizon-this consciousness-catalyzes a searing, living memory of our ancestral-dependent scope. It establishes a line of horizon thats sacrifices all our consoling notions of the earth and cosmos as “home”. How much more so does it obliterate fantasies of an unscathed exit, such as heaven or rebirth. The non-buddhist evacuation of spiritualized x-.buddhist values from sati renders the fethishized “present”hollow. More seriously, it renders infinitesimally puny the ostensible cognitive fizzle known as “enlightenment”. Ancestral anamnesis, like decimated sati, indeed means: remember, remember.            Wallis: Cruel/Theory Sublime/Practice, pg 146/147

Here science functions, over and above its practical usefulness, as a context for the practice of remembering. It replaces the concept of a sacred cosmos, whose articulation contextualize Buddhist practice and gives it overall meaning. In place of the sacred, a decimated sati offers a vision of the natural cosmos which is no longer human centred but nevertheless sustains us, for now at least. We remember cosmos as ancestral origin; as impersonal process; as a magnitude exceeding any possibility of capture. Against this horizon any illusions of salvic care or transcendent belonging fall away. Such a vision forces us to confront our existential situation as animal— evolved biological organism—and as socialized human with no absolute right to survival or well-being. We have in the end only our ingenuity, our capacity to adapt, and our  collective resources to rely upon. To remember this is to remember out true situation against its broadest horizon; and this is necessary to free us from our illusion of a transcendent salvic possibility and to concentrate our minds so that we can come, literally, to our senses, and confront the historical moment in which we find ourselves. On any account this moment is one of immediate crisis, and one caused not by our biological propensities to aggression and avarice, but by our failure to build social structures that enable co-operation, equality and solidarity, thus sublimating biological drives and putting the energy to work for collective well-being.

How could we begin to integrate a practice of mindfulness into an activist politics? Matthias Steingass makes an important point about the society of control, in which human capacity of attention becomes the object of appropriation

I am not concerned here with promoted products—with the ads and fads washed around in this hotchpotch. Rather, I am interested in the values which are transmitted to us through this multiple media frenzy. That the definition of beauty for example is inscribed into the consumer via this steady infusion is a more obvious case; but what about more subtle messages concerning, for example, moral values, what to expect from life, what goals to accomplish and how to reach them, notions of fairness in interacting with my partner, neighbours, colleagues, competitors or even with somebody hostile and hateful? Another question: how does this steady stream of media input influence our consciousness on even more basic levels? Does it do so; and, if it does, how does it alter our capacity for deep thinking, how does it affect attention span, and what is its influence on the synaptogenetic level (neuronal development in childhood)—on a child not even two or three years old, exposed to this never sleeping, maniacally colorful maelstrom, moving, shifting, whispering, magically conjuring I-want-everything-and-I-want-it-now? If you’ve ever seen a child in front of a TV, you know how completely attention can get hooked…. Steingass, Matthias: Meditation and Control.

He goes on to ask if meditation might be a way of short circuiting this process of appropriating the attention and thus hooking one’s desire and channeling it to particular ends. This is obviously an important question for anyone interested in social practices that challenge existing power relations, and relations of economy and exchange. Before we can open to new ideas and new social practices, we must find ways of unhooking ourselves from distracting and dehumanizing attention traps. This then could be our first practical goal.

This, though, goes deeper than the everyday act of turning of the television or the computer and turning from the virtual to the real. If we return for a moment to the tripartite relation between idea, affect and behaviour we will see that this relation can deliver positive as well as negative outcomes. There is potential here, since any discourse which addresses all three might deliver an antidote to the habitual cycles of negativity and distraction which bedevils our personal and collective life. This, of course, just is the claim that x-buddhism makes. Given this claim, what are the prospects that a decimated form of the mindfulness practice we have described could supplement the work of formulating an ethics,  making it more likely that habitual negativity will not overcome our commitment to living out our ethical  vision ? Can mindfulness, in other words, become an activist tool —- a way of short circuiting instinctive reactivity and replacing it with more effective and humane responses?

As touched on above, one way of describing such practice is as a form of micro politics of attention–a term that tries to describe the way individual practice dovetails with the macro-political situation, requiring that the same cognitive/practice framework be applied at the two levels, while honouring the dialectic between them. Such a practice of politics at the individual level would involve study —– the cognitive level, mindfulness — the  practice level and political activism — the integration of personal study and practice with the macro political situation, probably in the context of some sort of group action, but also involving individual action where that is effective. These, though, are crude categories. They fail to convey experience as a seamless mesh of dynamic forces, gross, subtle, and extremely subtle, which , for the most part, work below awareness, in the ordinary run of things at any rate. Such categories do not do justice to the subtle range of affects which serve to condition experience, from gross instinctive drives, for sex, food, territory, to very subtle dispositions — what could be called subtle affective inclinations or potentials for action, and corresponding subtle states of openness and vulnerability, of being acted upon by the environment, natural and social, and by the movements of our own mental continuum.

