” A pragmatist must also insist (with Goodman, Nietzsche, Putnam, and Heidegger) that there is no such thing as the way the thing is in itself, under no description, apart from any use to which human beings might want to put it. The advantage of insisting on these points is that any dualism one comes across, any divide which one finds a philosopher trying to bridge or fill in, can be made to look like a mere difference between two sets of descriptions of the same batch of things.
“Can be made to look like,” in this context, does not contrast with “really is.” It is not as if there were a procedure for finding out whether one is really dealing with two batches of things or one batch. Thinghood, identity, is itself description-relative. Nor is it the case that language really is just strings of marks and noises which organisms use as tools for getting what they want. That Nietzschean-Deweyan description of language is no more the real truth about language than Heidegger’s description of it as “the house of Being” or Derrida’s as “the play of signifying references.” Each of these is only one more useful truth about language — one more of what Wittgenstein called “reminders for a particular purpose.” The particular purpose served by the reminder that language can be described in Darwinesque terms is to help us get away from what, in the Introduction to Volume I, I called “representationalism” and thus from the reality—appearance distinction. Unsurprisingly, I see the best parts of Heidegger and Derrida as the parts which help us to see how things look under nonrepresentationalist, nonlogocentrist descriptions — how they look when one begins to take the relativity of thinghood to choice of description for granted, and so starts asking how to be useful rather than how to be right. I see the worst parts of Heidegger and Derrida as the parts which suggest that they themselves have finally gotten language right, represented it accurately, as it really is. These are the parts that tempted Paul de Man to say things like “literature … is the only form of language free from the fallacy of unmediated expression.”
“For mystics, the “self” is not an entity that stands opposed in a dualistic way to other entities. Instead, it is the clearing in which entities (including thoughts, feelings, perceptions, objects, others) appear. The idea that humans are not entities but the clearing in which entities appear eventually helped Heidegger overcome not only dualism, but also anthropocentrism, the attitude that humankind is the source of all value and that all things must serve human interests. By maintaining that humans are authentic only when they let a thing manifest itself in ways consistent with its own possibilities, not merely in accordance with its instrumental value, Heidegger countered the anthropocentrism of much of Western thought.
Heidegger maintained […] that the human being is not a thing but rather a peculiar kind of nothingness: the temporal-linguistic clearing, the opening, the absencing in which things can present themselves and thus “be.” If humans are not things, then we have to define “knowing” in a different way than before. Knowing is not a relation between two things, mind and object. Rather, knowing occurs because the openness constituting human existence is configured in terms of the three temporal dimensions: past, present, future. These dimensions hold open the horizons on which entities may manifest themselves in determinate ways – for example, as instruments, objects, or persons. Heidegger’s talk of the a priori character of the temporal horizons of human existence is analogous to Kant’s talk of the a priori categories of the human understanding. Human understanding, then, does not take place inside a mind locked in the skull. Instead, understanding occurs because human temporality is receptive to particular ways in which things can present or manifest themselves. Here it is important to emphasize that what we ordinarily take to be the ultimate constituents of “mind” – thoughts, beliefs, assertions, and so on – are for Heidegger phenomena that occur within the temporal clearing constitutive of human understanding. Hence, minds do not make thoughts possible; rather, a priori human understanding of being makes it possible for us to encounter and to conceive of ourselves as “minds” with “thoughts” separated from the “external world.” For Heidegger, “thoughts” are not radically other than allegedly external entities, such as trees, cars, and books. Thoughts and cars are both entities manifesting themselves within and thus being understood as entities within the temporal clearing of human existence. […] Refusing to conceive of being as a kind of superior entity, an eternal foundation, ground, cause, or origin for things, Heidegger argued that for something “to be” means for it to disclose or to present itself. For this presencing (Anwesen) or self-manifesting to occur, there must be a clearing, an opening, an emptiness, a nothingness, an absencing (Abwesen). Human existence constitutes the openness necessary for the presencing (being) of entities to take place. […] For Heidegger, neither temporality (absencing, nothingness) nor being (presencing, self- manifesting) is an “entity.” Rather, they are the conditions necessary for entities to appear as such. We never “see” time or “touch” the presencing of things; rather, we see and touch the things that manifest or present themselves.
