I have recently adopted this as a mantra.
In the wake of shock, loss, humiliation, despair, helplessness, usually an inner voice pipes up: “ok, I just need to deal with this.” The voice reassures us with affirmations: “I can deal” or empathizes with helplessness: “I can’t deal.” It is so often brought into my office: “I need help to deal with this, what can I do?”
Anxious mind is always trying to bargain with experience. If this, then that. Please, just this time. Ok, after this, then that. If this doesn’t stop, I’ll…
Well, no deal.
Who are you dealing with? You cannot bargain with an emotion. There is no way around, no shortcuts or time machines. The loss is lost. The worry worried. The feeling felt. The self-critical voices voiced. Relating to reality includes the reality of protest, the reality of automatic and ugly thoughts, the reality of feeling powerless and abandoned.
Compassion begins at the moment we can say No Deal.
Author /researcher Christopher Germer defines mindfulness as: “Witnessing of here and now experience, without judgment, with acceptance.” Buddhist author Tara Brach defines radical acceptance as: “clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion.” Acceptance doesn’t mean that the events in the world are okay. I am not consenting to injustice. Acceptance also doesn’t mean I reject my protest. It means I am willing to have my experience. The alternative is a perpetual loop of self-aggression.
For instance, when I extend myself in a risky social encounter like public speaking, I know that for a day or two afterwards a self-critical voice will occasionally shout “you idiot!” no matter how well I present myself. I know that when I experience a rejection, I’m going experience a wave of hurt, and for a few days my mind will churn up a dramatic litany of lost futures.
Being a mindfulness practitioner doesn’t mean my practice gets me a way out of this. I don’t get to trade in fear for acceptance. Cultivating bodhicitta is not a get-out-of-hurt free card. Acceptance means accepting pain on its own terms. I don’t get to stop being an ego that wants praise and status and control.
But when I say No Deal, I get everything back. All the cards on the table, every wager, every ante. These reactions are a pile of gold we are sitting on. They can become the most precious thing in the world. Anger, embarrassment, hurt – contain the energy of caring, the fire of wanting, the enormous power of a unique, individual life force expressing itself and trying to find a way to connect with the world. These feelings are completely precious and nothing to be ashamed of.
Acceptance, compassion, and willingness allow negative thoughts, feelings, and reactions to be part of my experience: the tape loop is going to keep playing, and it will play louder at times. Sadness will flood in, as an expression of caring and connection. Accepting this, I can start to relax, and appreciate the movement and energy that comes with being alive.
Profit involves the deferral of the true cost of a product to the “Other”, an exercise of power that privileges the consumer, and of course the profiteer whose manipulates this act. The cost of oil is deferred to vulnerable ecosystems, the cost of high fructose corn syrup is deferred to vulnerable bodies, the cost of fast fashion is deferred to vulnerable populations. The continual creation of commodities to displace in this way is achieved by systematically stripping a product of its context – mutually interdependent social, ecological, emotional, relational, and temporal continuities. Consumer goods serve as vectors that perpetuate established power relations and institutions. Yet the complexities that are denied in this exercise still remain.
Commodification achieved by stripping something of its context applies to immaterial goods as well as physical ones. Consider the rising popularity of “mindfulness” in popular culture, as Ron Purser and David Loy question in a recent article. Citing the increasing adoption of mindfulness concepts and techniques into American institutions – schools, corporations, prisons and government agencies – the authors question the distortion that occurs when mindfulness becomes a legitimized consumer product.
“While a stripped-down, secularized technique — what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness” — may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”
Mindfulness’s popularity is based in its tangibly powerful technology for addressing and transforming suffering. Everyone wants to be happy. However, stripping the techniques of mindfulness from their context defers the root causes and conditions involved, in the service of the status quo. Commodifying mindfulness into relaxation and focusing techniques ultimately protects institutions. On one level, it protects the institution of the personal ego and its quest for control of experience. On another level, it protects oppressive and alienating social structures – in the face of which we experience natural feelings of protest – the disquiet, frustration, anxiety, and depression we are often trying to eliminate with meditation.
“Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.”
Early in my psychotherapy training I saw video of a woman in therapy recorded in 1964, who was struggling with the same wrenching internalized double-standards of femininity that my contemporaries are still suffering from 50 years later. A cynicism awoke in me, a dark fear that the role of the therapist would be like a janitor patching up the casualties of our power structures, helping clients to internally cope with harmful social forces. As such I would be performing in service of established institutional injustices, doing nothing to address the systemic causes of suffering but in fact perpetuating them by pacifying their victims.
A therapy that does otherwise must continually resist becoming a consumer product, merely selling reassurance and quiescence – and at what price? As a counsellor specializing in mindfulness-based psychotherapy, I am doubly poised for profit. To be honest about the practice I must be in constant dialogue with the practice itself – which is one of recontextualizing, coming into interconnectedness and complexity, and as such, is inherently radical.
“Monsters cannot be announced.
One cannot say: ‘Here are our monsters,’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.”
The Flower Lineage
Zen Buddhism traces its origins to the so-called Flower Sermon, when the Buddha Shakyamuni silently held up a single flower among a gathering of his students. Most of the students were confused, but one named Mahakasyapa smiled, which was acknowledged as the moment of his enlightenment. This is thought of as a direct transmission of enlightened mind – a performative act, not a description or instruction.
From Mahakasyapa a lineage is traced via the influential philosopher Nagarjuna, 3rd century founder of the Mahayana (“Middle Way”) school of Buddhism, and later carried by the 5th century monk Bodhidharma into China and Japan. This legend illustrates the focus of Zen Buddhism on a wordless direct experience over verbal doctrine, analysis or philosophies. A Zen proverb professes: one showing is worth a hundred sayings.
The tradition of “show don’t tell” is also strong in the Tibetan Mahamudra (Great Sign) tradition, where the essential teaching is the “pointing out” instruction, which occurs in direct transmission from teacher to student. This tradition – that core teachings should not be written down but can only occur experientially between teacher to student – seems esoteric and secretive, concentrating power in the hands of spiritual leaders. But perhaps on another level, this tradition serves to protect the essential quality of insight, which is that it is dynamic and emergent – and therefore necessarily temporal and relational. It is not static information one can fix or possess.
In the Zen tradition, this “direct pointing” is perhaps most immediately conveyed in the arts. Every Zen art is a do, a “way.” Chado (Tea Ceremony) – the way of tea; Shodo (Calligraphy) – the way of writing, etc. The Zen arts are not the creation of representational objects, but they are the trace of a sudden act of awareness, both through the artist’s immediate process of creation and the transmission of that act available through its record. Yet these moments are not rarified or secret, but are expressed in the interaction with everyday objects and activities: household ceramics, a vase of flowers, a shared cup of tea.
Direct insight is also ordinary experience.
There is deep inspiration here for what I am exploring in this blog
When it comes to the exploration of experience, I am interested in the idea that the generation and communication of meaning is done peformatively, in temporary, propositional, relational tensions and figures. I want to look at the modes and practices for bringing awareness to this, building a process intelligence, doing it more constructively, creatively and daringly. I think this involves inhabiting a position that is shifted from an objective descriptive posture to a stance that is thoroughly and vulnerably implicated, that focuses on performance and effect rather than stability and product.
Bakemono-do: the art of creating monsters.
The Performative Turn
Attention to the performative appears in contemporary thought as well. Most associated with Judith Butler’s examination of identities – particularly categories of self, or subjectivity – as something that one “does” rather than something that one “is.” In this way, performance creates identities, rather than identities creating performance. E.g. my identity as a “woman” is not a site that I speak from, but a lived reality emerging in my constant relational performance of it within my social context. This can apply to any identity – be it “leftist” or “chair”. The performative is experience at its most ordinary.
