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.
To suffer or not to suffer
During the weekend I experienced very sore knees. This was a result of the long sits, their frequency over the day, and my lack of practice in recent times. Usually, I sit for 40 minutes (and not every day by any means) and break the sit into two intense sessions of ten minutes, followed by a short stretching exercise. I learned this way of sitting from the Dzogchen tradition. It contrasts with the more “macho” practice of Zen, which regards sore knees as just another object to include in one’s meditation practice. Once the posture is correct, sore knees are not anything to worry about or to avoid. Dzogchen, on the other hand, recommends, at least for the average practitioner, that he/she avoid any excessive discomfort or pain, on the understanding that meditation is primarily concerned with calming the mind (shiné) and inducing an open and expansive state.(lagtong) While we got some instruction in Zen practice from our (nominal) leader I ignored it and practiced shiné in the Dzogchen tradition, but without the usual breaks. My discomfort was a great distraction which I could cope with only by regarding it as an object of mediation and trying to look at it in an accepting mode. By the end of each session I was experiencing intense pain .
Allowing oneself to experience such pain in the controlled environment of a meditation retreat is of value but, for me at least, the Dzogchen approach is a more acceptable and meaningful way of practicing, . This would not exclude, though, the odd session devoted to the mindful experience of pain, since the equanimity this develops is a valuable character trait and one we could cultivate.
During my meditation one of the recurring thoughts was about pain and the common x-buddhist reaction to it. Such thoughts are, of course, a distraction when meditating, since the goal of shiné practice is the wholehearted concentration on the breath. That is to say, when practicing shiné one should practice shiné and not anything else. Which includes not allowing thoughts to proliferate, especially if strong aversion is present. I certainly experienced aversion and the distracting feeling that I should do something about the pain. For many a session I ended up ruminating on the uselessness of avoidable suffering and the stupidity of not taking action to decrease it for oneself and others. In other words my experience put into perspective one of the recurring themes of the non-buddhist critique of x-buddhism, namely it’s quietism.
This in turn highlights one of the concerns of non-buddhism, namely the practice of rigorous thought, either as one’s primary practice or as an important adjunct to meditative practice. This is in sharp contrast to the downgrading of thought and the fetishization of the state of no-thought that permeates most of x-buddhist practice
Mindfulness and thought
This whole question, however, needs clarification. Firstly there is a difference between rigorous thought of the philosophical kind, and the discursive thought I described when I experienced knee pain during meditation. It was obsessive and accompanied by strong feeling. Such thoughts are almost always debilitating and increase suffering by increasing stress, which in turn increases the intensity of the pain – a vicious circle and one those suffering from chronic pain know all about.
In this regard the non-buddhist critique needs much honing. We need to take into account the difference between the practice of mindfulness and the philosophical and ideological repercussions of elevating mindfulness to the status of a thoughtless state of no-mind immune to conditioning. This introduction of a transcendental element into the discourse on mindfulness is pervasive. Here is a random example:
When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it. That is a stage of Mindfulness. Ordinarily, this stage is very short. It is that flashing split second just as you focus your eyes on the thing, just as you focus your mind on the thing, just before you objectify it, clamp down on it mentally and segregate it from the rest of existence. It takes place just before you start thinking about it – before your mind says, “Oh, it’s a dog.” That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is Mindfulness. In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing. You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it. (1)
The quote equates mindfulness with a state beyond the ordinary, an unconditioned state of unity or wholeness.
Here, in contrast is a description of mindfulness from the Satipatthana Sutta:
Just as if, O bhikkhus, there were a bag having two openings, full of grain differing in kind, namely, hill-paddy, paddy, green-gram, cow-pea, sesamum, rice; and a man with seeing eyes, having loosened it, should reflect thinking thus: ‘This is hill paddy; this is paddy, this is green-gram; this is cow-pea; this is sesamum; this is rice.’ In the same way, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body hemmed in by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up, and from the top of the hair down, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of the stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tears, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.’ (2)
I am not arguing here about the problem of validation – that is about which of the two quotes deliver the original or pure teaching. Both teachings are embedded within a discourse conditioned upon historical factors. The quote from the Satipatthana Suta, however, seems to me to advocate the use of an ordinary human capacity to distinguish between different qualities and does so without implying any transcendental ground. The practitioner of mindfulness or Sati simply exercises his/her capacity to reflect on his subjective experience. Sati does not exclude thinking but is very much dependent upon it. What it does demand is bare attention to the immediate qualities of ones experience in a spirit of (provisional) acceptance
The benefits of this form of mindfulness practice are very obvious, even for the beginner. For someone suffering from chronic pain it offers an escape from the circle of pain, stress, debilitating thought,and more pain, and an increase in empowerment-one’s sense of being able to control one’s response to physical pain, at least to some extent. It also offers a partial escape from the over-prescription of drugs, and their side effects, and the dependency that almost always follows long term use. It is this dependency which keeps chronic pain sufferers locked into an authoritarian medical system structured in favour of professional ‘carers’, bureaucratic administration and corporate drug suppliers. For the most part those who suffer from chronic pain do benefit from the practice of mindfulness and are not necessarily concerned about the political, ideological, or philosophical implications of the practice as presented within the discourse of x-buddhism, and why should they be? They have enough to contend with!
