Meditating Buddhism

Over at the Atlantic, Evolution of God author Robert Wright wonders why he feels “happy” after a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat. It doesn’t seem that complicated to me: a week away from work, computers, phones, texts, tablets, noise, writing, stores, appointments, meetings, transactions, traffic, acquisitions, machines, and routines should have this effect. Still, Wright struggles to make sense of it:

I’m not sure how to explain this irony of detachment-induced warmth. Maybe, though in theory you’re distancing yourself equally from positive and negative emotions as you meditate, you’re actually cheating, and doing selective distancing. Or maybe a feeling of affinity–with our environment, with other creatures–is a kind of default state, and we revert to it when more transient and superficial feelings, both negative and positive, are stripped away.

But that doesn’t make immediate sense to me in terms of evolutionary psychology, my basic paradigm for viewing the mind, and I’m not sure it even accords with mainstream Buddhist doctrine.

If Wright would shift his focus away from minds and inner states, he might realize that external conditions have created the sorts of stresses, anxieties, and attachments to which Buddhism is an historical response. He should be asking himself what it is about life in post-Neolithic and late-capitalist societies that makes Buddhist meditation so desirable (and effective). 

Stress, disorder, suffering, dislocation, anomie, and alienation are not natural, timeless, or universal human states. These feelings become widespread, indeed pervasive, in certain places and certain times for particular kinds of reasons.

It seems to me that the locus of the problem is not inner psychological space — this is simply where symptoms manifest. The underlying disorder is to be found in the conditions of economy, society, work, culture, materiality, and kinship that are peculiar to post-Neolithic societies. These can be adjusted in ways that obviate the need for detachment, transcendence, and distance.

While I have nothing against Buddhist meditation and know several people for whom it works wonderfully, I’ve also noticed that the desire for serenity and clarity is itself suggestive. Why does the desire exist? What underlies the impulse? Why does the yearning arise?

There are in fact evolutionary and historical answers to these questions. Suffering isn’t simply an internal default state — it grows in particular kinds of soils. Wright isn’t seeing because he is looking in the wrong places.


“Anomie Avenue” by Victoria Stanway


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4 thoughts on “Meditating Buddhism

  1. Troy Polidori

    This is a pretty similar critique, albeit from an anthropological perspective, as Zizek’s critique of (mainly western appropriations of) buddhism. Not only are these appropriations responding to an underlying cause of the symptoms, they are often times ways in which these social systems perpetuate (eg, going to yoga once a week to release the stress of work/family, only to go right back to them the next day). It’s often treated more as preparation than respite.

  2. Jayarava

    “The underlying disorder is to be found in the conditions of economy, society, work, culture, materiality, and kinship that are peculiar to post-Neolithic societies. ”

    Totally agree with this. It is stressful for social primates to be surrounded by strangers for example.

    “These can be adjusted in ways that obviate the need for detachment, transcendence, and distance.”

    But here we part company. I say they cannot be adjusted. Well, they might in theory be adjusted temporarily, such as going on retreat, but there’s no going back to the Neolithic. Most of us don’t have the kind of control that you’re suggesting. Modern life as lived in the developed world is just stressful and most people are overstimulated all the time, and there are few viable options.

    However the way we construct our worlds – the mix of subjective and objective that feed into our virtual world models and/or virtual self models (to borrow phrases from non-Buddhist philosopher Thomas Metzinger) is to some extent under our control. We can influence the way that our virtual models are constructed. We don’t do this through detachment or serenity – but being calm to start with does make it easier. We can become more attuned to people, more in touch, our experience of our emotions fuller and richer. Our senses can become refined.

    I quite like the discussion of the point of Tantric healing magic in anthropologist, Ariel Glucklich’s book The End of Magic. He says that it’s about restoring a (broken) sense of interconnectedness. My sense of Buddhist practice is that this is what happens here also – that modern life leaves us feeling alienated and isolated, and rather than pursuing detachment we in fact do the opposite. By paying attention to experience we can reconnect with ourselves, other people and the environment. Live more fully engaged with and in the world.

    For some people this comes in the classic mystical experience of oceanic boundary loss – which is relatively common for serious meditators. Jill Bolte Taylor’s description, on the TED website, of her experience of this during a stroke is fascinating for it’s descriptiveness. But for most of us the experiences are a bit more down to earth, progress slow.

    Some Buddhists may approach what they do with detachment in mind, but I think they just end up more alienated. I’m not interested in detachment, transcendence and distance. Certainly not the first or the last anyway; and I’m never sure what people mean by transcendence. There are classical Buddhist meditation practices found in the oldest sources (I read Pāli and Sanskrit; and dabble in Chinese) that describe cultivating feelings of well-wishing, love, sympathy, and compassion for all living beings. This is hardly detachment!

    Ultimately the point is to stop being a naive realist, to have rational and proportionate expectations of experience, to understand the nature of experience. And coming back to your first point, the reason we lack this is a lot to do with how we have lived for the last 11000 years or so.

  3. Cris Post author

    I think we have more control than you suggest, though our willingness to exercise that control may be limited. Of course we can never return to small-scale society living conditions, but we can do many things to structure our lives and environments so that the afflictions of post-Neolithic society don’t cause us such stress.

    As for what causes stress in social primates, I think it has less to do with encountering strangers than it does the underlying structures of societies and the way in which we are fitted into those structures. The stress power of social stratification and meaningless work in barter, trade, and money based societies is not to be underestimated.

    In my post, I carefully chose a list of things that can be altered and controlled: work, computers, phones, texts, tablets, noise, writing, stores, appointments, meetings, transactions, traffic, machines, acquisitions, and routines. If one attends to these with care, a great deal of good flows from it. Such attendance leads, in my estimation, to a greater capacity for your list: well-wishing, love, sympathy, and compassion. I also find that it leads to a much greater appreciation of experience, however constructed.

    You and I are largely in agreement and I greatly respect your opinion. I am merely suggesting there is more than one way to skin the post-Neolithic alienation cat. My preference is to adjust the external structures, whereas yours may be to adjust the internal structures.

  4. Eric Arnow

    The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘awake’. When, after his years of training with good teachers, and finally realizing that if he was going to get answers to his questions, he was going to have to do it himself, he trained himself, and he finally ‘got it’. The world individually and collectively is so messed up, because of our massive psychological, familial, social conditioning, that skews not only our view of the world both internal and external, but our ability to even change our view, and hence change the underlying dysfunctional conditions that created the problems in the first place. It is like ‘AID’s of the mind’. It is important to note that Buddhism is not just about ‘calming the mind and discerning the real’, in sitting meditation, but a far more comprehensive psychological intellectual and physical restructuring (decoonstructuring). It involves careful observation of how we are in the world, and also to see the world as it really is. That is why in the Kalama Sutta the Buddha admonished his questioners, to not believe mere hearsay or authority (CNN, MSNBC, NYT, Wash Post), not to mention what our religious and political socalled leaders (pied pipers) tell us, but to dig into everything, question everything, which will eventually untangle the tangle. Mindful awareness in daily life is crucial and without it, meditation retreats lose their ability to transform and overcome the problems of our human existence. However, regular meditation practice is a lot like scanning and defragmenting our consciousness as in a computer, to notice and get rid of the mental viruses, trojans, malware, and fragmentation that we experience. So both meditation and daily mindful awareness improve and support each other. A cursory study of the path of practice will clarify this point. As a start, people can look up things like Precepts, Eight Fold Path, 6 Perfections of a Bodhisattva, 4 Foundations of Mindfulness, 4 Brahamvihara, as a start.

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