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.


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:

(2)  The Satipatthahttana Suta is available here for download:


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

  1. Hi Patrick

    Thanks for your report about our weekend.

    When I was researching last October and November for Eido Shimano: Mann ohne Rang (Eido Shimano: Man without Rank) I was thinking about taking part in a sesshin to get a bit of the feeling what a strict zen-praxis does with one. That’s how this meeting developed. I think a weekend is too little to get this impression, although I know a bit more now about (Soto) Zen than before. The attitude I developed over the years in regard to a purely cognitive praxis is very different from what I see in Zen. Posture, for example, is a prerequisite one has to develop. It is about getting the body into the habit of being for prolonged times more or less motionless. It is somehow not so different when we learn as children to sit in a classroom for prolonged times. It is a prerequisite to work mentally. The same goes for breathing. One has to learn to actively get into a relaxed breathing. Lot’s of people don’t breath well. That’s already what we do not learn in a classroom. The point is, both things – posture and breathing – are just preliminaries. But in Zen it seems like a lot of people say nothing about what happens afterwards. That seems to me the main difference right now re what I am used to.

    My opinion is that in such groups one should develop a thinking about what happens afterwards. After one can hold the body in an pain free position for prolonged times and when one begins to work with different kinds of concentration. The attempt to form notions in a group about this third part – concentration – can be another part of such a meeting. The attempt to speak about inner experience in a certain way is a crucial part to form a functioning group. This way I tried to describe in the beginning of the discussion in the SNB project in english texts and to some extend in one German text i wrote. If sitting praxis stays like we had it the weekend it becomes a mystery – exactly that mystery x-buddhism is constantly producing. Talking about it should be the creative act. To achieve that should be one main goal of such meetings.

    Another point is hierarchy. Before our weekend I feared that our Zen leader would be one of those hierarchical types. One of these leader who are just puppets of their own desire to lead (I had enough of this, even in the SNB project, fuck it). But to my great relief it was not so. The guy was utterly un-hierarchical. This is another main point: There are ‘natural’ hierarchies simply because people know different things. One has to find this out in a group. In such a meeting no hierarchy at all based in anything else should be accepted. We have also to accept that a hierarchy changes within a group depending on the task at hand. It is somehow silly that one still has to say this, but the totalitarian threads weaved into x-buddhism makes it necessary to make this clear.

    Another point in this regard is the legitimacy bestowed on such an undertaking by a Guru or his appointed teacher. This legitimacy is utter bullshit. In fact one can make the case that in some buddhist traditions an explicite notion has been developed where real legitimacy about the praxis of concentration comes from. One can make this point with the early Mahamudra as well as with early Dzogchen. Probably one can do that also with Chan/Zen or whatever (but here I have no expertise). One could also look into Indian tantra from roughly the 5th century onward because it was (in part) a move against institutionalized Buddhism. And of course, last but not least, we could look into the notion about the Pratyekabuddha. There is plenty of material one can work with to get rid of the idea that one needs any kind of allowance from institutions to work.

    From my point of view these topics are material one could work on in further meetings. It is basically about forming a group and not so much about sitting praxis. The inner experience which at first happens in a preverbal form becomes the very material in the communication process whereby it already makes a qualitative step into an utterly other world. The communication within the group (not only about inner experience) could become a thinking-along-the-Real.


    P.S. Re the inner experience and the legitimacy bestowed on such an undertaking is a topic which has been thought about also by a lot of our own thinkers. Bataille for example. Nietzsche. Gene Gendlin. Ornette Coleman. Peter Müller. Rimbaud…. who may have been the greatest of all, because he radically stopped preaching the poultry about it when he saw how stupid this was is.

  2. Matthias (#1)

    One has to learn to actively get into a relaxed breathing.

    “Actively” seems to be a key word here, alas in zen settings very often it is immediately frown upon when someone attemts to really actively “get into” deep, relaxed mode of breathing. I mean, you can often be simply rebuked for trying to actively get into breathing by some uptight, formalistic practice leader. I’ve been shushed not once during my many encounters within soto sitting groups for breathing allegedly “too loud.” You know, this whole soto’s ideal of zazen as a ritual enactment of Protagonist’s “satori” can not be soiled by any irritating sound of some poor lad’s heavy breathing. So instead of easing his peristaltic movements (and thus enabling secretion of ample dose of calming opioids in the guts) by a gentle, or sometimes more forced, pressure of lowering diaphragm on his abdomen, the guy tenses up in order to enact the mythical Protagonist thus literally becoming, as says Glenn in the book, “(t)he embodiment of (‘the shape of’), hence the central agent in, the buddhistic thought-world.” (p. 129)