On the one hand there is our ordinary shared human experience, of stress, pain depression etc – in this case a vicious circle of pain, stress, drugs, and bureaucratic/authoritarian medical structures– and the many strategies (including mindfulness) available to the person in this situation; on the other hand x-buddhist philosophical discourses on mindfulness, which uses ordinary experience for transcendental purposes. We can distinguish between the two approaches. X-buddhist mindfulness on the philosophical level is, for the most part, a discourse of the subject as essentially co-existent with a transcendental essence and co-extensive with the universe. At a political level such a discourse operates as just another social structure justifying the status quo by producing a quietist subject less likely to question the medical establishment, since, according to this discourse one need only dispel one’s illusions about the true nature of the ‘real’ to be freed from suffering.
What sort of subject would the form of mindfulness advocated in the Suta quote produce? No doubt the characteristics of such a subject would be conditioned on many factors other than the cultivation of mindfulness, but it does not take much thinking or investigation to see that a capacity to resist habitual or compulsive reactions , often reinforced by a distraction ridden culture, will increase one’s sense of autonomy and ones capacity to resist the blandishments of a materialistic and inhumanly competitive society. Ask yourself what sort of person you would like to go to war with and you have a fair idea of the type of dispositions we should generally cultivate in ourselves. In the Pali Sutas the third factor of enlightenment is vīrānaṃ bhāvo which might translate as one who consistently behaves in a courageous way, imbued with determination, energetic effort, patience and steadfastness. Such a subject, given the necessary social and economic conditions, will make a revolution.
Laruelle’s non-philosophy is adamant that we must make this distinction between human experience and its appropriation by the human sciences, by philosophy, by theology and ideology. Such a distinction is at the heart of its program of critiquing what it calls the “harassment of the human being”. The suffering human has never entered into philosophical capture and the x-buddhist claim to have appropriated the ‘real’, including the nature of the human essence, is a delusion; x-buddhist discourse never references an essential human essence, even one construed as empty, or as the state of interdependence, or no-thought
And this is also true of the non-buddhist critique, which uses its terms not as the capture of the real but as an axiomatic tool allowing a decimation of philosophical capture. X-buddhism and non-buddhism (or any other ism) cannot capture the human essence. Philosophy can, though, produce a deluded discourse structured on a subject/object dichotomy. The ‘real’ essence of the human is excluded from all philosophical capture since such an essence precedes or transcends philosophical discourse. The term Laruelle uses for the real – finite lived experience – has a unilateral relation to the real. It is given by the real as thought but cannot give the real
What the non-buddhist critique offers to the suffering human (for example to the chronic pain suffer) is a double liberation; at the very least a partial liberation from the structures of the medical establishment and its drug induced dependency via methodologies of meditation such as mindfulness; and a liberation from the quietism of x-buddhist discourses on mindfulness, which appropriates an ordinary human capacity (the reflexivity of the mind) for its own transcendental ends.
Why is this second liberation necessary? Well, for one thing, such philosophical capture is itself a form of suffering. It binds the human to a new authoritarian structure in which one must accept a deluded notion of division; a world in which x-buddhism is the arbitrator between reality and delusion, freedom and liberation, happiness and suffering, and with a vicious twist of logic, the healer of the division it brings into being. Within this structure of thought – x-buddhism as the knower of the causes of suffering and the liberator from suffering – the possibility of a subject capable of becoming and agent of social change recedes; and, since social change is a component (if not the condition) of personal liberation, this structure reduces or excludes the possibility of alleviating human suffering.
We are free to use whatever we think we need in our quest for happiness, freedom from suffering, and liberation. Who can deny us? Non-buddhism offers us the opportunity to claim for our own use Buddhism’s meditative methodologies, traditions, rituals, texts, cultural forms etc. in pursuance of human liberation.
During the seventies Timothy Leary ended his famous polemic against the establishment “The Politics of Ecstasy” with a call to the reader to create his own “Politics of Ecstasy”. Shouldn’t we, in such a spirit, dare to make our own Buddhism. Who can deny us? And isn’t that what we humans have always done. Isn’t Buddhism already and always just ordinary human lived experience?
(1) Vispassana Fellowship: http://www.vipassana.com/meditation/mindfulness_in_plain_english_15.php
(2) The Satipatthahttana Suta is available here for download: http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/mahasati.pdfIntro