Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
In "Trusting Desire," which you can download here, Zach Schlosser proposes a trans-lineage, living spirituality, one which honors and draws on traditional spiritual teachings (such as Buddhism) but which is more responsive to the complex challenges of our times. To frame his argument, Zach first recounts important steps in his own spiritual journey -- his study and practice of multiple forms of Buddhism, various critical questions and points of dissatisfaction which arose for him along the way, and his subsequent exploration of several, more recently emergent spiritual approaches, such as Waking Down in Mutuality, Focusing, and the Diamond Approach. A key concern, as suggested by the title of the paper, is the importance of 'desire' (and a positive, this-worldly orientation) for a spiritual path that is relevant and responsible in a time of planetary crisis.
His paper is not long, and I encourage others to read it, so I will not summarize the paper here. Instead, I'll just respond to a few of the points that most stood out for me.
1) I am only moderately familiar with the Waking Down teachings, and I have reservations about some of the work of the Bonders, but overall I resonated with most of the voices he brought into the discussion (including my own :-D). I, too, have been informed and inspired, in various ways in my own writing and practice, by the work of Bonnitta Roy, Eugene Gendlin, and A.H. Almaas: each working at the far edges of postmodernism to think and vision anew, to find new language and new modes of engaging the wildly creative flux of multiplicitous being. They are strong allies of emergent trans-lineage spiritual practice, whatever forms that may take.
2) I have a mixed response to Zach's critique of Buddhism. On the one hand, I know exactly what he is talking about, and I agree: in many ways, even modern Western Buddhism remains saddled by traces of the religion's early devaluation of worldly life and its distrust of body and desire. The existence of various forms of 'engaged' or 'embodied' Buddhism demonstrates the truth of this charge, to the degree that they present themselves as alternatives. Many years ago, for instance, a friend and I decided to pose a question to the senior teacher in our (Yungdrung Bon) lineage: what did he recommend we do, as practitioners, to respond to the ecological and economic challenges of our age? He told us just to work on individual enlightenment practice and not to worry about the world, since "worlds come and go." While I could appreciate a certain wisdom in his advice not to get entangled in fruitless world-worry, I also found it seemingly representative of the retiring oblivion for which Buddhism is often critiqued. Regardless of whether or not it was "enlightened" to worry about and want to work for the benefit of the world, I felt it was right to do so, and I left him feeling a bit disappointed and dissatisfied.
On the other hand, I have some reservations about Zach's critique just because there are a (small but not negligible) number of Buddhist teachers and teachings that do not strike me, as I've encountered and engaged them, as life- or desire- or world-averse -- who do not see an awakened perspective, for instance, as opposed to desire, but rather as orthogonal to it (and pervasive of it). Some modern teachers, such as Mark Epstein or Jack Kornfield, have written recently about the value of desire -- drawing distinctions between constructive desire and non-constructive 'clinging' or 'craving' -- and this, again, could be read as the criticism-proving assertion of an alternative; but there appear to be perspectives and resources within certain long-standing Buddhist traditions which fall outside of the problematic dichotomies of early Buddhism. At the least, there are resources here for uniquely Buddhist responses to the issues Zach raises -- and as we may find exemplified, for instance, in some of David Loy's recent writings. Still perhaps requiring a 'strong pivot' (as he puts it) in many instances, but not necessarily the need to leave the tradition behind.
I make this "on the other hand" argument only half-heartedly, I must admit. I stopped identifying as "Buddhist" a number of years ago and find plenty of nourishment for now in trans-lineage spaces, so I've followed a path similar to the one Zach outlines. And as we've explored extensively on this forum, there is work to be done to articulate a thorough-going postmetaphysical framing of the tradition that would be more compelling to modern understanding. But I do think Buddhism is rich enough to afford practitioners relevant 'paths forward' in our time, for any who would like to do so (and who are willing to do the work to bring that forward).
3) I appreciated Zach's discussion of process and 'living' ontologies -- and have traced, in my own writings, the emergence (out of nounal/structural metaphysics) various verbal, pronounal, and prepositional ontologies, among others -- but I would point him to Herbert Guenther's writings on Dzogchen for a consideration of the degree to which Buddhism affords a process view. Guenther, for what its worth, regards Dzogchen as the most thorough-going process ontology yet developed (and presents it as escaping the usual flat symmetries that we often find in Mahayanist framings). But that aside, Zach appears to be touching on an orientation that is gaining currency in multiple quarters (from Whitehead to Panikkar to various Object-Oriented and "evolutionary" philosophies, etc): the re-valuation of becoming, not as a 'corruption' of (or illusory overlay upon) a pre-existing static One, but as sacred in itself. This is Panikkar's sacred secularity, where the secular itself is not "godlessness" but the embrace of "time" and "world" as worthy in their own rights.
