I am not studying Philosophy, it is studying me.

My thesis begins with the hope of no ending. In other words it follows Buddhist scholar, Stephen Batchelor’s encouragement “that we allow ourselves to be a mystery for ourselves rather than a set of more or less interesting facts.” (Batchelor & Batchelor, 2019, p.23) My intention is therefore antithetical in that I wish to fully explore this mystery while, at the same time, hoping that I never fall into the trap of believing that I have solved it. It is perhaps appropriate then that my point of departure is with Zizek and his critique of contemporary Buddhism – that it serves as the new opium of the masses.

There is something almost fetishistic about watching Zizek talk that is akin to “rubber necking” as one passes the scene of a gory road accident. I find myself particularly drawn to the vulgarity with which he finds dialectical opposition in everything, even his own utterances, interrupting himself as he builds his argument from multiple directions. At the same time, I am surprised by his generosity, as he goes about finding agreement in the most surprising places. I was particularly amused by his patience with Jordan Peterson in their public debate, politely suggesting that Peterson should perhaps read a bit more. I now realise that this remarkable ability to appreciate the contradiction in everything is a Hegelian stance.

Slavoj Zizek photographed at his home by David Levene in Lubljana, Slovenia. http:///www.eyevine.com

When I came across Slavoj Zizek’s critique of Buddhism, my initial reaction was that he too needed to read a bit more (about Buddhism). However, I have come to realise the gravity of his critique, not only due to its reservations about the development of a Western Buddhism, but for how it speaks to the manner in which we respond to our own existence in general, as we hurtle our way towards the inevitable end of the Holocene. As David Attenborough states in what he calls his recent witness statement, A Life On Our Planet (Netflix): “The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding”. How conscious are we of this? As Husserl insisted – consciousness is always a consciousness of something. What then should we be most conscious of at this time in our human history? It would surely be a tragic irony if Buddhist practices became the opiate through which we sedate ourselves from the consequences of ourselves. Going beyond Husserl, Zizek might argue, with reference to “parallax”, that my very consciousness of things changes the things themselves. This adds a whole new dimension to the concept of what it means to be “mindful”. Although mindfulness is originally a term used to refer to the practice of being present to the moment by moment unfolding of things, it has become a term that can be said to represent a burgeoning, somewhat contradictory, ideology in the west – a preoccupation with “self-awareness” as a necessary tool for surviving our attempts to stay afloat in the rising tides of neoliberal capitalism. Such an ideology narrows my phenomenological gaze to an awareness of self; a self-interested focus on what is going on within me, rather than a reflection on how I am being in the world.

Sir David Attenborough as seen on Netflix

According to Stephen Batchelor (2015) mindfulness is a term that has been loaned from Theology with no equivalent in Sanskrit or Pali.  The Pali phrase that more accurately represents the practice of mindfulness is “sati sampajanna”.  Batchelor roughly translates this as “remembering to be present” or “remembering the present”.  But what does it mean to “remember the present”?  Is there perhaps an accidental truth to the phrase: “remembering the present”?  Can the present be experienced in any other way than through it being remembered?  As Hegel might have argued “”the act of representing reality lags behind the process—it’s what remains residual” (Davis, 2017, p.385).  By my very act of engaging with “the present moment” it is already changed, not only by the passing of time but by the nature of my engagement with it. 

 

Similarly, is being present a form of re-membering the fragments of reality as they are experienced? As Laing (1967, p.19) proposed: “Our task is both to experience and to conceive the concrete, that is to say, reality in its fullness and wholeness. But this is quite impossible, immediately. Experientially and conceptually, we have fragments.” Mindfulness should therefore aim to be much more than a technique for “finding calm within” in coping with modern reality; it can be seen as a consideration of our very relationship with reality.

In my attempt to go beyond the attitude of being a mere set of interesting facts to myself; I wish to capture the spirit of Philosophy as a practice. This spirit is summarised in a conversation that Davis (2017, p.386) recalls having with Zizek:

I remember driving from Chicago to Ann Arbor when Žižek and I got into a conversation about philosophy, about the very nature of thinking. And we thought about this employing his famous Hegelian procedure of the “dialectical 180” and we concluded that it is not so much that you study philosophy so much as the very opposite, that it studies you.

Reference:

Batchelor, S. (2015). After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a secular age. London, UK:

Yale.

Batchelor, M. & Batchelor, S. (2019).  What is this?  Ancient Questions for Modern Minds.  Wellington, New Zealand: Tuwhri.

Davis, C. (2017).  Today’s Psychotic Academy: Risking the Pedagogy of “Žižek’s 180”.  Philosophy Today, 61(2), 379–387. DOI: 10.5840/philtoday201769164

Laing, R.D. (1967). The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise. Middlesex, England: Penguin.



Evening meditation at The Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo, South Africa. May 2021

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