Friday, 13 January 2012

Buddhism Meet Shamanism (pt.3/2) (italiano da seguire)

Faith and DIY
In a recent post on the Speculative Non-Buddhism website an argument was made that within Western Buddhism there is a tendency towards anti-intellectualism. They argue that world-famous authors such as Thich Nhat Han encourage a form of mindless practice in which feelings must have an overriding importance as the rational mind cannot be trusted. The authors on the site are heavyweight intellectuals and at times I confess to being baffled by their level of knowledge, but their criticism of certain tendencies and trends within Western Buddhism is certainly stimulating, and eye-opening. The site is dedicated to opening up the conversation on developing Western Buddhism with such articles as Ghost Buddha and X-Buddhistic Hallucination. So, if you like a bit of controversy and enjoy having your intellect exercised, go an take a look at their site.
I don't necessarily agree with the conclusion reached by their anti-intellectualism article however. In my personal experience the majority of Western Buddhists, who generally come from a middle-class background, are well educated, and reasonably well-informed. The issue as far as I can discern is not anti-intellectualism, but the abandonment of independent thought, an unwillingness to question the status-quo, and a naive acceptance of the superiority and authority of a spiritual figure, or traditional teaching. I have written about the guru-daddy complex already (Character hats article), but haven't touched on how people will voluntarily refuse to think for themselves as soon as they come across a Buddhist dictate, or classical teaching, however old they may be.
The majority of my experience is with Tibetan Buddhism where Guru Yoga and faith in your teacher are central practices. Within that context there tends to occur a sort of voluntary naivete. This is a process whereby students take on a series of beliefs as if they were certainties, without examining them to a sufficient degree. This is not always the case of course, but more often than not westerners when confronted with a Tibetan with exotic robes and a wonderful smile, can’t help but be enamoured.
I have to confess to despising hero worship and I tend to perceive much of Guru Yoga as such. The benefits and reasoning behind Guru Yoga are quite clear if you care to investigate the topic, but I don't know how realistic or practical its application is here in the West. Certainly, it does not sit alongside the understanding we have of power dynamics in relationships and unfortunately without empowering the student to question the teacher openly, the whole system is open to abuse. What's more, such a student teacher dynamic often gives rise to an unhealthy parent-child dynamic with all its confusing, psychological stickiness.
Faith is earned, not given, and it should never involve giving your power away to anyone, even a supposedly enlightened teacher. It should also not be based on group consensus, which is a prevalent feature in almost all religious circles. A feel good factor will usually emerge through group consensus. Rationality, independence of thought, and open questioning are replaced by a feeling of belonging, emotional nurturing and acceptance: we basically get an emotional fix. These feelings are not bad in themselves, but are really only healthy when made explicit and agreed upon, and removed from a parent-child dynamic. These feelings sum up, in my experience, one of the major motives people have for engaging with spirituality of any kind. Well, guess what folks, at some point you have to grow up and stand on your own two feet, and this means leaving the family home, or in this case, the safety of a group consensus.
The alternative to myopic acceptance would be to take a more autonomous hands-on approach to working with teachings and teachers. A simple starting option is to adopt the position of sceptical doubt towards all teachings and removing some of the facile obsession with the sacredness of every supposed word the Buddha, or some other saintly type, said. The Buddha himself stated as much throughout his adventures. The second would be to avoid falling into the philosophical trap where we use religious arguments to gain a position of superiority, or debate as if we knew, without any real lived experience. Such trite statements as ‘My teacher says..’ ‘It’s written in so and so text’ ‘The Buddha said…’ are rife in Buddhism and indicate lazy thinking. My response is always to ask, ‘Never mind the Buddha, what do you think?’
It has to be remembered that Buddhism is primarily a path. This means it must be walked. It involves consistent, physical action. Buddhist ideas taken out of context and without a practice background have very little value and are simply speculation. Until we actually put the idea into practice, we have nothing really to say about it that is reached through our own thorough examination. We are simply reciting what has already been said. How do you have something of your own to say? Start by thinking for yourself and place Buddhism fully and completely into the context and time in which you live.
As of writing it is 2012 and most western Buddhist are lay practitioners living in cities. Add on a career, intimate relationship, family, bills to pay, pleasure to be shared, and you have a very different reality to the fantasy world revered in many Buddhist books of monasteries, mountains and caves. We have a wealth of knowledge post-enlightenment, post-modernity, and perhaps even 'post' post-modernity about the world, the human condition and the influence of psychological factors, social conditioning and context on how we create meaning. We have made major leaps forward in the historical analysis of texts and the understanding of the contextualisation of thought, belief and its resulting prescriptive nature of the major Buddhist movements. Much of what is held to be sacred is dismantled when held up to the light of modern western academic research, or stripped to its more essential significance. My advice; don’t ignore it! What does it lead us to? An enormous opportunity to gain freedom from archaic dogma and a whole array of beliefs.