4) Regarding Zach's 'living' ontology, a key element of that seems to be a focus on apophasis: epistemologically on not-knowing, and ontologically on being itself as open and undetermined. Here, too, I think he has his finger on the pulse of certain emergent trends in theological thinking -- from the work of Catherine Keller ("apophatic entanglement"), to Ferrer's rendering of participatory metaphysics, to Almaas' recent work (which he notes), to ontological withdrawal in speculative realism, etc. I wouldn't define spirituality only as "staring into the unknown," but I do see this apophatic moment as crucial to emergent integral-participatory self-understanding and praxis, and as intimately related to our Gendlinian (and centauric) opening to the implicit. Regarding his assertion that we do not discover truths, but invent them, I would caution against going too far in the direction of a notion of reality as anthropocentrically generated (OOO's critique of 'correlationism'), but nevertheless I think this is a valuable distinction (or blurring) to make: the in/distinction of discovery and invention. Latour invokes here a word used by the French philosopher, Sourriau: instauration. Truth under this conception is both 'installed' and uncovered, like a treasure or gift, and we can never fully tell the two apart.
5) Lastly, regarding desire and trusting desire: As I said, I appreciate and generally share Zach's desire- and life-positive orientation, but I wish he had spent more time discussing his understanding of the nature and function of desire. I think this is quite an important topic, and worth dwelling deeply on. Is desire inherently trust-worthy, or is Zach recommending that we really trust ourselves enough to open to and receive the messages of the movement of desire? To what degree do messages of valuing and surrendering into trust of desire play into the 'ends' of our present consumerist culture? What is the relation of desire to the three transcendentals or virtues of goodness, truth, and beauty -- to tie this question in to Steve McIntosh's new book, The Presence of the Infinite -- or to eros and agape? What is the relation of desire to the ascetic 'vertical tensions' that drive Sloterdijk's (Nietzschean) anthropotechnics? Maybe we can explore some of these questions (or others) here.
Adding one more brief point:
6) I like Zach's notion of biomimicry in spirituality. It occurs to me that that's one way of looking at what I've been doing with the notion of religious tradition as generative (en)closure (but the biomimicry notion would give greater emphasis to conscious design).
This afternoon I was facilitating a leadership development group in a small company in San Francisco. One of the participants brought up the fact that she finds herself getting most hesitant and afraid in situations where she is facing an opportunity to go for something she really wants. I suggested that when we encounter our authentic deep care for something, the vulnerability associated with in can be unnerving and scary. As I think about my response here, I am very nervous. It just shows how much I am grateful to be in discussion with you Bruce and the other exemplary guides and travelers along these paths that are present here. So thank you for taking the time to read and review my thoughts. Here are some more, I'll use Bruce's numbers:
2) Why does it matter so much to me if I'm right about Buddhism being fundamentally anti-worldly or not? I think it is for two reasons. The first is that I felt my own life-hating tendencies get legitimated and strengthened inside the tradition, which I was happy about at the time. However, it took me leaving the tradition to become aware that these were "personal," psychological issues that could be healed. I no longer feel this way. And although Buddhism was a step in this process of healing and falling back into appreciation of the world, I am still personally bitter about it deluding me. So I feel a bit like a rebellious teenager. The other reason, and here I remind myself a bit of the Four Horseman of New Atheism, is that I don't want others to be infected unnecessarily by revulsion toward what could be seen as beautiful, and especially the beautiful things they could create. "Worlds come and go." Yes, why not make cool ones? I don't want to misrepresent the tradition here. The answer in some quarters would be that you can't make worlds without suffering. The only way to not suffer is to not create. I am not so certain :). One of the similes I am most inspired by in the Pali Buddhist writings is that of the meditator being like a potter. Like a potter shapes a pot, the meditator is said to shape his or her mind into something malleable and workable and to craft something from it. Usually this is given in the context of developing supernormal abilities, but I'm inspired by it in a larger way. Reflecting on experience itself as a kind of "substance," and being able to mold it gives us so many options, perhaps infinite options of good and happy ways to live. Buddhism offers great depth and richness and opportunity in this regard, as you say, and as Dustin DiPerna argues for. But, as a post-metaphysicalist, I don't buy the "unconditioned" nature of awakening or of anything else we value, I see these as crafted. Moreover, I'd prefer to craft something I envision or am inspired by, rather than merely react away from what I see as negative. The former seems both more powerful and more enjoyable. I think it's more possible to do this outside the tradition, which is to say outside this fundamental negative value, though, as you say, whatever one chooses, there is much work to do.