[…] we humans simply are the temporal openness or nothingness in which entities can appear as entities. In addition to such an argument, however, Heidegger maintained that the mood of anxiety [cf. dukkha] reveals the nothingness lying at the heart of human existence. While contending that anxiety is perhaps the most basic human mood, he also observed that it is such a disquieting mood that we spend most of our lives trying to keep it from overtaking us. Our unreflective absorption in the practices of everyday life – family relations, schooling, job activities, entertainment – keep us distracted enough that we manage to conceal from ourselves the weirdness of being human. Anxiety tears us out of everyday absorption in things; it reveals them to be useless in the face of the radical mortality, finitude, and nothingness at the heart of human existence.
Why is human existence weird? Because humans are not things, but the clearing in which things appear. Although we are not fixed things, we define ourselves as if we were simply a more complex version of the things we encounter in the world: rational animals. Ordinarily, we identify ourselves with our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, attitudes, memories, bodies, material possessions, and so on. Such identification gives us a sense of stability and permanence, which covers up the essential groundlessness and emptiness of human existence. There is no ultimate “reason” for our doing what we do. We have to postulate our own reasons for doing what we do; we invent our own identities, although those identities to a great extent are determined in advance by social practices and norms that have evolved historically. Moreover, as groundless nothingness, humans are essentially dependent and receptive, finite and mortal. The mood of anxiety is so disturbing because it reveals that “at bottom” we are nothingness, that our existence is ultimately groundless, and that we are essentially finite and mortal. In the face of such disclosures, little wonder that most people flee from the mood of anxiety. […] if we submit resolutely to what the mood of anxiety wants to reveal to us, we become authentic (eigentlich) in the sense of “owning” our mortal existence. As authentic, we assume responsibility for being the mortal openness that we already are. Assuming such responsibility is essential to human freedom. Instead of existing in a constricted manner – as egos with firm identities – we allow the temporal openness that we are to expand. This expansion allows things and other humans to manifest themselves in more complex, complete, and novel ways, rather than as mere objects or instruments for our ends. Conversely, by fleeing from anxiety into everyday practices and distractions, we conceal the truth about our own mortal nothingness and are thus incapable of allowing things to manifest themselves primordially.
Zen enlightenment, satori, involves direct insight into one’s radical groundlessness and nothingness. In the light of such a revelation, everyday practices (including working and eating) lose their meaning. Afterward, however, one reenters these practices, but in a way no longer burdened by ignorance about what it means to be human. Likewise for Heidegger, before becoming authentic one exists in accord with everyday practices; upon allowing anxiety to reveal one’s utter groundlessness and nothingness, everyday practices slide away into meaninglessness; afterward, one takes up everyday practices once again, but not in a merely conformist manner.
Instead, being authentic means being free to invigorate and to transform practices in light of the realization of their utter groundlessness. As groundless, things could be otherwise than they are at present. It is important to note, however, that for Heidegger freedom did not mean boundless license for the ego, but instead the capacity for human Dasein to “let things be” in ways other than as mere instruments for the ego. As the Zen tradition puts it, being enlightened means chopping wood and carrying water – but in a manner attuned to the presencing of things as it occurs beyond the dualism of “mind” and “body.”
One phase in this attempt involved conceiving of humans not as minds in skulls but rather as the temporal clearing or nothingness in which thoughts and trees, beliefs and cars can appear as entities. The other phase in overcoming dualism involved challenging those who privileged theoretical assertions and abstract knowledge over against pragmatic activity. Instead of conceiving of humans as worldless intellects making abstract assertions about external objects, Heidegger defined humans as being always already involved in myriad practices that utilize many different things. These things do not manifest themselves abstractly as “objects,” but instead as tools involved in a complex set of relationships that constitute the “world” of human existence. Human existence, temporally oriented toward the future, is always pressing forward into possibilities opened up within the world. The practical involvements and practices of everyday life precede and make possible the theoretical knowledge so prized by philosophers. Heidegger emphasized the practical dimension of human existence by defining the very being of Dasein as “care.” To be human means to be concerned about things and to be solicitous toward other people. […] he later concluded that the objectifying scientific view did not result from any human decision or weakness, but was instead a proper part of the technological disclosure of entities, a disclosure that was itself a dimension of the “destiny of being.” The famous “tum” in Heidegger’s thinking occurred when he concluded that he could no longer conceive of being in terms of human understanding, but instead had to conceive of human understanding as an aspect of being itself. […] Ceasing to speak of temporality or nothingness as a dimension of human existence, he made clear that human temporality arises within a more encompassing “openness” or “region” that cannot be reduced to anything merely human. Later Heidegger emphasized that human existence is appropriated as the site for the self-disclosure or “being” of entities. Instead of conceiving of being from the perspective of human Dasein, then, Heidegger began “thinking” being in its own terms. This move was central to his attempt to abandon any remaining anthropocentrism discernible in his earlier work.
