The Myth of Solitary Contemplation

It’s time for my mid-day meditation. I find a quiet corner to sit at alone, put my electronic device aside, and close my eyes, gradually starting to pay attention to the flux of thoughts and feelings as they arise and pass away in the mind. The sense is that I am performing an intentional act of putting the world, my life, on pause. I am now on a retreat from the chaos of social reality, free to spend time with nothing but my own mind.

I imagine that this activity serves some kind of purpose. There seems to be some use in periodically removing myself from the “outside world”, allowing myself a few moments of freedom. What freedom? Well, perhaps I feel that this exercise allows me think freely, my stream of consciousness flowing uninterrupted by outside ideological contaminants. I might use this as a technique to watch the mind in operation from a bird’s eye view, without my participation or interference. It could simply be that in these moments, I spare myself from the stress of having to constantly be in experiential conversation with the world around me.

On some level, however, I can’t help but admit that I am allowing myself to fall for an illusion when I imagine that any of these scenarios accurately reflect what is happening. I may be under the phenomenological impression that my mind is my mind, and that I can bring it with me anywhere I please. But an honest survey of my mind, inasmuch as I have access to it, turns up absolutely no content that has been obtained from anywhere other than that from which I seek refuge through such a practice. Every thought, every sensation, every emotion that presents itself is necessarily a response to something in the world, if not a mere mimicking of something my mind picked up and inherited from it. I can’t possibly trace the strands of every conscious phenomenon to see precisely what it arose in response to, or from where it was appropriated. I can only helplessly watch the endless dance of causes and conditions as they go about their business of directing how the world appears moment by moment. The sense of helplessness arises out of the inherent helplessness of the situation itself—that situation being the shared human experience in which we are collectively embedded. The situation itself is helpless in the sense that it cannot be transcended or “solved” by any individual; one can only participate in and react to it. We are fundamentally formed by our collective situation, through a shared process of meaning-making, ideological cross-contamination, and a literal sharing of a biological ecosystem. We can’t help but find ourselves in it. We are completely interconnected with it. We are it. How, then, could “we” possibly go about escaping it?

There is a way in which x-buddhism, much like any other ideology, is blind to this “collective situational helplessness”. An ideology blinds itself by attempting to impose an agenda on reality; it demands that reality configure itself in such a way so as to allow the ideology to remain useful for accumulating and maintaining power. Being subjugated to an ideology, then, requires, quite literally, perceiving the world as prescribed by the ideology in question. Neoliberal capitalist ideology, for example—the ideological soulmate of Western Buddhism—takes the moral rectitude of unconstrained economic “growth” to be a civilizational axiom: according to this principle, the key measure of our species’ progress is wealth creation. To the neoliberal subject, it does not matter in the slightest what real-world consequences its policies have on the collective emotional and ethical well-being of most humans on the planet. All that matters is that wealth creation is exponential; the degree of diffusion or concentration of said wealth is irrelevant, and the exploitation of the poor and destruction of the environment are a small price to pay. Neoliberalism requires of reality that economic growth, as it defines it, be essential for long-term human progress. Of course, there is no law of nature that dictates this. But neoliberalism must pretend so if it is to protect the power yielded by those who have benefited from its ideological dominance, and if it is to convince hundreds of millions of humans that their individual agency and responsibility can be viewed apart from the collective world in which they are embedded. There is no need to critique any systems or the ideology itself; you, the individual, is all that matters.

Similarly, I have yet to come across an x-buddhism that doesn’t demand that reality configure itself around the inconvenience of the collective nature of the human situation. It’s quite baffling how an ideology can speak of “interdependence” and “non-self” on the one hand, while at the same time build a massive industry out of promising selves an escape from their dependently arisen conditions. Failing to take its own doctrines seriously, and failing to recognize the collectively constructed nature of “selves”, Buddhism sees no logical contradiction in such a promise.

Humans spend a lot of energy protecting themselves from having to look directly at the realities of our condition. We’ve developed repressive mechanisms specifically designed for this project. This is understandable, given that our condition is an utterly terrifying sight. It is a harrowing recognition of suffering as a collective phenomenon, and of our inability to individually remove ourselves from a system of suffering that operates globally and across species. Religion attempts to reassure us that this is not, in fact, all there is to it—that there is a way to escape our humanity through some Divine or mystical elixir.