Another voice to add to this discussion would be Reggie Ray's. In this talk, (http://www.dharmaocean.org/episode-22-the-vajrayana-path-of-desire/) he asks whether Vajrayana, with it's positive emphasis on desire is even Buddhist. He answers a bit on both sides as I recall, from a nice historical lens.
3) Thanks for the suggestions Bruce. Part of the reason why process philosophies may be on the rise is that we are nearing a potential species-wide apocolypse. I no longer think this will happen, but the background anxiety is surely adding some juice to my life in the opposite direction. It's like some people are saying, "Well, fuck, if we might all actually die, then let's imagine the exact opposite, what does realistic utopia look like how do we create it." I'm thinking of certain strands in the tech world as well. But to do that, you have to see utopia in the future and create it. And if utopias are possible (more likely plural than singular I think), then you have to value the process through which they will come about. I think corruption from past to present is possible, and I while I don't think the notion of progress from present to future is a simple one, but I do think it's real and possible. And so do the Buddhists vis-a-vis enlightenment, so let's include that in the world we create.
4) Yeah, the "invent" thing is a bit bombastic, so thanks for the push-back, instauration is nice. I do not think this radical uncertainty is all there is or should be in spirituality. The paper traces my own path, I was hovering mostly in uncertainty while I was writing it, but I find I've moved from there somewhat. What I think is most important is that this radical uncertainty is a very fertile ground. From the most unknowing place possible, we have the widest possible creative freedom. From unknowing we can build new things.
6) (I'll get to 5 in a moment, it's so big) I'm mostly aesthetically attracted to the idea of biomimicry. I'm just beginning to play around with it as it relates to spirituality. In fact, I'm only a little interested in the "conscious design" aspect of it, insomuch as that means some kind of top-down process. I'm more interested in creating the conditions for an experimental meditation community, which is as life-like as possible - meaning open to discovering and inventing, collaborative and competitive, open in it's intentions, or able to hold multiple intentions in conversation with each other. This is partly why I'm so inspired by Bonnitta Roy's Collective Participatory Process for Emerging Insight, not because it is this, but because it feels like it drops people into the inside of a very alive-feeling, life-like process, of generating immediately relevant insights. Much more thinking on these things to do.
5) Yes, this is the question of questions at the heart of my paper. What desire(s) is/are trustable? And what does it mean to trust them? It is a paper (at least) unto itself. I DON'T think the question is "what is desire"? I think that's obvious. (In the context, that is, that I am talking to individuals who at least to some degree recognize their individual personhood. If someone thinks that they have no meaningful identity or perspective distinguishable from that of the whole universe, and no smaller interests than the movement of all that is, then I just can't talk to them). Michael Schwartz in a comment he made at my presentation, and Reggie Ray quoting the original tantrics in the audio I mentioned above, name the simple unavoidability of desire. We can't help but desire something, anything, and move toward it. If you recognize change at all, then whatever it is that we living creatures try to change, in whatever way, is motivated by desire. So part of what I'm trying to say in the paper is that there is an element of desire that is impossible to not trust. Is this simplistic? I'm not sure, I go back and forth on that.
One way in which I think it is not simplistic is that I do think it is always more ethical to act from an authentic desire, rather than to delude oneself into doing what one thinks one "should" do, or what someone else told you to do. What do I mean? If I do something, it is better to know intellectual, but even more important, to be clear emotionally and energetically, why one is doing that thing. It is less true, good, and beautiful, to do something thinking that we are doing it because we want others to be happy, when really it is because we want to not be punished. So what about when we get clear about why we're doing something. That moment of self-revelation is a big deal. I think we can feel when we are being honest with ourselves, we can feel the alignment, and sometimes this process of self-honesty is very scary. I'm hesitant of answering Bruce's question with a kind of system, or external justifications. I don't think that basic goodness and buddha nature are true in some kind of static, ontological way, but I am basically optimistic that overall, living beings have basic desires that are generative of greater wellbeing for the each and all. My deep suspicion though is that the world will get better and better, more and more smoothly and quickly, in a non-linear and complex way, to the extent that everyone does what they actually or most deeply want to do, over and over again. Self-honesty is the gateway to this. And I want this claim to optimism about the overall utility of following authenticity to our ever more honest and 'deeper' desires to be an empirically falsifiable one, in principle at least, and even if not with 100% certainty. Any thoughts on how to do that?
