Coordinate Language • 21 September 2008

Or, the post where my blog explodes.

Ok, so step right up. Choose a mantra, any mantra. I don’t care if it’s the sensation of the breath going past the tip of the nose, or some word in whatever language repeated and repeated, or counting as high as you can go before you lose track, or the secret gibberish for which you paid the TM society an ungodly sum, or the feel of your sitbones grounding down into the earth. It’s all exactly the same. This is meditation 101. Shamatha practice.

When you have trained your mind a long while, so there’s some strength and consistency to the practice (like training the body—it works the same… you do first series 1,000 days to settle your shit down), then maybe you do meditation 102 and relax the hold on the mantra. Spacious awareness can get so beautifully empty in part because it doesn’t care what it’s of: when content comes in, it may be "physical," like the ache between the shoulderblades or the cramp arising in the hip flexor; or "mental," like infernal line of a Steve Miller song or the strip of all-too-real memory that arises from out of nowhere. Sounds, emotions, feelings—at this level of concentration and sophistication—are just contents of awareness. In a practical sense, there's no difference between what’s physical or mental.

So ok. New illustration. Do you remember last year when the NYT ran the Op-Ed on the neuroscience of meditation? At first, all the Buddhist geeks were soooo excited—mainstreaming of practice and all that—but later they realized what was wrong with the article. It was scienceist. It did the same as all neuroscience since Descartes, which is reduce the mind to the brain (legend is Descartes said the cries of the dogs he vivisected were automatic blips, not subjective pain). It was explaining the experience of meditation in terms of neural hard-wiring, as if all mental conditions can be controlled once we know the exact brain process that produced them. Meditators said: Stop, reductionists! Mind is not physical! Mind is mental! Understandably, meditators (me included) get irritated when scientists reduce the mind to the body.

Well, that’s science. It wants physical explanations. Not mystical, ethereal “causes,” but rather causal mechanisms. De-mystifying apparently automatic relationships… even in the age of quantum. What do you think CERN is about, after all? Finer levels of physical data.

But then there is this other, equally reductionist tendency there on the other side of science. Reductio-ad-woo-woo. This is the Obama pranayamites, the make-your-own-reality mental recessionistas, and the yoga teachers who think the only reason your foot won’t go behind your head is you have some “emotion” stuck in your hip. Since this kind of anti-physical reductionism is more common in the owl realm, that’s why I wrote about it instead of anti-mental reductionism.

I also wrote about it because woowoo-ism is the metaphysics of the privileged. “The markets will sort themselves out” is what you say when whether you’ll freeze this winter isn’t really in doubt. “The Indian untouchables have such a sense of serenity and spiritual transcendencence about them” is what you say when you’re totally ignorant of the fact that passivity is the trance you fall in to when you are beaten down by physical life: it is only in the poorest countries where the stray dogs become too apathetic to chase you in the streets. “You just need to surrender your fear,” is what you say to your students when you never had to experience hamstring separating from bone on your way to paschi-ma. There is lovely truth in all these statements (and I do love the Obama pranayama), but they are also forms of mystification—efforts to hide from oneself the physics of class, national and embodied privilege. The rich, the American and the flexible: we want to think that the difficulties of others are all in their minds. The woo-woo side of reductionism can be incredibly elitist and uncompassionate.

Anyway. The woo-woo/physicalist cultural rift here is holographic of the mind/body rift that pervades everyday talk. And this is what I’m really trying to discuss. Some reader asked why I resort to dualist language to describe practice, as if there is a difference between body and mind. The idea here is that any talk that opposes mind and body instantiates a separation that is untrue, shaping experience into unnessary oppositions.

Well… I would say there is a difference, and there isn’t. Some sensations arise in the mind. Some arise in the body. These are fields of consciousness (or of reality); but they don’t have to be opposite. In everyday experience and in scientist-vrs-spiritualist culture wars we sometimes act as if there is a difference. But both reductionisms are self-limiting hack metaphysics. Everything is god; nothing is god; god is everything, nothing, whatever; one, many, emptiness, form, whatever whatever whatever. To live at all honestly we have to have a practical substrate that doesn’t make us hold absurd positions about the primacy of either physical or mental reality. 1-800-Integrate.

So I talk about the mind, I talk about the body, I talk about the interpenetration of the two fields. Is this dualist? A reification that locks me into binary experience of the world? It can be, yes.

But…! That assumption is not necessarily contained in language that speaks of mind and body, physical and woo-woo. Is North/South/East/West dualist? Mind/Body is coordinate language misapplied as metaphysical language.

Now, I might have to blow up the blog. You are not supposed to blog about metaphysics. It’s like blogging about your bowel movements—a kind of practical tedium that debases the form and makes your readers never feel quite normal about you again.

Oh well. You win for getting to the end of this discussion. Or I win for tricking you all the way through. Or maybe everyone can win all the time and this does not have to mean that there are losers.