Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mantra and Collapse

Looking through my notes for the last few episodes of the C-Realm Podcast, I'm drawn to the topic of meditation and collapse. A C-Realm listener sent me a couple of different emails recently expressing his/her contempt for advocates of meditation, asserting, among other things, that sexual abuse of students is rampant in the communities that organize around Buddhist meditation celebrities. (Along similar lines, you can hear a Psychonautica conversation I recorded with Lily Kay Ross about the routine sexual predation that takes place in the context of ayahuasca tourism in South America.) Whenever I invite any sort of comparison between the benefits of meditation and psychedelics I can reasonably expect to get one letter reminding me of the Buddhist prohibition against "intoxicants." The authors of these missives don't seem to draw any distinctions between the effects of drinking alcohol and the effects of taking psychedelics. One opiner went so far as to assert that there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between participating in an ayahuasca ceremony, sniffing glue, or hitting oneself in the head with a mallet. This opinion has never come prefaced with anything that established credibility or gave me reason to take the author seriously on the issue. A less hyperbolic but equally reliable response that I can count on receiving from people who favor meditation but disapprove of psychedelics is the claim that meditation is spiritual work which gives lasting benefit while psychedelics are the equivalent of a helicopter ride to the top of the mountain that provides no expanded perspective once the ride is over. There is likely an element of truth to this claim, and I don't list it in order to dismiss it. I only mention it because it is something I encounter regularly. To receive a communication saying that psychedelics provide valuable insight but that the practice of meditation, in any of its popular forms, amounts to coercive mental conditioning intended to perpetuate abusive imbalances of power is more of a novelty and deserves consideration. The idea that meditative practice should be seen primarily as harmful is a challenging one for me to entertain, because I have long expressed the opinion that psychedelic experience without some daily practice by which to integrate the expanded perspective into one's daily life is likely to dissipate and leave the experienced psychonaut with the mistaken impression that they have passed some experiential or spiritual mile marker which sets them apart from and above the majority of the population. While I don't count this as an exhaustive list, the most attractive candidates for integrative daily practice for me have been free writing, tai chi chuan, meditation, ceremonial majick and yoga. I live two blocks from a yoga studio where I do work exchange. The more classes I take, the better value I get in exchange for my labor, so I practice yoga most every day. In a given week, I'll take classes with 4 or 5 different teachers. Every class starts with a group recitation of "ohm" but from there each one takes its own trajectory. Some teachers direct the students' attention primarily to the bodily movements and physical details of the yoga postures. Other teachers direct the students' attention inward with the aim of developing sensitivity to aspects of our mental, physical, emotional or spiritual lives which would otherwise get drowned out by the competing noises of our over-scheduled, IT-fixated, urban existence. The most demanding class is ostensibly a beginner-level one taught by a teacher named Michael. He spends more time talking about yogic philosophy and meditative practice at the beginning of class than do most teachers, but then, when we start moving through the postures, he has us repeat and/or hold strenuous postures to the point where I leave the class feeling like I've gotten a real workout. But more than just putting us through our paces physically, he regularly piles on a mental challenge to up the ante. The focus at my local studio for the month of May is mantra, which Wikipedia defines as "a sacred utterance, numinous sound, or a syllable, word, phonemes, or group of words believed by some to have psychological and spiritual power. Carla, whose class I take on Saturday mornings, says that the first mantra is simply the sound of the breath. It can be hard to focus on the sound of the breath in a place like Brooklyn, with nothing but a pane of glass separating our storefront practice space from the traffic noise and cell phone conversations of passers by. The other day, to compensate for these distractions, Carla had us stick our fingers in our ears so that we could focus on the sound of our inhalations and exhalations. This is an instructive exercise, but it's hard to take a downward facing dog position with your fingers in your ears, so a mantra that is more active than just listening to the sound of one's breath can be helpful.
Olga and I take Michael's class on Sunday afternoon and again on Monday morning. On Sunday, Michael had all of us repeat the following series of syllables over and over: "ha" "va" "gu" "de" The point, he explained, is that while you are reciting the mantra aloud or to yourself, you are prevented from repeating some more habitual self-accusation, complaint or unhelpful fragment of interior monologue. The exact meaning of the mantra you choose is largely irrelevant. It can be meaningful to you, but it can also be a single syllable or a phrase in a language you don't understand. So long as it is not something actively harmful, like "I'm too fat" or "I can't do anything right" or "everyone is against me" then it counts as a step in a helpful direction. On Sunday, Michael also had us hold the Virabhadrasana (warrior) II pose for much longer than we normally would, and as my quadriceps and deltoids started to burn with the effort of holding the pose, he encouraged us to find a personal mantra and repeat it to take our focus away from the physical discomfort of holding the pose. The mantra that popped into my head, for the