Beliefs are a central issue in Buddhism and sit on the north of the wheel too. They can be understood as constructs, or frames, for understanding and relating to life and the vastness of human experience. Beliefs are also the filters through which we give meaning and sense to our experience. Because of this they do not mirror an absolute or ultimate truth, even if such a thing exists. To believe they do is to go down the path of sectarianism, dogmatic adherence to tradition, and perhaps even religious extremism. Beliefs are to be examined and not held as sacred and this applies to all beliefs, with no exceptions! In fact it is in the examining that we begin to find our what lies behind so many Buddhist beliefs and make progress in our understanding of the context within which we are working.
As Buddhists we need to understand that beliefs must be challenged. This is because they are the supports for our identification with our constructed self, and the idea that we exist separate from the world, unchanging.
Beliefs can turn into experiential knowledge when they are worked with and examined through actual, direct experience. In the context of Buddhism this means ongoing meditation practice. You can respect beliefs, but be flexible in how you hold them, and be open to being wrong, as the power they hold over us individually and collectively is immense and blinding. 

Working with beliefs also means working with doubt. It is acknowledging that we actually do not know everything, and neither should we ever have to. Too much certainty is often a sign of self defence and the shoring up of our position. It is an attempt at self-affirmation. Entertaining doubt means allowing space to come between ourselves and our treasured ideas and concepts. By allowing this space to develop, we gain a little bit more objectivity to view openly what it is we have invested our energies into, and how we sustain our self-image through constant positioning.
Wheels as a teaching tool have a fundamentally simple truth inherent in their structure that can help break up this habit: they express multiple viewing points on any situation, and the interrelationship of knowledge.They show us that one position is not always superior to another, rather that truth has multiple faces and multiple meanings. They also help us to understand that by integrating different perspectives we become wiser. This does not lead to the post-modern idea that meaning is never objective or real, rather that within context and perspective their is an objective truth, or reality, but it just happens to sit alongside several other objective truths and perspectives that may seem to be in opposition. The truth of our existence is intimately bound up with paradox.
Recognise that beliefs act as fences, which we move within. They also designate a limit to our imagination. By imagination I mean the ability to be open in thinking and feeling, and think outside the box. This does not mean that beliefs are bad or inherently flawed, rather that we must recognise their utility, or redundancy, and be willing to grow out of them when necessary. Beliefs are surprisingly inter-changeable.

This leads us naturally to curiosity, which means being open to the world being different to how we have been imagining it to be :) It means exploring our world anew each day, even when we think we have already figured things out. It means looking at the world with fresh eyes again, and again, wilfully. It also means spontaneity, and therefore abandoning the security of the position of fixing the identities of the forms in our lives. This implies letting go of our self-importance and our grasping. 
Curiosity is an attitude as much as anything and it includes respecting your intellectual and cultural wealth as a westerner, but not letting it spoil the magnificence and beauty of the unknown that is the immense potential within every moment. 
The enemy of curiosity is cynicism. Scepticism and cynicism are quite different. To be sceptical really means being curious, whereas cynicism says no and degrades experience. It removes the value of what we assume will be the outcome, denying us the ability to be surprised. 
Curiosity is allowing creative questions to emerge and allowing them to act as invitations to expanding our concepts of self, life and others. Instead of fixing experience within known boundaries, we might let the reigns off a little, or even a lot, and risk losing our grip on certainty. It's also about not assigning meaning to events automatically based on the past we have already lived through.

