Is meditation political?

police-meditationThis evening I overheard a conversation in French on the benefits of meditation. A young French philosopher was inquiring with a woman who regularly practices meditation whether for her there was also a political dimension to it. I soon realised this was a very interesting question which has never received serious attention.

For me meditation has always been something which comes and goes in phases of my life. Sometimes, I meditate for more than an hour every day for an extended period of time. Sometimes I even meditate for almost ten hours on Vipassana meditation retreats. Also, I have participated in Zen retreats.

Currently though, I am more involved with the political questions of religious diversity (Who decides what’s orthodox religion? Who decides whether (a) religion is wrong or not?) and the politics of objects (Why do things not participate in the democratic process?). This also means that my dialectic mind so to say is a little stronger, though my mindful mind might be weaker. Nevertheless, that’s both a great starting point for social engagement and for dialectical reasoning.

When just doing a quick google query about meditation and politics I came up with a couple of hits. First, there were hits about politicians who meditate (in this context they usually mean mindfulness, I will come back to that distinction). Second the question was whether meditation makes you more liberal or more conservative. The neuroscientific odds appeared to be in favour of liberalism, although the effect waned away after a while.

Nevertheless, both hits did not answer the question as I meant it, so my question became, what do I actually mean by this question? The only answer to the question I found somewhat satisfying was a blog post which quoted Osho on this topic, a spiritual guru from the 70s who’s take on spirituality I usually find very inspiring, despite the controversial character this guru had. “Can I be revolutionary and a sannyasin at once?” is the question asked in this blog post. For Osho, politics is about competition, and polar. Meditation for him is about accepting the polarities, therefore he states that meditation and politics cannot happen at the same time. “Meditation is like light. When meditation comes, politics disappears.”

Now this understanding of Osho feels to me a little dissatisfying. In the first place, it compares meditation to “light” and politics with “conflict” and darkness. Not only do I think this understanding is very dualistic, it also begs to be deconstructed. Maybe meditation is darkness and politics is light? I know many marxists who would readily agree with that statement.

But Osho is a little more nuanced than I account him for now. He rephrases the question whether meditation and politics go together by saying: “Can I choose to change the world and change myself at the same time?” Osho answers: not possible. But he explains it as follows: “When you change yourself you have started to change the world – and there is no other way. If you start changing others you will not be able to change yourself, and one who is not able to change himself cannot change anybody.”

This explanation makes me even more interested. In one sense, Osho appears to acknowledge a kind of non-dualism between self and world (when you change yourself, you change the world). But there is also a kind of dualism in the sense that he rejects the possibility to change others. The hidden premise here of course is that politics means that you want to change others. Although I’m sympathetic with Osho’s non-dualism, I suspect he discards “politics” as dualistic too easily. Certainly, dualistic politics and meditation won’t go together, but is politics necessarily dualistic?

Let me elaborate on how I understand meditation, to see if that would clarify the issue here. As a practice, the most easy way to describe meditation is to sit still and be aware of your sensations. There are many different ways to emphasise elements of this practice. A famous essay by the Zen philosopher Dogen, is sometimes translated as “How everyone can sit”, and describes in detail how you should sit. This description is all you need, according to Dogen, to know how to meditate. A more classical text, the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (widely used in Vipassana practice) focuses less on the way how to sit, but more on how you should direct your attention while sitting. It emphasises the focus on breath and by extension the awareness of the sensations in your body, to which you should practice to keep an equanimous mind and remember that all these sensations are impermanent. The practice of meditation has in the past decades been translated to a more popular and some would argue secular version, which is generally referred to as mindfulness. Similar to traditional meditation instructions, it emphasises to be aware of the present moment, don’t judge your experiences and bring your wandering mind back to the exercise of mindfulness, but with gentleness.