  3. Hi Matthias,
    I don’t know if Sitting practice in the Zen tradition can be described as a preliminary. The Zen literature I have read emphasizes the idea of just sitting as the whole of the meaning of Zen. In other words all activity is just sitting , walking, shitting etc. This a very subtle idea and cannot be categorized as simply non-dualism in a philosophical sense; nor does it mean an exclusion of thinking; rather thinking just is thinking before any conceptualization. No doubt this is often reduced in x-buddhist discourse to an exclusion of thought but this is, in my understanding, not the meaning. Thinking itself is just thinking–this idea attempts to express the way thinking exists as just another phenomenon, as just another activity. In our terms we could say that a particular form of thinking lies alongside other forms of thinking and other phenomena in a sort of democracy of objects. This cannot easily be expressed in language hence the necessity, in Laruelle for example, of a new syntax. So too in the historical development of Zen. Strangely, activity–sitting , moving, working, producing art etc–developed as a particular Zen language–a sort of virtual syntax (or living syntax) that allowed for a form of radical inventiveness. In such a formalized situation any departure from the norm was glaringly obvious. To stand over any new development an unwavering faith in the rightness of the new form needed to be present. All departures from the norm were radical, and for that reason the history of Zen is the history of the emergence of radical departures,(often presented as a return to a pure form) and their re-incorporation back into institutionalized Zen.The point you make below I think touches on this and on the philosophical as well as the practical implications.

    Another point in this regard is the legitimacy bestowed on such an undertaking by a Guru or his appointed teacher. This legitimacy is utter bullshit. In fact one can make the case that in some buddhist traditions an explicite notion has been developed where real legitimacy about the praxis of concentration comes from. One can make this point with the early Mahamudra as well as with early Dzogchen. Probably one can do that also with Chan/Zen or whatever (but here I have no expertise). One could also look into Indian tantra from roughly the 5th century onward because it was (in part) a move against institutionalized Buddhism. And of course, last but not least, we could look into the notion about the Pratyekabuddha. There is plenty of material one can work with to get rid of the idea that one needs any kind of allowance from institutions to work.

    I think this radical Zen (or Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Tantra) had social repercussions that could be teased out in the context of the the social and economic conditions in which they happened. I mean detailed social and economic histories of china and japan that explore the relation between the emergence of radical forms of Zen and radical changes in social and economic conditions. Such studies no doubt exist, but I am not familiar with them.
    All of this should not obscure the fact that a form of philosophical idealism (to put it in western terms) dominated the history of Zen thought and exists today among Zen x-buddhists as a crude fetishization of states of no thought which are simply idealist discourses. This does not preclude the creation of a form of Zen practice based on a philosophical understanding of immanence or a form of materialism, or one inspired by Laruelle’s writings, which seem to touch on some of the preoccupations of Zen thought. In my view this would be the end of Zen, as a destinct practice. There is enough material there for a post, or even a book or two!

    My opinion is that in such groups one should develop a thinking about what happens afterwards. After one can hold the body in an pain free position for prolonged times and when one begins to work with different kinds of concentration. The attempt to form notions in a group about this third part – concentration – can be another part of such a meeting. The attempt to speak about inner experience in a certain way is a crucial part to form a functioning group.

    I also think this is essential to any so-called retreat (and I don’t like that word but workshop is equally bad for reasons to do with new age fads and the human potential movement)
    There could be many fruitful ways of exploring meditative experience. I think some such practicing/study/reading group is a necessity, for me at least. But I think it needs to be structured around the non-buddhist discourse and not any x-buddhist practice, no matter how open or informal it seems to be.
    It goes without saying that such a group would be based on a non-hierarchical democratic model.

    Hi Tomek,

    I too have had experience of feeling that one shouldn’t depart from the norms of Zen sitting and all of that shit, but I think we need to counteract that sort of x-buddhist authoritarianism by never relinquishing our critical faculties in favour of some promised state of bliss, in terms of the jhana’s of the pali tradition or the state of non duality or no-thought of Zen or Dzogchen. Which is why it would be better to sit or practice (I find both terms off-putting) with like minded people and not within x-buddhist groups ( or to sit alone) I think Sharf’s idea of sitting as a form of re-enactment of the founders journey is an interesting take on Zen and one that could deliver many insights.
    Its worth quoting Glenn in full.

    Buddhist. A person who is reflexively beholden to the structural syntax of buddhistic decision. The embodiment of (“the shape of”) hence the central agent in , the buddhist thought-world. A Gompers who’s speech concerning exigent matters is constructed fro buddhemes. Given the radically protean nature of the decisional adaptation, the possible modifications(X-) of the abstract noun “Buddhist” are illimitable, hence x-buddhist.

