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.