I’m glad you bring up ENDS and RESULTS, because we have to make a distinction. If Buddhist practice aims at the liberation of all beings, then therapy is at best a result experienced along the way as a side-effect, and hardly a necessary one. Slavoj Zizek introduces a wonderful distinction between therapeutic and critical religion in the introduction to his “The Puppet and the Dward,” one which I think he unfairly develops on the side of Christianity. He does well to highlight the passive tendencies of therapeutic Buddhism, but he misses the psychoanalytic import of his own terms and the subsequent abuse he makes on them. To put it bluntly, what we have here is a distinction between the pleasure principle and the death drive, and it is a misnomer to oppose the “life-drives” (Eros) to the death-drive (Thanatos). To this end, Lacan argues that all drives have a little death-drive in them. Buddhism is not an inherently therapeutic religion, nor is Christianity the sole bastion of critical religion. A survey of American forms of Christianity shows that the therapeutic mode dominates, arguably with less pernicious results than that ethico-spiritual disposition that in triumphal bad faith throws its hands up in the air for the sake of “pragmatism” and getting “beyond politics.”

I also want to dispel the mind-closing connotations of “critical” as judgmental. The best way to think of this distinction between therapeutic and critical religion is along the lines that Emerson, in his essay “Intellect,”distinguishes between “repose” (i.e. comfort and resignation) and “truth.”

“God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.”

Another useful touching-point is Patrick Kearney’s essay, “Still Crazy After All These Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy,” which is is both perspicacious and near-sighted. As the title suggests, he wishes to dispel the connection between what Kyle Lovett calls “traditional psychotherapy” and Buddhist practice (particularly meditation). The problem is when we conflate the history of psychotherapy, particularly psychoanalysis, with this image of “traditional psychotherapy,” with its parent-blaming, ego-worshiping escapism.

That is why earlier I brought up Lacan’s departure from the therapeutic mind-set of his contemporaries, who unfortunately did better than him to saturate the popular perception of psychoanalysis. Strictly speaking, for Lacan, psychoanalysis is not a program of therapy. Psychoanalysis does not proceed by labeling from some distance these or that problems, which are dealt with in the voyeuristic privacy of one’s own ego. Rather, psychoanalysis is an experiment in our painful habits themselves, though in the relative safety of the clinical situation, which in many ways we can expand to the student-teacher relation.

Is this not what happens when, for us Zen adepts, we are sitting? We do not escape from our busy minds or the world changing around us; our quietude is a noisy one, because karma is ALWAYS coming up for us. What we find and what the masters report to us is not a stillness of mind (as if they were somehow opposed in the sense of some reality behind illusion), but the revelation of that stillness in mind – that de-centered I of the storm. The transformations this brings to the practitioner are too great to be sub-ordinated to the therapeutic impulse.

Written by Joe

July 2, 2009 at 7:23 am

Who Thinks Abstractly?

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Hegel’s essay can be summarized in contemporary terms with a response as pithy as his own terse statement: “the uneducated, not the educated.”

Those who think abstractly are those who believe in some kind of metaphysical common-sense: whether the universal rationality that supposedly governs market-actors’ choices or some common-sensical naturalistic “way”. This goes for the fashionable, artificial back-to-nature simplicity of new agers and their western-buddhist, -taoist and -hindu cousins.

“Be yourself” is metaphysical common-sense. The romantic appeal to feelings is metaphysical common-sense. “The invisible hand” is metaphysical common-sense. Ideology as Marx engages and critiques it is metaphysical common-sense. “The way things are” is an appeal to metaphysical common-sense. The super-ego is metaphysical common-sense as an obscene agency shaping ahead of time the contours of how our ownmost convictions even appear to us as our own.

Written by Joe

June 30, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Notes on Lacan and Zen

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In a comment to a comment on a post at Progressive Buddhism, “Mindfulness Based Therapy and Buddhism.”

‘Buddhism, in a general sense discusses anatta and most psychologist would probably say a stronger sense of self, not weaker one may be more beneficial to the patient.’

This is also Jacques Lacan’s core departure from much post-Freudian psychoanalysis, particularly its American analog, ‘Ego Psychology,’ which taught (with much influence) that the goal of psycho-therapy is the identification of the patient with the therapist’s ‘strong ego.’ The distinction between normality and liberation beyond normality is relevant here too, because for Lacan and his students Freud’s insights pointed away from the ego, like the finger pointing at the moon. To that end, Lacan’s insistence on a ‘return to Freud,’ another more intimate and concrete engagement with Freud’s writing, is not unlike the Zen practice of sitting and returning to the breath.