[…] The technological disclosure of entities, then, arose not because individuals were unable to endure anxiety, but instead because, since around Plato’s time, being as such had increasingly withdrawn itself from human view. Correlatively, Western humanity was blinded to the fact that human existence is the clearing for the being of entities. Hence, Western humanity increasingly came to understand itself as a peculiar entity – the clever animal- driven to dominate all other entities for the sake of gaining power and security. Heidegger argued that the emergence of the technological age in the twentieth century was the inevitable result of the clever animals’ craving for power.
By conceiving of being as the permanently present grounding for entities, Plato initiated the 2500-year history of metaphysics. Heidegger sought to transform this history by revealing that there is no eternal or final “ground” for things, that in fact what we mean by “being” is always shaped by historical factors.
Modem science forced entities to reveal themselves only in accordance with theoretical presuppositions consistent with Western humanity’s ever-increasing drive to gain control of everything. While during the industrial age the achievement of such control could be described as a means for the end of improving the human estate, during the technological era – which may be said to have commenced with the horrors of World War I – humanity itself has become a means to an end without purpose: the quest for power for its own sake, which Heidegger described as the sheer “Will to Will.”
The “world” constitutes itself by virtue of the spontaneous coordination or mutual appropriation of the appearances that arise – un-caused, from “no-thing” – moment by moment. Later Heidegger used the term logos to name this mutual coordination of appearances; hence, his claim that language (logos) lets things be. This account of the self-organization of uncaused appearances, which is close to Taoism, also provides the key to Heidegger’s proximity to Mahayana Buddhism. […] in calling for another beginning that would displace the Western metaphysical quest for the ultimate ground of things, Heidegger questioned the validity of the West’s claim to cultural superiority. Belief in such superiority hinges on the conviction that Western rationality, especially as manifested in science and technology, constitutes the ground for things: to be means to be a representation for the rational subject. In deconstructing metaphysical foundationalism, however, Heidegger revealed the groundlessness not only of rationality, but also of the historical project of mastery based on such rationality.
The Buddhist Conception of Nothingness
According to Mahayana Buddhism, overcoming all forms of dualism is a necessary condition for emancipation from the suffering brought about by experiencing the world as divided into ego-subject and objects. In combating such dualism, Nagarjuna emphasized anatma, the doctrine that there is no essence, core, or substance to things. According to this doctrine, all things arise together simultaneously and are radically codependent in the sense of mutually defining one another. This insight regarding internal relatedness or interdependent causation (pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit) not only undermines the notion of individual”substances” or “selves,” but also rejects the dualistic idea that “sentience” is a capacity enabling some entities to “perceive” others. Entities are not perceived “by” the mind, but instead “perception” and “entity” are different ways of describing a unitary cosmic event of luminosity or self-manifesting, an event that cannot be understood as merely “mental.” When we no longer experience the world dualistically as a collection of separate objects perceived by the mind, but instead as a moment-by-moment manifestation of interrelated phenomena, then we experience the whole universe as sentient, as inherently luminous.
The most famous metaphorical expression of this insight, advanced by the Hua-yen school, is the jewel net of the god Indra. Into this infinite net, representing the universe, are set an infinite number of perfect gems, each of which reflects the light given off by all the other gems throughout the expanse of the net. The play of reflected light is codetermined simultaneously by all the gems, no one of which stands in a “superior” or “causal” relation to the others. Mahayana Buddhism holds that the phenomenal world is akin to such an interplay of reflected appearances, in which each thing is aware of its relation to all other things. These appearances have no ground; there is nothing “behind” what appears, no substantial “ground” or “essence” to cause them. All things arise together in an internally cosmic event of reflection, which is sentient though not usually self-conscious. Based on the insight that all appearances are ultimately empty, Mahayana Buddhists draw the conclusion that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, a paradoxical conclusion whose “proof” demands direct insight, which argument alone cannot provide.
