Battlefield medicine

J. F. Martel, the author of Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice (a wonderful book about which more soon, I hope) sent out a tweet a few weeks ago:

I remembered this tweet when I read this week’s issue of The New Yorker, which has an essay on Andy Puddicombe, a “mindfulness guru for the tech set.” I hate every word in that clause, with the exception of “for” and “the.” But I will focus on “mindfulness,” a word whose recent misuse rivals that of “literally.” What’s at stake in “mindfulness,” as the word is now used, is meditation, and more particularly meditation conceived and used as a technology. Even more particularly, it is meditation used as “tech,” in the same sense that Scientologists use the word, as a set of mental techniques used to maximize personal success and gain.

I should say up front that I am hardly a neutral observer here, and I am hardly innocent of the self-seeking and self-delusion I detest in the current “mindfulness” fad.* I have my own history with meditation. I started meditating in 2009, and even as recently as that meditation was still a bit ooky and New-Age. When I told people I had gotten into meditation, I, hard-bitten skeptical rationalist that I was, would feel slightly embarrassed about it.** But as I write now, in 2015, meditation has attained the same place in American culture that yoga did in the last decade, and hardly anyone needs to apologize for doing it. To meditate is to be on the winning team: you’re in the same company as half of Silicon Valley and those pretty blonde girls, eyes soulfully closed, that show up everywhere on the covers of news magazines.

I learned to meditate at Sanshiji, a small Zen center in Bloomington that was founded by Shohaku Okumura, a great Soto Zen teacher who (among other things) wrote what is, for my money, the single best introduction to the Zen teachings of Dogen Zenji. I studied and meditated at Sanshinji for four years and took lay ordination there.*** I’m not saying that to establish my bone fides, though. I was a washout as a Zen student, and the only qualification I have for writing this post is my failure. Failure can be instructive, though, or at least amusing.

At the center of Dogen’s teaching is the idea of practice unmotivated by the thought of gain. The practice of zazen (Zen meditation) is called shikantaza, or “just sitting.” Just sitting is not sitting for anything; if you are sitting in order to reduce stress or something you are not just sitting. But the longer you sit, the more this “just sitting” seems like a koan, a riddle that the rational mind cannot solve. What if I am sitting in order to be a nicer person? Or to get better at meditation? Or (in the parlance of the Bodhisattva Vow) to save all beings? Still not “just sitting.” Saving all beings is the main point of Mahayana Buddhism, but still, “just sitting” itself doesn’t have a point. It’s pointless. Which is to say, zazen is good for nothing. And yet it is also the practice of “actualizing the fundamental point” — this is the title of Dogen’s most famous essay, genjokoan. The fundamental point is pointlessness . . . wait, what? If you are confused, well, then, join the club. It takes a lot of zazen to even begin to get a glimpse of what this all means. If it means anything at all. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe meaning is not the point.

Well, whatever the point was, I missed it, even as I practiced it for hours each day, year after year. Even as I could say, with total conviction, that zazen is good for nothing, I was meditating in order to get stuff — to become nicer and happier, gain insight, to become an expert meditator, and (let’s be real here) to flatter a certain image of myself as a compassionate and insightful and accomplished person. I did not see this as it was happening. My intellectual fluency with the ideas of “just sitting” and “no-gaining-mind” itself became a point of pride that blinded me to the very fact that I was, in fact, pursuing something after all: being the very best no-gaining-mind student ever. Chögyam Trungpa has my number:

The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. The teachings are treated as an external thing, external to “me,” a philosophy which we try to imitate. We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings. So if our teacher speaks of renunciation of ego, we attempt to mimic renunciation of ego. We go through the motions, make the appropriate gestures, but we really do not want to sacrifice any part of our way of life. (Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 13.)

