Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Collapse & Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain


This was a piece I wrote for the Dark Mountain Project about a year or so back. It’s been hanging around gathering computer dust amongst other lost projects, so as it’s been a while since I’ve written anything for the site, I decided to post it here. The piece is long. I know this is unfashionable these days, but it is what it is.

It is ultimately  a semi-creative piece as much inspired by Shamanic and Animist  thought and practices as it is by Buddhist thought that seeks to honour some of the ideas and themes over at the Dark Mountain Project set up by the author and ex-journalist Paul Kingsnorth and Douglas Hine. If you want to know more about them, click here.

In the future, we may all end up being wannabe shamans and buddhas, striving to re-invoke the sacred after so much meaning and identity is lost during the slow dissipation of the elaborate human made world we once knew. We will remember scraps of practices and rituals, pasting them together in scrapbook form in an attempt to re-invoke our feeling-selves that have been severed from the brush, seasons and landscapes that our parents spoke of as the once normal. In our attempts, we will merge with rivers & streams, swimming amongst plastic wrappers and murky twists and turns, searching for some sense of purity amongst the lost innocence, our species no longer capable of dreaming itself in and out of the Earth’s breast, our gifted past tossed away by short-sightedness, solipsism, and species-centric arrogance. Some will stare breathless & frozen, whilst others will get on with the business of adjusting to what is immediate; some of these folk will be awake.

In Animism, empathy is king, whilst in Buddhism, compassion rules. Is it possible to embrace the depths of our collective darker ways and merge with their results without breaking in two? That is, are we able to tenderly immerse ourselves in the damaged landscapes that surround us and breathe with them as they are, and not as we imagine them to be? This is the spiritual and emotional challenge that twirls around the Dark Mountain. Environmentalists know the pain of opening to the seemingly bottomless sadness that faces anyone willing to sober up and look into the heart of our impact on the myriad animate and inanimate species that surround us. Delicate selves are usually not sturdy enough to withstand the dark sobering wind that rips through the heart and at innocence cocooned within idealistic cotton. What then is to be done? For surely the Dark Mountain is at heart a wake-up call, a sobering invitation to see the world as it is, and choose a response, rather than simply react. This type of call is not unfamiliar to certain forms of Buddhism, which has the recognition of suffering, often redefined as dissatisfaction or angst, at its heart.

We might consider that much of what has caused the Capitalist Consumerist destruction of the natural environment and its living breathing participants has not only been the objectification of literally everything, but such a system furnishing us with endless ways to avoid our own suffering, dissatisfaction and angst, particularly with regards to the unknown that surrounds us, that moves backwards and away into the past, and that flows open-endedly into the future. Much of the consumerist drive is an attempt to stuff a metaphorical hole within us with gadgets and trinkets and ideologies of infinitude or the old myth of father-figure salvation. The castration of meaning and of such concepts as sacred has left us with new questions that a materialist belief system cannot meet. The most apt philosophy for the brave new world is nihilism it seems. Perhaps though there is something worth exploring in the relationship between a spiritual tradition or two and the stark environmental reality in front of us? I want to suggest that Buddhism and Animism each have some central elements of knowing that can aid a sobering-up and a reconfiguration of our distorted ways of perceiving and inhabiting the environmental horizons in which we are situated.

There are sobering voices within the global Buddhist landscape calling for radical change in our relationships with the economy and the environment. David Loy, a prominent American scholar and Zen Buddhist teacher, has written numerous works identifying the madness of modern day Capitalism. His sharpest critique finds voice in a vision of the three roots of evil manifest collectively as ‘institutionalised greed, institutionalised ill will, and institutionalised delusion’ and he calls for a ‘social awakening’ in order to respond to them. There is eco-Buddhism, and the behaviour of Southeast Asian Buddhists that wait days for ants to pass instead of crushing them underfoot when cleaning and building, reflecting traditional monastic morality. Although admirable and worthy, the majority of environmentally conscious Buddhists stand in the same landscape as the environmentalists who hope that humans will eventually stop being so short sighted through choice alone and relinquish their own self-obsessions, and our blind collective trudge along familiar paths furnished by the reigning ideology of progress. Of course, this idea is confirmed as folly each year as politicians and citizens worldwide are all too happy to pretend the threat is way off in the future and that it is best to carry on as usual for as long as possible in the odd hope that nothing will ever change. It is funny how often our own creeds are lost on us.