first time in many years, was, "Namu Amida Butsu." This mantra comes from a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism. Amitābha, pronounced Amida in Japanese, is the celestial Buddha of infinite light, and he is believed to have prepared an afterlife called the Pure Land where there are no distractions to divert the sincere seeker from achieving release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Anyone who sincerely invokes his name, even just once, will be reborn in the Pure Land after death, and from there, they will achieve permanent release from the suffering that is existence. The phrase "Namu Amida Butsu" can be translated as "homage to" or "adoration of the Buddha of lnfinite Light," and many adherents use it as a mantra. The practice of reciting this phrase is called the Nembutsu. I first learned about it when I audited a religious studies class at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan in the early 90s. I don't recall ever having practiced the Nembutsu with any sort of serious commitment back then, but when Micheal encouraged us to summon up some phrase to focus on to take our mental focus off of the discomfort of holding the warrior II pose, the Nembutsu presented itself to me. I took it up, and it did the trick. The discomfort faded. I used the phrase in my practice again the next morning, and not only did it help take my mental focus away from the discomfort of my yoga practice, but it also helped me to keep my attention from gravitating to the pain in my sore throat. The person who wrote to me about the abusive uses of meditation claimed that Transcendental Meditation, a specific form of mantra practice, is useful for kids in school, people in prison, and forced sex workers as it helps people in abusive situations carry out their assigned tasks without complaint or rebellion. Other critics of yoga and meditation worry that people who direct their efforts to finding peace within themselves will not work to right the wrongs in the world at large. They will not feel the drive to engage in political struggle or to correct the systemic dysfunction that is driving global industrial civilization to ruin. This view equates personal suffering and dissatisfaction with the necessary fuel for taking corrective action in the social sphere. I’m reminded of the perpetual leftist lament, “Where’s the outrage?” The Right has perfected the art of sustaining perpetual outrage in large segments of the working class at snobby intellectuals, effete urbanites, welfare leeches, job-stealing immigrants, dirty hippies and “collectivists.” Their counterparts on the political Left assume that their own rank and file are too smart, complacent and reflexively diplomatic to go in for this sort of dirty pool, and so the Left must struggle at a perpetual disadvantage to the Right. When I think about the angriest people I encounter in real life, on-line and in the media, I get the impression that the focus of their rage runs the gamut from “extremely distorted caricature of reality” to “simply false” to “utter gibberish.” At the former end of that spectrum reside racist dog whistles disguised as a commitment to hard-work and self-reliance in a country where most welfare recipients are white but indignation about taking welfare checks over pay checks is focused squarely on blacks. Closer to the middle of that spectrum, in the region of the simply false, reside things like the belief that the President of the United States is a Kenyan-born Muslim who rules white America with a tyrannical ferocity that bears no continuity with the practices of previous administrations. This region is also home to the belief that peak oil and anthropocentric climate disruption are hoaxes perpetrated by an international cabal of tree-hugging satanists. Alex Jones, while distancing himself from the thinly-veiled racism of the Fox News narrative, works himself into an apoplectic state on camera every day of the week over the globalist plot to enslave humanity with the manufactured crises of resource depletion and climate change. The "utter gibberish" end of the spectrum is home to the word “Benghazi,” which at one time referred to a violent event in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans in 2012. Now the word is just the start of a short stimulus/response circuit which bypasses any pretense at conscious thought and immediately prompt a neurochemal cascade that causes the conditioned subject to feel euphoric rage at “the nigger in the White House.” It seems odd to me that anyone on the Left would look on with envy at this spectacle of human debasement. Of course, I realize that some radical vegans can hold their own with the most vehement ditto-heads in the rage response department, just as some of the angriest environmentalists are no more discriminating in the selection of the data points upon which they build their worldviews and base their fury than are the most highly-motivated climate “skeptics.” Rather than seeing these outliers as “a good start” or “a base on which to build" I would hope that they would provide a sobering reminder that using rage to foster constructive social change is about as viable as using a flame thrower to toast bread. What does all this have to do with collapse? Well, in a recent C-Realm Podcast discussion with contemplative scientist, Katherine MacLean, I explained the history of the C-Realm Podcast and the evolving focus which once centered on the peak oil collapse narrative and coming to grips with the abyss of human suffering that looms on the near horizon. I asked her what role meditation might play in a culture that is distracting itself with trivia on the road to calamity. Katherine responded by saying Buddhism has been talking about the abyss of human suffering for 2,500 years. It has always seemed like we were about to be engulfed by an avalanche of suffering but that the leading edge of that avalanche always seems to retreat into the future as we move forward in time. Katherine mentioned the possibility that neither the Pure Land of love and compassion nor the abyss of human suffering lie only in the future. They are both here now.