Written by Joe

June 28, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Posted in Buddhism, Lacan, Psychoanalysis, Zen

The Fear of Error is the Error Itself; or, There is No Ignorance nor Ending of Ignorance.

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The word of God is not a proposition over and against us, but a word used in conversation with us. This is the difference between how the true and false mothers of 1 Kings 3:16-28 respond to Solomon. The false mother treats Solomon’s words as a proposition, and can only in return repeat them – revealing their impotence and unsatisfactoriness. The true mother, however, actually responds to Solomon, engages and contradicts him: in short, enters a dialogue with him. The nature of truth is not propositional, which is the basic pre-supposition to a correspondence view of truth, but dialogical – where dialogue is not an exchange of propositions, but an engagement with both what is and isn’t there/said/true.

God talks to us where we are not; therefore, we are where God is not talking. Where we are not? In sacred objects/practices that reflect our own emptiness. The mistake that all art, philosophy and religion critiques is the fear of error in-itself. The error in-itself? It does not exist, in the sense that in The Heart Sutra “there is no ignorance and no ending of ignorance.”

Written by Joe

June 20, 2009 at 9:00 am

A Conversation About Polyamory

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This is a transcribed conversation over instant-messenger with a friend of mine, Josh.

Me: So a polyamorous person I know put their position to me this way: do you have more friends than just your best-friend; does your best friend fulfill all your friend-needs? Well, then why would you expect the same with one lover?

Josh: I suppose there is something to be said for that, but I think for many people, the answer to the question is that one lover does fulfill their sex needs.

Me: I think it’s more than it seems. While I can see one person satisfying another’s genital erotic needs, the basic lesson Freud gives us about civilization and libido is that the former is built through domesticating (i.e. harnessing) the latter. That is to say, for those people some other aspect of their life is eroticized in a sufficient way to what they need – be that people, socially-necessary work or art (including religious devotion). What we can at least say today is that the way the developed world paradoxically eroticizes the whole world actually de-eroticizes it. This is why Zizek rants about safe-sex as “sex without sex” in the way he calls the media’s white-washing of war (or green-washing of [ecologically exploitive] capitalism) “war without war.” Zizek also likes to say that given permissive norms now, a “traditional” marriage is truly subversive, not because it plays the same game of out-transgressing the previous way of doing things, but because it creates a short-circuit in the way we view human relations as perpetual pissing contests and domination.

Compare the crazy sex manuals of India, China and Japan and their traditions of intense contemplation and discipline (Zen especially).

Part of what I was trying to say is that the way that Marx described [in "The Communist Manifesto] how under Capitalism “All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” How this can be thought in terms of this dissolution of normative monogamy. This sounds like the end of the world, or at least a very bad thing, but what it could mean is the emergence of a form of love whose content is monogamous (we only relate to one person at a time), but whose form is universal.

You can think of Christ’s event (arguably the Judeo-Christian event) as a form of this simultaneously dissolving and universalizing love, because only through Him, this individual human, is God accessible. The content is the same, but the form is radically different. Polyamory cannot be forced of course, but it does not arise spontaneously and without a material base. Like Marx also said, men make history, but not under the conditions they choose. What polyamory might mean is a form of love beyond the alienating failure of our first love (i.e. ourself).

Josh: I think you just proved why you would be a good academic and why I would not.

Me: Why’s that?

Josh: Because you just used Marx, Freud, and Jesus to make a case for polyamory. That, to be blunt, is some academic shit!

Me: Bullshit or no? I don’t think Freud and company are inaccessible as much as they are not popular. I think a lot of resentment at what gets called condescension operates according to this mechanism, where an unpopular view is taken as a threat (what a great way to think about xenophobia too) rather than something to be engaged for what it is. I think Zizek’s life for the last 25 years has been a stunning example of why these remain relevant figures and theories.

Thanks for what I’ll take as a compliment though.

Josh: It is a compliment. I wasn’t trying to infer that you were using irrelevant or obscure references. I was just saying that you take an academic approach to argumentation. Using preexisting writings to do cross analyses and draw conclusions that support your point of view.

Josh: I tend just to think about what makes sense and then say it.

Me: Hrmm, that’s what I thought I was doing.

Josh: That’s why you are naturally an academic. It’s a good thing.