When sobering reality arrives, it is rarely pleasant. A reminder that we have been sleepwalking and have literally wasted days, months, years of our existence living poorly and living submerged in warped delusional social practices. For some the reaction is hatred, anger, rage, for others it is internalised, leading to self-destruction or loss of anchors that might permit some degree of well-being. Both reactions can result in self-harm, yet if we are really extensions of the Earth herself, then what good does it do to cause further pain to the elegant forgotten lady we have taken for granted?

We like to think we are special somehow, distinct, both as individual selves and as a species. Yet we are not. Most of our existence is entirely unoriginal, probably all of it. Certainly the range of thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations that make up ‘me’ or ‘you’ are recycled and reflective of mass-feeling, mass-emoting and mass-sensing. We humans are in many ways a collective hive, or ant like, and in the grand scheme of things, equally fragile. We are incapable of existing apart from each other: a web of selves that build into localised story bound colonies. Even in physical separation our thoughts mirror a shared linguistic landscape and ideological allegiances, which means that true isolation and aloneness are impossible in any real sense. Images of such interrelatedness and inseparability between the many members of a species tribe often inspire bland claims of oneness and togetherness with resultant apathy or smugness. Although tribal cultures have been romanticised for far too long by those with spiritual inklings of the earthy persuasion, rather than do so, we might simply recognise that a good number of them do live within a vision of the world in which they are indistinct from the insect colonies with which they co-exist unilaterally, rather than hierarchically. That it is our failing to do the same has rendered us so dangerous and so forgetful of our place within an organic world order of co-dependency.

As the tide of inevitable change flows around us and through us, Buddhism and Animism exist as paradigms that can be harnessed to accompany ever sobering and spirited wanderers into the misty, murky future. Each has something unique and pragmatic to offer that may give rise to new social practices within a new social order in which we are co-participants alongside the other animate and inanimate species. Each provides a means for managing our existential questions and our existential practices in order to survive as questioning, feeling, sensing creatures in a shifting global hierarchy in which the weather becomes the leading super-power. I like to envision them as repositories of experimental human history and practice that can be felt and thought into, rather than as providers of new beliefs and social practices to be conformed to. In this sense they operate as positional realities to be explored and learnt from and as aids to human searching and questioning.

For it is uncertainty that scares folks most, and it is the great unknown that terrifies, ultimately manifest in the very real demise that awaits us in death, yet, on a more immediate level, it is woven into our attempt to grasp at intangibles and hold tightly to whatever we value: the adornments of our personal narratives and the small routines that we decorate our open existence with. In a sense, we might consider the great unknown to be a sort of universal mirror of ultimate, glaring honesty that challenges us to swallow whole our unknowing predicament and our finite, horizon based situatedness in embodied forms. We recoil though, and rather like cows, we bracket the world into manageable spaces and limit horizons into traceable terrains onto which we sketch out our perceptions. We are generally incapable of grasping vastness, our attention always being contextualised. Otherwise, vastness is straight jacketed into borrowed poetic deferral to light and love by the romantic and spiritually indulgent or to equally reassuring nihilism by the pessimists. This in a sense explains why we are ideologically bound creatures and why we struggle to give up our allegiance to them. Our fear of the unknown and this need to bracket the world into manageable, meaningful spaces is so thoroughly instinctual and unconscious.

The enlightened folk will wander as lost as others, but they will be fully there, impregnated with the immediacy of a shared open predicament.

Meditation: some post-traditional thoughts


Who’s meditating?