In my analysis, though superficially similar, Zen, Vipassana and mindfulness represent three very different takes on what meditation is about and are in a sense incomparable precisely for that reason. The main distinction lies in the purpose of the practice. For Vipassana, the goal of meditation is “enlightenment”, which is the ultimate liberation from suffering which is inherent to all living beings. Meditation is the final enterprise you can undertake to relieve yourself from the illusion of being alive, which is the result of the attachment to our desire. The idea meditation is the tool to reach this liberation is ultimately a matter of faith, although the practice is so thoroughly described that if you follow it correctly you will very quickly notice tremendous change, which will definitely enhance your conviction that you are on the right track. In Vipassana, the meditator is not enlightened, but strives to become enlightened (Arhat). As I see it, Vipassana is therefore a dualistic practice. There is a clear distinction between non-liberation and liberation.

In this way it is distinct from how I understand Zen. According to Zen, meditation cannot lead to enlightenment, because everybody is already enlightened. It might be that you don’t realise at the moment you are enlightened, and meditation can certainly assist in realising this, but ultimately there is no difference between the state when you realise this and when you don’t. This is non-dualism. One of the central debates in Zen history was fought out between proponents of gradual enlightenment, who say that this realisation comes gradually as a result of your practice and the proponents of sudden enlightenment, who will say this realisation will just strike you, more or less independent of your practice. In Zen, meditation is beautifully purposeless. Just like Dogen says: everybody can do it: just sit! You can already do it! It’s universal. Even if you don’t sit you’re enlightened. Enlightenment is not hard, it is instead very easy.

The discourse of mindfulness then, does not hide the fact that its practices are derived from these Buddhist traditions, though it usually emphasises strongly that mindfulness is not a religious practice, that it has all kind of benefits to people in contemporary society, that you don’t have to “believe” anything, and that it’s benefits are backed by scientific evidence. Furthermore, the practice of mindfulness is supposed to improve connectivity in your brain. A big hurray for this great non-religious practice. Hurray.

Let me be clear: mindfulness and politics are for me indeed completely disconnected. Politicians practicing mindfulness might help them making better decisions, very admirable in itself, but that does not imply the same as saying that mindfulness is political. The only way I might think of mindfulness as political is as part of a liberal secular ideology, which is opposed to for example a communist ideology. Nevertheless, I don’t see any wars being fought over mindfulness any time soon. Mindfulness is about as political as going to the movies, which is in my opinion not very political.

My focus would be on Vipassana and Zen. Vipassana I have identified dualistic while Zen I believe is non-dualistic. The next important question is how we are going to regard politics? The central question of politics, I’m suggesting is who does decide on collective action? Let’s focus on this action first. The assumption in action is that the reality is at present in a certain state and that it would be better if it would transform to another state. This “utopian moment” which appears central to all political deliberation is without doubt dualistic. At present, the world is grim, but as a result of (collective) action, it becomes bright. Important here is the question whether political action needs to be understood in a dualistic way? Is the goal of politics enlightenment (utopia)? In that case it would be similar to Vipassana. Or, this would be the other option, maybe society in itself is already a utopia, but we just don’t realise it yet. That is how I imagine a Zen politics. (The third option is that politics does not strive for utopia or any better kind of society, but that it just “fixes holes”. This would be – and I mean this pejoratively – “mindful politics”.)

The tension between meditation and politics, and the options we have available to solve this tension, shows me a very interesting trait about how we understand the political act. Because however the deliberation process develops, there is a very strong hidden assumption, that whoever makes decisions in name of whomever, these decisions should improve reality in a noticeable way. This assumption reveals a strong lack of acceptance towards reality as it is, precisely what meditation is trying to teach us.

At present, many often feel sad about the state of our world, they might even feel bitter or discouraged to change anything about it, they feel anger towards all kinds of suffering of human beings or grief about the loss of identity. It is this emotional feelings that become part of our political action: a deep feeling of dissatisfaction with the world in which we find ourselves. Meditation – both Vipassana and Zen – teaches us we might not be free to how we encounter the world (there is pain, there is suffering), we are free to react on it in a certain way. The meditation practice advises us to remain equanimous to what we experience, but just notice it and stay only in the noticing. If we don’t do that, we will fall back into the habit of reacting to what we experience, which is usually a judgment  – I don’t like this, I don’t like that – and then a reaction – I kill it -, which would be informed by our negative evaluation to it. Or, when we are extremely positive, our habit of judgment to our experience would be positive we say – I like this – I take it.