    Its the illimitable nature of the possible modifications consequent on the decisional structure that make any radical departures from the norm in Zen just another iteration of x. Which, for me means that no matter how profound the potential of Zen practice , its true potential is only possible with the exposure of the decisional structure . For me this means, in effect, the end of Buddhism. And that is the (indefensible) charge made by x-buddhists against any attempt to make one’s own buddhism-that such an attempt would be the end of Buddhism. Of course Buddhism, as just lived human experience, has never entered into any sort of philosophical capture, Buddhistic or otherwise, and any worry about the purity of buddhist practice, or the essential truth of buddhist philosophical insight, or the irreplaceable value of sacred Buddhist texts, are all symptoms of the transcendental delusion that is Buddhism.This touches on an interesting thought brought up by Matthias in a discussion we had: what are the implications for Glenn’s idea of ‘proximity’ in relation to the exposure of decisional structure? Doesn’t there come a moment when, for the non-buddhist, the term Buddhist becomes a mere remainder that should be let fall by the wayside?

  4. Hi Patrick (#3), I think that instead of talking about this confusing and controversial issue of “bliss” in this context, I would simply say that it is the lack of pain in the knees, or other parts of the body, what is achievable during prolonged periods of this “sitting.” Once this is “trained,” or maybe “embodied”, it becomes, to use Matthias’ term, “prerequisite” for further cognitive praxis, in which honing our operational memory’s capacities represents the real pinnacle of achievement in this business. In other words, once children stop wobble on their chairs they begin to grasp various ideas. I intentionally use the word “to wobble,” to turn you attention to this quite interesting article by G. Dreyfus.

  5. Hi Tomek(4#)
    Thanks for the link-its a good article and makes quite clear that there is at least one form of the practice of mindfulness that consists of a sequence starting with orientation to the object, concentration or holding of the object in awareness, retention, (during the meditative process and afterwards) and evalutation. The result is knowledge available for action. All of this is explicit in the quote from the Satipatthahttana Suta. Importantly, Dreyfus makes it clear that the practice of mindfulness is the cultivation of an innate ability to the point where it replaces habitual reactivity. In other words its simply a learned skill. One thing that needs to be said about learning any new skill is that such learning does not erase the old pattern (also learned, although not intentionally). There will be a period in which reactivity and a new way of dealing with circumstances co-exist. I would be skeptical about those who claim that reactivity can be wholly eliminated , since much of it has to do with biological conditioning. I also think we must abandon the idea of individual enlightenment via meditation since the nature of the cognitive process precludes a complete realization of mind/brain/body processes by any direct means. Rather meditation practice must be supplemented by other means of knowing-science, critical thinking, imagination, intuition. etc- resulting in a slow collective advancement or adaptation. As far as absolute individual enlightenment is concerned we could recognize such a preoccupation as at worst an infantile regression and at best wishful thinking, and abandon it.

  6. Patrick (#5)

    I would be skeptical about those who claim that reactivity can be wholly eliminated, since much of it has to do with biological conditioning.

    One would have to become an enlightened mutant, to claim that reactivity can be wholly eliminated…

  7. Patrick, #3

    I did not mean to say that Zen is nothing but a preliminary. I mean only posture and breathing to be parts of a focused sustained attention. How far forms of classical Zen can contribute to further development about the question on what to focus I don’t know. But certainly most of present day Zen is “just sitting” in the sense of being disinterested in any kind of education.

    Regarding “mindfulness”.

    I yet have to read the Dreyfus text thoroughly. But it seems to make a point I also always want to make but which seems never to take any hold. I think in part this is because of a discourse which, in using a certain terminology, always at once frames the topic one speaks about in a certain way. The notion “mindfulness” is utterly misleading regarding what we want to discuss. One example: I don’t know if there is any kind of evidence that “mindfulness” can reduce pain. Look for example here, here and here. There is very poor evidence if “mindfulness” has any better effect on any kind of (physical and psychic) stress than just walking regularly or eating a healthy diet.

    Maybe the hole question about pain, stress relive etc. should be framed differently: Can certain kinds of concentration have subjective or objective physical effects?

  8. Patrick (#7),

    Paradoxically, even the Great Enlightened Mutant, Gotama himself, as the Pali tradition openly depicts him, was reacting to the natural process of bodily aging, which he obviously could not overcome by his alleged superhuman abilities, by resorting to the panacea of “the signless-absorption-of-mind.” Here goes this passage taken from Bronkhorst’s book: “Ananda, I am now old, worn out, venerable, one who has traversed life’s path, I have reached the term of life, which is eighty. Just as an old cart is made to go by being held together with straps, so the Buddha’s body is kept going by being strapped up. It is only when the Buddha withdraws his attention from outward signs, and by the cessation of certain feelings, enters into the signless-absorption-of-mind, that his body knows comfort.” [link, p. 115]

