Changing Positions: An Exchange on Buddhist Practice and Psychological Decolonization
By Josh Korda and Joshua Stephens
Taken as set of interventions conducted on the self against conditioned, habitual ways of being, the correspondences between the Buddha’s teaching, and practices accounted for in the literature of decolonization – both as a political project and a psychological process (particularly for those of us who are of the colonizer) – are manifold. Engaged dhamma practice is not – indeed, cannot be – restricted to actions informed or influenced by insights cultivated in the meditation hall; it must be the deliberate, moment to moment cultivation of new ways of being, off the cushion. The teachings offer a variety of tools, as well as cohesive body of practice, for navigating what are often earnest intellectual commitments pressed (uncomfortably) against the gritty, contradictory texture of experience in struggle; the cognitive and the somatic. The following dialogue attempts a brief exploration of this intersection.
Josh Korda has been the dhamma teacher with Dharma Punx NYC‘s Manhattan and Brooklyn communities since 2005. For the last four years Josh has been a visiting teacher at Zen Care, a non-profit organization that trains hospice volunteers, and teaches Buddhist retreats at Against the Stream. He received his initial teacher training with Noah Levine, and has had the honor to study with countless other spiritual practitioners, including Ajahns Geoff, Sucitto, Amaro, Brahm, Vajiro and Tara Brach. All of Josh’s dharma talks can be found here.
Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies and a dedicated practitioner with Dharma Punx NYC. A longtime participant in anticapitalist and solidarity movements, he’s spent much of the last year writing on recent global uprisings, contributing to outlets like Jadaliyya, NOW Lebanon, Truth-Out, Upping the Anti, and blogging for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship from Occupy Wall Street. He’s the author of Self and Determination (forthcoming, AK Press) and blogs here.
Joshua Stephens: Whether I’m involved in organizing here in New York, or doing solidarity work on the other side of the world, I find myself grappling with certain recurring questions, on the order of: What does agency look like, when we take others’ agency as seriously as we take our own? Even the term buddhism has its origins in orientalism, and suggests an orientation none of its initial practitioners likely identified with. What does it demand of us — in the present, in our bodies, even — to meet that practice of allowing a spaciousness conducive to the self-determination of others? How does that re-cast subjectivity or agency?
Josh Korda: The question of agency from my perspective is truly a complex one. Is anyone free to make clear choices, free from compulsion and/or delusional misperception produced and induced by power and other forces that influence our discerning faculties?
From a Buddhist perspective, the choices we make create the karma that plants the seeds for our future mind states. Our actions, skillful and unskillful, are seeds we plant; they will flower into future mind states. If we want to cultivate peaceful emotional states, it’s best to plant seeds that present the greatest likelihood of flourishing into serenity: acts of compassion, kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity.
Of course, we all have our past karma, but there’s new karma we’re planting right in every moment. We can choose to act skillfully right here, right now. So agency is more than simply about free will, it’s also about the possibility of securing any peace of mind amidst a world of inequity and suffering. Yet, our ability to choose skillful actions is compromised by the dominant ideology we’re exposed to, justifying abuses of power; note how prevalent the memes and epistemes that influence us are, naturalizing hierarchy, exclusion, elitism, ableism, fetishizing youth and beauty, and so on.
And outside of the realm of hegemony, the mind itself is structured in a way to sabotage clear thinking: we’re set up to survive at all costs, to chose what’s immediately safe and rewarded in the short term, rather than to affirm unpopular truths and experiences. Given the role of the amygdala, much of our decisions are propelled by emotional reactions based on self-preservation and pleasure at all cost, without regard to how skillful, harmful or lasting are the results.
On a moment by moment basis such fear driven acts might feel like free will, do they really qualify as agency?
JS: Exactly. I think this is actually precisely the intervention that practice makes; what makes it distinct from (say…) intellectually ticking off boxes of things to which we subscribe ethically or politically, or what we aspire to or endorse. When we look at the precepts, the language is right there: “I undertake the training…” — a training is radically distinct from an subscription to a set of ideas or aspirations.
There’s real substance to the collision of the physiological and social forces, and I think activists often miss half of it, and practitioners often miss the other half. When Foucault was lecturing at the College de France, he spent a good deal of time on the shift from power exercised in the form of discipline — in which the subjects were confined in prisons, barracks, factories, and so on, induced to internalize normative behaviors performed on them — to the management of populations, which was a whole other sport.