The doctrine of the radical emptiness of all forms, derived from the doctrine of dependent coproduction, suggests that every form, every phenomenon, has equal worth. Since there are no essences, there is no hierarchy of phenomenal reality; hence, no one thing is subordinate to or lesser than any other. Each thing is uniquely itself, like a particular jewel reflecting the play of all other jewels in the cosmic phenomenal play arising as temporary-form-within-absolute-emptiness. Insight into the interdependency of all things reveals the falsehood of anthropocentrism: humans are not radically different from or better than other beings, but instead are moments in the play of phenomena. If all things are internally related, there is no internal “substance” or “core” of entities, including humans. Human suffering (dukkha) arises because people posit and identify with a substantial, unchanging ego at the core of the flux of experience. By identifying with this supposedly permanent self, we enter into the state of ignorance known as subject-object dualism. Such dualism is characterized by craving, aversion, and delusion, which combine to produce suffering.
[…] both Heidegger and the Zen tradition maintain that once one is released from the constricted self-understanding associated with dualistic egocentrism, other people and things in the world no longer appear as radically separate and threatening, but instead as profoundly interrelated phenomena. Surrendering one’s constricted ego-identity, and thus moving beyond dualism, enables one to become the compassion (Buddhism) or care (Heidegger) that one always already is. “Authenticity” (Heidegger) and “enlightenment” (Buddhism), then, result from the insight into nondualism, the fact that there are “not two,” neither an “ego-mind” here nor “objects” there.
[…] both later Heidegger and the Soto Zen master suggest that spiritual practices may help put one in the position of a paradoxical “willingness not to will,” thereby preparing one for the releasement that brings one into the world appropriately for the first time.»
[…] For Heidegger, the self-manifesting or presencing of entities cannot be explained in causal terms. We can describe things in causal terms only after they have first manifested themselves as things. Likewise for Buddhism, causality is a conceptual scheme for relating phenomena, but these phenomena themselves are not “caused,” for all phenomena arise Simultaneously in mutual coproduction. Heidegger’s account of the dance of earth and sky, gods and mortals, the dance in which things manifest themselves in the event of mutual appropriation, bears remarkable similarities to the Buddhist account of the moment-by-moment coproduction of self-luminous phenomena. To some extent, later Heidegger’s thought and Buddhism alike are both versions of what we might call “phenomenalism.” For them, there is “nothing” behind the appearances that constitute the furniture of our worlds.
[…] later Heidegger’s cosmic dance is similar to Buddhism’s cosmic coproduction. Mahayana Buddhism manifests cosmocentrism by noting that enlightened humanity exhibits compassion equally for all beings, not just for humans. Later Heidegger moved closer to the cosmocentrism of Mahayana Buddhism and away from his earlier anthropocentrism not only by calling for humanity to let all beings be, but also by no longer conceiving of the”clearing” as a human capacity or faculty.
Heidegger’s own student, Karl Loewith, also argued that his mentor remained trapped within an anthropocentrism that blinded him to the cosmocentrism of ancient Greek thinkers such as Heraclitus.» Nevertheless, later Heidegger’s notion of the “event of appropriation” (Ereignis), which gathers mortals together into the luminous cosmic dance with gods, earth, and sky, bears important similarities to Buddhism’s mutual coproduction and Lao Tsu’s tao, both of which are regarded as nonanthropocentric. Ereignis, sunyata, tao: these may be different names for the acausal, spontaneous arising and mutually appropriating play of phenomena.