  9. Hi Matthias and Tomek ,
    Sorry about the delay in commenting. I have been away in the mountains without internet. Just to clarify certain points (as much for my own benefit as anything else)
    By mindfulness I mean the quality of bringing the mind back to the object of attention. I don’t mean concentration and certainly not the sort of absorbsion/concentration that would produce a state in which awareness of the body and its condition receded. I think the quote from the The Satipatthahttana Suta is an apt summary of what I mean —an aware attention to the detail of experience in the context of a broader understanding that includes the future implications of any experience and its relation to past events. In other words an awareness of an historical dimension. I suppose in this context the term mindfulness could be replaced by remembrance ( that is remembrance of the causal chain in which any event,past and future, is embedded and its wider personal and collective implications )
    Again, I see this as an extension or cultivation of an innate human attribute and not anything special in a transcendental since. But I do think such a quality of mind makes an enormous difference as a component of a certain type of Subject—–one who is capable, practical, determined, and imbued with of a vision of what is possible outside the constraints of Conservative authoritarian thought. No doubt there are many other qualities needed and in the end its probably a question of balance. And no doubt this question of the subject could be understood in a much broader context than the bourgeois idea of character building— thinking in terms of the collective social practices within which such a subject would make its appearance; although I don’t think the idea of social practice negates individual character building. Rather individual character building just is the manifestation of a collective social practice and such a wider context could be ‘mindfully’ held within awareness in the context of negotiating the minor and major crisis of collective and personal life.

    As for ‘scientific’ investigations of mindfulness I think they are worthless. I have had my fill of them. I think the claims of the mindfulness industry and the claims of the so called sciences of psychology and sociology are two sides of the same coin.
    Really , what can the following contribute to human understanding?

    Findings After reviewing 18 753 citations, we included 47 trials with 3515 participants. Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety (effect size, 0.38 [95% CI, 0.12-0.64] at 8 weeks and 0.22 [0.02-0.43] at 3-6 months), depression (0.30 [0.00-0.59] at 8 weeks and 0.23 [0.05-0.42] at 3-6 months), and pain (0.33 [0.03- 0.62]) and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life. We found low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight. We found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment (ie, drugs, exercise, and other behavioral therapies).

    For me the language of such (so called) science is one of the factors that produces the (so called ) symptoms-that is to say the language of pseudo- scientific discourses, embedded within complex social practices of exploitation, alienating structures, and exchange relations, reduce sentient beings (animal and human animal) to the level of objectivized resources, thus producing psychological suffering on a mass scale. In a vicious twist those same sciences go about the work of containment—-which is, in the end, the main social function of the (so called) “therapeutic” or “caring” professions. The only difference between the asylum and its high walls, locked doors, electric shock treatment and lobotomy, is that now days those same sciences have perfected drug regimes that do the same work (which is not to say that a measured use of drugs in cases of severe mantel distress is ethically and medically un justifiable)

    For me , all of this is summed up by Laruelle in a generalized way that works to establish the terms of a real science of man, distinguishing it from from the technocratic ideology of pseudo-science, which would reduce the human to its predicates and proceed in its work by way of a willful blindness to its own philosophical, ideological and technological/economic co-option.

    Man has never been the object of the human sciences. Man does not recognize himself in this authoritarian and predatory activity, and the human sciences think something other than man […] This indeterminate being, evanescent under the crushing weight of the universal determinations that are slammed down upon it in the thwarted hope of “fixing”it–it is this being we are asked to consider “man” But man is definitively absent from the rendezvous of the human sciences, because he is absent first of all from that of philosophy. In both cases, one of the terms-science or man-has to be irreal for the other to be real.
    Perhaps we should reverse the terms: science must be unique and specific if it would be a real science and cease to be a techno-political phantasm; and it is man who must be irreducible in his multiplicity if he would cease to be this anthropological fetish, this somewhat drab phantom that is but the shadow of the human sciences, that is to say of the self screening light of reason. Laruelle: A Rigorous Science of Man, pg 35/36

  10. Patrick (#10),

    By mindfulness I mean the quality of bringing the mind back to the object of attention.

    At some point in his article Dreyfus says that „This holding ability of mindfulness is a natural ability that the mind has, ability that can be strengthened by practice but which exist naturally in every person, at least to certain degree.” One can imagine that if only this strange, obsolete word “mindfulness” (or better, meme, brand, label, whatever) would be eliminated – which is of course impossible for now due to the force of the whole industry – and replaced by a simple words like memory, or even consciousness, the whole fad would immediately collapse. Memory, consciousness as a fundamental human ability which helps us track our place in the world, monitor our commitments in relation to others, to realize our finitude, or for that matter to induce a state of absorption temporally alleviating pains and discomforts of the body – whichever way one needs to use this natural ability … But what prevails nowadays is this empty signifier distorting, ousting the broader meaning of memory or consciousness, and eventually commodifying those natural abilities of the mind.