Disciplining internal dialogue
Two aspects came to mind when I started thinking about this topic. One is certainly Buddhist, the other is from psychology. Disciplining internal dialogue firstly means utilising a technique (meditation) to what is traditionally referred to as quietening the mind, although perhaps it is more useful to think of technique as building and stretching space between thoughts. To quieten the mind might be misleading as a term because the objective is not to stifle thought, silence thought, or cut thought off. This more hardcore approach may be appropriate in a monastic, or retreat context, but in day-to-day life, at least in my experience, it is actually unhealthy and can produce negative side-effects and be harmful. Plus, I have to say that thought is wonderful. Don’t you agree?
Creating space between thoughts then really signifies gaining more command over our internal mental world. That command takes the form of choice. The reduction of reactive tendencies is a key component of development on the path and is fundamental if we are to make progress towards greater choice and therefore greater freedom. 
Most mental content turns out to be highly repetitive, it runs in cycles, and because of this it is addictive and is fed through mindless impulsiveness. We run similar patterns of thought and opinion in relation to similar internal and external stimulus time after time and they provide a sense of stability in how we frame ourselves, our experiences, and the external world.
Disciplining internal dialogue means interrupting these habits of repetitive thought and breathing space in-between them in order to see more clearly who we are without these self-affirming and wholly reactive habits. This is a major piece of Buddhist practice as a path and warrants a book or three. If you’re unfamiliar with this topic and want to know more, I highly recommend Ken McLeod’s 'Wake up to your Life' for its immensely practical approach written in contemporary English. 
Unfortunately, meditation often gets misunderstood as a process of becoming mindless, empty, unable to think and act. Meditative spaciousness should not make us stupid though as the opposite is true. Through consistent meditation the mind gradually becoming sharper and clearer over time. We become more lucid and able to hold our balance when confronted with the ups and downs and dramas of life. We gain a more consistent ability to choose how we respond to experience instead of reacting.

Disciplining internal-dialogue has a second aspect that comes from western psychology. This involves using internal-dialogue to bring benefit to ourselves, to question our assumptions, and speak to our wounding and the alien voices that make up much of our internal content. This could be considered a more male, active approach to engaging with inner-content.
As habituated thought patterns are like an insatiable hunger that call out for attention, one of the ways we can more effectively deal with them is to tackle them head on by using clear dialogue, addressing the quality of this impulsive, repetitive material. Most patterned thought holds within it an unexpressed or misunderstood intent, need, or desire. Calling out our inner-voices to discover what the hidden intent is behind them opens internal doors. By revealing this inner-content we are able to make adult, conscious choices about how to address these underlying issues. As we gain greater clarity and lucidity through meditation, the possibility of our engaging with these patterns and uncovering their hidden messages increases. This in turn leads to greater self-awareness as well as the liberation of energy, or in shamanic terms, personal power.
Asking straight questions to our internal dialogue after we have created more internal emotional and mental space can give rise to great insight and open up our meditation practice. Making such hidden needs and wants more explicit gives us material to work within our day-to-day lives and this frees us up from the dynamic of obsessively running towards or running away from experience that gets co-opted into meditation practice. Without understanding the real issue at play in our impulsive behaviour, it is much more difficult to develop spiritually. What happens is that our spiritual practice becomes an integral component of our self-delusion and the avoidance of our deepest cravings, which ultimately require your respect.
For some this will be a huge challenge and may require support from a professional. For others it is a case of facing up to our lives and the excuses we have been making for the state we live in. Many of the voices in our head turn out not to be our own. They are the continuation of the voices of our parents, our exs, brothers and sisters, teachers and important others. If we are interested in gaining freedom and growing up, these voices must be identified and their stories dismantled.