Me: haha okay

I think it would be a mistake to say I made a case for polyamory, as in making a case for why we should go left rather than right. What interests me with polyamory – which I have been thinking of for a while but most intensely lately – is the way it can be used to think of economic and other concrete relations and transformations. So, it would be a mistake to say that people were only monogamous in the 19th century, but that the structure of social and economic relations (i.e. relations established by positive law) were such that polyamory could not flourish or work right. Today, we are encountering places in society (literally geographic spaces if we think of how the most liberal places are our urban centers) that do not support “traditional” monogamy as well as polyamory and the like. I affirm polyamory, but ultimately I believe there are forms of monogamy (“traditional” even) that engage the same selfless love (i.e. love beyond narcissism). I can’t make a case for polyamory through Christ without visiting both the fact that he endorsed conventional marital relations and said the only way to him was through “hating” (i.e. letting go of) all your family (i.e. your identity as a sibling/parent/spouse*).

Josh: I suppose I’m not trying to make the case for monogamy, but it seems that polyamory is more of a selfish act, and that once you go down that path you will only be seeking the next experience in a quest for something that you will never find.

Sorry for the long time between responses. I’ve been brewing.

Me: If you want to think of it economically: strict monogamy functions best where you do not have a strong support (i.e. support of material needs) structure in the form of a state or otherwise public institution (arguably corporations attempt to be such public bodies, but deeply perverted kind**). When public society starts to dissolve the old needs for hierarchy and control to provide us with what we need, strict monogamy loses its ability to stabilize our sense of belonging amidst those conditions that make our life possible. So, polyamory arises as an ethical way to manage our affectively-charged relations[---a response to our mode of material reproduction].

In the same way that as the business grows bigger, you can no longer have one guy run the show. It takes a bottom-up approach to really get things done. Polyamory is potentially love from the bottom up.

I should qualify that what is usually thought of as the private sector, is still in large part socialized. What remains private about it are literally paper thin legal definitions.

So, it’s not just a kind of a socialist state in which traditional, strict monogamy loses its efficiency.

Josh: I would argue that it is actually the opposite. Polyamory creates a marketplace for love in which one chooses the best products/lovers. When you are constantly shopping for better and better experiences you become alienate from the act of making love for the sake of the perfect orgasm.


Me: Brilliant. I absolutely agree.

This is why Zizek can get away with arguing for traditional, strict monogamy as subversive in light of permissive norms.

Josh: word.

Do you think it would fly with the right wingers if we proved to them that capitalism is responsible for the destruction of the family?

Me: That is not a critique of polyamory as such though, anymore than what I was saying in the first place was a critique of monogamy as such, but view into concrete-social and economic relations through the ideological lens of how we relate to (and regulate) our sexual partners.

Some, yes. I mean, you have to remember that the fascists were, at least in Germany, national socialists

Questions of love are always, in the end, about identity – and vice versa.

Josh: True. I bet the Taliban would be pretty supportive of that critique

Me: They would, but for the wrong reasons.

Josh: I’m listening to a recording of an a capella group with Ray Charles. It’s fucking awesome.

Me: Namely the “I was only following orders” sort of enjoyment those fucks get out of abusing the symbolic order for their imaginary ends.

* Precisely, I think, in the way the mother of 1 Kings 3:16-28 gave up her identity as a mother in order to love/save her son from Solomon’s sword.

** Literally in the sense that Lacan doubly alludes to when he pronounces “perversion” “pere-version,” or “version of the Father,” where Father here could be a kind of Heavenly Father or symbolic guarantor of things

Written by Joe

June 6, 2009 at 7:42 pm

(Obviously) Not a Mom I’d Like To Fuck

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From Postcards from yo Mamma, a blog that shows off examples of “a sort of essential mom-ness that wasn’t just idiosyncratic to our own mothers—we had inadvertently stumbled on something that was universal.” That is to say, funny and otherwise interesting stuff that people’s mothers have communicated to them through internet-text.

Mom: Your dad and I were watching the SNL thing and were confused, what is a MILF?
Me: Seriously? You don’t know?
Mom: No. We were so confused at that part.
Me: It means Mother I’d Like To “F”
Mom: Gross. What?! Who would do that to a mother?!
Me: I don’t know, obviously you aren’t a MILF.
Mom: Obviously. I’m just a MILM. A Mother I’d Like to have as a Mother.