For starters, acting on populations involved determining what made one population distinct from another – just simply determining what made a population a population. Those engaged in the practice of governing at that point in history observed that the most useful way to construct populations was to look at the things they were exposed to, in common; water sources, pathogens, viruses and the like were often the common denominator. So, these became the points of intervention for the exercise of power. Hygiene and pre-natal care campaigns, etc. In other words, things we don’t tend to understand as terribly political, because they’re anchored to what we understand to be objective, material facets of life. On the surface, that seems really clinical. But any of us can look around us and find any number of seemingly innocuous things we share in common with a broad array of people – language, just for starters – that serve as vectors for the creep of insidious narratives.
When we talk about things like white-supremacy or heteronormativity as narrative frameworks that shape who we are and how we show up to the world (without our even noticing), I think this is largely what we’re talking about, and what you’re drawing out. It’s not simply a matter of intellectually deciding we reject a given narrative; it’s something we do in our bodies. We’re talking about social forces that colonize and mobilize anxieties and impulses that are effectively our evolutionary residue; drives we have around scarcity, survival, intelligibility and belonging, etc. These things aren’t going away, and they’re vulnerable to any number of social forces. Forging a critical, accountable relationship with those parts of ourselves is a training. Absolutely. Even if that training is simply coming back to “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as I or mine” — including our socialization, our attachment to comfort, or our impulse to be intelligible to systems of real violence.
I think the task is shedding light on the “how”. What tools are at our disposal for intervening on ourselves and the forces that construct us as “selves”? And further, what tools do we have for meeting others in ways conducive to self-determination? It’s something I hear you get really deep with, often — even when addressing questions about workplace dynamics (in which capitalism and its top-down arrangements are always central), and romantic themes (in which power expresses itself through our relationships to gender and sexuality). But I just as often wonder if I’m the only one in the room reading that so politically.
JK: Of course, there are a wide variety of ways to interpret the core insights of Buddhist practice; the tools and insights can be used towards essentially therapeutic ends (note the development of mindfulness based therapies such as MBSR, MBCT, DBT and on), there are many philosophical implications (which have been explored by Stephen Batchelor amongst others), and certainly there’re wide ranging political implications. I certainly hope you’re not the only one in the room picking up on its significance.
The political is certainly not a paradigm placed ‘on top’ of Buddhist practice, it was very much a core constituent of the dharma from the start. For example, The Buddha condemned the caste system that was established in India, for such a social organization firmly contradicts the causal role that karma, and its resultant emphasis on harmlessness—plays in determining our future mind states and release from suffering.
Clearly capitalism, which emphasizes material gain as a motivation for human engagement, deserves condemnation, for it is little better than the caste system. Our present social organization rewards the endless competition for dwindling resources at the expense of core spiritual principles that provide us with a sense of well being: kindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and appreciation of the happiness of others (mudita).
As you put it so eloquently, “social forces… colonize and mobilize anxieties and impulses that are effectively our evolutionary residue,” our largely outdated fear and survival impulses (those provided by ancient regions of the brain, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus) are inflated, rather than properly regulated, by our social and economic formations. (Note that the need for proper regulation is not only prevalent externally but internally as well.) This is clearly not in our long term interest. We are presently the dominant species on the planet, with generally inflated lifespans and few natural predators (excluding, of course, social predators and various CEOs), yet we’re constantly reinforcing survival based dispositions that disconnect us from meaningful connection with others and leave us agitated and needlessly anxious.
Alas, peace of mind and competition—the foundation of our social organization—are largely antithetical. I think the Buddha put it well in the wonderful Attadanda Sutta, in which he easily could be referring to the way things are right now, not only 2,500 years ago:
I looked around and saw people floundering about
like fish in little puddles, competing with each other.
Seeing this I became frightened and aware that
the world was entirely without a worthwhile foundation.
All sense of direction was knocked out of line.
Wanting to find a sense of security for myself,
I found that nothing wasn’t already claimed by others.
And as there nothing in the end but competition,
I felt discontent with the way things are.
So we can put aside the question ‘Should I take these tools and insights politically?’ and replace it with ‘How do I engage in social practice, infused by spiritual insights, without attaching to results that are beyond my control? (For many of the abominations of violence, racism, homophobia, sexism and on will no doubt outlive us.)’ Or: ‘Knowing that abusive social forces are so easily appended to ingrained survival based tendencies, how do I effectively direct my internal, meditation-based practice in a way that makes me more effective on the social level, and vice versa (how do I interact with others in ways that reinforce what I’m investigating internally)?’