Ouch. None of this is pleasant to admit. But I am admitting it anyway, because those of us who have come up against hardships in meditation need to point out, to those who haven’t (not yet, anyway), that meditative practice ain’t no joke. It’s really, really hard, and in ways that are not the same as, say, the practice of a musical instrument or a profession. The “path” (as everyone calls it) is beset on all sides by deadfall traps.


such an apt visual metaphor …

But this aspect of meditation is systematically ignored in the present-day culture of “mindfulness.” Secularized mindfulness meditation à la Jon Kabat-Zinn (mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR) bills itself as merely a technique, not a spiritual path and certainly not a hazardous one. But secularized as it is, MBSR still has its origins in Buddhist metaphysics. Even as those metaphysics are ignored or disavowed, they are still deeply embedded in the practices themselves. And when you repress awareness of anything in your makeup, bad things start to happen. That’s what the shadow self is.**** Suffering and its sidekick, desire for gain, have become the shadow of mindfulness.

OK, to back up, a little Buddhism 101: Siddhartha Gautama (a.k.a. the Buddha) was above all concerned with the problem of suffering. Indeed, he considered suffering the fundamental condition of human existence. Simply put, suffering, or dukkha, is the condition of wanting things to be other than they are. We want stuff (sex, money, love, security, etc.) and not having it makes us full of envy and anxiety. We hate whatever it is that makes the things we love go away — like death, for example, which makes our friends and family go away. And the thing is, everything goes away. Impermanence is the other side of dukkha: it is what dooms our loves to remain unsatisfied and our hates to be ever-renewed. In fact, dukkha might better be translated as “dissatisfaction.” It’s a dynamic force, always turning, like a wheel. Or perhaps like a two-stroke motor: craving and aversion are the up and down strokes for the engine of suffering. What is called mindfulness is the practice of cultivating an equanimity in the face of the cycles of craving and aversion. If it means anything, mindfulness means being present for all sensations, good and bad, and seeing that “good” and “bad” are simply the names we give to them.

Suffering is a bummer, though, and to market “mindfulness” to Americans (who as a rule do not enjoy thinking about suffering) the meditation salesmen need to work on the branding. The New Yorker piece ends with a telling detail. Andy Puddicombe is conferring with one of his clients, a hair salon mogul, and prescribing some new exercises based on the Tibetan Four Ordinary Foundations. This is a practice in which meditators reflect upon (1) the good fortune of rebirth in the human realm,***** (2) impermanence, (3) karma, and (4) suffering. Now, Puddicombe has training as a Tibetan priest: he knows this stuff cold. But I suspect he also knows that

  • no. 1 depends upon a mythology that secular Westerners will find off-puttingly foreign and superstitious-sounding;
  • no. 2 is depressing;
  • no. 3 is a complex and intellectual-demanding teaching of interdependent causality that business-minded Westerners will find irritatingly abstract and philosophical;
  • no. 4 is really fucking depressing.

So Puddicombe renamed them. No. 1 becomes “appreciation,” no. 2 becomes “change,” no. 3 becomes “cause and effect,” and no. 4 becomes “Acceptance.”

But again, that which you deny will become your shadow. You can try to turn “suffering” into “acceptance,” but it doesn’t matter what you call it, mindfulness meditation remains a practice for the systematic investigation of suffering. Business culture seems to believe that you can change the thing itself if you just change the perception of it: this is “re-branding.” (In this way, marketing is actually very close to magic.) But the thing is, even if you remove it from the terminology, temples, robes, doctrines, and ceremonial forms of Buddhism, “mindfulness,” in its very form and expectations, remains inextricable from Buddhist metaphysics. I’m not saying that I think the fundamental truth of existence is suffering; I’m saying that, if you want to inhabit that worldview, mindfulness is an absolutely crackerjack way to do it.

This might mean a couple of things. First, a whole lot of people who are picking up meditation just to de-stress and enhance their productivity might be in for trouble. If you get deep enough into this practice, you will get an up-close-and-personal view of suffering. You will realize suffering. It will no longer be an idea, but something you see moment-to-moment. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on where you are. Those who have major depression should be very careful. (I wasn’t.) It really pisses me off to see meditation marketed as a cure for depression. Some of the people who are promulgating this stupid and dangerous idea are merely naïve; others should know better.