Heidegger, Buddhism, and Deep Ecology
The deep ecologist Arne Naess, a noted Norwegian philosopher and naturalist, has been influenced both by Heideggerian and by Mahayana Buddhist phenomenalism. Naess argues that our everyday “experience” of what it means for things “to be” is shaped by gestalts that organize the concrete contents or phenomena. There are no “primary” qualities, substances, or “essences” of things; indeed, there are no “things” at all, if by “things” we mean solid, unchanging, isolated material objects. “Things” thus conceived are only useful constructs for dealing with the constantly changing and internally related phenomena constituting “experience.” Naess says that “there is a similarity between this view and those expressed by the Buddhist formula sarvam dharmam nihsvabhavam. Every ele- ment is without ‘self-existence.’ “
Reasoning vainly attempts to give ground to what is groundless: the flux of phenomena emerging moment by moment from the inexhaustible field of absolute nothingness. Insight into this nothingness undermines the constricted ego-pole “in here” defending itself against threatening others and objects “out there.” Such insight reveals the ego and its objects to be gestalts whose contents are constituted by an infinite number of self-arising phenomenal events. Seeing into one’s own original Buddha nature means being simultaneously (I) those concrete contents, (2) the organizing gestalt, (3)the awareness of the contents/gestalt, and (4) the nothingness in which they all (including consciousness) manifest themselves. “Awakening” means shattering all dualisms, including the one between presencing and absencing, being and nothingness. […] Phenomenalist ontology holds that human existence is a specific modality of the luminosity characterizing all phenomena.w Human awareness brings this cosmic luminosity to self-awareness. Buddhism, Heidegger, and Naess all assign to human existence the special role of apprehending the groundless, empty play of phenomena. Humans exist most appropriately when their luminous openness is unconstricted by dualistic ego-consciousness. Freed from such dualism, people can enter into a new, non-domineering relationship with all things. Humans can encounter birds and trees, lakes and sky, humans and mountains not as independent, substantial, self-enclosed entities, but rather as temporary constellations of appearances: self-giving phenomena arising simultaneously.
[…] Buddhism, Heidegger, and Naess argue that puncturing the illusion of permanent selfhood would alleviate the infliction of such suffering by freeing one from the illusory quest for total control. Being liberated from the illusion of egocentrism also frees one for spontaneous compassion toward other beings, human and nonhuman alike. One “lets things be” not for any external goal, but instead simply from a profound sense of identification with all things.”
“dependent arising is not merely one strand of doctrine among others, but the radical insight at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, the insight from which everything else unfolds. […] When the arhat Assaji was asked to state the Master’s message as concisely as possible, he said it was the doctrine that phenomena arise and cease through causes. With a single sentence the Buddha dispels all doubt about the correctness of this summary: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma, he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising” (M.28;i,191)”
It is as if a person who has clouded eyes Sees flowers in space; After the sickness in their clouded eyes is cured The flowers in space vanish.
No scholars have clearly understood what was being said here. Because they do not know what space is, they do not know what flowers in space are. And because they do not know what flowers in space are, they do not know who has clouded eyes, they cannot decide who has clouded eyes, they have not met someone with clouded eyes, and they have never experienced clouded eyes themselves. On meeting a person who has clouded eyes, we can come to know what flowers in space are, and then we can see flowers in space.
Once we have seen flowers in space, we can also see how flowers in space vanish. The idea that once flowers in space vanish they will never reappear is a small belief. But if we don’t see flowers in space, what is there to see? If you only know flowers in space as something to get rid of, then you will never come to know the profound matter that follows from flowers in space, or the process by which they germinate, blossom, and fall free.
Among the scholars of the day, most think of space as the sky – the place where yang-energy resides, and a void in which the sun, moon and stars are suspended. For example, they probably think that flowers in space refers to colourful shapes floating along in a clear sky like clouds; like floating blossoms being blown here and there by the wind. They do not realise that the constituents of all created things and the things created by them, all that is known in the Universe: our original state of balance, our original nature, and so on, are all flowers in space.
Furthermore, they do not know that the constituents of all created things exist because of those things, and they do not know that the material world exists stably because of the existence of the real things in it. They only think that real things exist because of the material world they are in. They understand that flowers in space exist only when eyes are clouded, and do not see the truth that it is flowers in space that cause clouded eyes to exist.
