I was reading earlier today about a breakthrough new treatment for people paralyzed from the waist down. It involves, I gather, electric shock, which somehow (almost along the lines of the vague but miraculous medicine of a Hollywood film) jumpstarts the brain to start receiving signals across what had been an irreparable communication gap. I’m happy to learn about this as there are a couple of wonderful people in wheelchairs in the building where I live. As a romanticist (and therefore mindful of the ongoing legacy of wild early nineteenth century speculations about galvanism and vitalism) who frequently finds himself teaching Frankenstein (one of my favorite novels, next to Mrs. Dalloway and Nightwood), I can’t help but get excited about electricity. I mean, I fry myself daily god knows how much sitting in front of this computer.
Anyway, not to be crass, but I feel like I’ve had something of this sort of electroshock therapy today, in coming across a spectacular blog called Immanence by Adrian Ivakhiv, a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont. Here’s someone who’s been blogging for a few years now on the critical currents that interest me most, particularly the potential confluence of French theory (Deleuze, Latour) and Indo-Tibetan philosophy. Discovering Ivakhiv is kind of timely for me. I’ve just learned that, after a truly harrowing ordeal, I’ve made it, by the skin of my teeth, through the qualifying process. Well, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (who, incidentally, was the first lecturer I ever heard speak at my university, because he gave teachings a month before classes began) always writes that the purpose of practice is to destroy one’s ego, so I’ve got nothing to complain about. Besides, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche made it pretty clear that everything is impermanent and living as if anything truly mattered (from a place of attachment) was plain childish. I’m in academia precisely for the kind of conversation that Ivakhiv is fostering, and the rest of it is rather illusory.
So, that’s why I think I should take a moment to verbalize my overall response to what I’ve gleaned from his readings of such issues as Zizek’s debate with Buddhism, Nagarjunan ecophilosophy, the complementarity of Derrida (deconstruction) and Deleuze (constructivism), and the potential for an encounter between western critical theory and a nondualist, contemplative, eastern “metaphysics of immanence.”
In a word, I think the hardest thing to write about is silence. Intellectuals and philosophers tend to write ‘around’ it.
One passage in his posting about Nagarjunan ecophilosophy caught my attention in particular. Ivakhiv is musing on the thorny question (raised by Zizek) about why Buddhist meditative absorption would lead to any sort of spontaneous ethical state, such as compassion. I take him to argue that when we experience the groundlessness of our own condition, we naturally feel compassion for others who are in the same situation:
In Buddhism, the claim is more radical and profound: it is that a fundamental compassion for all dependently-arising entities like us will emerge as a direct consequence of experiencing the “groundlessness” of our own being. What’s generally meant is the kind of graduated experience of that groundlessness that comes out of the diligent practice of the eight-fold path. Simply pulling the rug out from one’s own self-construct, as can happen in psychedelic experience for instance, will not necessarily do it (though it might). The claim, then, is experiential, processual, and relational, and can only be tested empirically. The Buddhist sangha (community) provides a “safe” vehicle for its testing and its fruition.
I’m sure he’s skimming over a good deal of his thought on this matter, simplifying it for convenience. However, I think it’s important to jump into the conversation at precisely this point. The Dalai Lama talks about the importance of carrying on analytic meditation in meditative concentration, possibly because the people who tell us that the “I” or the thinker completely ceases in meditation are misleading us a bit. The Dalai Lama makes the point in fact that some wrongly propagate the view that there is no I. The more valid aim is to destroy the false “I” (the notion of an independent, permanent, essential self) but not the one that conventionally exists. So, it’s a deluded aim to try to stop all the thought processes in oneself.
It may seem counterintuitive, but what the Dalai Lama seems to be advocating (and I’m no expert, so this is just my own blind blundering) is that we avoid the pitfall of thinking there’s a pure state of absolute mind: in fact, that’s the false I to be eradicated. The ordinary, conventional self is fine the way it is. We don’t have to get rid of it. All we really need to do is to acknowledge that it is neither essential nor permanent but contingent, dependently originated, and impermanent. I might be dead wrong, but this seems a very kindly attitude, one that could lead to humility and humor.