But more likely, what it means is that suffering will simply be denied, and year by year the practice will be changed to adapt it more and more to the popular understanding of meditation as a kind of mind hack, a wetware productivity app. This is why I liked Martel’s comparison of the wildfire spread of Eastern spirituality to the Romanization of the early Christian church. It’s another good-news-bad-news situation: The good news is that a powerful way of seeing through certain delusions, along with a powerful new (to the West) style of thought, is being made available to exponentially more people now than when it was just a few Beats and hippies showing up to Shunryu Suzuki’s zendo back in the 1960s. (I might write about the already palpable influence of meditation culture on present-day intellectual life in some future blog post.) But the bad news is that, in the process of popularization, the delicate complexity of a contemplative philosophy is brutally simplified and the selfless core of its teaching is corrupted by wealth and power. A clichéd complaint, I know. But some clichés are true.

In the meantime, it suits our neoliberal overlords just fine to have their peons meditate in the break room. One of the dissenting voices quoted in that New Yorker piece, Ronald Purser, comments that mindfulness “keeps us within the fences of the neoliberal capitalist paradigm. It’s saying, ‘It’s your problem, get with the program, fix your stress, and get back to work!’” Meditation is cheap — actually, it’s free. You don’t need specialized equipment. You don’t even need someone to show you how to do it: just sit somewhere quietly and see what happens. That’s a lot cheaper than having to pay for someone’s therapy and meds. As the neoliberal regime turns the screws harder and harder in a kind of vast science-fair experiment to see how much productivity can be squeezed out of people before they just up and die, meditation becomes battlefield medicine. Patch ’em up and send ’em back out there. I always think of a George Grosz satirical drawing of a WWI medico pronouncing a charred skeleton fit for active duty:

grosz KVRemember that quote from Chögyam Trungpa’s Spiritual Materialism: “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit.” Replace the word “ego” with “capitalism” and see how little the meaning changes. Capitalism is the organization of the ego on planetary scale.

I still sit zazen, by the way.

*Here’s a clue for self-development: write a list of everything you dislike most in others. Congratulations, you have just described the part of yourself you don’t like and can’t acknowledge. This is what Jungians like to call “the shadow.”

**Notice how I poked fun of hard-bitten, skeptical rationalists in a recent post on magic. See what I mean about the shadow?

***So far as I know, there is no exact equivalent to Zen lay ordination, or jukai, in Western religious traditions. It does not imply the same commitment as priest ordination (I am no priest!) but it is still pretty much the same ceremony and it involves a lot of study and preparation, including and especially the hand-sewing of a miniature robe called a rakusu.

****See note *, above.

*****That is, as opposed to the realms of animals, hungry ghosts, warring spirits, gods, and hell. OK, now some Buddhism 102: In Tibetan Buddhism, these are the realms through which we are said to transmigrate, rebirth after rebirth, and it is only in the human realm that we can practice the Dharma and get a fighting chance of breaking the eternal cycle of suffering. So the point is, you’re supposed to make the most of your lucky break and practice hard enough to ensure at least a favorable rebirth. Those schools of Buddhism that favor ideas of rebirth tend to believe that it takes many, many lifetimes of practice to achieve the cessation of suffering — in other words, enlightenment. The Soto Zen school tends to believe neither in enlightenment nor in rebirth, which makes it a tough sell to the power-of-positive-thinking American consumers of Eastern spirituality. Which makes it richly ironic that “Zen” has become the premium brand-name for pseudo-Buddho crapola of every possible description.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Battlefield medicine

  1. Phil I don’t know what to say except AMEN, preach it brother. Thank you for shining the light through this particular fog!
    The last couple times I’ve been to a bookstore, I’ve seen some prominently displayed paperback on “5-minute Mindfulness” and “Shortcuts to Mindfulness”… **wry chuckle**

  2. philphord says:

    I think we should have a Dial M contest to come up with the best title for a fully-corporatized mindfulness book. My entry: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!

  3. Dave says:

    Good piece. But I don’t see more people meditating as a bad thing.

  4. Lyle Sanford says:

    Great post.

    Trungpa left a complex legacy, but his comments about ego, like the one you quote, really shook me when I first encountered them, and still do.

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