Thank you for your response, Zach; it's a pleasure to be exploring these things with you as well. I'm posting my replies to several of your points below:
2) I hear you. Earlier in my life, I felt significantly disappointed and betrayed by Christianity, and had an investment also in arguing for an essentialized version of its 'wrongness.' Regarding whether it is possible to make worlds without suffering, my main critique (not of you, but of Buddhism) would be of the ideal that only a condition absolutely free of suffering is worth having or creating. I no longer feel a need to pursue such an ideal and I'm skeptical about its social and spiritual value. We can work to maximize well-being and thriving, wisdom and compassion, just as well without need for metaphysical belief in an already-perfect prior state or final end.
4) Knowing and unknowing become entangled as we move into postmodern and integral spaces. Knowing is unknowing, unknowing is knowledge: un/knowing. Which, indeed, is a fertile place to be. From it, we move from a language of presupposition to a language of promise.
5) What I was getting at with my question about whether desire is inherently trust-worthy is this: a concern that we run into both the metaphysics of presence and a pre/trans fallacy if we assume that our desires will always lead us rightly or wisely, that we can always trust what they seek and where they point (such that we just begin to act on whatever promptings arise). I agree desire is unavoidable, and I think we can always trust the movement of desire in us to lead us towards authenticity, to the extent that attending to it, listening to it, caring enough to discern its directionality -- the vectors of our longing -- will allow us to become more intimate with ourselves, have greater insight into ourselves, and grow more self-coherent. But I'm talking here about listening to the movement of desire, not simply following it or letting it (always) lead action. Desire is enacted out of our complex, (typically) wounded beings, and may often be informed by layers of conditioning, wounding, fear, avoidance, and need. For many people, they have multiple competing desires -- and the path, then, for the impulsive person is to learn to attend to the multiple desires that co-arise, to hold them in tension together and feel into them, rather than immediately acting on the first or strongest one (which the impulsive individual usually does to stave off the anxiety and discomfort of multiple directional pulls). For the compulsive person, it's a different story: they are out of touch, generally, with their wishes and desires, and instead live under the tyranny of global shoulds. The path for them is to learn to discern their wishes, to trust desire enough to become aware of it at all, to allow it to enter conscious awareness. My point being that desire, and our relationship to it, co-arise in complex (recursive) ways, such that desire in itself cannot be assumed to be untrammeled, pure, or 'automatically authentic' -- although the path to authenticity certainly involves learning to trust desire to teach us, and to lead us into ourselves (towards greater self-coherence). And I think such work can lead us towards a reflexive maturity where spontaneous action is more likely to be wise and deeply responsive to the global situation. But as with your point about 'wisdom mind' being crafted rather than pre-givenly perfect, desire too may be something we need to learn to garden, and tend, before it really begins to flourish in a healthy way.
A quote from ‘The Meaning of Virtue’ (Chap VI) of Philosophy and the Social Problem by Will Durant –echoes my sentiment on some of the soul-cramping aspects of religious morality that pervades our social conscience in large measure even today:
"....Virginity, chastity, conjugal fidelity, gentility, obedience, loyalty, kindness, self-sacrifice, are the stock-in-trade of all respectable moralists; to be “good” is to be harmless, to be not “bad,” to be a sort of sterilized citizen, guaranteed not to injure. This sheepish innocuousness …..is a static virtue; it contracts rather than expands the soul; it offers no handle for development, no incentive to social stimulation and productivity. It is time we stopped calling this insipidly negative attitude by the once mighty name of virtue. Virtue must be defined in terms of that which is vitally significant in our lives…..
……The notion of “duty” as involving self-sacrifice, as essentially duty to others, is a soul-cramping, funereal notion, and deserves all that Ibsen and his progeny have said of it……
…..The prime moral conflict is not between the individual and his group, but between the partial self of fragmentary impulse and the coordinated self of conscious purpose……Moral responsibility, then,— whatever social responsibility may be,— is the responsibility of the individual to himself……morality means not the suppression of desires, but their coordination…..What we call “self-control” is the permanent predominance of the larger end; what we call weakness of will is instability of perspective. Self-control means an intelligent judgment of values, an intelligent coordination of motives, an intelligent forecasting of effects….Weak will means that desires fall out of focus, and taking advantage of the dark steal into action: it is a derangement of the light, a failure of intelligence. In this sense a “good will” means coordination of desires by the ultimate desire, end, ideal; it means health and wholeness of will; it means, literally, integrity…
Let intelligence be a struggle of impulses, a survival of the fittest desire…not the abolition or negation of desire.