An impact of this perspective is that forces we might take as natural, permanent or continuous elements of the human environment (from gender to race to language to architecture) are seen as interactive agents rather than passive objects. This awareness empowers one’s performative agency in constructing reality.
This is a strong thread in contemporary culture, an aspect of postmodernism sometimes called “the performative turn,” a paradigmatic shift in the humanities and social sciences that stresses the active, relational, social construction of realities. In the spirit of the flower lineage, performative contemporary thinkers/practitioners shift from a discourse based in the language and assumptions of fixity, to the plastic, relational and propositional play of figures, tensions, and effects. Along the way, building a process intelligence, daring to inhabit the uncertainty of emergent, dynamic meaning.
Vulnerability and Hyperreality
Yet the appearance of this performative turn in culture is limited. The suspicion of meta-narratives has sunk deep into the cultural consciousness, but manifests mostly in the deconstruction of outward identities (institutions, nationalism, cultural norms and practices) and is less directed inward towards a de-essentialization of the self. This pop-deconstruction mistakes the de-stabilization of truth as a rejection of truth, and so avoids the demands of active engagement with a shimmering, moving target.
Here is the critical, ironic stance, an armouring and defense mode that demolishes culture and protect the self from implication. What remains is the spectacle, the simulacrum, where we all know it is a performance without substance, and yet it appears with high significance, hyperreal. I broadcast a ballooning performance of self hour by hour on social media, reality TV, this blog…
On the importance of irritation in the creation of meaning
“Only Barthes, among the men, was at ease with incarnating a site that cannot be designated, a matte faubourg, without qualities.”
It started with this strange opaque phrase capturing my attention in “In Defense of Nuance,” Wayne Koestenbaum’s foreword to Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse (1978). It’s a phrase that only a fraction of readers could be expected to grasp. The words “a matte faubourg” were meaningless to me; a semantic collapse, a gap. However I did not drift over them but instead I stumbled, felt irritated, paused, mused, googled, mused some more…
Most people loathe what is often seen as the overly complex language of academic and critical texts, and roll their eyes at what is seen as the intention of contemporary art to irritate through cleverness or shock. At its worst, the fruits of modern discourse are alienation, ironic detachment, and a stratified system of insiders and outsiders.
But is this the only function of such disruptions, or can their impact contribute something deeper to human life? Can the art of skilled and meaningful disruptions be developed? And where does responsibility for this occur? Is it the job of the consumer of culture to pause and educate themselves in order to engage more meaningfully with disruptive language or imagery? Or is it the role of the author of the work to produce skillful, creative disruptions?
…A matte faubourg.
It is in fact a symbol that represents itself, a gap, detour, an empty site, an unrendered image, titleless and isolated.
In that moment, the text became a poem, linguistic friction that invited me into the play of nuance, beyond the symbols of meaning (the content) and into an effect of meaning (the play).
“A matte faubourg” frustrates a reader bent on overt meaning, but overt meaning may not be the ultimate function of a text. When I unwittingly read “a matte faubourg” I did not experience a metaphor, I experienced a matte faubourg directly, I danced with it, I experienced being pulled into that non-space.
Apophatic Acts of Unsaying
This “meaning event” – the momentary union of predicated meaning and direct experiential meaning – is at the heart of an apophatic discourse. Normally, language betrays direct experience, for words create distance, slippage. Language delimits objects and entities, but if the true subject of discourse is not static, non-object and non-thing, how can language be accurate? Author Michael Sells proposes that rather than foreclose on this problem with either non-saying (e.g. Zen Buddhism), or an analysis of the borders of the sayable and the unsayable (e.g. scientific method), one can actively engage the irresolvability of the problem by harnessing its infinite regress.
Unlike a discourse constructed out of finite assertions, apophasis (Greek: “un-saying”) is a propositionally unstable and dynamic discourse in which no single statement rests its own as true or false or even as meaningful. It is not the content of the sayings that is significant. The essence of the practice is that any propositional statement requires an undoing, a destabilizing revision, and it is the tension between proposed meaning and collapsed meaning that becomes important. Meaning events emerge from this tension, but each event is momentary, and must be “continually re-earned by ever new linguistic acts of unsaying.” Therefore apophasis is not asserted but performed.