Remember, as long as you are following the Buddha’s way, when your eyes are clouded, you realise your original nature, you realise something subtle, you are a buddha, a person of the three worlds, transcending the state of buddha. We should not be as stupid as to believe that clouded eyes are to be avoided and that reality is to be found somewhere else. That is a restricted view. If clouded eyes and flowers were delusions, the person attaching to that wrong view must also be a delusion, and the attachment must be a delusion. If all is delusion, we can never establish anything true. If we cannot establish what is true, there is no way that we can assert that clouded eyes and flowers are delusions.
When our realisation is clouded, all of the constituents of our realisation are decorated with clouds. And when our delusions are clouded, all the constituents of our delusions are decorated with clouds. For now, let us say that when clouded eyes are balanced, flowers in space are balanced, and when clouded eyes do not appear, then flowers in space do not appear. When all things show themselves as they are, then clouds and flowers show themselves as they are. This is not in the same dimension as time passing from past to present to future, and is not a situation that has a beginning, middle, and end. It is not like a situation that arises and passes; it is the very cause of the arising and passing – flowers arising in space and passing in space, arising in clouded eyes and passing in clouded eyes, arising in flowers and passing in flowers. All other times and places are also like this.
There may be many different ways of seeing flowers in space. There is seeing with clouded eyes, seeing with clear eyes, seeing with buddhist eyes, seeing with the eyes of our ancestors, seeing with eyes of the truth, and seeing with blind eyes. There is seeing with the eyes of three thousand years, seeing with the eyes of eight hundred years, seeing with the eyes of hundreds of eons, and seeing with the eyes of numberless eons. Although these are all ways of seeing flowers in space, there are also many kinds of space, and many kinds of flowers.
When we hear that space is originally without flowers, if we understand it to mean that the flowers that now exist in space were not there originally, our viewpoint is narrow and limited. We should move forward and take a more profound view. An ancestor said “What appears are never flowers.” And the real meaning of his words is that flowers have never appeared, that flowers have never disappeared, that the word “flowers” never captures flowers, and the word “space” never captures space. And we should not play around with discussions of whether flowers exist in space or whether flowers do not exist in space, mixing up before flowering and after flowering at random.
“all things in the Universe are showing their real form. All things in the Universe show their flower-form, and all things, those we know and others beyond our imagination, are flowers in space and their fruits. And experience shows us that those flowers are tangible, just like the blossoms of apricot, willow, peach and plum trees are tangible.
Maybe we could also say “As soon as you recognise that the flowers in space are actually in your eyes, all the clouds instantly fall to the ground,” and “If space had its own eye, all the clouds would instantly fall to the ground.” This being so, the word clouded, the word eyes, and the word space all describe Zenki [‘total activity’, or ‘workings of the universe’]. And the phrase instantly fall to the ground suggests the thousand eyes that make up the body of Bodhisatttva Avalokitesvara. In sum, whenever and wherever eyes exist, there we will find flowers in space, and flowers in our eyes, but we say that these flowers in our eyes are in space.
Zen Master Sekimon Etetsu lived in Great Sung dynasty China in a temple on Ryozan Mountain. One day a monk asked him, “What is ‘the jewel in the mountain’?” What he is actually asking here is “What is buddha?” or “What is the truth?” The Master replies, “Flowers in space unfold on the ground. Throughout the whole of this land, there is no gate to our search for the truth.” Other descriptions of flowers in space can never match up to this.
All events happen on the ground; that is where they unfold. Just at this very moment there is a vast ground on which everything is unfolding; everything opens on this vast ground. The words “Throughout the whole of this land, there is no gate to our search for the truth” don’t mean that, since there is no gate we are unable to look for the truth; they mean that when we look for the truth, there is no barrier. Flowers in space open on the ground, and this vast ground itself depends on the opening of flowers. The principle that we need to recognise is that both the ground and space are flowers in space unfolding.”
“Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.
What remains is a tool of self-discipline, disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems. A truly revolutionary movement would seek to overturn this dysfunctional system, but mindfulness only serves to reinforce its destructive logic. The neoliberal order has imposed itself by stealth in the past few decades, widening inequality in pursuit of corporate wealth. People are expected to adapt to what this model demands of them. Stress has been pathologised and privatised, and the burden of managing it outsourced to individuals. Hence the pedlars of mindfulness step in to save the day.
