Beyond me

I’ve a piece on Western Buddhism in the September issue of the magazine Third Way, just out:

Buddhism is for everyone. It presents no doctrinal hurdles for the religiously wary because it is a path based upon a practice, not a creed. It demands no submission to authority, for it vests no pope or cleric with spiritual power. It is unburdened by the long history of war and atrocity that stains Christianity in Europe. Above all, it addresses modern everyday concerns – the desire for happiness, the anxieties of stress. Indeed, policy makers are growing increasingly interested in the ability of mindfulness meditation to achieve everything from reducing aggression to warding off aging.

It is a genius piece of spiritual positioning in a secular culture, like ours, that associates belief with half-forgotten myths, at best. Psychology, not theology, is trusted as a source of truth. The individual, not the divine, is what really draws our attention. And I have to admit, as someone who entirely understands what it is to be metaphysically agnostic, Buddhism drew me too, for a while.

But I’ve changed my mind. I’m inclined to think that Buddhism’s easy ride into western consciousness should be challenged. A moment for critique has arrived – a moment that, I suspect, serious Buddhists will, in fact, welcome. Conversely, Buddhism’s undoubted appeal raises questions that Christians would do well to reflect on too. So for what it’s worth, what changed for me?

A seminal moment came whilst on retreat. I’d been attending meditation classes for some time and had tasted the benefit. A regular habit of sitting and paying attention to my breath, or walking slowly and concentrating on the sensations in my feet, served well to anchor the day. The inner maelstrom did not cease. But becoming aware of it meant that I was, perhaps, not so automatically driven by its preoccupations. Deeper concerns had more of a chance to surface.

Now it was time to be exposed to a longer period of meditation. I selected a centre that was serious in its discipline and relatively free of esoteric clutter, and signed up. There are 24 hours a day. We were to dedicate 8 of them to meditation.

It was a good experience insofar as it went. But I became increasingly struck by how myself and my fellow retreatants placed one concern above all others: ourselves. We were there to attend to our own wellbeing. The practice was presented as a kind of self-administered therapy for the soul. There was an occasional ‘metta’ meditation, to develop an attitude of loving-kindness towards others. But the task was basically to observe yourself, and that set up a dynamic with which I grew increasingly uncomfortable – one of self-absorption and self-obsession.

It was very different from a Christian retreat. Long periods of silence will feature then too. But whereas a Buddhist retreat is focused on yourself, a Christian retreat is focused on the pursuit of God. Much to my surprise, I ended the hours in the mediation hall with a powerful sense that a focus on the divine might actually be more healthy. But then the obvious thought struck: how is that possible for the contemporary agnostic who has genuine concerns about whether such theism is true?

Oddly, this is less of a problem than might first be thought. What I mean received unexpected illustration when, a few weeks later, I was watching television. The programme was The Big Silence, a remarkable piece of reality TV. Five individuals were plunged into an alien experience, namely an 8-day silent retreat. The three-part series charted the ups and owns of this journey into their hinterlands. And the experience of one of the participants, John, stood out.

We meet him in episode one as not only not religious but really rather against religion, on account of it being the source of so many ills in the world. A few days into the retreat, during episode two, he has discovered the power of silence and a spiritual dimension that before he would have regarded as insane. Then, in episode three, he muses on his experience in a series of remarks that I found very moving. ‘At one point, to be honest with you, I thought I was going mad,’ he reflects. ‘That voice was in me. I was listening to something deep in me, but yet it wasn’t me. It was just remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. And I know I’ve gotta trust it, just got to trust it.’

Now, I may be doing John a disservice, but I don’t suppose he had read the Confessions of Saint Augustine. And yet, his description of ‘that voice’ seems directly to mirror how Augustine described what happens when he finally finds God. Augustine comes to realise that God was always within him, for all that his own introspection had not known it. But God is also not himself – ‘deep in me, but yet it wasn’t me,’ he writes.

John and Augustine embark on a journey inward that is also a journey outward. They become more present to themselves as an awareness of the divine presence grows. Augustine’s meditation is not just a monitoring of the ups and downs of his own singular psyche, though he did much of that: ‘I labour at hard material, Lord,’ he remarks, ‘And I am that material.’ Rather, his psychological exploration is also a theological discovery. ‘You made us tilted towards you, and our heart is unstable until stabilized in you,’ he writes in the Confessions (as Garry Wills translates it in his new book, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography).

