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 capitalists—Buddhists or otherwise—to 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.