  11. Hi Tomek,
    Couldn’t agree more. I’m sick to my teeth of the word but find using others so cumbersome and prone to misinterpretation that I alway end up using it. As always it comes back to the idea of decimation, first names, and building a new vocabulary in which to speak of the human in a way that does not involve investment in the decisional structure and the inane discourses of x-buddhists.
    I have the same problem with science-how to critique the ideological co-option of scientific discourses and the excesses of technological innovation and its destructive consequences, without sounding as if I am abandoning a genuine commitment to science, the scientific method and its undeniable benefits in terms of technology and knowledge.
    The answer I suppose is to continue the work Glenn initiated and build the vocabulary and terminology of a new form of discourse.

    One of the best formulations of exactly what the term Sati implies is given by Glenn in CT/SP pg 147

    As “ancestral anamnesis” it thus names the truth of the non-correlational memorial sacrifice. It is the lived corollary of the liturgical reminiscence of the Christian believers, who make sacrificial memory of God’s sacrificial deeds. As such,it is recognition in thought,of the horizon that precedes and enables thought. This horizon appears as consciousness of our irreversible concurrence with the natural world. Natural science employs ancestral statements to illuminate this horizon, thereby catalyzing our recognition.(my emphasis)

  12. Yes, another discourse. But I have the impression we don’t get far. Yesterday I re-read some of the discussions on the SNB-blog from early 2012 (No more Meditation, Meditation and Control). We had discussions here too about all these topics. But we don’t seem to come far. We stay with “meditation”, “mindfulness” and so on. Frustrating. I am neither into the one or the other. I also re-read some of my notes from years ago about Longchenpa’s (and Herbert Guenthre’s) rDzog-chen. There is such a rich terminology. It baffles me that in these three years we stayed in our discourse with just one or two words lent from x-buddhism. I have to think for a wile about how to say something useful in this discourse – if there will be anything at all.

    The following is from one of the mentioned discussions:

    I propose some basic assumptions to arrange topics/qualities/possibilities.

    1. A calm, relaxed and at the same time alert mental state is a human ability.
    2. This is the base for any knowledge and insight (in the sense of Metzinger‘s phenomenal self-model).
    3. This comes before any symbolic language.
    4. The third assumption does not necessarily means it is unconditioned.
    5. A basic x-buddhistic fallacy is that this calm, relaxed, alert mental state driven to its extreme, maybe with the help of sensory deprivation, fasting and/or ritual etc., is the ultimate goal, is enlightenment, liberation, deathless etc.
    6. From the second and third assumption follows that it is of crucial importance to go into the right direction: Any training in this mental state will not in and of itself gain knowledge about ideology.
    7. Knowledge and new insight about ideology, or to name it otherwise, about the milieu in which one lives, comes with education.
    8. Education is a complex intergenerational process in which technology (from the flint axe onwards) plays a crucial role and which leeds optimally to a critical faculty which is able to preserve and develop its environment.
    9. The defining role of technology for the human has not been understood well in our time.
    10. Technology as used now destroys the intergenerational process of education. It does this by exploiting desire in its will to be rewarded instantly instead of transforming desire into longterm projects.
    11. The main instrument of technology now is marketing (in its broadest possible sense), functioning as the mercenary of consumer capitalism to hook attention for accessing desire.
    12. From the fifth assumption follows, x-buddhism does not understand any of this because it goes into the false direction long before it reaches any insight into modern society. (A corollary from this is, I think, that the whole ideology Tom Pepper analyses in „Feast, Interrupted“ serves only to protect tibetan-buddhism‘s fallacy about the so called clear light. )

    My working hypothesis then is: A calm, relaxed and alert mental state is able to disconnect marketing from attention, disconnecting thereby the individual from attention exploitation.

    Therefore: A calm, relaxed and alert mental state as a clearing becomes a weapon against the parasitic forces of attention exploitation — and it protects and supports thinking as the original capability of the Homo sapiens. [Source]

    I don’t have to add anything any more to this right now.

  13. Hi Matthias,
    Well I spent a part of the day reading your essay again on SNB and I have to agree that we haven’t come very far. And that does feel depressing. My impression is that the effort put into the posts at SNB and the amazingly detailed and insightful comments that followed them , some of which , as Glenn has pointed out, are almost essays in themselves, makes it seem that everything has already been said, or near enough. Certainly I don’t think I would be able to sustain the level of committed dialogue that is in evidence there for very long, if only because of the long hours of writing, study and thinking involved. I think your essay and the points you list in your comment pretty much says it all about meditation. And there are in the comment tread following your essay long comments by yourself, Tom and Glenn, especially one in which he comments in a substantive way on your list of points, that are full of interesting points and directions to be explored.
    What all that says about what we are doing here I don’t quite know but it does seem , as we have said many times, that things. need to move on a bit.
    Have I the energy to put in the work needed, and indeed the qualifications? Thats something I need to think about. It does seem very depressing that, as always, it boils down to you, me,Tomek and a few others talking in what more and more looks like an endless circle. Why none of the readers, whoever they are, maintain such a determined silence is something I find hard to explain. Maybe no one actually reads and we are talking to ourselves?