Such a practice might enable us to integrate the personal/political through a radical change of lifestyle; a decision for a way of living that rejects a dominating culture of distraction, accumulation, destructive and unethical work, over emphasis on exchange value relations, consumerism, wasteful or ecologically unsound behaviour, exploitative social relations, and the abuse of other animal species. Were this to include a form of communal living, a transition could be made to a more overt mergence of the personal and the political, that avoids a collapse of one in to the other. Isn’t this in one way a return to the sort of community we once enjoyed, but leaving behind many of its disadvantages–its authoritarianism, inequality, and narrow-mindedness? Who would choose the idea of the nuclear family as a personal or social ideal? and if we haven’t chosen it, why do we live it?

We have returned to the relation between the personal and the social —- of course we never really left it —- this relation, in theory and as lived practice, infuses our every word and deed. We just are the personal/social. Indeed , if we go back to where we began —- to Evan Thomson’s explication of the idea of emptiness conditioned on the findings of science — we will see that to describe the emptiness of the self is to describe the factors that give rise to the self and their relation. There is no need to elevate this particular way of seeing the human, to the level of a philosophical postulate. Suffice to say that such a way of looking at the social and the personal, the self and its conditioning factors, emptiness and form, is but one way of describing our common evolutionary inheritance as evolved organisms and our human history as socialized individuals. My contention is that mindfulness as a decimated term and an axiomatic first nameas Sati (present moment awareness, mindfulness) Ancestral anamnesis:The truth of the non-correlational memorial sacrifice -– offers us a politics of ordinary life; a micro politics of the everyday; To be mindful is to practice the art of remembering in the context of the lived of human experience. It is the practice of  politics that honers our unique irreplaceable individuality. We can consciously live such an immanent thought as the practice of the everyday, which tries in creative ways to discover the truth(s) of experience while avoiding the pitfall of elevating such truths to the status of an absolute presiding over the human as a form of harassment.

References and links.

 Thompson, Evan : Buddhism and Cognitive Science: How Can the Dialogue Move Forward  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqWYeE2E07w&list=PLOyuQaVrp4qp76S84r_l4ygZDXkg2ogE9

 Wallis Glenn, Pepper Tom, Steingass Matthias: Cruel Theory/Sublime Practice,Towards a revaluation of Buddhism, Eyecorner Press, 2012

Payne, Richard K :: Mindfulness I.O,  http://rkpayne.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/mindfulness-1-0/

Steingass, Matthias:Meditation and Control, http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2012/01/14/meditation-and-control/#comment-2162

Kolozova, Kateriana, The Figure of the Stranger. A possibility for Transcendental Minimalism or Radical Subjectivity.

Mindfulness 1.0

Originally posted on Richard K. Payne:

In attempting to formulate what I have meant by mindfulness, and its possible benefits, I have like any other dutiful plodding academic—stoop shouldered, threadbare elbows in my imitation Harris tweed coat, staring fitfully and distractedly into some ill-defined middle distance—had recourse to what others have written on the subject. Only to discover that the literature is mind-numbingly bloated.

I have been fortunate enough, however, to come across one very useful, deeply informed and well-modulated essay—Georges Dreyfus, “Is Mindfulness Present-Centred and Non-Judgmental? A Discussion of the Cognitive Dimensions of Mindfulness,” (Contemporary Buddhism 12.1 (May 2011): 41–54). Dreyfus examines the contemporary representations of mindfulness as found in the therapeutic mode, which we may note is much the same as that found in the business administration, and self-help modes. Taking as just one of any number of similar definitions, he quotes the work of S. Bishop, et al. (“Mindfulness: A Proposed Definition,”

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Meditation, Pain and Liberation: Thoughts on a long weekend.


Recently, Matthias and I took part in a long weekend meditation retreat. It was a self organized affair between friends. The nominal leader of the retreat trained in the Zen tradition of Deshimaru and has practiced for over 25 years. We sat for four hours a day in hour-long stints. This was the most intense experience of meditation I have had since I became involved in the non-buddhist project. It was an opportunity to examine the effect on my practice of a year of reading and thinking about contemporary philosophy and non–buddhist thought. Not to mention writing, which I now consider a practice in itself.

