This is not a call to arms.
Hat tip to Richard Payne for alerting me to a post (now nearly two months old) by Glenn Wallis regarding the Mindfulness Living Week and the “tipping point” of American Buddhism. You should read Wallis’ piece while listening to Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” As Payne reminds us, the Mindfulness Industry has been subsumed under the dominant capitalist struct of America because — why wouldn’t it be? Capitalism is so pervasive, is so deeply ingrained in the very fiber and being of American history and culture (America would not exist if it wasn’t for capitalism), that scarcely anything can escape its black-hole-like pull.
But I don’t want to talk abut mindfulness or capitalism. I want to shine the light elsewhere. And to do so, I’m going to be slightly critical of Wallis’ post on two points. First, audience and agents; and, second, nomenclature.
To paraphrase and oversimplify a complex argument, the mindfulness industry posits that modern people suffer because of, among other things, our disconnection from the natural world/our true natures, a disconnection caused by the modern condition of work and industrialization and a loss of awareness of how things “really are”; and that this disconnection can be “cured” via the tools of mindfulness applied liberally throughout one’s life, from home to work, from the board room to the bedroom. However, this particular kind of suffering is actually caused by the larger systems of global capitalism which means we’re never getting off this rollercoaster. We can be mindful all we want while responding to emails and processing TPS reports; but until we undermine the systems of capitalism that cause our particular malaise, nothing’s really going to change. Wallis notes that major universities in the U.S. and Europe are now developing contemplative studies programs, and that these programs are clearly in alignment with the objectives of the mindfulness industry. Therefore, academic institutions are “on the hook” (my words, not his) for replicating this system, rather than undermining it. He writes (underlined emphasis added):
…technologies of self-care, though arguably designed to enable the practitioner a means of resistance to dominant and unhealthy norms, currently function as ideological supplements to these norms. Here, it is important to state the matter in more active terms; for, doing so reminds us that we are dealing with real agents in the real world, agents capable of acting on, of illuminating and changing, subjugating structures: the current leaders of Buddhist (or whatever) thought and practice are aligning self-care with the interests of the very social formation that they, ostensibly, desire to counter.
Which leads me to question: do they? Do they (even ostensibly) desire to counter the norms? A specter of expectation rises up from time time in critiques of the mindfulness industry (or Buddhism for that matter), an expectation that mindfulness (Buddhist) programs and the people (Buddhists) leading them either should or are in fact countering the norms, are working against the system. Perhaps because we’re buying into the first part of the mindfulness ideology — that modern persons suffer because of modernity/capitalism — we assume that mindfulness teachers are, or should, be marching in the streets with the proletariate, or, at least, they should want to help start the revolution, join us in taking up arms against the consumerist-capitalist system. But, seriously, do they? Do they (even ostensibly) desire to counter the social formations of that system?
I do not ask this question because I think that the commodification of Buddhism/mindfulness is unproblematic; I do not ask this question because I think we should “give up,” that we shouldn’t critique both Buddhism/mindfulness and “the system” — we absolutely should; I do not ask this question because I think it’s perfectly okay to uncritically work in service of capitalism. I ask this question because I think it is important to take seriously the possibility that some folks — even Buddhist folks, even folks in academia — may really like capitalism, they may really like the status quo, and they may really have no desire whatsoever to challenge the norms. They may not want to counter anything but, instead, have either wholly pedestrian desires like earning enough to provide for their children and save some money for retirement, or grotesque desires like being a wildly rich and famous Buddhist “thought leader.” If, as Wallis says above, these are “real agents [people] in the real world” then let’s consider them as such — real people with complex motivations, complex lives, who make choices, many of which we’re going to disagree with. In sum, I ask this question not because we shouldn’t be critical of the “deep shit” we’re in (his words, not mine) but because we might be wasting our breath. These folks aren’t going to join us in the revolution.
I doubt that Wallis believes he is writing this piece to the actual “thought leaders” at the Mindfulness Whatever Week or the creators of the contemplative studies programs in various universities. But it does leave me wondering who he imagines his audience is. Who, exactly, is he calling to arms? And, to push this militaristic metaphor, if he is calling folks to arms, who are they supposed to arm themselves against? To what end? If the aim is to fight back, to #resit, the forces of global capitalism, to take down Google and Davos — how, exactly? Critique is important, of course (as I’ve written about before); but the, again, militaristic metaphor and the urgency of our times leaves me to wonder what role we’re supposed play to have now that we have arms. Again, real agents — real people — in the real world. I’ve armed myself against the forces of Buddhist thought leaders… now what?
In a lame attempt at summarizing my first point and transitioning to the second, above I’m concerned with clarifying Willis’ audience. If his post is a “call to arms,” if he hopes to “incite a collective that produces thinking, concepts, dialogue, texts, and practices” to disrupt “our current capitalist-corporate-consumerist World” — who is this collective? Who’s he talking to? And I think we might get closer to an answer to that question if we focus on nomenclature.