This is why I bring up silence, and also why I take exception to Ivakhiv’s account of the groundlessness that disrupts our self-constructs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to deny this groundlessness. But (as John Rajchman explains in his excellent little book on Foucault), this notion of the “void” (something Rosi Braidotti criticizes, too, in her essay on thanopolitics) is a modernist notion with which (to me) the more interesting French philosophers (Foucault and Deleuze, but not Lacan and his quasi-heir Zizek) broke. Thupten Jinpa’s Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way has been a particularly helpful book for me personally on these matters. It seems that part of what Tsonghkapa points out (as does an anti-nihilistic Nagarjuna) is that emptiness and voidness aren’t what we think they are. We really have to be careful when we talk about groundlessness. The wonderful example Tsonghkapa gives (if I recall) is that one begins to study philosophy, and one thinks that all conventional experience is mistaken, and so ordinary people are deluded. Much later, when one begins to understand interdependent origination, one realizes that the old man who never studied anything is basically more accurate, and less arrogant, in his view than you had been at your smartest. It’s not a matter of denying conventional experience, or proving it doesn’t exist, but in understanding it properly, without bullying.
So, I’d question whether compassion arises for meditators because they experience groundlessness and realize that all beings are also, whether they know it or not, based in groundlessness. Maybe that’s one way of putting it, but it seems to psychologize the matter. It’s hard to trust any sort of psychological realization. Something tells me that’s not a very deep thing, unless we’re meant to understand that it’s not an idea but an experience. Even then, when duality subsides, it’s not as though one encountered this awful buzz of nonbeing.
This is, actually, a subject I hope to explore very soon through a reading of William Blake’s “The Fly” and Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died.” These are both extraordinary. My argument about them is that it’s only the dualistic mind that interprets immanence or bliss as terrifying bare life. It’s the distinction that Braidotti hijacks from Agamben (who hijacked Foucault): is zoe natural sweetness or is it brute life? Well, it’s all a matter of perspective. Knowledge (the cogito) encounters it as a terrible destructive annihilating impersonal force. Something else – what do we call it, imagination? or Keatsian “half-knowledge” – encounters it as natural sweetness, or unfabricated interconnectednesss. Spinoza (who sparked off Deleuze) is really a key thinker here, with his notion of imagination as a more accurate notion of substance than knowledge: when we imagine, we register the present of other powers in ourselves, or the interrelationship of ‘bodies’ or affects that actually modify the knower. Another important interface is Bergson, who sparked in Deleuze and Guattari the idea of the “counter-actualization of the virtual.” That is, relaxing our conceptual activity into the quality of experience that remains virtual (as active interrelations that can’t be converted into subject or object of knowledge) undoes the actual (the reified experience). Blake’s “There is no natural religion” is a key text here, worth checking out again.
So, back round to the main point, there’s something about meditation that we shouldn’t reduce to the psychological, or to any sort of logical insight. That is, we shouldn’t frighten away the thing poor Dickinson scholars, who may know the minutiae of her mundane life, seem to miss (in my opinion): the attempt (in poems like “I tie my hat – I crease my shawl” and “Better than music – for I who heard it”) to address the way that the quieting down of conditioning occurs simultaneously with the deconditioning rapprochement of vibrant matter, or natura naturans, or blissful unfabricated awareness. The image a Dzogchen teacher from Tso Pema once gave was this: does your mouth open first and then you fall asleep, or do you fall asleep and then your mouth opens? They happen at the same time, don’t they?
I’d love to stop on that wonderful silly image, which really sums it all up, but I can’t help but try to get to the point. We’re too hung up on the idea that the mind, and awareness, is unique to human beings, or limited to human brains. If compassion arises for the meditator, it’s because the so-called groundlessness we’re talking about is an illusion of language, an incomplete concept. We may not be able to talk about the reality – precisely because to produce knowledge about what is in silence is to be inattentive to the silence. And inattention is just conceptual grasping. Let’s just say, compassion might be part of the inexpressible quality of what Spinoza called the infinite attributes of substance.