Many who come to Buddhism see meditation as being its essence. However, as many Buddhist scholars like to point out, in most Asian countries, meditation is, and always has been, practised by an extremely small percentage of Buddhists, like really, almost nobody. Buddhism for the masses has long been primarily about worship, prayer, supplication and rituals. Although some might say that there is inherent within such practices meditative states, and though that may well be so for some, explicit formal meditation practice has long been the domain of the elite: either the aristocrats and spiritual specialists in countries such as Tibet and Japan, or of the very few in South East Asian countries who dedicated their lives to the renunciate way of life. In the West then we are doing something quite different from the traditions that have gone before. Western Buddhism is already very different at a lay level to what it has ever been. We might even argue that modern Western Buddhism as practised by westerners is already post-traditional. That said my post-traditional is an attempt at self-description outside of tradition, meaning free of attempts to transpose an exotic Eastern Buddhist form into Western society with all the mimicry and the adoption of a Buddhist identity that goes along with it. And in spite of my fondness for much of Glenn Wallis’ work, I have to confess to being a Buddhist.

Post-traditional and meditation

What would post-traditional Buddhist meditation look like? What does it look like to deeply practice a Buddhist meditation technique outside of a tradition? Is there any value or worth in removing Buddhist meditation techniques from the tradition in which they have been developed and shared, and stood the test of time? In truth, each of these questions has already been answered and they are continuing to be answered by the many people that stumble along with varying degrees of success, finding their own way through books, videos, podcasts, and different degrees of experience had within established Buddhist groups. Meditation techniques themselves were developed by people of course, many of whom were stepping outside of tradition, or adapting and modernising existing traditions. Every time we place ourselves in sincere relationship with a meditation practice, we are adapting the technique through our personal and individual process, bringing new material into relationship with the practice, that is say, making the practice our own. Every time you sit down to meditate, it is a new moment, a new act. This immediacy, if conscious, is an antidote to complacency and a challenge to prescriptive behavioural modification that many traditional forms and approaches to meditation practice take or condone. How far an individual will go in this process will determine how radically they change. After all, if Buddhism has any worth, it is this, change.

My relationship with Buddhism is one of fluctuation, shifting in and out of a sort of intimate embrace, going deeply into shifting possibilities, whilst stepping back and examining with Western eyes and hands: teasing apart delicately and testing through personal experience the human potential within Buddhism’s human articles. Arguing over the ideological content and agenda inherent within politicised religious formations is one approach to take in reviewing Buddhism as a whole, especially if serious disillusionment has settled in and the rot has begun. Another is to deny it its supernatural claims and see it as a rich and varied history of human endeavour, and as such, open to a very human interpretation and reformulation, and this is the approach I like to take here. I feel I go further than the Secular Buddhists, but not as far as Wallis, Steingass and Pepper.

A post-traditional approach, as the British sociologist Anthony Giddens points out, is aware of choice and the constructed nature of tradition. Post-traditional goes beyond prescription to self-determination. If I am not a product of tradition, if I am not an autonym that acts in accordance with a fixed past, then I must necessarily choose how to engage and how to act in a (hopefully) conscious relationship with tradition/s. Post-traditional implies a degree of freedom then and awareness about that freedom. If deference to tradition sits opposite modern self-reflection, then a question that emerges is why do people grasp at the seeming solidity of tradition and not embrace a more self-aware relationship with Buddhism as the construct that it is? Well, in part, traditions, especially of the religious persuasion, have a nasty habit of defending themselves from progress and change. Impermanence has long been the enemy of stability and Buddhist institutions are no strangers to this in spite of what they preach. The old anti-modernity pursuit of a pure past, authentic tradition, the guarantor of expertise and so forth are the weapons raised in defence against the uncertainty and destabilising nature of change. Of course this friction plays out constantly at all levels of society, but, perhaps we, as in you and I, can embrace uncertainty and recognise Darwin’s claim that it is not the strongest that survive, but those most able to adapt to change.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Insights through Disruption: Buddhemes and Charism