I post this wondering why there is such a dead-zone in the psychoanalytic literature when it comes to the internet and (instant) text-messaging specifically. For a discipline so obsessed with speech, language and writing , who offer so many analytic tools beyond the clinical setting in the everyday world of language and symbol, how does the instant-message pass beneath the radar?

Written by Joe

May 9, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Zizek’s Bodhisattva; or, Hegel as Shuzan’s Disciple

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From the aforementioned appendix to Metastases of Enjoyment:

In our everyday lives, we constantly fall prey to imaginary lures which promise the healing of the original/constitutive wound of symbolization, from Woman with whom full sexual relationship will be possible, to the totalitarian political ideal of a fully realized community. In contrast, the fundamental maxim of the ethics of desire is simply desire as such: one has to maintain desire in its dissatisfaction. What we have here is a kind of heroism of the lack: the aim of the psychoanalytic cure is to induce the subject to assume his constitutive lack heroically; to endure the splitting which propels desire.

What I have bolded could be a very succinct definition of what a bodhisattva does in renouncing Nirvana and “remaining in” Samsara. Perhaps, in this sense, we could say Dharma is pre-Oedipal, that Samsara is the Unconscious as such in its groundless materiality, and awakened being is that which determinately does not wake up, which forecloses the father function after already accepting the Oedipus complex. That precisely as he says it the previous sentence:

This gap that forever separates the lost Thing from symbolic semblances which are never ‘that‘ defines the contours of the ethics of desire: ‘do not give way as to your desire’ can only mean ‘do not put up with any of the substitutions of the Thing, keep open the gap of desire’

‘That’ precisely in the sense of ‘the This’ in Hegel’s chapter on Sense-Certainty:

Sense-certainty itself has thus to be asked: What is the This?

‘The This’ precisely in the sense that Shuzan’s monk yelled “what is this?” when Shuzan said:

Call this a shippe and you assert; call it not a shippe and you negate. Now, do not assert nor negate, and what would you call it? Speak, speak!

We could also call Dogen’s “non-thinking” (his response to the question, “how do you think not-thinking?”) a possible response to Shuzan’s disciple. When the disciple breaks the shippe, he might as well be holding Heidegger’s hammer, in whose broken (i.e. samsaric) state we experience its ‘disclosedness’, its openness (in the sense of Heidegger’s ‘clearing’ or Lichtung). All dharmas are empty, all tools (for skillful means) can be broken, and in the end it makes no sense. “It” in the sense of Freud’s Es. The sense that it doesn’t make, besides the idiomatic phrase, is that captured in Hegel’s phrase “sense-certainty.”

“The This,” again, is that interrogated by the Siddharata on his four trips with his charioteer (a potential superego figure, who almost seems to enjoy telling Siddharata that everyone (including the Prince) gets sick, ages and dies) where he saw old-age, sickness and death, but also the mendicant. “This” gave rise to bodhichitta, to desire that persists in its renunciation (i.e. the desire to awaken all beings and therefore put off complete enlightenment) Bodhisattvas (and psychoanalysts) are beings who practice one thing: the arousal of bodhicitta. The Buddha’s bodhicitta expresses how the ego-ideal introjects itself and begins the process of symbolizing, of putting into words, this painful split caused by the wall of language.

Siddharta’s encounters are moments of the shape of consciousness called Sense-Certainty. “This” is the ground zero of critique (the Buddha was a HUGE critic, was the basis of Nagarjuna’s school of dialectical criticism). In the sense, the interpreters of Job’s suffering were all answering in addressing Job’s story a version of a question that is really more than Job, “what is this?” To this end, they simply “don’t get it.” The Buddha strays down an ideological path of his own when he tries to strike it out as an ascetic, though he was left unsatisfied — “This is not it!”—and his bodhicitta grew, like a baby in the womb.

The ascetic ideal and the pleasure principle are two (always-already unsatisfactory, “failed” in the sense Zizek describe feminine and and masculine sexuation as failed-whole) ways of enjoying, but jouissance rears its head as a painful excess of this-enjoyment, which we desperately address by enjoying the enjoyment some more. The Buddha’s renunciation of his ascetic-life recapitulates his renunciation of his pleasure-life after having his four sights, and the gesture is still the same one of not enjoying samsaric existence. The middle-way is the way that is beyond the pleasure-principle, beyond good and evil, and as Badiou expresses it in talking about a peace that is “beyond the war, and not merely the lazy hand of it.”