JS: So, two practices come to mind, here — neither of which are drawn from the dhamma, though I think they both lend a good deal to living it, and vindicate its political potentialities. The first is the notion of equality proposed by the political philosopher, Jacques Ranciere. For Ranciere, equality is not a condition preserved or ensured by a State. Rather, it’s a moment to moment practice of beginning from the assumption that everyone — regardless of position, experience, education, and so on — is just as capable as we are of making meaningful decisions about their lives. He argues that this will, no doubt, be a counter-factual assumption at some or another juncture; we can think here, perhaps, of someone living amidst the worst of addiction. The point, for Ranciere is not that this is always true, but that it’s the only ethically defensible starting point, and any modification we might make to it unfolds after that.
If one looks at what set someone like Malcolm X apart from his contemporaries in the Civil Rights movement, according to the accounts of his peers, one encounters some version of this. His dexterity in connecting and striking up deeply horizontal encounters with people left behind by mainstream Civil Rights discourse — sex workers, hustlers, ex-cons — reflects this embodied refusal of dominant narratives, and this refusal to strip others of their agency. And what’s more, for Ranciere, this isn’t simply an ethical practice. For him, no authentic, participatory politics can begin without it. So, we’re right back to the Buddha’s teachings on causation, and the seeds we plant.
The other practice that comes to mind sort of comes out of Audre Lorde’s articulation of the erotic. I think it forges a really interesting correspondence between our bodies, the activities we engage in with others, and the texture of how we bring passion to those. For Lorde, confining the erotic to a strictly romantic or sexual quality denies how we’re animated and fulfilled by each other, even just in conversation. In some of bell hooks’ work on pedagogy (herself no stranger to the dhamma), she talks about what gets stripped out of learning by cleaving the body off from it, as though it’s a strictly cognitive exercise. How we learn, the process of selection through which we organize and metabolize information is, undoubtedly, an effect of how we experience that in our bodies. If we feel threatened or discomforted by information or a particular perspective or experience, that’s all going to go down much differently. And if one looks at efforts to combat institutionalized forms of oppression within social movements, one can’t help but encounter recommendations to folks in disproportionate positions of power or privilege to pause, listen, not react, etc. The tightness we feel in our chests or throats, the tension in the gut, the burning we feel here or there – these are sensations; not calls for us to stop listening, shut some experience down, or run away.
It’s been a while since I’ve read her, but I feel like I read something in Gloria Anzaldua’s work, in which she proposes something along the lines of bringing the erotic to all that we do. Much as with Ranciere’s prescription, I don’t think it’s intended as a rigid, universal proposition; it seems a sort of call to reset our starting point. What, for instance, would an organizing meeting look like if we showed up as (even an approximation of) the selves we bring to erotic encounters? The trust, the vulnerability, the willingness to be flawed and unvarnished, the intention to be present to the vulnerability of others and tend to them responsively. Even if confined to just a thought-experiment, it’s suggestive of pretty radical possibilities; what James Baldwin was getting at when he said “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”
You’d probably be able to correct me on this, but I think it was Ajahn Chah who said that, when we get up off the cushion, we’re not ending the meditation – we’re just changing positions. It’s always struck me as profoundly political approach to practice. I come back to it constantly.
JK: These are two interesting propositions. From my spiritual perspective they both offer interesting concepts worth incorporating into our engaged practice.
First addressing the views you attribute to Jacques Ranciere (I’m unfamiliar with his work): It brings to mind The Buddha’s instructions for “Metta/Goodwill” practice: “All living beings, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done in the past, may they find the sources of true, lasting happiness and act on them.” For our own piece of mind we must act as if others are worthy of attention and respect. As a foundation for engaged practice and political activism, I’m comfortable with this formulation as a rich soil to plant actions for repairing social inequality.
I’m familiar with Audre Lorde’s poetry and theory; I especially like her work breaking down the oppositional/ dualistic view of masculine-feminine via her theories of difference. Her concept of the “erotic” is very similar to the Buddha’s teaching on the bliss and joy experienced in spiritual practice:
Lorde says “[the erotic] is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.”
The Buddha taught that the fourth enlightenment factor is rapture or happiness (“Piti” in Pali). This is a quality which fills the body and mind with ease, uniting the two. If we are lacking in this experience of satisfaction, it will be difficult to continue on the spiritual path, which ask us to renounce so many harmful, short term sensual pleasures. Finding sources of happiness that do not exploit other beings is a difficult endeavor, and we’ll fail without locating a sense of reward within. If our path is entirely intellectual, made up of thoughts “step aside, I’m doing the right thing here, fella” that won’t sustain us for times of deprivation and setbacks in the world.
So developing a form of kinesthetic, somatic satisfaction would definitely form a secure foundation for one’s external struggles. Indeed, the mindfulness of the body we maintain allows us to establish equanimity, the balancing factor that lets us know when we’ve become too attached to our external endeavors and have sacrificed inner peace.