Now meditation does not necessarily teaches us that we should not act at all. Buddhism only observes that all reality arises in interdependence, meaning that everything is a reaction to something else, connected by desire or repulsion (I love flowers, I hate fascism). These distinctions fade away through the meditative practice, because you realise there are no flowers independent of your judgment of it, neither is there any fascism. Everything arises in interdependence.

In Vipassana now this situation is seen as burden from which we seek liberation. The politics of Vipassana would be: refrain from politics, because it only causes more misery. You cannot improve life, you can only liberate yourself from it. Meditation is the only and ultimate political act.

In Zen this is more complicated. The basic premise is that everything already is enlightened, as it is sometimes called “the Buddha nature”, but it is ignorance that prevents us from knowing this. When the veil is (partly) removed, you can see much clearer that everybody is suffering, not because they’re not enlightened, but because they don’t know they are enlightened. Therefore, Zen Buddhism invokes the ideal of the bodhisattva: a being that has become very close to full understanding of her enlightenment, and therefore realises that the reason so many beings suffer is their ignorance. The bodhisattva therefore returns to the world of suffering to guide other beings to lift the veil of ignorance. Of course, for every being this lack of understanding is different and should be relieved by different means. A wise bodhisattva knows how to lift these veils of ignorance a little more.

Politics is the collaboration of subjects towards a more common goal. The politics of Vipassana are easy: you meditate to liberate yourself from suffering. If your are persecuted and killed, before reaching your goal – don’t worry you’ll be reborn and start from where you left off. The suffering is only an illusion anyway. The politics of Zen are much more complicated. Since anybody can be a bodhisattva and anybody can be ignorant, you never know who to trust. Is the leader of this great political party a realised enlightened person, who acts by the best of her understanding to guide us towards liberation, or are you in fact following a current of ignorance? I believe here comes the important overlap between politics and meditation into play. Many politics as I have said assumes an imperfect world. Zen Buddhism understands everything in the world as enlightened, though ignorant of it, thus causing suffering. The only way, however, to act political from a meditative point of view is to act detached from the outcome of your actions. You don’t act to improve a situation in the world; the only influence your actions should have is on how reality is perceived by the actors in it, because it is precisely their ignorance towards it that causes suffering.

My conclusion is that a non-dualistic understanding of meditation is indeed very political, and also reinterprets the political as non-dualistic as well. I also argue that meditation in this sense should be political. Neither do I consider the political as something negative, nor meditation as something positive. Since any desire can be a cause of suffering and any attachment creates more suffering, both meditation and politics should remain detached from the result of its action. Nevertheless, meditation and politics can never be separate, because ignorance and the magnificence of power are one and the same.

The necessity of thought and the apparition of Alterity

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This text served as the introduction to my Master thesis on Emmanuel Lévinas and Jacques Derrida, written in 2008.

All thinkers appear to have in common a feeling of inner necessity to articulate those thoughts which they actually articulate. That will which obligates them to give a free interpretation to the intellectual profession, is shown in style, a fervour to publish and the structure of thought. This inner necessity follows as a reaction on a judgment about reality. This judgment is either motivated by attraction or repulsion. In the case of attraction, the thinker will describe reality, or comes to an either systematic of theoretical articulation. The thinker creates an image of what she sees. The attraction of that which is observed, is transformed into the choice to create an image of precisely that and not of something else. In the case the judgment of the thinker is motivated by repulsion, she will revert to the description of a possible reality, which has to wipe out the repulsion felt from the reality as it was experienced. Then, the thinker creates an image of what she would like to see and of how it could be.

