21 July 2010

Meditation is Not an Anaesthetic

Returning again to the theme of so-called Western Buddhism:

One provocative criticism made of it (most famously by Slavoj Zizek) holds that Western Buddhism is not a systematic practice designed to bring about meaningful change in people or in cultures (Aloha Amigo!), but is instead a gimmick for reducing stress so that suffering individuals can accomodate themselves better to untenable situations at home, at work, and in society at large.

Now, if a situation is uncomfortable and stressful, that may be a sign that it is in need of bodhisattva activity: perhaps it is unkind, unjust, or unwise. It may also be that one is the author of one's own stress, or that one's hangups or habits are in fact introducing problems into an otherwise a-okay situation. This, also, is a call for rigorous practice. This is why some take it be a problem: a practice intended to tackle in a systematic way the complex of one's problems from the root of their causes through their expression in the world of sentient beings becomes instead a kind of avoidance strategy, a squirt of subjective novocaine to get you through your shitty office job or your husband's hurtful incompetence or whatever is troubling you that you cannot bear to deal with.

So, if I understand Zizek's argument properly, it may be at least more honest and productive to fully face the discomfort of an uncomfortable situation than to imagine it to be the manifestation of evolving Spirit or the endless march of Providence, especially if this moment of exposure motivates one to authentic transformational practice.

I would like to make a related point: meditation makes a direct perception of any situation possible, which is a precondition for wise activity. A sad situation is sad; in an unfair situation, one sees directly the injustice and its consequences for all involved. You see it for what it is, like it or not. And you feel it diamond hard; this is anything but an avoidance strategy or a peaceful at-one-ness with the sufferings of others. To borrow one of Trungpa Rinpoche's words, it is indeed very "tender."

But through this tenderness, the unacceptable thing becomes workable. Because it also makes the mind broader, clearer, and less disruptive, proper meditation prepares one to work with the situation perceived from a position of wisdom and compassion rather than habit, emotional reaction, prejudice, or personal gain (will-to-power). Through active meditation, one becomes increasingly capable of independent and creative action (independent of habitual training and emotional baggage). In this sense, authentic Buddhist meditation should be understood as an engaged Buddhist practice (a situational engagement) in teh sense Ken Jones describes in his book The Social Face of Buddhism.

A question for the gallery: If your practice is motivated by a desire to reduce stress, is this a desire to make your own situation less uncomfortable (avoidance) or as a means to be more useful to the world at large, or at least to introduce less of your own stress into the world?

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