The difference between historical Buddhist thought and the concerns of Katherine's generation of practitioners is that now Buddhists are challenging themselves and each other by asking, "When are we going to get serious about addressing human suffering and eliminating it if we can." Katherine admitted that the question poses a real challenge to her willingness to fully commit to Buddhism...
...because it has the ability to make you okay with how really fucked up things are, and for most of human history, being okay with really abject pain and suffering was necessary because there was no refuge. You couldn't just make things better. But now I think we're at a point where we can make a lot of things better, and we just need to take that seriously. I think meditation can make things a little bit worse in the sense that it can make people okay with how things are and not want to change anything, or it can wake you up to the fact that so many people are really suffering, and you are too, even though you feel like you're not.
That last sentence is key, I think. All the examples I gave of mental constructs that propagandists on the Right encourage their followers to build and focus their attention on are not the actual source of their rage. They feel rage because they are suffering, but they have been seduced into identifying the cause of their suffering with the actions of snooty intellectuals, crypto-Muslim socialists, or what have you. Were they to commit themselves to looking sincerely inward on a daily basis, they might realize that their suffering does not originate from wherever Glen Beck, Rush Linbaugh, Sean Hannity or Salin Palin are pointing at the moment, and in coming to this realization about their internal lives they might begin to question their allegiances and commitments. Surely such an internal shift in the direction of understanding the causes of their own suffering would have tangible and quantifiable effects in the realm of public policy. Meditation might actually change the world as a result of changing how individual practitioners feel about their role in the human drama. The uncomfortable flip side to that possibility is that sincere introspection on the Left could bring to light the possibility that the venial capitalists, the media empires they own and direct, their army of lobbyists and the political influence they purchase are also fantasy constructs onto which leftists project the causal agency for their own suffering. Might a softening of the commitment to oppose these forces allow activists on the Left to find common cause with gun nuts, climate deniers, bible thumpers and rednecks and in so doing create a political apparatus that is more responsive to the will of the people than to the needs of Big Money? If that's a hard swallow for you, then perhaps you can feel some compassion for the challenge that people on the Right face in examining and relinquishing their own sense of righteousness and opposition to what they imagine to be the causes of human suffering and degradation.