Both analytic and dialectic knowledge practices are necessary to make insightful decisions and take committed action. With an overemphasis on the practice of analysis comes the stress and brittle violence of continuous attempts to wrestle reality into static boxes for prediction and control. In addition, there is the harm caused by using lazy dialectics to dismiss, ignore, or assign inaccurate overarching schemas that promote ecological, economic and social systems of oppression. The key to genuine dialectic is found in one’s own vulnerability, which is often embarrassing and messy.
The analytic approach
Under the influence of western thought traditions, a contemporary person largely relies on using differentiation and formal logic to understand themselves and their world. This understanding relies on discrete stable identities and linear causal relationships; there cannot be contradictions, and there is no middle state between this and that, good and bad, true and false. Like mathematics, this is a very coherent way of representing and manipulating a symbolic reality to achieve prediction and control. But it is an abstraction. If some part of the flesh and stone of experience is not fitting into this logical understanding, then this is generally assumed to be a problem of incomplete knowledge or reasoning, and as such, must be resolved, usually by a process of isolating and de-contextualizing information, forming polarizing contradictory perspectives in an effort to determine which identity, fact or explanation is correct. Unfortunately, isolating, polarizing and differentiating have a variety of pitfalls from the political to the personal. There is violence to the project of prediction and control, often directed inwards. The internal human landscape is replete with contradiction, paradox, and nuance.
The dialectic approach
As I described in a recent post, a variety of cultural, philosophical and wisdom traditions propose a different model of knowledge which sees transient, contradictory and emergent qualities of existence as valid and important. Examples may be found in Buddhist thought, in most non-industrialized cultures, in queer theory, trends in continental philosophy and the science of complex systems. These perspectives acknowledge knowledge as:
- Transient, dynamic, changing, nuanced, continuously escaping definition
- Complex, contradictory, in tension, paradoxical
- Emergent, associative, networked, relational, contextual
This all sounds all well and good, but in experience, these aspects of life are usually deeply embarrassing and painful. It may be easy to think, “I’m a creative innovator / active in social justice / freethinking intellectual – I’m at home with all of this.” But engaging with dialectic cuts deeper than diplomacy and social critique, brainstorming and thought mapping.
When we find paradoxical desires unresolved in us; when we confront our own grief and loss; when one’s own experience doesn’t fit into stable identities, expected consequences or explanation, it provokes strong emotions of anger, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, fear. Which in turn provoke strong defensive responses: numbness, denial, aggression, rumination. So strong is the social and internalized pressure to resolve contradiction and ambiguity that most of us are waging continual war against our own experience.
Liber, latin for freedom, is the root of liberal arts – originally, the studies in classical antiquity that were deemed essential for a free person to master in order to distinguish themselves from slaves.
A Roman free person is one who participates in a democracy, and is therefore expected to be well-informed about the world in which they share control and responsibility. Notably, the classical liberal arts – grammer, logic and rhetoric – were not studies aimed at accumulating content, but aimed at how to engage with knowledge itself. A free person is one who knows how to read the world intelligently, critically reflect and communicate skillfully.
A liberal arts education – once the backbone of public education and now an endangered species – is about learning for the sake of learning, imparting knowledge and developing intellectual capacities without aim of financial reward or vocational purpose.
Yet the liberal arts are intimately entwined with class and privilege, and share this with another approach to education – education as a credentialing system.
What is it in one’s life that allows a love of the natural world to develop? I was discussing this question over coffee with a friend: as people who put in the effort as often as possible to maintain a relationship with natural space, how did we develop this love, compared to our friends and peers who did not? Was it childhood opportunities to camp or go to the cottage, walk in the woods or see animals at the zoo?