But none of this means that mindfulness ought to be banned, or that anyone who finds it useful is deluded. Reducing suffering is a noble aim and it should be encouraged. But to do this effectively, teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress also has societal causes. By failing to address collective suffering, and systemic change that might remove it, they rob mindfulness of its real revolutionary potential, reducing it to something banal that keeps people focused on themselves.
[…] Mindfulness advocates, perhaps unwittingly, are providing support for the status quo. Rather than discussing how attention is monetised and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, they locate the crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented, mindful capitalists.
[…] Mindfulness has been oversold and commodified, reduced to a technique for just about any instrumental purpose. It can give inner-city kids a calming time-out, or hedge-fund traders a mental edge, or reduce the stress of military drone pilots. Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.
In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King argue that traditions of Asian wisdom have been subject to colonisation and commodification since the 18th century, producing a highly individualistic spirituality, perfectly accommodated to dominant cultural values and requiring no substantive change in lifestyle. Such an individualistic spirituality is clearly linked with the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, especially when masked by the ambiguous language used in mindfulness. Market forces are already exploiting the momentum of the mindfulness movement, reorienting its goals to a highly circumscribed individual realm.
Mindfulness is easily co-opted and reduced to merely “pacifying feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level, rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress”, write Carrette and King. But a commitment to this kind of privatised and psychologised mindfulnessispolitical – therapeutically optimising individuals to make them “mentally fit”, attentive and resilient, so they may keep functioning within the system. Such capitulation seems like the farthest thing from a revolution – more like a quietist surrender.
[…] A truly revolutionary mindfulness would challenge the western sense of entitlement to happiness irrespective of ethical conduct. However, mindfulness programmes do not ask executives to examine how their managerial decisions and corporate policies have institutionalised greed, ill will and delusion. Instead, the practice is being sold to executives as a way to de-stress, improve productivity and focus, and bounce back from working 80-hour weeks.
[…] Should we celebrate the fact that this perversion is helping people to “auto-exploit” themselves? This is the core of the problem. The internalisation of focus for mindfulness practice also leads to other things being internalised, from corporate requirements to structures of dominance in society. Perhaps worst of all, this submissive position is framed as freedom. Indeed, mindfulness thrives on doublespeak about freedom, celebrating self-centered “freedoms” while paying no attention to civic responsibility, or the cultivation of a collective mindfulness that finds genuine freedom within a co-operative and just society.
[…] Rather than being used as a means to awaken individuals and organisations to the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, mindfulness is more often refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.
[…] Perhaps the most straightforward definition of neoliberalism comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu, who calls it “a programme for destroying collective structures that may impede the pure market logic”. We are generally conditioned to think that a market-based society provides us with ample (if not equal) opportunities for increasing the value of our “human capital” and self-worth. And in order to fully actualise personal freedom and potential, we need to maximise our own welfare, freedom, and happiness by deftly managing internal resources.
[…] We are trapped in a neoliberal trance by what the education scholar Henry Giroux calls a “disimagination machine”, because it stifles critical and radical thinking. We are admonished to look inward, and to manage ourselves. Disimagination impels us to abandon creative ideas about new possibilities. Instead of seeking to dismantle capitalism, or rein in its excesses, we should accept its demands and use self-discipline to be more effective in the market. To change the world, we are told to work on ourselves — to change our minds by being more mindful, nonjudgmental, and accepting of circumstances.
[…] The ideological message is that if you cannot alter the circumstances causing distress, you can change your reactions to your circumstances. In some ways, this can be helpful, since many things are not in our control. But to abandon all efforts to fix them seems excessive. Mindfulness practices do not permit critique or debate of what might be unjust, culturally toxic or environmentally destructive. Rather, the mindful imperative to “accept things as they are” while practising “nonjudgmental, present moment awareness” acts as a social anesthesia, preserving the status quo.
[…] We are also promised that we can gain self-mastery, controlling our minds and emotions so we can thrive and flourish amid the vagaries of capitalism.As Joshua Eisen, the author of Mindful Calculations, puts it: “Like kale, acai berries, gym memberships, vitamin water, and other new year’s resolutions, mindfulness indexes a profound desire to change, but one premised on a fundamental reassertion of neoliberal fantasies of self-control and unfettered agency.” We just have to sit in silence, watching our breath, and wait.