Dark Nights, Violent Delights

I recently recalled an exchange I had on Twitter some time ago, during which I was attempting to argue that meditation, particulcarly that of the “seeing things as they are” variety, cannot possibly alleviate suffering, because any honest examination of how things are will reveal that suffering is always present and all around us.

One of the responses I got was a suggestion that I might be going through the “dark night” phase of practice. This revealed to me the presence of a sort of dualistic belief among Buddhists, a belief that suffering is somehow separate from the material conditions under which it occurs.

It would not be controversial to say that meditation does not change material conditions. In fact, meditation is precisely sold as as the ideological belief that suffering is not due to material conditions, but is a product of one’s own mind, and that the practice of meditation is somehow aimed at revealing this “insight”. This is supposed to lead to a cessation of suffering within the mind that does not come about as a result of chnaging material conditions at all. It’s the same argument psychologists make when classifying mental illnesses: suffering is the result of an internal “illness”, something wrong deep within the individual, not the material and active conditions that make that individual what he or she is at any given moment in time.

I will restate my original position in clearer terms. My position is that if we examine our current material existence, we will be forced to confront the fact that inherent in this existence lies immense suffering. The opposing position is that my view is simply a particular way of seeing things, and that, looked at another way, material conditions are not the cause of suffering. So let’s take an example to examine.

As I’m typing this post on my laptop, I am aware that there is a great deal of suffering inherent in this act. I am aware of this in a few ways. One way in which I’m aware of this is that, despite how much I enjoy writing, this action does not give me any deep satisfaction. There is still a deep existential hole which this act does not serve to fill. Another way is that I know that the production of this device, along with all similar devices, is only made possible through the imposition of suffering on underpaid, overworked, and otherwise exploited workers in a foreign electronics factory.

Let’s assume meditation, mindfulness, or whatever, allows me to perform this act with a greater level of joy. I think it very well may. Does this change the second kind of suffering inherent in this act? Of course not. Because no matter how joyful I feel, it doesn’t change what this act actually is. The act involves using an object which is only produced in exchange for the suffering of others. It involves using resources that are actively destroying the planet, making it uninhabitable for people much poorer and unlucky than I am. This “affluence” and “luck” of “mine” is defined by my ability to do things such as buy and use a computer. This ability is defined by the reality of the kind of object that my computer is, and the material conditions which make it possible.

Now, we can play a language game and try to separate all of these things: “me”, the act, the object, the exploited worker, and so on. But this is a language game. It does not change the fact that these things are completely interdependent with one another. To say that “I” can do something to remove the suffering inherent in this act is a delusion, because in doing this act, I am this act, and this act is intertwined with a great deal of suffering.

This seems an utterly obvious point to me, but is apparantly one difficult for capitalistsBuddhists or otherwiseto grasp. They would insist that I am conflating different kinds of suffering and different kinds of entities. But this is not the case. When we look at the act of using a computer, these things cannot be separated, because they are the same phenomenon.

For anyone who meets the diagnostic criteria for someone being in a spiritual “dark night”: stay there. Don’t try meditate yourself out of it, because you will only be deluding yourself. Take what is obvious here and now utterly seriously. Not what is “here and now” right in front of you. What is here and now everywhere; in your inner cities, in foreign countries, in the entire systems and structures of which you are.

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5 thoughts on “Dark Nights, Violent Delights

  1. Imagine a contemplative practice infused with precisely the reflection you engaged in here. Imagine a yogini sitting on her $100 zafu in her $100 yoga pants, both created within the conditions of suffering that you illustrate, reflecting on precisely that feature of her “present moment reality.” What you present is, to my thinking, the very thrust of “compassion.” This reflection places you in the circle of suffering that is the World. It might be “merely” affective, but must only be so in the first instance, right? The further practice consists in real world actions. There’s a ton more to be said about your post. It helps with the puzzle of “practice.”

    If you don’t already know it, I think “The Privatisation of Stress” by Mark Fisher will interest you: http://voidnetwork.gr/2012/03/12/the-privatisation-of-stress-by-mark-fisher-from-soundings-magazine/

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    1. Indeed, Glenn, I think this makes for good practice, at least to start. I was recently asked if I’d be interested in leading a meditation session at my college. I have a few ideas as to what I’ll do with that, but the one I’m leaning toward is introducing such a practice, one that makes people highly uncomfortable, and then having a discussion about how that stacks up to the participants’ previous ideas about “mindfulness”, meditation, or what have you. Flip the whole script, if you will.

      The sad part is that the “further practice” should be obvious. It is (at least partially) obvious what we must do in the real world: take power away from those who are set on destroying civilization; create institutions that form radically different kinds of subject from those our current ones do, etc. The difficult part is getting people to see that this is necessary in the first place, and I think you are right that the first step must be to induce a sense of discomfort–nay, of horror–with respect to the current World. Only then will we feel compelled to act. It seems to me that such action can only happen when we become compelled to act. The moment we get too comfortable is the one after which all hell breaks loose.

      That’s a great piece too; thanks for sharing it. Reminds me of how the concept of “stress” itself, and most of the early research funding on it, originated from tobacco and other corporate interests. Anything to prevent people from considering that their ills may be on any level socially created. I also see some connection there to Tom’s recent piece on smartphone ideology.