 

Both these styles of thought could be criticized. This critique would in both cases be directed to the created image. We provide critique to make clear in what respect the image is not accurate. An important trait of critique is that it acts by definition against a mental condition of the original thinker, who – as we have said – is governed by attraction or repulsion, lust or nausea, mania or depression. The critic provides a complementary judgment: she urges the idealist to accept reality more as it is, but also warns the aesthete that not all that glitters is gold. With their inner necessity as their motivation, all thinkers are first of all representatives of themselves. Against the background of the emphasis of contemporary continental thinkers on questions of alterity, we are left challenged. What moment did the Philosopher decide that the Other became necessary to articulate? Was it a feeling attraction or repulsion that prompted this? Or is also the philosophy of alterity ultimately in a sense motivated by a hidden narcissism, a concealed attempt to articulate herself?

HyperNormalisation: critique of a critique

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This week, VICE distributed promotional video by Adam Curtis his new film called HyperNormalisation. In this video, Curtis argues that it becomes increasingly clear that we are all living in a dream world, detached from reality. Social media, he argues, have developed algorithms that only present you with information that confirms the ideas you already had. This dystopic worldview does not appear so dissimilar from the vision in the 1999 movie The Matrix.

There is however a strong self-referentiality problem with his video. First, it makes use of similar persuasive techniques it uses to criticise. After all, Adam Curtis’ films are also a product, and VICE and the BBC are outlets to sell his product. Second, if the message of the video is correct, than only people who already agree we live in a dream world get to see this video. Therefore, the film might offer us a correct representation of the state of affairs in the world, but can not be able to really offer a solution.

The film also supposes an intentionality by the elites and representatives of global capital that might not be  correct. The assumption of the video states that there would be a possibility of liberation from this situation, as if we would be able to discard our chains and walk into the “real world”. As a metaphor, this duality between the “dream world” which is a bad state which only benefits some sort of semi-transcendent global elite and the “real world” which is liberated from slavery is tempting. After all it feeds our subconscious desire for freedom. But the value of freedom is precisely constitutive for the world order Adam Curtis attempts to criticise. After all, it is the promise for freedom that motivates us to act and to consume. The question is whether Adam Curtis succeeds in transcending the trap of the wheel of enslaved desire he criticises. What would his liberation look like?

Curtis describes politicians as “pantomime villains” whose job is to make us angry, so we engage more in social media. Social media is then seen as absorbing all opposition, to which Curtis adds the depressive conclusion that that is the reason why “nothing ever changes”. Two striking problems are noteworthy about this analysis. First, the idea that “nothing ever changes” is quoted here as a truism, although it seems highly questionable. Many advancements in terms of human rights, ecological protection and equality have been made. Maybe this progress has not been as much as we want, but if Curtis would discard those advancements as “fake” or “dreamlike” as well, the question is what would count as change anyway? Second, if social media would really be absorbing all opposition, this video could not be opposition to it, because it is being distributed by social media as well. If this would be the case, we wouldn’t be engaging in critical thinking by watching this video, because our engagement with this criticism would only be a productive resource for the social media as well.

Finally, Curtis compares our condition as “HyperNormal”, comparing our situation with people living in the totalitarian Soviet Union for rhetorical effect. Again, the question arises how a liberation from this should really look like? It could certainly not lie in a self-expressive “live life authentic” ethic – quit your job and travel the world – because this is precisely which is being sold to us by travel companies and thus part of the “consumption factory” he describes. What remains as a possible liberation would be the complete and full acknowledgement of the “real world”: life is miserable, violent and unequal and no solutions exist for this, except accepting this state (and of course deleting your Facebook account). Not only am I unsure whether this is really what Curtis would like us to communicate, also such a conclusion would be as ridiculous as assuming the opposite.

Adam Curtis’ film stands in a long tradition of leftist critique of the system, global capital and corporate power. What is valuable in his analysis is the recognition that our desire for freedom is working against ourselves. A solution for this problem does, however, not appear imaginable from this perspective. If we would discard the suspicion that there is some inherent intentional evil in the way global capital functions, his video might offer us a striking image of the human condition. The drama and sense that there is an injustice being deliberately inflicted upon us by social media is, however, misplaced. For now, I rest at questioning Curtis’ intention: does he want to show us a way of liberation from our shackles, or is he himself a “pantomime villain” in our clickbait imprisonment?