  14. Hi Patrick

    I think we have gone a bit of a way. What seems difficult is to really make the step to become incomprehensible for buddhist discourse. It seems to me we often recoil when we border this uncharted territory.

    In any case we already have a few different descriptions of conscious activities. For example what a) Tomek (and to some part me) has described as a kind of auto opiate-production; what you b) say in #12: recognition in thought,of the horizon that precedes and enables thought; what I mean with c) a calm, relaxed, alert mental state driven to its extreme.

    We can add that there are very much differing practices when we look at, for example, the so called Burmese Vipassana parctices, Soto Zen’s Shikantaza, Mahamudra’s practices which begin with calm abiding or some kinds of rDzogs-chen’s practices which begin with a shocked open presence – hedawa!.

    What we never achieved, though, in the SNB blog-discussion, is what I marked in #12 with points 2 and 3 (whereby the term “base” is misleading….). Anything about a non-discursive consciousness became anathema. But non-discursive consciousness is. A lot of people tired tried to deal with it and its description. For example, as only recently I found out, Georges Bataille describes subjectivity in terms of “je” (french for first person singular) and “ipse”. The latter is described as a non-discursive form of existence. Both parts form in the view of Bataille a constitutive fission of subjectivity.

    It was always my wish that people would come together to formulate representations of their non-discursive activities. Whereby it is clear, as I repeatedly said, that the act of formulation is not the non-discursive. It is one act of forming a community of thinking and speaking humans. Maybe the Rinzai Koan practice was can be thought as an example of such an activity.

    When I just got up the following thought appeared. Somebody doing a training analysis in the Lacanian manner must report to a committee and the committe – not the analysand! – has to write down what the analysand thought her insight was. (I don’t know if this still is so, I somewhere read it at Zizek.) The point is not to avoid the unavoidable bias, distortion or contortion which discrete symbolic communication itself always is. Let’s try this with our experiences – in person, not on the net.

  15. Anything about a non-discursive consciousness became anathema. But non-discursive consciousness is. A lot of people tired tried to deal with it and its description.

    I’ve been watching lately the videos from that conference in Berkley. Have a look at Thomson discussing 44:00 (from his phenomenological stance) Dan Arnold’s “conceptualist” position (at one point at SNB blog Pepper recommended Arnold’s latest book). Btw, if you haven’t watched this material at all take a look at Metzinger’s short presentation too (26:04). He seems quite uncompromising.

  16. Just so you don’t think you are talking to yourselves – Metzinger’s presentation was enjoyable, thanks for the link. He quotes from David Chapman so these blogs do seem to infiltrate some people’s minds.

    Metzinger references a paper in the talk which I found and also enjoyed:
    Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty

    I wonder what people here make of it. His term “adaptive delusional system” seems a good characterisation of x-buddhism. When he talks about the adaptive properties of self-deception he does so in reference to its role in stabilizing hierarchy and existing structures of exploitation (a SNB friendly view!). But Metzinger’s conception of a secular spirituality appears to entail dumping Buddhism out the window – not sure if anyone wants to do that though?

  17. Hi Shane (#17),

    The major problem I find in this controversial essay is that Metzinger creating this sharp dichotomy between religion and spirituality, seems to suppress the fact that spirituality with its so called “insights”, when seen from strictly rational methodology of science, is just another example of “adaptive delusional system”. In other words, it does not bring epistemic progress which is obviously an effect of institutional and collective endeavor; all it breeds is just aesthetic or therapeutic (folk-psychological) experiences on purely subjective level which has always been easily co-opted by various ideologies, such as x-buddhism with its fetish of “no-self” or other forms of anti-reductionism (phenomenology, substantialists metaphysics of the “soul” as in Western religions, etc.)

    So to me all would be fine if only Metzinger would be honest enough with his readers to openly say that if spirituality has some value for our species it primarily consists of Beauty and Cure not Truth.

  18. Right – the primary function he describes of an “adaptive delusional system” is bolstering of self-esteem, and yet his spirituality ultimately serves as a system to bolster self-esteem, stemming from the ability to have “self-respect” through perception of your engagement in the right kinds of truth-seeking behaviours.