This stabilization was revealed to John too. The experience begins with an unsettling experience of the flux of interiority and then opens up, dramatically, onto the divine. This kind of meditation is simultaneously about the individual and God.

That it leads to a sense of stability discovered in relationship should not be so surprising, as it’s the essence of human relationships too. In friendship, for example, we recognise ourselves not just as participants in lives shared with others, but further, as recognising who we are in others. We are part of a life way bigger than our own. ‘We need each other in order to be anybody,’ wrote the philosopher Bernard Williams.

Coming back to my mindfulness experience, the Buddhist would say that concluding that meditation is an exercise in self-obsession is misplaced. What I’d missed is what Buddhism teaches. The instability of the self experienced in meditation is a reflection of the doctrine of anatta, or no-self. (There are doctrines, you see.)

No-self is a complex concept, variously read. Some Buddhists interpret it as saying that the notion that we have a self is a delusion because everything is dependent upon everything else and so is in a state of constant, transient flux. Others will say that the goal of meditation is an emptying of the self, a kind of ‘blowing out’, as a literal translation of the word ‘nirvana’ implies. No-self is sometimes expressed by likening being a person to being a cart. A cart is comprised of axles, wheels, a carriage, springs. So the cart, it is concluded, is just the assembly of those elements, nothing more in itself.

This kind of analysis of the self appears to gain support from neuroscience. I recently heard one neuroscientist using the analogy of a smart phone to deconstruct selfhood. Much as a smart phone contains applications that together make the phone smart, the argument went, the brain contains ‘evolution’s apps’ – an empathy app, a language app, a sex app. Together, they make a person, but personhood of itself is nothing more than the sum of those apps.

However both analogies are flawed because, I suspect, the psychology is flawed too. A smart phone is not smart by virtue of its applications. It’s smart because of the individuals who use it in smart ways. In fact, the analogy re-enforces the importance of selfhood. (It only works the other way if you forget that computers are, in fact, thoroughly stupid.) Similarly, the elements in a cart only add up to a cart because there are people to drive it. You actually need a concept of personhood to understand the concept of ‘cart’.

So something quite subtle has happened to the doctrine of no-self as it has appeared in the west. It substitutes one extreme for another: it replaces the self-sufficient, autonomous ego that has tended to dominate our conceptions of the self since the Enlightenment with an empty or deluded self. Then, in meditation, Buddhism offers a therapy that tackles the hyper-individualism of today by stressing the instability and dissolution of the self.
Only, it seems to me that is not true. Whilst it may be very hard to say what an ‘I’ is – and it is surely multiple and porous – it is foolish to rush to concluding there’s no ‘I’ at all. It is less reactionary, surely, to rest with the notion that we are something of a mystery to ourselves – a mystery deepened in meditative analysis, not dissolved in it. As Augustine put it: ‘Our mind cannot be understood, even by itself, because it is made in God’s image.’ Stability is found in God.

The growing appeal of western Buddhism highlights a massive issue for contemporary Christianity, at least in the UK. Theism has stopped speaking to many people. Christianity’s symbols and voice, its understanding of the divine and what it is to be human, have not been refuted, just increasingly ignored. It’s a predicament observed by Carl Jung, who died 50 years ago this year. Human individuals are in spiritual crisis today, he wrote, because they are in search of themselves and their soul. He also noted that psychology has emerged over precisely the same timeframe as Christianity has declined, for the reason that though religion has ceased to speak to people, those same people still need a means to understand themselves. That is why western Buddhism is clever when it presents itself as a practical psychology free of beliefs.

However, there is a critique to be made. Western Buddhism offers a model of the self that is, in fact, complicit with modern individualism. Christianity, though, can claim to be radically different. Its discovery is that we are who we are in relationship, with others and with God. To be human is to be the creature for whom our own existence is too small for us. That, it seems to me, is both true and avoids the narcissism and the nihilism with which western Buddhism flirts.