Of course many x-buddhists would not consider this a ‘real’ retreat, since it was missing the legitimacy bestowed on such an undertaking by a Guru or his appointed teacher. Lets leave that aside for the present; anyone who has read here will know that we are not worried by such a lack and in fact welcome it. That does not mean, though, that one can get by without the presence of someone with experience. What it does mean is that one can organize such an event outside of x-buddhist practice and produce an experience every bit as useful.

In future posts I hope to explore the relation between meditation and non-buddhist thought, using such weekends as a sort of laboratory experiment. For this post I want to concentrate on one of the consequences of intensive periods of meditation – pain.

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Force of creation; The non-Aesthetic

Phillip Guston

Phillip Guston

The Artist

Popular imagination ascribes a ‘vocational calling’ to the artist, distinguishing him from the run of ordinary mortals, often using terms borrowed from the discourse on religion. This residual of a romantic idea long abandoned by the academy is a mixture of ideas about internal essences, creativity and self-realization, extracted from the human potential movement, new age pseudo-spiritual discourses, or popular psychology. The metaphor of the ‘call’ rising from the depths of the mind accompanies a host of equally overused metaphors alluding to inner journeys, searches for meaning, and creative/spiritual explorations. The artist is named as one who searches within to find inspiration on the basis that somewhere in the ‘depths’ of his mind there are inexhaustible resources of the imagination, unique to him and yet of universal significance; fuel for artistic burning, energy for transforming mundane material into the gold of high art; an alchemy of the imagination — making something, (high art, spiritual realization, wisdom) out of nothing, (that mysterious thing we call the mind) – the artist as shaman endowed with a vital power exercised on behalf of the collective.

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The non-Buddhist Reader

There’s a new development connected with the non-buddhist Project, compliments of our friends at the forum. Here’s John on the thinking behind it:

This will be a place for material related to the non-Buddhist project. At the moment, I’m planning on posting old pieces from the various blogs and articles from thinkers who have inspired them, and it may branch out to interviews, art, and original content. Contributions are welcome

It’s called  Non-x Reader.


The Affective Aspect of Decision

Disruption. X-buddhism’s network of postulation is a power grid pumping buddhistic charism through the lines of venerable transmission [see video title below]. Steadied by its rhetorics of self-display, the network extends to sangha sub-stations and into the affective-cognitive-decisional apparatus of the individual x-buddhist person. Speculative non-buddhist heuristics enable an interruption of the power surge in order to inspect its machinery and analyze its juice. (1)

Following on from the discussion at Der Un-Buddhist and here about What is non-buddhism? this post offers an example of one aspect of the decisional structure in action – namely affect (German version of the text at Der Unbuddhist). Please pay particular attention to the first five minutes of the video below, which is a good example of what exactly the affective aspect of x-buddhist decision looks like in person. The five minute long introduction is the prelude to a propaganda movie which weaves together a string of eulogies for a saint. A person disposed to reach out for spiritual help is seduced here via emotional framing into expectations which will lead her to judge the acts and statements of  the x-buddhist thaumaturge in specific ways. The thaumaturge himself – the Dane Ole Nydahl – does not perform in the film. This is an example of skillfull means, Upaya as x-buddhists call it: emptiness – this empty space – is filled with a fantastic narrative about Nydahl, invoking his god-like nature – which in turn seduces the aspirant into an ever more intense desire to really meet the thaumaturge in person.

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What is non-buddhism?

This post is a short introduction to non-buddhism. It covers the basics for anyone who is not familiar with non-buddhism and is meant to introduce the main points and act as a encouragement to further reading and research. We hope to write further short texts on particular points including decision, minimal transcendence, non-buddhism and meditation, the historical Buddha, ideological interpellation, and the connection between non-buddhism and critique off capitalism. These texts will be available to the newcomer as a separate category accessible from the top bar. You can find a German version of this text on Der Unbuddhist.


Non-Buddhism originates in  the work of Glenn Wallis, an American academic with a PhD in Buddhist studies from Harvard. Disillusioned with the direction American Buddhism was taking – its lack of engagement with contemporary thought, and its political quietism – he founded the  blog Speculative Non-Buddhism, as a platform for a new critique of Buddhist discourse and practice. The blog ran from May 2011 to March 2014. Over that period one hundred posts were published and over 5000 comments made.  A considerable number of essays were also published in non+x, an e-journal (1) that accompanied the blog as a site for longer and more in-dept exploratory texts. Among his collaborators  were Tom Pepper and Matthias Steingass,  both of whom contributed essays and took part in the often heated debates that almost always followed a post. All three co-authored the book Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice,  published in 2013 by EyeCorner Press.

The blog was renowned for its long comment threads, (many of the comments are substantive statements in their own right) and its polemical tone. Although no longer in operative mode, it is still accessible online, and is the single most comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the non-buddhist project.

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