Consider also the uncontroversial claim that the Right is better than the Left at scapegoating and whipping up rage. Rage is antithetical to quiet introspection, so folks who are beside themselves with anger over Benghazi or the machinations of the Bilderbergers have a much harder row to hoe in softening their stance than do most of the people who concern themselves with income inequality, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide or the abuses committed in the name of the War on Drugs.

The C-Realm listener who condemned mantra meditation as being good for kids in school, prisoners and forced sex workers did so because it alleviates the suffering of exploited people while doing nothing to right the injustice of their situation. The implication being that these types of suffering are all things than could be abolished. Making them more bearable only perpetuates the injustice. This relates to Katherine MacLean's concern that in centuries past there was no practical expectation that the suffering caused by hunger and disease could be eliminated and so it was moral to promote techniques that reduced suffering, even if these techniques did not actually feed people or supply them with hygienic living conditions. Today, however, we might just be in a position to eradicate the physical deprivations that cause human suffering, and to focus on the symptoms while the root cause is within reach would be immoral.

If you believe that it is too late to transition to a post-carbon economy or that the bill of human overshoot must be paid with an abyss of human suffering, then Katherine's concern is moot. If the avalanche really is nearly upon us and the physical consequences of our hydrocarbon-fueled blowout are unavoidable, then anything you can do to ameliorate the intensity of human suffering is not only permissible; it is morally obligatory. It's not your fault that in order to share the tools that alleviate human suffering you must first learn to enjoy their benefits yourself.

If you are certain that the Singularity is near or that the end of human suffering is just an achievable political revolution away, then yes, it's up to you to get off that yoga mat or meditation cushion and supporting AI research or organizing protests, but if you don't know whether the avalanche is upon us or not, then doesn't it make sense to prepare for the worst case scenario and learn to diminish the causal connection between physical and social circumstance and the subjective experience of suffering?

I have no more faith that Amitābha is saving me a seat in the Pure Land than I do that Artificial Super Intelligence will liberate me from the limitations of my degenerating animal body and make me immortal, but simply for the immediate relief it provides when my muscles burn in yoga class or when I'm furious at someone who has done me wrong I hope I will remember to recite the Nembutsu. I don't actually believe that the Buddha of Infinite Light will help me achieve re-birth in the Pure Land, but as I understand it, unconditional belief is not a requirement for admission. All that is required is that I make the sincere request for help in emancipating myself from suffering, and so without dogmatic certainty but with all sincerity, I say, "Namu Amida Butsu."

It seems to me that a blanket condemnation of mantra, mindfulness meditation, or any other contemplative practice is the exclusive domain of True Believers in the perfectibility of human institutions and the irrelevance of the physical limits to growth. I don't consider myself a True Believer, nor do I aspire to join their ranks. Do you?

12 comments:

Lauren said...

Once again you make some great points, KMO, and I am so happy to hear you are getting a yoga practice. It has been key for me. Yes, I have struggled with this issue of whether or not my efforts on and off the mat are enough. It is helpful to have confirmation that the spiritual practices aren't totally useless, but it is also good to realize that action, when action is appropriate and timely, should be taken. It's sometime hard to get the perspective you need in every day life. "Oh, it's Monday. That means I need to do laundry and make the hubby his supper to take to work and after he is on his way....oh, what was that I was supposed to do...what was it I needed to call my congressman about? Or does that even make a difference? Should I go down to picket Walgreens for selling products with toxic ingredients, or are there even bigger fish to fry?" It gets confusing and I find myself getting depressed. So yeah, it's back to the cushion. One thing meditation does do is train your mind to be here and now. This is the only place real action can take place anyway, so it's the only place where saving the world occurs. When I can get back to that, the depression dissipates, and the mind clears. There is no spoon.

<3 Lauren

John Adams said...