Our lost brother

sunThis morning I was called by one of my best friends from Belgium. He wanted to share his thought with me: the East, he had concluded, is not geographical place, but it is rather the symbolic representation of our desire for the mystical. When I was in China this summer, I was wondering wether it would be possible to come to a fundamental difference between the people who are living on the Western side of the Eurasian continent and the people at the Eastern side.

To answer this question I believe we have to find recurse in transcendental history. Transcendental history is not the description of history as we know it has actually happened, but it is the history of everything which must necessarily have happened, although we have no archeological or scriptural sources to prove it. For example, 50.000 years ago, women must have given birth to children now and then. We have neither the material nor the scriptural sources to warrant such a claim, but nevertheless, we know if must have happened.

Another one of this transcendental historical moments is the moment when the human population wondered off into two distinct directions. If we follow on the assumption that the human species “came out of Africa”, their migrations must have come to a decisive point somewhere around Mesopotamia. You could imagine a tribe with two visionary brothers – or sisters, or a brother and a sister – who argued about the best way to proceed. This must have truly been the hyperintelligent, learned and powerful members of the human tribe. Their debate necessarily concerned the following: what should we do: should we continue our movement in the direction of the sun, or will we move away from the sun?

It is very inspiring to consider people from the West as “abendlandische” people, while the people of the East are the people of the countries where the sun is born. It must have been phenomenologically intimidating and existentially disturbing to watch this ball of fire take its course through the blue sky every day. Is this sun something we desire for, or something we are afraid of? The answer to that question most essentially defines the difference between the people of West and East.

Today, I have the opportunity to meet my lost brother or sister. Though our bodies are new bodies and did not take part in this crucial decision for mankind, our genes are still the same. Therefore, I can now ask my lost brother or sister: why did we fight? Why did you decide to go the other way? What was it that attracted you towards the sun? And do you maybe also remember why I was so scared of the sun? The answer to those questions need to be found in the distant past, so a regression through my body is necessary. But there must be a trace left and it must be possible to find this trace. Through this inquiry, we will be able to find the necessary conditions for a reconciliatory embrace.

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The Nova Effect

Especially with modernity, religiosity had become something suspect. According to the secularisation thesis, the rational advancement of societies will ultimately lead to the decline of religion. The contemporary situation in fact proves the opposite. After a decline of religiosity after the second world war, today we see how religion continuous to rise again.

After having studied religion for some years, I believe it is not really possible to make a relevant distinction between religious and non-religious people. So-called “atheists” often express a commitment to their beliefs, which also has an influence on the rituals they take refuge to. And even for the rest category of the “non-religious”, for whom religious questions are apparently meaningless, we see often how morality, meaning making and rituals also connect these people to a larger framework of ultimate sense. The only truly non-religious are therefore the nihilists and the depressed; true nihilists are hard to come by, and fortunately, depression is for many people a transitory experience, although it might stick for a very long time.

The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor has written a striking analysis of religiosity in our postmodern age with his 2007 publication A Secular Age. According to him, present day religiosity is characterised by what he calls the “nova effect”, in which the possibilities for individuals to give meaning to their lives has increased exponentially in the past decades. Since religiosity is no longer a public matter, but has been relegated behind the front door, the question how to understand our position in the world has become a matter of individual deliberation and therefore the options to do so have become vast.

Therefore, although “religion” in the form of institutional affiliation has been in decline, the individual expressions of religiosity have skyrocketed. I believe this evolution is an enrichment to society. If religiosity is not in the first place a public matter, this enables people to experiment with forms and expressions to connect to their perceived divinities. The diversity of people will lead to unexpected encounters when we inquire each other about our spiritual or religious rituals. No longer does modernity drive a wedge between institutional believers and the modernists; the postmodern playful human has claimed the spiritual for herself in order to create new relationships with others.