What follows will seem needlessly pedantic — and to those who’ve followed my various blog-iterations these many years, well, I can already hear the eye-rolls — but it’s important. And it’s buttressed by a comment in the very long comment thread to Wallis’ original post — “Is there anything else left of Buddhism in America besides this kind of crap?” In short, Wallis (et al) need to stop talking about “Buddhism in America” or “American Buddhism.” His argument, his call to arms, his collective, needs specificity. He is not arguing against American Buddhism but a specific variety of American Buddhism, and we should be clear on that.
I say this, in part, because of other attempts to use more specific language — and here I’m thinking, again, of Payne’s posts on “White Buddhism” — a specific sub-species of American Buddhism, in his case a particular ideology rather than a specific lineage. White Buddhism gets close to what Wallis’ is actually talking about, especially to the extent that whiteness as a racial category owes its genesis to capitalism as much as America does (again, “This is America”; whiteness reached its full flourishing in racial discourses regarding the enslavement of Africans and thus blackness; slaves literally built America, and slavery was propelled by the demands of capitalism). But I’m not sure if White Buddhism is the right term — both because I’m not sure that’s what Wallis is actually talking about nor do I think it is, really, the right term. Nevertheless, the particular intersection of a commercially grounded, meditation and/or mindfulness centric, retreat/resort based, secularized (in the sense of being repackaged and deployed in non-religious spaces) practice that can be taught and purchased, and an ideology of self-help/heroic quest/individual improvement that transcends any particular lineage, tradition, or community — this is what we’re on about, no? (Did I miss anything?) What should we call this?
Yes, this seems, it feels, totalizing, like this crap is all that’s left of Buddhism in America. But it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
To see how this — whatever it is that Wallis is taking up arms against — is not the totality of American Buddhism all one needs do is question the meaning of “American” and “Buddhism.” I’ll grant (I’m a big believer in the idea that) “America” is rooted in this “capitalist-corporate-consumerist World,” a pervasive ideology that, again, sucks everything in, possibly including All The Buddhists. But that aspect of “America” does not suck everything in evenly; pockets of resistance, diversity, alternate points of view and practice, and even Buddhists (yes, American Buddhists) who’ve never heard of mindfulness and have no idea what the fuck we’re talking about abound, left and right, all over the map. All you gotta do is look for them. Shift the gaze and focus for a moment elsewhere. Tear one’s eyes away from the shinny lights of the Mindfulness Self-Help Whatever and listen for the quieter voices. To deny that these quieter voices are a part of the complex tapestry of American Buddhism is to deny their Americanness (and their Buddhist-ness) and is to perpetuate the very thing — the this — that we’re being called to arms against in the first place.
For example, to toot my own institutional horn, I am the dean of an institution of Buddhist higher education. We don’t have a mindfulness program. We don’t have a contemplative studies program. And while I can’t say that our community — inclusive of the Board of Trustees, the full faculty, the administrative staff, all our students, and all the other agents (people) who make this place possible — is collectively engaged in the revolutionary work being called for, while I can’t say that all of us would be willing to take up arms or join the collective, I can say that most of us aren’t particularly interested in the this under Wallis’ critique, but are deeply interested in other types of thinking, concepts, dialogue, texts, and practices.
I’ll admit to bringing this up in part because of a vested interest I have in promoting my school (I think we’re doing good work, and I think you should come and study with us); but I also bring it up because I think we need to shed light on other parts of American Buddhism. Wallis is right. “The tiredness of it all.” It’s tired because we’ve been here before. And not just in our critiques of this (mindfulness) but on this rollercoaster. Buddhism wasn’t commodified by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was commodified in Asia and sold to America in the nineteenth century in the form of incense burners with images of Buddha on them in the pages of Sears catalog with promises to make your home peaceful, back when your grandparents were in diapers. This is America. Corporate-consumerist Buddhism is a story that needs to be told, a story that needs to be critiqued. But it’s not the only story. Again, critique is necessary. But in the spirit of Matthew Pratt Guterl, let’s amplify other voices. This crap isn’t all that’s out there. I promise.
And, indeed, Wallis must be aware of this (not of me, and my institution, per se); he must be aware that there exist in American Buddhism counter-voices, people who are willing take up arms — otherwise, why issue the call in the first place? If this is all that’s left of American Buddhism, and if these agents (people) aren’t actually interested in taking up arms, then his call is a shout into the void. To continue to call this “American Buddhism” excludes those American Buddhists (present company included) who might want to join the collective, but assume the call is being made to someone else; and, again, it becomes a shout into the void. Therefore, specificity in nomenclature is in order, a specificity that will lead not only to inclusiveness but to an actual honest-to-god collective.
To put it bluntly, and, again, to return to that militaristic metaphor — if a line in the sand is being drawn, it’s being drawn across American Buddhism. Some are going to fall on the side of consumerist-capitalism; some aren’t. What do we call the two camps, the two opposing armies? Because they’re all “American Buddhists.”
I’ll end by sticking to my guns (pun intended) and highlighting, again, this militaristic metaphor. Metaphors, language, matters. A call to arms is exactly that — a call to take up arms and violently resist or defend a territory. So. Be careful what you wish for.
After all, this is America.
Photo credit: three heads by telmo32.