Hi KMO

I can't find the response to Podcast 411 that rejected Buddhist teachings since Buddhism was originally nihilistic. Having worked in India for many years and studied both Vedanta and Buddhism, I am afraid I don't understand the person's response.

Siddhartha found the practice of vedanta had become too many meaningless rituals that gave him no meaning and that the rituals did nothing to reduce corruption of practicing vedantists.

Martin Luther, a catholic monk, found that the practice of catholicism had become too many rituals that gave him no meaning and that the rituals did nothing to reduce the corruption of practicing catholics.

Would your respondent also call Lutherans (or in fact all protestants) "nihilists" and reject their teachings?

Kevin O'Connor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kmo said...

Hi John,

The feedback on episode 411 which got me started on this topic came in the form of two private email messages. They were long, and I didn't respond to all of the points, so I did not include them in this blog post, but you can find the full text of those emails here:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/c.realm/permalink/10152865864351777/

thebitmaster said...

I made a previous comment, but it got messed up in the process. I would like it to go away so I can start over. If I see it, I'll delete it. If not, can the moderator do it? Thanks!

Scott

thebitmaster said...

There's a clear difference between things like alcohol, that are used to escape reality and deaden emotions, and psychedelics and meditation that cause a re-connection with a more holistic reality. Using meditation and psychedelics only as an escape happens, but it's pretty rare. Using them leads to *more* awareness of suffering, both internally and externally. Any expansion of awareness brings pain; we're enlarging our sphere of attention. It also provides a more lucid context from which to act. What will someone do when they go through that process? It's easy to get over-focused on the symptoms and distracted from the root, and those defending the system are very good at promoting that.

Another problem with letting pain set the agenda is that since the cost of not taking action might be the death of millions of people, we're suddenly justified in forcing other people, or judging them harshly if they don't act. Derrick Jensen comes to mind. :) The truth is, no one is obligated to act, and we don't have the right to force them. And the attitude, similar to the much-maligned militant vegans, that we have a right, from our moral high ground, to judge everyone else based on their worldview is one of the biggest obstacles to getting anything fixed. Why? Because people instinctively resist forced change, and that resistance is *not* a function of that change’s legitimacy. I have a problem with the way many Collapsenics approach motivating change. They think if people are so deluged with negative data that they can’t deny the situation, those people will choose to live more sustainably. Not only does this wildly underestimate human denial, but it actually makes it *less* likely that those people will change, both because reality is too painful *and* because they’re instinctively resisting forced change. Providing a compelling narrative that Things Need to Chance is necessary, but not sufficient. Along with that we need to illuminate a future worth living and a path to get there that ordinary people will *want* to follow. That’s why I’m focused not only on telling my own story of sustainability, but also on taking the extra time to make that story more fun, sexy, exciting, and interesting that Default Reality. With such a weak competition, that’s not hard. And if it’s fun for me, I won’t burn out.

How does this tie back into mediation and psychedelics? For me, both were the entry into a larger awareness of What Was Going On. With this awareness came more pain, but also more clarity about both How Things Are (seeing through media distortions, feeling my own pain masked by conditioned habits, etc.) and a inner space free of external distractions from which to organize a response. They broke the connection between Shit Being Wrong and Having to Do Something Right Now, which left me in a constant fire-fighting reactive mode from which a larger perspective is lost in the noise. They’ve taught me many things about my own consciousness and its foibles, and, by extension, everyone else’s. These viewpoints weren’t available to my previous scientific-skeptic-literalist-atheist worldview, because they exist in a space outside that domain.

I don't find myself concerned that people will trip once and then think they're "done." The cracks in reality never fully fade upon return. "If you already started, you'll have to finish," irrespective of whether one's entry point it chemical or zafu-based. And while the Buddhist concern with intoxicants is well-taken, everything I've seen indicates that a combination of the two practices leads to the same result faster than either taken alone. If a substance gives us a clearer view of reality than we had sober, i don't feel it qualifies for that particular restriction.

d3cc6ebe-d667-11e3-ba1a-000bcdcb2996 said...