Morality and ethics
Finally, we come to morality and ethics. There are two important aspects I want to mention: Being kind to ourselves, and taking responsibility for our thinking and speech. Creating space gives us more choice. When we become conscious of the source of our impulsiveness and the tendency towards self-defence and self-affirmation, we begin to see more clearly how we so often set ourselves up in opposition to perceived enemies, both internal and external. Such irrationality leads us to be cruel to others or to distance ourselves from experience and both are actually painful. To be separate from the world is a form of suffering that most of us have simply got used to. We have learnt to accept a state of being numb. We hurt ourselves too through violent internal speech, or by denying our own natural capacity to understand and think for ourselves, and we fail to honour our own innate curiosity. We need to learn to be kinder to ourselves. This doesn’t have to be interpreted as all loving, sugary, happy spirituality; rather being nasty to ourselves is unintelligent. Hidden within our curiosity is our creativity, our natural desire to learn and grow and engage directly and nakedly with experience. Creativity, and imagination in particular, are what we find in the next direction of the wheel. 

Click here for the complete Buddhism Meet Shamanism series


  1. Recently revised if you care to take a second look: I mustn't post in a rush!

  2. This is great Matt. Really insightful. There are some great nuggets to chew on.

  3. Matthew, great article. As per the other comment - lots of things to consider and work on. I was wondering if you could expand on your point about our spiritual practice becoming an integral component of our self-delusion and the avoidance of our deepest cravings if we don't address the root of compulsive behaviour, as mentioned in the paragraph on disciplining internal dialogue? Is the suggestion that we can substitute prior neuroses and hang ups with a spiritual smokescreen or tonic, of sorts, and thereby simply replace one form of avoidance or source of inattention with another? Grateful for any reply, K

  4. Yep, your point is correct and that can certainly be one outcome. Fundamentally, it's all about control and manipulation.

    The problem is our neuroses act as a measure of what we allow ourselves to experience. Although seemingly uncomfortable, they act to keep us in patterns that are predictable and safe. As you'll see in my next post about the East and Fire, spiritual growth that is deeply human is only ever met at the edge of what we are/know. On the other side of the known is the great void; a source of immense fear for almost everyone.

    Although we label them as bad and negative, neuroses are addictive and have a very 'positive' personal role in acting as supports for maintaining our inner status-quo: our neuroses are strangely enough almost always working for our benefit, however corrupt and self-destructive they may be. They are in on the game so to speak. They are silent partners in our self-generated strategies of delusion.

    Practice may become a means for sustaining these neuroses by subduing them through effort. We don't get rid of them, we don't pull them up by the roots; our practice instead has the function of maintaining control over said neuroses, keeping them at bay, but they are still there waiting for us to get stressed, get tired, or lose control so that the game can continue and we can embrace failure as destiny. Our fixed and limited sense of our self is co-dependent with the patterns of neuroses that maintain it.

    Instead of addressing the urge to radically change our lives, we numb ourselves spiritually by avoiding the edges of our more unpleasant selves, judging them as unspiritual, or bad. It turns out though that transformation must be total. There can be no taboos. To awaken is to liberate all of the dark matter hiding in the deepest recesses of our psyche.

    On a more mundane level it can help to address the real agenda behind our more obvious patterns and be clear about why we are practicing. Are we only capable of giving stock answers? Can we steadily deepen? Examining the reasons why we sit on the cushion when we start getting too comfortable can help too.

    A shamanic strategy that works wonders is the 'holy cows list' which involves facing your self-defeating limitations head on. It is not for the timid though :)

    Hope that answers your question. If not 'holla at me dawg.'

  5. Thanks Matthew, looking forward to the next post and (in due time!) working on a bit of a 'holy cow list'. Cheers, K