Buddhism as it is sold today in all varieties, as it is actually practiced by most people, is no different, despite it so often claiming otherwise. The framing of meditation as a solitary practice is the first instance where it misleads. There is, in fact, no such thing as solitude.

A monk meditating in an empty cave in the Himalayas is not in solitude: the practices he is engaging in are artifacts of a culture, as are his ideas about the significance and expected outcomes of those practices; his motivations for retreating are shaped by his previous relationships and experiences out in the world; even his access to the concept of retreat as an option hinges on the coincidences in the geography and historical backdrop into which he was born and raised.

What would a meditation practice that exposes our selves as collectively formed, rather than pretending that our experience occurs in a vacuum, look like? I’m not really sure how to answer that at the moment.

What is certain, though, is that such a practice would not be conducive to the kind of stress-relief or pacification of negative conscious states that motivates most popular forms of meditation. It would similarly not be geared toward any special “no-self” or “oneness” experiences. The point here is for the practice to reveal to the practitioner just how unoriginal their self actually is, not to delude them into believing that they have found a “True Self”, or some kind of “Pure Consciousness”, that is not subject to the laws of nature and causality; these are merely pathetic attempts to escape the human condition unscathed. It is only by recognizing ourselves as being trapped within a collective human condition, and by continuously refusing to flinch from that recognition, that we can begin to actually explore the nature of suffering in any meaningful way. Otherwise, meditation serves as no more than a contemplative lobotomy, a willful retreat into the delusion of individuality that has no effect whatsoever on the systems of suffering that we all share.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Solitary Contemplation

  1. Great essay! I find thinking in this direction really valuable. Hopefully, even pro-buddhists will come to see the necessity of now asking questions like: “What would a meditation practice that exposes our selves as collectively formed, rather than pretending that our experience occurs in a vacuum, look like?” Is it not becoming obvious to x-buddhists that their “myth of solitary contemplation,” as powerful and well-meaning as it may be, his finally–finally! after millennia!–unraveling beyond repair? Maybe you can help show a way forward by giving further to that great question about what a collectivity-conscious contemplative practice might look like,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Glenn. It’s easy (and fun!) to rant about the inadequacy of existing practice paradigms, but coming up with something new is always the hard part. What’s seems clear to me, however, is that such a practice, much to the dismay of Buddhists, would need to involve some form of thinking.

      I like the way Žižek uses the concept of “ideology glasses” from that 80’s film, “They Live”. I believe it really gets at the core of of x-buddhist ideological confusion, and provides some clues as to what a useful practice might look like.

      To their credit, I believe that x-buddhists understand, at least to some degree, that ideology (they may refer to it as “thoughts” or “narratives”) is problematic. Their mistake, I think, as has been discussed at SNB, is in their imagining that the antidote to ideology is training oneself to get rid of it altogether, aka achieving some state of “pure perception”. They think of ideology as a pair of glasses that tint our original, naked, perception, and that they must be removed via contemplation, when in fact our dominant ideologies are etched into our retinas by the time we learn to speak in full sentences.

      As Žižek points out, ideologies are not “imposed” on us, blocking our view of the way things really are. They ARE our view. So the truly sinister thing about an ideology is not in what it says, what it shows us, but in what it leaves unsaid. An example he uses is of those posters they put up in every Starbucks shop that inform the customer that a certain number of the pennies used to buy their overpriced drinks will go toward a Guatemalan farmer, or some such promise. There is nothing wrong with charity, of course. But what does the ad leave unsaid? What is the implicit message? Could it be that the customer need not feel disturbed that their coffee was picked by Ethiopian slave laborers? Žižek almost comically demonstrates how the feeling of moral satisfaction, which buries the uncomfortable presence of capitalist exploitation, is itself included in the price of the coffee; it is treated as another commodity.

      What we really need are some new kinds of glasses–or practice–that reveal to us the unspoken implications of ideological content. What x-buddhists propose instead, when they insist on getting rid of concepts, is that we gauge our eyes out. (Needless to say, they don’t really want to follow through with that proposal, and thus settle for an atman that can survive the annihilation of the social mind.) A useful practice, then, might continually ask, of any ideological or conceptual content phenomenologically present, “what is left unsaid”? Of course, this would require ideological self-awareness, to some degree, as a base (a bit like samatha is to vipassana).

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