Greetings, KMO!
Thank you for inviting my input on this discussion. I must be rigorouly concise, as time is precious, and the next day begins all too soon.
I consider myself an enthusiastic meditator, familiar with Asian traditions, but grounded in empirical western thought and a bio-physical paradigm.
My first recollection of encountering the meme of meditation is of watching a TV show called "I Spy" in the mid-sixties, starring Bill Cosby and the late Robert Culp. They are in Japan, and encounter a Zen monk, an archer, who is portrayed as nearly super-human, and who comes to their aid in the climax. That character, and his remarkable practice, stayed with me.
I have a practice today, nearly daily, of training my attention, that is, an innate but chronically under-developed capacity for mental focus. The locus of this focus is my internal state of autonomic arousal. The neurological substrate of this suite of capacities is, according to Dr. Daniel Siegel, MD in his audiobook "The Neurobiology of WE", centered in the medial Pre-frontal Cortex, located behind my forehead.
The methodology for achieving this focus and elaborating the neurological substrate upon which it depends, is sustained use of a system of bio-feedback produced and sold by HeartMath, LLC under the name "emWave Desktop". I have used it consistantly for over seven years, with very positive effects.
This technology facilitates a volitional modulation of my autonomic nervous system, specifically the ability to shift from the "sympathetic" mode of arousal to the "parasympathectic" mode of relaxation, and then to sustain that shift. Intentional adjustment of emotional tone to appreciation, affection, and gratitude, facilitate and support this process, with very rapid response to lapses in said tone being graphically and sonically communicated by the software
As a former abuser of alcohol and diverse other intoxicants, this capacity for self-regulation without recourse to exogenous psychoactive substances has been transformative, to say the least, particularly in the domain of social intelligence. The neurological structures associated with these enhancements are known to a significant degree.
No paranormal or supernatural interventions are necessary, and benefits accrue in direct porportion to effort, much like weight-training or any other discipline.
That said, I can report with honesty that non-ordinary experiences have increased in frequency, well accounted for by straitforward expansion of the operational envelope of my brain/mind system.
I enjoy a more compassionate relationship to fellow humans, including myself, and that altered state has gradually been integrated into a persistent trait.
Readers are invited to ponder the implications of such a re-normalization in the context of the challenges evident to each of us, individually and collectively.

Good night, and Be Well

Jeffery D.

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James Scharff said...

Thanks for this post KMO. I'm very glad as well to hear that you are exploring yoga.

After several years of maintaining a daily yoga practice at home I would still often omit the time of meditation at the end of my active practice. I'd feel pressed for time. That extra 12 minutes slotted for practicing awareness of awareness...well, I knew that the active work would make me feel much better all day. It was enough.

One day I confessed this to my yoga teacher and asked for her comment. Paraphrasing, she said the more you think you don't have time to meditate the more you could really use some meditation time.

A year later I find that to be true for me. Meditation shows me my busy mind--a clamor of voices which comment on everything whether I want them to or not. And after a while the business dies down and there can be a peaceful quietude that develops. Literally my brain is simply quiet and for whatever reason that feels like a relief. It feels like my frayed, hyper-stimulated nervous system goes into repair mode. It's better than sleep because my mind is often just as compulsively busy in sleep as it is waking life.

Regarding action: More action isn't what's needed. Appropriate action is more like it. How to discern that? Recognizing and calming compulsive thinking is a good start. It sure has helped me and gives me more to look forward to in the future. Whatever that looks like from the outside.

-James S

James Scharff said...
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James Scharff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
skinnermichael said...

Hi KMO, The last episode in the second series of In The Flesh was shown in Britain on Sunday and I've got to say, it's brilliant and genius. You're in for a treat (it might have gone out simultaneously in that America for all I know).