Shuzan’s disciple asks the Buddha’s same question of the broken shippe, but leaves the back door open for affirming and negating. As with the Buddha after his four sights up until his enlightenment, the wall of language and alienating identification persisted for Shuzan’s disciple, who having uttered the full truth doesn’t yet realize that it was not all said. Only by virtue of his double mis-recognition does the Buddha finally become awakened. If his disciple returned Shuzan’s message to him in inverted form, the form of the broken shippe, the “This” which Hegel shows already betrays its supposed concreteness and stability by being the highest abstraction and negation, what should Shuzan say then, if he is to effect the same dialectical reversal that his student makes?

Written by Joe

April 25, 2009 at 11:56 pm

Without Hindrance, There is No Fear

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From the concluding “self-interview” of The Metastases of Enjoyment:

In one of the recent ‘corporate nightmare’ thrillers, The Virtual Boss, a company is actually (and unbeknownst to the employees) run by a computer that suddenly ‘runs amok’, grows beyond control and starts to implement measures against the top managers (it instigates conflicts among them , gives orders for them to be fired, etc.); finally, it sets in motion a deadly plot against its own programmer. . . . The ‘truth’ of this plot is that a master is, in a sense, always virtual — a contingent person who fills out a preordained place in the structure, while the game is actually run by the ‘big Other’ qua impersonal symbolic machine. This is what a Master is forced to take note of via the experience of ‘subjective destitution’: that he is by definition an impostor, an imbecile who misperceives as the outcome of his decisions what actually ensues from the automatic run of the symbolic machine.

And ultimately, the same holds for every subject: in his autobiography, Althusser writes that he has been persecuted all his adult life by the notion that he does not exist, by the fear that others will become aware of his non-existence — that is, of the fact that he is an impostor who is only pretending to exist. His great fear after the publication of Reading Capital, for example, was that some perspicacious critic would reveal the scandalous fact that the main author of this book does not exist. . . .

In a sense, this is what psychoanalysis is about: the psychoanalytic cure is effectively over when the subject loses this fear and freely assumes his own non-existence. Thus psychoanalysis is the exact opposite of the subjectivist solipsism: in contrast to the notion that I can be absolutely certain only of the ideas in my own mind, whereas the existence of reality outside myself is already an inconclusive inference, psychoanalysis claims that reality outside myself definitely exists; the problem, rather, is that I myself do not exist. . . .

For those who doubt Zizek’s fidelity to a theoretical orientation that is compatible with – if not an ultimately necessary ally of – a buddhist one.

Written by Joe

March 26, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Posted in Buddhism, Psychoanalysis, Zizek

Something is Missing

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From Slavoj Zizek’s “The Eclipse of Meaning: On Lacan and Deconstruction”:

This gap that forever separates the lost Thing from symbolic semblances which are never ‘that‘ defines the contours of the ethics of desire: ‘do not give way as to your desire’ can only mean ‘do not put up with any of the substitutions of the Thing, keep open the gap of desire’. In our everyday lives, we constantly fall prey to imaginary lures which promise the healing of the original/constitutive wound of symbolization, from Woman with whom full sexual relationship will be possible, to the totalitarian political ideal of a fully realized community. In contrast, the fundamental maxim of the ethics of desire is simply desire as such: one has to maintain desire in its dissatisfaction. What we have here is a kind of heroism of the lack: the aim of the psychoanalytic cure is to induce the subject to assume his constitutive lack heroically; to endure the splitting which propels desire.

From Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi’s translation of Dogen zen-ji’s “Genjo-koan”:

When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

Is Dogen preaching a similar heroism of the lack? This is so different from the Western Buddhism that Zizek critiques, which clings to the pseudo-Gelassenheit, “let it be” attitude, and sometimes exerts itself as the commandment to tolerate or in the liberal apology for ‘the market’. The ‘liberal pragmatic’ outlook and charge of many Western Buddhists, compared with ‘religious fanaticism’, is an ideological caricature that veils class-struggle. However, Zizek’s emphasis has been on the obfuscating qualities of this ideological veil, not too unlike Marx’s critique of ‘false consciousness’, while neglecting the revelatory dimension of such a veil, which by definition functions on account of both concealing and unconcealing.

The question to put to Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism IS NOT what can it do for the Left, but what can it not do for itself? What is missing—not as a specific object, but in terms of the splitting and rendering asunder that propels desire? Moreover, what do popular conceptions of ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ put in the place of this lack, this missing-something, so as to maintain a certain semblance?

Written by Joe

March 2, 2009 at 11:34 pm