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  2. Great post, and I agree. You’re outlining a very real approach to viewing the world, truly “cutting through” delusion. We have a moral imperative to view the world like this, instead of denying/ignoring/not seeing how things truly are by just focusing on our own “wellness”. But I am in a bit of a bind, having come through decades of a very pernicious, troubling and often debilitating anxiety disorder – healed, this past year, almost entirely through mindful meditation. I really did have benefit from the philosophy of “non self”, of allowing all to pass through me as mere phenomena and not linked inherently to any sort of “self” – my symptoms, after a year of this form of meditation, have lessened by about 80%, i would say. So, after reading yours and Glen’s work, I am having to reshuffle everything. How would you approach meditation, in view of your “failed buddhism”, in response to very real and very painful mental activity such as chronic anxiety, that shuts one off from the world? It’s a genuine question that I would love to hear your response, approaching someone like you rather than the drone-ish responses i can almost predict from the “buddhist community” (i.e, “just sit”, “have pure mind”, etc).

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    1. Thank you for your comment, James.

      What does it mean that meditation helped with your anxiety? What I mean to ask is, what are the implications of that with respect to finding this non-buddhism stuff?

      I actually understand where you’re coming from. Until about a year ago, since as far back as I can remember, I experienced a lot emotional suffering (“major depressive disorder”, clinically/psychiatrically speaking), often leading to extreme isolation and massively self-destructive behavior. Meditation certainly seemed to help quite a bit, in the sense of minimizing the amount and intensity of acute symptoms, though it did nothing to help me understand the causes of my suffering in the first place, especially given the pseudo-scientific conceptions of mental illness in the DSM. I don’t really meditate anymore, in the normal sense of the word. But as a result of my encounter with non-buddhism and my subsequent engagement, I gained a much greater understanding of the actua causes of my suffering, particularly its social nature (despite the insistence of psychologists that I have some sort of mental “disorder” that resides in my eternal soul… I mean brain). In my view, Buddhist practice is really about investigating and understanding the causes of one’s suffering, not to make oneself feel better while meditating.

      That said, though I’m not sure what kind of anxiety you have (i.e. whether it’s psychosocial in nature, or a distinct neurological disorder with a clear physical cause), if meditation helps reduce the amount of suffering you experience, where is the harm? There is nothing wrong with taking measures to minimize whatever personal suffering you can, BUT, only so long as you are aware that “the philosophy of “non self”, of allowing all to pass through me as mere phenomena and not linked inherently to any sort of “self”” is an ideological practice, not a scientific truth, and as long as you remain critical and suspicious of any kind of illusion of transcendence. There is a sense in which you might say that those “mere” phenomena are not self, but I would probably argue the opposite: that there is no self that is separate from those phenomena. In other words, they very much are self.

      We can talk in circles about ontology ad infinitum, but at the end of the day, our goal is to reduce suffering, right? So I would say keep engaging with Glenn’s work (and if you haven’t yet, take a look at Tom Pepper’s blog The Faithful Buddhist), think, challange. Read work outside of Buddhism. If you’re hungry, eat. If you are experiencing a panic attack and need to calm yourself by focusing on your breath, then do so.

      The unsatisfactory answer, ultimately, is that you will not be able eliminate your suffering, or bliss out, without deuding yourself. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore your suffering, but that you should strive to understand it better, and resist becoming a passive subject of Buddhism, or non-buddhism, or capitalism, or whatever.

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      1. “What does it mean that meditation helped with your anxiety? What I mean to ask is, what are the implications of that with respect to finding this non-buddhism stuff?”

        It meant that I had a method – a method to manage it. I had tried all sorts of “methods” before, from exposure therapy to CBT, and none have got close to the “gains” i have made with mindfullness. “Insight” gained through meditation saw my symptoms half, then half again, etc, etc. Very profound experience to suddenly feel the mind truly and thoroughly empty of stuff that had been swirling around for DECADES. I had a particular brutal subset of OCD called “Pure O”.

        And so I gradually, by extension, started to inquire into Buddhist principles, and believed them, wanted to believe them, accepting things on faith, on “it must be right”. But something never felt quite right, in that regard. Something about the teachers was off putting and I just blamed myself. Something about their slow, purposeful speech, the smug grins, the utter un-ironic pretentiousness, and most of all, the humorlessness – but still I kind of internally blamed myself for these unsettling feelings.

        I also noticed that I was thinking about politics less, and engaging with political discussion less. Having far less interest. And I began to inquire into that, too. Why was I losing interest? I think truly it was because the Buddhism I was exploring was making me more selfish, less interested in the world, and more focused instead on “higher things”…which now I realize were not very much higher at all, infact lower, in a way.

        I will continue to meditate, that’s all I will do. It has helped. I am also a massive sucker for Allan Watts, some of his lectures have had a very real and profound affect on how I perceive the world. And although imbued with ideology, as everything is, there are some very simple messages within buddhism, such as Watts’s, that don’t require much from the practitioner at all. Things to ponder without a promise of anything at the end of it.

        Quite a journey. A phenomenological one. Good luck. Really enjoy your blog.

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