Insight through questioning: assumptions & buddhemes

To question is to disrupt. To challenge what is deemed as normal is to initiate dissention. Questioning pre-established positions, assumed knowledge and social constructs with questions that are both personally relevant and timely is one of the central elements of a fresh and independent engagement. Owen Flannigan in his The Bodhisattava’s Brain: Naturalising Buddhism has put together an insightful and refreshing take on Buddhism, which resonates in part with the Post-Traditional Buddhism experiment. Flannigan asks questions of Buddhism utilizing his background in naturalism that are not pro-Buddhist and that do not have the usual ‘loaded dice’ that Glenn Wallis speaks of over at his rambunctious blog. They take the form of the sorts of questions that I myself have posed, and they ask Buddhism to stand up to its own self-claims. That such an approach acts on Buddhism, rather than passively receive tradition as a river of prior knowing and expertise, is something that I believe needs to constitute a modern approach to any critical engagement with learning and knowledge, and in the case of Buddhism, practice. The notion of acting on and being acted on are central to a phenomenological reading of meditation as a radical technology and such an approach can be taken to Glenn Wallis’ rather revolutionary heuristic seeing it as a set of tools for ridding seasoned Buddhists of their shared assumptions through destabilising certainties and reintroducing them to the concept of impermanence as a reflection on existence, rather than as received wisdom. 

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (End)

Closing Thoughts 

To be awakened is to participate in creative acts of engagement with the world in which we exist, including its historical and symbolic structures. If anything, that is the game we are called to engage with, if we awaken as human-beings and not as transcendent super-humans. These creative acts of engagement are ultimately a form of communication. After freedom is gained from the me-making self obsessions and their rootedness in layers of conditioned illusion, to communicate with other human beings may be understood as a recognition of that same potential in the individual, but it may simply be the earned ability to see the individual simultaneously as a product of their world and as a free individual at once and speak successfully to both. For genuine communication to take place we can either baffle and amaze our interlocutor with our new bangles and jewellery, as some do in a sort of weak narcissistic act of parenting, or we can communicate to the individual as a resident of the world they inhabit and to the roles that they are embedded in. It seems to me that the image of the Buddha that has been passed down to us is of the latter model, even if it is a mock image. It seems to me that many traditional Buddhist teachers, who may be quite awake, believe that the best means for them to continue the latter tradition is to spread and sustain the tradition that has enabled them to reach the point they are at. But, for others, and I think this is where a creative act emerges that is of greater value, a pushing through, or delivery of a blindingly sharp observation of alternatives that speak to the time we are in is the most powerful options available to a person who is actually able to see and who feels that drive to disrupt the norms of the status quo. Those are the voices that echo through history in a sense, that are more likely to produce actual change outside of a small circle of followers, or a shift in consciousness within a collective. This type of act, or dedication to pushing through the status quo is what is needed for any real change to occur and for the awakening of an individual to be of any lasting value.
Within Buddhism there are socially sanctioned means and avenues for expressing the compassionate drive to help others, and alleviate suffering in the world. The establishment of norms regarding the type of behaviour exhibited by a semi-awake, or awakened individual may be laid out for him or her. This gives social recognition and a meaningful role to the individual, as well as a clear direction and avenue for expressing the compassionate act. But what of those who do not exist within such solid social constructs? And what comes next? Two key terms reoccur again and again within Mahayana Buddhism: compassion and wisdom. Compassion seems to provide a usable metaphor for proceeding after the dissolution of the phantom-I. Compassion can be understood as to be with another and able to comprehend their experience and their suffering. Empathy is a natural sign of boundaries weakening between one individual and another and their experience and compassion appear to imply that we are able to connect well enough to another to know their experience. If the false self structure is dissolved, then the natural ability to be with others certainly must increase as a result. We may cease to suffer, but there is no reason to believe that we stop feeling the suffering in others. I would be highly suspicious of anyone who makes such claims.
Wisdom may be in part not the ability to validate Buddhist themes, but an increasing perception of what is unfolding and what is important within a given circumstance through more complete and unhindered participation, and hopefully the ability to communicate to that. Needless to say, these two would really warrant a further essay.