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Daoism and climate change

The final negotiations of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, most likely concerned whether the long expected “final draft” of the agreement would contain a commitment to attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or stick with a phrase which would spin the commitments to “(far) below 2 degrees Celsius”. While the Western nations have the luxury to show off their moral superiority in forming a “high ambition coalition” (which also includes all nations so poor that they can only rely on moral superiority) which strives for the 1.5 degree ambition added to the final draft, countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia have other interests to consider and decided to cool down (pun intended) the negotiations.

Meanwhile, I was taking part of a conference on the study of Chinese religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of Groningen University. At this conference, James Miller, a scholar of Chinese studies from Canada, presented a plea to think about the environment from the perspective of Daoism. One of his assumptions is that the common ecological perspective which frames our environmental endeavours as a desire to “save the planet” is part of a fundamentally Christian worldview and above all ultimately absurd.

Part of this common perspective in which the “protection of the planet” is central, Miller argues, is the idea that time evolves in a progressive and irreversible way. Our existence is meaningful because of this progressive movement. The natural environment is considered as the background on which we can project meaning. Furthermore, meaning is not part of the natural world. Human beings are assigned as “guardian” of the environment.

As opposed to this worldview, Miller puts forward a Daoist worldview, which promotes the idea of self-cultivation in relation to the natural environment. Furthermore, the flourishing of some things also requires the destruction of other things; the energy I obtain to live comes at the expensive of the death of many others. Miller argues we should be aware of the “transformational” character of the natural environment, which is an essential part to the Daoist understanding of the universe. Religion could therefore be understood as the negotiation on the economy of cosmic power.

The environmental crisis is thus not an appeal to save the planet, as the Christian/humanist worldview understands it, but rather challenges us to respond in a creative way. Miller suggests we should think of religion as the “collective representation of death and violence”. The environmental question challenges us to quantify human violence and to see how we can consume in a creative way, thus avoiding the destructive patterns we have developed in the past.

When we only think of climate change and the environmental crisis as a materialist problem, we fail to see the underlying worldviews that, first of all, identify the crisis as a crisis and secondly how the solutions which are the result of these worldviews might in fact aggravate the situation. I agree with Miller that the Daoist worldview offers an adequate alternative model, which focuses on transformation and vitality, but also acknowledges death, violence and destruction as part of nature. It also enables us to look at climate change as a challenge, instead of a crisis.

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Hard indeterminism

For a long time, it has been a common conviction that human beings possess free will. With respect to actions, individuals are considered to have a choice between different potentials and therefore, they are also considered responsible for the consequences of this action. With the modern worldview came the rise of a mechanistic and thus deterministic universe in which all events are the cause of antecedent events. This causally closed universe did not leave much room for deliberate human agency.

The apparent contradiction between our perceived free will and the universe as a causally closed system lead to much philosophical reflection on how to reconcile the two positions. Many philosophers, such as David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and more recently Daniel Dennett have argued in favour of such a reconciliation of free will and determinism; a philosophical position which is called “compatibilism”. Some philosophers however have argued that free will must necessarily rest on an illusion if we want to go with a deterministic universe, a position known as “hard determinism”. On the other end of the spectrum, there have also been philosophers who take determinism for an illusion. Especially in quantum mechanics, we have seen theories that describe the universe as something “statistical” rather than determined. Since the universe is not determined, in their views, a human free will is perfectly feasible – a position which is called “liberalism”.

 

One philosophical position has been neglected in these reflections. Since quantum mechanics still stands as one of the most successful physical theories of all time, all evidence points into the direction of a indeterministic universe. But this does not necessarily imply that therefore the actions of human beings are the result of a free acting agent. In short: the universe could very well be undetermined, but still human beings have no free will. This position is called “hard indeterminism”. Since many of our contemporary scientific insights point in the direction of the illusion of subjective will, but also the illusion of determinism, I believe “hard indeterminism” deserves more attention by contemporary philosophers.

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