    I wasn’t clear on what kind of epistemic status “insights” might have; his main point appeared to more about taking a stance towards truth, and the kinds of attitudes and behaviours that would entail. And it seems that a common goal of the discussants here is a practice where critical thinking is key (e.g. “never relinquishing our critical faculties in favour of some promised state of bliss”). So I was wondering to what extent you self-identified with the kind of practice (as an ideal) that was entailed in Metzinger’s brand of spirituality?

  19. In the first place Shane, I would ask why the term “spirituality” at all?? Why thinker who in majority of his academic work appears to have unshaken faith in scientific materialism – his famous “Neurophenomenology is possible; phenomenology is impossible,” which he expands on immediately afterwards saying that “Conceptual progress by a combination of philosophy and empirical research programs is possible; conceptual progress by introspection alone is impossible in principle” – ends up with such a vague terms as “spirituality”? Although he devotes some space to clarify what he means by this term, and he demarcates premodern and modern usages of the word, he seems oblivious to the fact that the emergence of modern spirituality as a form of inner experience, or “feeling” – mode that appears to suits his purposes – has been, since seventeenth century, a reaction to nothing else but the unprecedented success of modern science, to secularization; that it was chosen by various idealists, romantics or later by phenomenologists as a way to re-enchant the world stripped of meaning by science. So the “spiritual” served as a protected zone of experience unassailable by science and other secular discourses. So why he actually refers back to this term, the guy who is clearly inclined to the view that the meanings generated by consciousness can themselves be understood and explained as the products of purposeless but perfectly intelligible processes, which are at once neurobiological and sociohistorical? This puzzles me. If, as he claims, “spirituality seems to be a property, a particular quality of inner action” why not – as for example was proposed here on this blog by Matthias – switch to terms like psycho physical praxis, or cognitive praxis, etc? Wouldn’t this be a better display of intellectual honesty in case of otherwise rigid materialist such as Metzinger?

    Somewhere above, linking to the video, I wrote that Metzinger seems quite uncompromising. By that I meant his total lack of reverence to what in another place he calls “ideological Buddhism” (p. 294). And yet at the same time his explicit endorsement of the semantic range of spirituality in this essay fits perfectly into today’s global, transtraditional “spirituality”, or better “enchanted secularity”, where modernized x-buddhism seems to thrive.

  20. Hello Shane,
    Thanks for your comments and the link to Metzinger’s essay.
    I share Tomek’s misgivings about the distinction between spirituality and religion but not perhaps for the same reasons. I think there is a tread of idealism (in the philosophical sense) running through this essay, although it is nowhere explicitly stated. The social, and economic factors which condition much of our understanding of the world, and contribute to the emergence of a particular type of subject, seem to be lost upon him. For example his concept of the historical process seems to be confined to the history of ideas without reference to the connection between the emergence of particular philosophical ideas and the social/economic/cultural nexus within which ideas are generated. I think he is probably wedded to a notion of mind as some sort of system of semantic representations in some way identical to the “neural correlates”
    For reasons too complex to go into here I think such an understanding is limited. Without doubt the brain is a primary conditioning factor in consciousness, but there is a distinction between organisms who have the capabilities of language and those without language (although that does not mean that the concept of language should not be widened to include non- semantic or non- conceptual systems of communication , such as the complex systems evident in the communicative behavior of our cousins the other primates and so on, but thats another debate). Semantic/neural correlate indentiy forces Metzinger to place the mind within the brain, a notion I find incomprehensible, since it is reasonable to assume that a semantic system conditioning a shared language must transcend the individual and find its genesis in the collective communicational activities of human beings. Ideas, in other words are generated in the collective activity of primates with language capabilities and are conditioned on a whole nexus of factors, including the biological, psychological, social/cultural. and symbolic.
    This is not to say that ideas are not in themselves conditioning factors. This was a point Marx tried to establish in his thesis on Feuerbach—–that any sort of crude reduction of the idea to material conditions loses the quality of intentionality and creativity which manifests as the conscious making of history by a subject imbued with new ideas. We are ourselves evolving subjects enjoying a massive increase in freedom and power afforded by scientific ideas and their implementation via technologies(especially technologies of communication such as the one we are using, and computation technologies which vastly increase the capacity to collate information.)
    Of course we, as this new subject, are not afforded equal opportunities to exploit these technologies for our own benefit. The opposite is the case and as Metzinger emphasizes in his essay we now face an ecological and social crisis from which we may not recover. Unfortunately his answer to this crisis is constrained by the limitations of his concept of the individual subject, with its overemphasis on the subjective/active side. This puts the emphasis on an individualistic idea of intellectual honesty, spiritual or meditative realization and individual moral/ethical action. For me this is an outmoded way of thinking, a sort of philosophical time warp in which Metzinger traps himself by overemphasizing the freedom afforded the individual at the expense of an understanding of the impersonal or better trans-personal, biological, social/cultural/economic conditions which act as a break on free, intentional, ethical action. That is not to say that his concept of “an adaptive delusional system “is irrelevant, but that if it turns out to be true then it is just one of the factors under which we have always labored as a species and we now have some freedom to counteract it. The structures and process of economy and social relations, on the other hand, are changeable and in a radical way, and it is here we can decisively think and act.
    Metzinger misses an opportunity to address the truly interesting question: what exactly is the relation between the individual and the collective, the biological correlate and the idea, freedom and necessity, and how can we evolve a new formulation of this age old question the does not collapse one into the other but tries to hold them in a sort of dialectical tension.
    At any rate it has to be said that intellectual honesty has to be extended to the collective consequences of individual action and that in addressing this one cannot in all honesty avoid hard questions about economic, social and political structures that limit power and stifle well being,in the process pushing the species further along a continuum that we know can only end in ecological disaster. There is nothing radical at all in Metzinger’s answers to the questions he raises. Sad, when radial answers and radical ethical action is the only hope we have.

