Critical theorist Slavoj Zizek has an interestingly harsh critique of Western Buddhism and the meditation tools it employs. Framing his critique in Marxist terms, he argues that Buddhism is the perfect spiritual tradition to be co-opted by our self-absorbed, destructive, and consumeristic society. For him, Buddhism represents the perfect ideology for passive acquiescence to the world as it is, a panacea of inner peace that fits neatly into an advertising culture where, by now, “be present” could just as well be the slogan of a credit card company as an instruction from a meditation teacher.
Zizek writes, “[Western Buddhism allows us to] fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless the spectacle is — what really matters to you is the peace of the inner self to which you know you can always withdraw.”
In other words, for Zizek, Buddhism, in the context of a Western consumer culture, allows the individual to believe he is transforming his mind without actually changing the conditions of suffering that shape the individual’s society. This represents a dangerous type of inner peace – a peace not based on true insight into the interdependent nature of reality, but instead based on withdrawal into a mental cocoon, some personal oasis isolated from the turmoil of the world outside. In this cocoon, the whole world can go to hell, and the meditator can — put simply — be ok with that. In fact, the meditator can even be a willing actor in a system aiding great oppression, and still live at ease, because it’s “all good” anyway. By practicing “acceptance,” we simply become comfortable with the status quo. Of course, as is true of most things said by contemporary critical theorists, Zizek’s best point is made more convincingly and artfully by someone else, in this case Stevie Wonder: “Make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it, you’re not helping turn this into the place sometimes called hell.”
Although his critique of Buddhism is somewhat uninformed, Zizek does offer, in his own way, a good insight into the danger of misunderstanding Buddhist practice and the techniques of mindfulness altogether. What fascinates me is that his critique parallels — in the language of cultural theory — the personal wariness that most beginning meditators have about the practice of meditation, especially regarding 1) how mindfulness actually works, 2) what acceptance really means, and 3) how genuine transformation comes about.
The first hint we should have that meditation is not a passive withdrawal into a mental shell is this: Meditating is actually really hard! Things that are passive tend to be easy, right? Watching Project Runway for half an hour is a piece of cake. Watching your mind for half an hour, not so much. The truth is that mindfulness — paying direct attention to what our thoughts do in the present moment — is not at all peaceful, at least not in the “easy” sense of the word. Anyone who has tried it on a regular basis knows this. Why is it hard? Because coming back to the moment again and again is a true revolution against habit, a rebellion against our cultural tendency to always avoid what we are feeling and experiencing. It is this chronic avoidance of ourselves (not the rigorous practice of self-awareness we do on a cushion) that lies at the core of mindless consumer culture. Without having an actual practice, however, there’s no way Slavoj Zizek or any of the rest of us could really see the irony of this realization.
Of course, for people who don’t practice, meditation can and does come across like a pitchperfect cliché of passivity before the status quo. When you look at someone sitting there, you might think: “Seriously what does that do for them? What does it really change about their situation? How does it better the world?” We ask these skeptical questions because what we rightfully want is not just the ability to pay attention, but the ability to transform our circumstances. We want change we can believe in, both internally and externally. That’s the payoff we are looking for. Without the reward of transformation coming at some point on the path, meditation is useless. Buddhist teachers can preach “there is no goal” as much as they want, but most students aren’t going to even stick around long enough to hear the subtleties of what that really means, either. And there are goals in meditation, by the way, just not the kind that can be achieved in 30 minutes or your money back.
Practical transformation is what Buddhist practice is all about. It’s also about changing the world. To practice meditation consistently is to push back hard against the tidal wave of materialism that is quite literally killing the planet. But transformation is actually step three in a three-step process.
Step one is the much less sexy practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the natural scientific method of the mind. A scientist brings a microscope, a meditator brings mindfulness. We need to realize that we live in a state of deep assumption about the way the mind works, which then extends to our understanding of the world. We rarely experience anything directly, without first slowing down and paying attention. A scientist shouldn’t make statements based on unsubstantiated claims, and a meditator shouldn’t try to change anything until mindfulness is decently established. Whenever we try to change something before we understand it, our attempted transformation actually comes from habit and assumption, not wisdom. Solutions that come from habit, as Albert Einstein pointed out, just end up reinforcing the problem. That’s called samsara, due to the always circular structure of habitual logic.
Step two is the work of acceptance, and it is the true meaning of acceptance in a Buddhist sense that I believe Zizek and others fundamentally misunderstand. When we become mindful, we realize how much about ourselves we really don’t like. This is the reason meditation is three million times harder than watching reality TV. It turns out that our self-loathing runs much deeper than our voyeuristic impulses.
For transformation to take place, we have to actually make friends with our mind. We have to learn to like ourselves. This is the opposite of a “get rich quick” scheme. There is no product we can purchase to aid this work. It only comes from the willingness to be with yourself, nakedly, openly, and lovingly, again and again over a long period of time. Which means we have to spend time with ourselves. A lot of time. And the time we spend with ourselves on the cushion is the opposite of passive. It’s often tough, it’s usually intense, and it leads to a hard-fought, slow-won, and revolutionary victory over self-hatred. We can actually come to like ourselves. Liking yourself is the result of acceptance. To call acceptance “radical” — as Tara Brach does — is actually a severe understatement.
Personally, I haven’t met many people who report having realized the radical state of self-acceptance. The ones who have are powerful agents of global change. Does the kind of self-acceptance which Buddhist meditation techniques systematically cultivate in the individual really change the world? Well, no, not alone. Zizek is right about that, as well as the danger of thinking that acceptance is the end of journey and believing in any way that we are “in it but not of it.” Eventually you have to get up and do something. But trying to change your life or the world without a real method for changing your own mind is inherently doomed to failure, because society is just a matrix of the hearts and minds of those who inhabit it. Built on the foundation of mindfulness and acceptance, radical transformation, beyond habit and assumption, can begin.