Concluding the experiment

In this essay I have attempted to reconfigure enlightenment taking Buddhism as the essential source and then attempting to shed some of the baggage that accompanies common attitudes towards enlightenment. I have been a faithful Buddhist Modernist in the way David McMahon has defined in his great book, by uniting disparate elements from different Buddhist traditions, whilst utilising modern thought methods for attempting a fresh look at a normally abstract phenomena. I have abandoned reincarnation and mentioned science too. In my case this has all happened consciously however and I have done my best to be true to my remit – to avoid any talk of special, or consigning any particular special category to Buddhism. I have utilised elements of Buddhism consciously and realistically do not see how it is possible to achieve the premise laid out in this essay for awakening without methods and observations that have proven to work and that have survived long enough to be available today and that emerge from Buddhism. Meditative techniques that derive from Buddhism are an effective means for developing clarity in awareness and thought and they provide a basis for exploring the key themes of death, impermanence and the suffering self and the phantom nature of the I. Buddhism is not a single authority on any of these topics however. It also fails in many regards to provide an adequate means for understanding the relationship between the individual and society, which is no surprise considering it emerged as a tradition over two thousand years ago when the world was a very different place.
I have tried to define enlightenment as awakening from and as freedom from specific forms of entangled suffering and illusion regarding the phantom-I. I have taken a model prominent in early Buddhism and utilised by some modern Secular Buddhists and reworked it to extract a view of four stages that may be loosely considered an overlay for a lived, human felt adventure, through which, increasing freedom is obtained as we wake up to the nature of the phantom-I, as it is, embedded in multiple structures of me-making. I have tried to make it clear that I consider it a perfectly human and perfectly possible endeavour and after all perhaps not as complex as it is traditionally made out to be.
This naturalised approach seems highly reasonable and functional, and a further step in removing the mystique that surrounds the romanticised interpretations of the path and lengthening of goals to abstract dream like distances, out of reach of mere mortals, where hence we can only dream of knowing. Such indulgent watching does not serve the purpose of reducing suffering, whether emotional, mental, physical or other. Only sober engagement and avid exploration will lead us into gaining clear insight into how we are in the world and how this world is and how the two interact and depend on each other and how we are both singular and collective beings and the causes of our suffering and the sustainment of that suffering is found in both

Monday, 20 May 2013

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (6)