  21. Hi Tomek #20,
    I am just wondering if you see any content to what you call the outmoded term “spirituality” taking into account the notion of decimation and Laruelle’s idea of a determination in the last instance. My interest is in the referent (the object) to which the signifier spiritual refers.Or do you think it was always an empty signifier-a mere delusion? My understanding of the spiritual is that the term refers to the sum total of the meanings generated by the collective and individual activity of humans in the particular spheres– scientific, philosophical, artistic—that the word spiritual signifies the excess of these activities which cannot be adequately addressed by any one in particular. In other words the spiritual arises out of their combined activity as the process of lived human experience. No doubt the term is so abused as to be outmoded, but as with the terms meditation and enlightenment, compassion /love and knowledge/wisdom, are there terms readily available to us owning the complex levels of meaning evoked by these words.(one consequence of which is a certain ambivalence when compared, for example, to scientific or philosophical terminology)
    Would you really like to address your beloved as “my biologically and socio/symbolically determined object of attachment” or for that matter define the undoubted wisdom displayed by many elderly people as “a cognitive capacity to verifiably access the potential inherent in any problematic”
    I’m exaggerating, of course, but you get my point?

    P.s thanks for the link to “enchanted” spirituality” I look forward to reading it. Have to say I am fond of the word enchanted and would not baulk at using the term enchantment to refer to many experiences I have had , meditative, artistic, sexual, and in relation to a particular experience of beauty (human and natural) Have not these experiences something to do with truth? despite the pepperian prohibition on the romantic, and despite the mad Kant and his butchers knife-I refer to his cleavage of the one object and his rendering of it as the neatly packaged the good, the true, and the beautiful
    Again quoting Laruelle and over and against philosophical capture—the finite lived experience of the human as the inviolate one!

  22. I don’t know Patrick (#22), maybe the time will come when I’ll be able to accept such blanket terms as “spirituality.” For now though, for reasons no doubt culturally determined I personally see no chance to apply the notion of decimation in case of this particular signifier. My hypersensitivity to any sings of religious bigotry which is conditioned by being brought up and living in this conservative culture and society, where the ideas of Enlightenment, modernity have been paradoxically only the aftermath of a passive social and cultural revolution brought here from outside on tanks and bayonets of both totalitarian regimes (unintentionally, of course) during the WWII – makes me also totally indifferent to notions such as “spirituality,” no matter how supposedly “open-minded,” they would be. And the more I observe those never ending culture wars played out in Poland today, the more I become indifferent and see a growing need to oust such notions from the public sphere. But after all believe me I still have some reservations to all those new trends that, whether we like it or not, gradually enter our vocabularies these days:

    One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.’ ” Paul and Pat have noticed that it is not just they who talk this way—their students now talk of psychopharmacology as comfortably as of food.[link]

  23. Tomek,
    Thanks for the link to the Churchlands—utterly fascinating! Especially the bit about language and the speculations about the difference between thought and language and its relation to the communicative systems of other species. , not to mention the often forgotten fact that both sides of the brain need to communicate with each other. Is interaction, for instance between both sides of the brain or between an organism and its environment communication of sorts?

    I can of course identify with your aversion to the word ‘spiritual’ and share it. I’m Irish after all! At the moment we are in the middle of a new controversy about the fact that babies born to unmarried mothers were taken from them and placed in institutions where the average life expectency was, in some cases, 60% below the average for the overall population. The thousands of babies who died, often in their first year, were unceremoniously dumpted into mass graves and forgotten. This regime of murder and lies was presided over by nuns and priests who recieved a long and fastidious spiritual education.
    Anyway enough said!

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