I found it surprising that when I reflected on my own experience, it was not these kinds of experiences that inspired an early passionate sense of place and love of nature. The feelings and state of mind I associate with this passionate love of nature – open, alert, curious, calm, belonging, exploratory – I link primarily to early experiences in distinctly urban spaces, to the presence of wildness in these spaces.
In my early childhood, wildness was the network of gates, fencerows, driveways and alleys between properties on my block, liminal spaces at the back of apartment parking lots, beneath the spruces in the strip of untended greenery between two driveways, a muddy spot behind a neighbour’s fence and compost pile where many snails could be found, treasures in the alleyway’s sewers and puddles and trash bins, a narrow sliver between two garages where leaves would pile up over the seasons into a rich and slippery humus with its own memorable smells and shadows.
Later it was the vacant lots, factory grounds, railroad tracks, helicopter landing pads, golf courses, boulevards, parking lots, cemeteries, churchyards, bridges, building rooftops, abandoned factories and warehouses, skyscraper stairwells, tunnels for watercourses under highways, greenbelts around expressways, edges of schoolyards, building sites, alleys and courtyards.
These undeveloped public spaces, forgotten post-use industrial sites and neglected underpinnings of urban life were rich with mystery and solitude, sensory information, engaging, and yet spacious, free of expectations.
I first realized that the moon could cast shadows in an empty factory parking lot.
I learned the names of birds and plants walking along the railway tracks.
I learned how to be alone, peaceful and at home with myself, under the branches of a tree in a waste behind an apartment block.
I learned the names of the constellations from a rooftop.
I began to talk to trees in the graveyard.
In these places I developed a love and care for unstructured wild space, a relaxation with gaps of decay and change, sensitivity to the ecosystem in a sense that transcends rural, urban and wild spaces. And it is this that draws me out to the mountain and lake and forest, and this that allows me to see the world beyond questions of use and profit. To see the world as animated and intelligent, not as a series of inanimate objects for use and quantification, as tools to an end, nor merely as an indifferent Other. When nature is animated, so am I.
Love of wildness creates love of wilderness.
Our own modification recognizes dialectic conflicts and contradictions as a fundamental property of thought. In contrast to Piaget, we maintain that at the level of dialectic operations at maturity, the individual does not necessarily equilibrate these conflicts, but is ready to live with these contradictions; stronger yet, the individual accepts these contradictions as a basic property of thought and creativity.
Challenging Piaget’s established model of cognitive development, in which the highest form of development was the use of deductive reasoning to systematically and logically solve a problem, Reigel proposed a further sophistication of cognitive development in dialectical operations, cognition that has dexterity with inherent contradictions, movement, change, process; “able to transform contradictory experience into momentarily stable structures.”
The focus is a flexible, relational process of thought – dialogue – rather than creating firm identities.
The dialectical method has roots that extend back in western history as form of reasoning that resolves difference through dialogue. In contrast to rhetoric, where parties committed to their points of view aim to resolve the difference through persuading others to accept their perspective, dialectics aim at resolving differences through recognizing the interdependence of the differences from the perspective of a higher order.
“We are going to have to slow down, reorient and regulate the proliferation of monsters by representing their existence officially.”ii
In the above quote, Bruno Latour muses on the tension between two ways of relating to information, which he calls “purification” and “translation.” Purification is the separation and specialization of knowledge. It distills, reduces and creates partitions, separating knowledge into distinct and exclusive realms.
Translation is hybrid and continuous knowledge, stitching together disparate fields and perspectives into networks.
Purification is the acknowledged project of modernity, and it is what generally passes for knowledge in the contemporary world. We go to scientists and mathematicians for facts, priests and philosophers for morality, artists and sociologists for a critical examination of the discourse itself. Generally, the more purified information is, the more “true” it feels to the modern person.
Hybrid knowledge on the other hand feels “uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly”: think creationist museums, a doctor doing energy healing, a politician admitting uncertainty. It is taboo to cross the lines, we are uneasy with these monsters.