Spirituality as engagement, and why a certain type of Buddhism won’t do

“We live in a world of outrageous pain. The only response to outrageous pain is outrageous love. What does an outrageous lover do? She commits outrageous acts of love. Which outrageous acts of love? Those acts of love that are a function of her Unique Self. In this way the Enlightened Unique Self who is the incarnation of all that is, living in her as her and through her, intimately addresses the unique needs in her circle of intimacy and influence. In doing so she reclaims her potent power—the power of the Shekhinah —the power to heal and transform. The gap between the ability to feel and heal is closed. The heart opens once again and a sacred activism sourced in outrageous love perfumes all of reality.” – Gafni

Zachary Stein’s article is best read in full, and discusses and quotes a spiritual teacher I am unaware of Gafni, from whom the quote above is cited.

A very cogent point about bringing the gifts of your unique self to the table of social change, which is what differentiates the western tradition from the eastern one.

Zak Stein asks:

“Bring to mind contemporary montages in which hundreds of thousands of photos are combined via computer to make one face—the uniqueness of each face unquestionably maintained, while the overall pattern of a single face is also distinctly clear.”

And he then continues:

“This is a powerful, if simple, encapsulation of the acosmic humanism that is the central scholarly contribution of these books. The theme is encapsulated in the mystical idea that each individual has a unique letter in the Torah—that each person is a unique word in an endless sentence spoken by God, whose illocutionary goal is total self-expression.

These kinds of theological and philosophical arguments for inviolable uniqueness and individual dignity pile up until a fundamentally new image of divinity and awakening dawns on the reader. It is not through the extinguishing of personality or the self that awakening unfolds. The goal of spiritual practice is not to merge one’s personal uniqueness into some vast impersonal process. Instead, the goal of the religiosity argued for by Gafni is to become, to borrow his nomenclature, “outrageously sane,” to be so “fully human,” so fully yourself, that you liberate the powers needed to actualize the stunning uniqueness of your life. That is, the goal is to lift up your head and be counted, to affirm your irreducible individual dignity, and be empowered to participate as only you can in the evolution of humanity.

This is all very different from lowering your head to look at your navel in meditation. Why be counted when you are really nobody? Why work to build a world that affirms the dignity of each and every person’s illusory self? The radical teachings in Gafni’s books expose the a-political, apathetic, and defeatist underbelly of so much of Western Buddhism, where the teaching of meditation is combined with affluence and liberal values to create an insular and self-affirming escape from the obligations of uniqueness. Who is left to stand up for the inviolable rights of individuals when everyone is sitting down, counting their breaths, and spending a small fortune on retreats from the world? There is no better ideological lubricant to grease our decline into a global corporate dystopia than a form of religiosity that denigrates the individual, promotes quiescence, and calls for a personal disappearance into some larger structure or process.

As early as the 1970‘s Habermas (1970 p. 27) identified Western Buddhism as a “sedative— an orientation that channels outwardly directed protest into apolitical paths…”. Decades later, the critical theorist Žižek (2001) would announce even more provocatively that:

Western Buddhism is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism … presenting itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace … it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement…. Rather than trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of technological progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modem logic of domination—one should instead, “let oneself go,” to drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference towards the mad dance of this accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non- substantial proliferation of semblances…. The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. (pp. 12-13)

The point here is not to critique Buddhism as a whole (some of my best friends are Buddhists) but rather just to point out that the most rapidly spreading religion in the Western world (Buddhism) is not a form of spirituality that has been leading its adherents to perpetrate disruptive social change in the name of social justice. The last time that happened on a large scale in this county it was a movement firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, under the leadership of a reverend with a dream about the dignity of each individual, the inviolability of human rights regardless of race, and the unique expression of humanity represented by African Americans. Today our enthusiasms for Eastern spiritual imports are leading us away from the discourse about individual rights and democracy leveraged so eloquently by Dr. King, which has served as the most powerful catalyst of social change in history. This language of liberation that is our heritage is being replaced by a language of liberation that is predominantly about the qualities of our own minds and emotional states and which includes the remarkable idea that by sitting for an hour a day on our $90 buckwheat meditation cushion we are somehow helping to change the world. There is perhaps no more iconic representation of the new American post-modern spiritual landscape than a room full of homogenized white people sitting on sets of standardized cushions facing the wall.

In recent decades we have become increasingly homogenized and standardized, as individuals’ lives have been forced into a matrix of techno-economic and political institutions of unprecedented reach and invasiveness. Counterintuitively, reported increases in individualism, narcis- sism, and entitlement reflect exactly these trends marking “the twilight of the individual.” The post-modern narcissist or entitled millennial are in fact suffering from radical doubt about their own self-worth and unbearable uncertainty about the value of their contributions to the world. As Kohut (1971) and other self-psychologists have taught us, the narcissistic personality is in fact an extremely fragile self-system, one almost totally dependent upon the affirmations of others. Conspicuous displays of self through social media, self-aggrandizing do-gooding, demands for special treatment and attention—these are not signs of the a self blown out of proportion, they are signs of a self desperate to be seen, a self needing to be counted among the worthy, needing to be affirmed in its unique worth.

The cure for the dysfunctions of post-modern identity formation is not a spiritual teaching that tells individuals to look through the illusions of their unique personal essence and beyond the unique time and place in which they live. In fact, the post-modern reader of spiritual books is already tenuously connected to their unique gifts (as opposed to the gifts the media leads them to wish they had) and the unique responsibilities of their time and place (as opposed to those directed toward a world represented through social media). Most spiritual books offer a weak balm for the stinging anonymity and de-personalization of mass-customized lifestyles and post-historical consciousness. These books tell us that our particular personalities and places are to be devalued in favor of some abstract Universal (be it Evolution, Big-Mind, or The Great Perfection), leaving the reader confirmed in their suspicion that their unique life has no special value.”