Towards a Fifth Foundation of Mindfulness: Dhamma and Decolonization
Both dhamma practice and structured intellectual activity serve as decolonization practices for me. Some years back, when I was questioning the assumptions I had developed about my own dhamma practice, I entered a graduate program strongly informed by anti-colonial and post-colonial thinkers. To my surprise, the intellectual practices of these thinkers were extremely complementary to Theravadan Vipassana practice because of their deconstructive natures. Over time, I have come to regard this intellectual work almost as a fifth foundation of mindfulness (traditionally there are four).
These thinkers were questioning and destabilizing myriad ideas transplanted from Europe, many of which had become internalized and institutionalized in colonial and post-colonial societies. In dhamma practice I was destabilizing ideas and assumptions about my self, a self that had been shaped by imperial relationships between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan, by having grown up in a settler colony in occupied Lenape territory.
These scholar-activists—with names like Fanon, Kincaid, Césaire, Chatterjee, Mohanty, Said, Spivak—were trying to think into what colonization and imperialism had done to their various societies and peoples. Their intellectual practices were connected to real-life anti-colonial struggles going on around them at every level—social, cultural, economic, political, psychological. There were also many European and United Statian scholars whose work was crucial to me, such as Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Butler, and more.
In my experience, a background in these thinkers’ critiques of capitalism, modernity, and post-modernity can deepen dhamma practice. For example, in Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault shows the effects of capitalism’s hitching of human bodies to the clock in the name of efficiency and productivity. The European laborer’s body had to be trained by a measured work day to be precise and efficient in its activities, in order to achieve a certain amount of production within a number of hours—extracting the maximum amount of profit (see my previous post for more on surplus value). This way of life spread around the world, often through colonization or imperialism.
As I would sit for long periods of meditation during silent retreats, I could sense the effects of capitalist discipline on my body. I recalled how my body and mind had been reluctantly trained to accept the nine to five work day. I felt my relationship to capitalism through the aches and pains, illnesses, weariness, muscular problems, and disabilities that were present. I knew that the relatively decreased mobility in one shoulder was connected to repetitively moving a mouse forty hours a week, that the way my shoulders slumped forward echoed the demands of typing on a keyboard every day. I wondered if I had a very physically demanding job whether I would be able to sit cross-legged on the floor at all. Other bodies are negatively impacted by capitalist discipline much more intensely than mine.
Inside the settling of mind that comes with being on a silent residential retreat, some of these knots loosened and evaporated, and others were more persistent. These are things that tend to happen naturally on an extended retreat. The mind and body gets a chance to step away from the habits of life, the physical actions and mental movements that must be repeated everyday in order to earn a living. They eventually mold and embed themselves in the body. Of course, this molding would happen in life regardless of capitalism. But with mindfulness we might begin to see that our economic system’s demand on time, muscle, energy, and creativity—for the sole purpose of profit—can impose lower quality of life as well as disabilities on us.
I can imagine a long-term residential retreat where we practice mindfulness in a traditional manner, but with a wider awareness of how the sensations, thoughts, feelings, and states of mind that arise might be situated in these larger social forces. Not with the intent to investigate their content, which might divert us from mindfulness, but with full recognition that the internal and external phenomena we experience as human beings are intimately tied to how society relates to us, as racialized, gendered, economic beings. We can include these in our awareness and begin to undo their effects, while we attack the machinery of capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and more.