With desire we find yet another problematic term, loaded with repressive and antiquated implications. Desire, attraction, lust are typically rolled out as the bad boys of the emotional and feeling realm and it is no surprise that such terms and their Buddhist definitions conjure up notions of chastity, sexual purity and other dull nonsense considering the Church’s influence still drags on insipidly here in the West. As anyone with enough life experience knows, passion drives action, attraction leads us forwards and lust as lustiness is healthy and a sane part of pleasure in this insane world of messed up ideas regarding sex and sensual pleasure. If we set aside moral arguments and agree that safe sex is healthy and a natural part of a healthy adult life, and that religion has no place entering our sex lives, then when desire emerges as a fetter to be removed, the question arises – to what is it really referring? Many of the holier than thou are often the ones with the sexual hang ups and naughty (abusive) behaviour, so assigning sexual repression the label of holy or spiritual is deluded. Perhaps the real issue is not rampant crazy desire for sex, or food, or the latest gadgets and so on, which are really manifestations of something deeper. If a person has moved through the first stage, desire is less likely concerned with simple addiction, but is instead bound to the first fetter of self-identity. The desire to exist, the desire to continue, as we are, the desire to remain the same, the desire to change as we would like, on the terms we set out, the desire to be seen as we would like, the desire to be loved and accepted, and all the other faces of the self seeking its own recognition, validation, and ultimately, survival, are where the real work should take place.
Desire is in great part related to what we are willing to experience as it is bound up with being obsessed with maintaining identity through the narratives that move attention and thoughts towards the past and the future. This movement of shifting attention is infiltrated by other desires for control, for familiarity and for confirmation of what is assumed, believed and often hidden, often subverted through distorted attitudes and assumptions. Much of our desire is rooted in the urge to avoid experiencing a multitude of sensations that upset the delicate balance we seek to maintain over our limited range self. The immensity of the still moving present, which contrary to popular belief can actually be uncomfortable and immensely destabilising when met, involves a particular loss of the boundaries that occurs when the fictitious self is loosened or dropped for a period. It can be blissful, we know about this through contemporary Buddhist claims, but the unnerving aspects concerning lack of certainty is often not. This is actually connected to a fear of annihilation, which is one of the rawest faces of the fear of the unknown that we avoid both individually and collectively.
 This approach to desire also encompasses the establishing of boundaries between experiences and sensations. As we engage in attempts at controlling or fabricating specific sets of experience and their accompanying sensations. We are also often involved in attempts at controlling environmental possibilities in order to force or restrict what occurs. This happens primarily through the establishment of patterns that ensure consistency in the range of feelings and sensation we open ourselves to. The habitual behaviour of seeking to fabricate, control and avoid, limits our ability to experience an open relationship with a greater potential variety of experience. We are basically overly selective and afraid of what is unknown and resistant to what is new. Groups and societies function in the same way with fear of the unknown being one of the most powerful binding elements for a community and identity is not only informed by our particular narrative, but is also bound up in group and societal identities and their narratives. Needless to say, there are multiple core narratives that make up our identity and they are drenched in history and ethnocentrism.
A valid criticism that is often aimed at spiritual folk is that they too often fail to realise that they are not necessarily obtaining any degree of genuine freedom or radical transformation when they engage in a new set of rules within an alternative spiritual community; formal, traditional, modern or otherwise. They are simply exchanging one identity for another. Does growth, change, transformation, healing, etc occur? In many cases it is likely. Unfortunately, most folk seem to be happy enough to take this redefinition of their identity and their new shared narratives as the be all and end all of exploring the dynamics of the self, existence, freedom and so on, and simply settle back into a new, more comforting form of the status quo in which the new improved version of self is better able to function. Ideally, shifting social roles and narratives provides the means for not only finding some balance and sense in a human life, but for more radical engagement with the edges of what it means to be human. Too often in spiritual groups there is an inability to recognise where blind spots occur, where certain sets of experiences, sensations are avoided and others are solidified collectively. Unspoken agreements on which behaviours are to be commended or avoided solidify over time into rules and regulations that instead of guiding individuals to learn and discover alternative possibilities in behaviour, thinking, feeling, and imagining, become a gated reality in which the full scope of radical breakthrough regarding ignorance and suffering and their causes ceases to go deep enough.
The releasing of desire is in a way the surrender of the habitual conditioned responses to stimuli so that we are in a constant process of rediscovering experience anew. There is a constant opening to engagement with the unknown in which the familiar reoccurs yet reveals a certain vivid uncertainty that runs counter to expectant perceiving. This is an odd concept in many ways and it is often coated in flowery rhetoric within spiritual literature. It is not necessary though to add additional flavours to a description of what is in reality a serious and honest acceptance of the implications of impermanence. Things are never really the same twice. There are seeming constants, but they are never exactly and precisely the same. Because we relate to people, places and experiences as if they were, we become lazy participants, hooking our attention onto habitual responses to what is known, shutting out a great deal of what is happening around us in favour of reigniting familiar feelings, thoughts and reactions.
Hopefully, it is clear that this releasing of desire does not relate to intelligent decisions regarding changes to life style, work, and necessary, pragmatic change. It really comes down instead to the willingness to experience the loss of solidity and seeming certainty that this moving present can bring up when experienced more thoroughly and without the certainties of our contriving behaviour and self obsession.
In sum, desire as a fetter may primarily be all about wanting out of full participation in this still moving moment and the random, multiple and unpredictable experiences of life. It therefore takes time to loosen, weaken and drop this fetter because the layers of impulses, aversions and fabricating tendencies towards what is taking place outside of our control are so well established, and further, mirror the same collective forces that move around and through us. If radical change is to be achieved, then happiness, bliss and joy cannot be sold as the only path fellows on the way. Letting go of desire may have as much to do with sobriety and facing reality and its loss of enchantment than it does with chasing after peak experience. Humility and sobriety often emerge as travel companions yet passivity does not need to accompany them. Rather than consider this reconfiguration of desire as an act of passive acceptance of everything as it is, we might see it as an act of waking up to the real circumstances in which we exist, whilst understanding the limits that are present in our lives and bodies. This may help us to see what is actually possible in this world and enable us to take real steps, rather than inhabit inner or outer lands of escapist indulgence in utopian thinking, daydreaming, or a resignation to hopelessness.