Men of insight like Socrates, Plato, and Spinoza, saw without the necessity of argument that moral responsibility is not a matter of freedom of will, but a relation of means to ends, a responsibility of the agent to himself, an intelligent coordination of impulses by one’s ultimate purposes. Any other morality, whatever pretty name it may display, is the emasculated morality of slaves…."
Awesome quote, Neelesh. Thanks. Here are several other recent comments from the FB version of this thread:
Bonnitta Roy: to pursue desire to the understanding of it, by becoming more sensitive to subtle distinctions, its flavors and flows ... let desire pull you into itself (its processes) and you will discover its profound depths.
Bruce Alderman: Yes, well put - and I think desire itself is transformed, 'awakened' or newly actualized, through such a process. Another example of the phenomeno-hermeneutic retrieval of an 'always already,' which, in its retrieval, becomes what it 'never yet was.'
Layman Pascal: As soon as we intuitively perceive Reality in the mode of the preposition, self-overcoming or self-approximation (a metaphysics of adjacency) we discover two interesting things about "desire".
The first is that we need it. Something dynamic has to span the vanishing trajectory that ontologically negotiates between things and themselves.
The second is that it is not the opposite of its opposite. Desire is not properly the alternative to contentment. The proximity between simultaneous realities, even the most minimally differentiated realities, describes both a change-process and an already-alreadyness. One is not "going" toward "the goal". One is (-ish) always located at the goal in the form of the partwayness of the going. To be en route is to be there. Or, to be banal, the journey is the goal. Transferred to our appreciation of desire itself we find that it is not shifting away toward what it is not... but rather presences as the simultaneity of the current situation and the implied goal.
But, developmentally speaking, that is not simply "a fact" about desire. It is a realization available to those who realize it. It is, in a manner of speaking, transformation of the lower level of appreciation of desire through the meditation of a precise, coherent and open-ended consciousness.
This may, as Bruce notes above, take the "mere" form of listening more closely to desire. Or it may take the healthy and/or therapeutic-experimental form of enacting desires. Both involve our flexibility and appreciation. Both involve allowing it to move and radiate.
When the containing embankment (nirodha) is established, then the fire (tanha) does not flicker. It then becomes more coherent, more able to integrate with other desires, more able to form the meta-desire that is called "the way" and which pursues an enlivening telos that is, of course, already already the case.
Sometimes I speak to myself about a "tanhatta" -- combinging the Sanskrit for "thirst" with the name of the heart chakra in the East. The Desire-Heart.
If we can, by the subtle skill of listening, refine and organize a desire stream into the greater alignment -- terrific. If not we may need to act on its, open our bodies, open our hearts, etc. do whatever is necessary.
And, with what I would call "religious self-esteem" we simply say that this is real Christianity, real Buddhism. And those who are not doing it are enacting false or primitive or partial or preliminary forms of those faiths.
Bruce Alderman: Beautifully put, LP. Yes, desires, like prepositions, mark spaces or zones of connective difference, vectors of contact and becoming. As Deleuze reframes desire, it is about "connection, registration, and enjoyment" of flows of matter/energy/information in the ongoing emergence of new forms or structures.
Since the conversation is really happening over on the FB group, I'll reply there, even though that's a little sad, since this site is probably better for posterity.
This site is definitely better for posterity, in my opinion, but for some reason I can't entice most of the people on FB to post over here... Please feel free to post your comments here as well, Zach.
Ok. So I said, aiming to move the conversation toward some sense of progress:
"In my essay I wanted to help people overwhelmed by complexity act again. Are we doing the same thing now or something(s) different?
I'm also curious about how the metaphors we use for having multiple desires changes the conversation. We've talked about "conflicting desires," "contraction and tension," "nested simplex layers with their own impulses" (which I think I have a feel for, but don't understand all the way). Another one could be rivers colliding, or to get away from predestination, rivers that have both flooded their banks and are colliding for the first time. Each metaphor has a different vision to it, and also perhaps a different problem/solution."
Balder, thanks for cross-posting some of the FB comments here. Perhaps you should go a step further and just shut down the FB site, and force people to use this one. :) You can't even read the FB site without being a FB member.
People here say and do naughty things and that offends the sensitivities of some in the Integral-lite Nation :)