More Old Stuff

Still can’t get much writing done, but recent events reminded me of this essay I wrote about a decade ago. I recall the hostile response it got–including multiple death threats from students of Think Not Hanh; one promised to come to my house and set my children on fire! But most just settled for calling me a woman or gay–some were more vulgar about it, saying I was a cunt or a cocksucker. I’ve been attacked personally by all kinds of x-buddhists, but most settle for personal insults or threats of a good drubbing–only mindfulnistas are truly vicious.

Anyway, today I would say that Think Not is really quite insignificant. Had it not been for him, the mindfulness craze would still have occurred. It was already implicit in the Lockean ideology of the subject that informs cognitive therapy. I expect that now that TNH is dead, his handlers will extract what cash they can and head off to their McMansions, and the whole cult-of-personality will collapse amidst infighting and greed. That’s what usually happens to a personality cult when the leader is gone. And as I’ve seen, nobody is more vicious as TNH’s followers can be! But, unfortunately, mindfulness is here to stay.

Vague Platitudes to Avoid Life’s Hard Questions: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Comfort-Food Buddhism

My first experience with the “mindfulness” craze was in psychology class.  Nobody seemed very clear on what mindfulness meant, but they were all sure it was a “Buddhist concept.”  It seemed harmless, if not at all helpful, so I ignored it.  Until they showed us the educational dvd on mindfulness, which I believe came from the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.

In this video, a well-meaning psychologist spoke earnestly of how mindfully living “in the moment” would cure everything from ADHD to post-traumatic stress to addictions.  When she got to the description of how we should learn to ignore everything but our sensory experiences, I thought, well, she just doesn’t know much about the history of psychology, or she would be aware that such practices have been tried, and nobody can EVER do that.  Not even for a moment.  And she doesn’t know much about Buddhism, or she would know that such “bare awareness” is not at all what the Buddha meant by sati.  Then, she began to describe how one could mindfully walk to the guillotine to be executed, and I laughed so hard I had to leave the room.

I didn’t think much of the new fad of mindful-everything, and figured it was harmless, and irrelevant to Buddhism.  I didn’t think any Buddhists were so mistaken about the concept.

Then, I read Thich Nhat Hanh. I discovered that this concept really is coming from a Buddhist, and it became much more troubling to me.  I had never read Thich Nhat Hanh until about four years ago, when a study group in my sangha decided to read his Answers from the Heart.  I wasn’t much interested in the kind of night-stand Buddhism that is usually found in the books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.  These books seemed mostly interested in making a quick buck off of the American middle-class readers who just want to feel better about themselves without too much effort, and like to think they are more open minded and spiritually advanced than average.  I pretty much dismissed Thich Nhat Hanh without reading him.

I sometimes wish I had left it at that.

Having now read nearly a dozen of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, I have to say that I think his version of Buddhism is troublingly simplistic, not really helpful at all, and overall damaging to the possibility of  any real understanding of Buddhism spreading to the United States. His Tuesdays-With-Morrie-style empty platitudes make people think they’ve learned something profound, when they have actually only strengthened their attachments to the delusions that are the real source of misery in our culture.  I read Answers from the Heart with a knot in my stomach, wondering: don’t people realize this is just a bunch of banal clichés?  Isn’t it obvious he is oversimplifying every problem to the point of absurdity?

Nevertheless, I pressed on with the reading, trying to find something useful in the book, something to say when the study group met.  Then, I got to the “Children’s Questions” section, and, well, I lost hope.  Let me give a specific example of the problem.

In answer to a child’s question about what “we can do to become enlightened,”  Thich Nhat Hanh says:

When you drink your tea, and know that you’re drinking your tea, you’re concentrated, you see that drinking tea is something you like to do.  So drinking tea mindfully is a kind of enlightenment. (p. 147)

No, it really isn’t.  It may be a kind of contentment, and may be very useful in helping restore peace of mind, relieve stress, and help us go on with our day.  But it is NOT enlightenment.  Nowhere does the Buddha say that what he means by awakening is enjoying a good cup of tea–or anything even remotely like it.  Even if mindfulness was the same as concentration, which it isn’t, neither is it the same as enlightenment.  They are not even a beginning, or lower level of, enlightenment.  At  most, they are a preparation to train the mind, so that we will be able to begin working toward enlightenment.  Now, this is an answer to a question by a child, and we could say that this is just skillful means, that he is encouraging the child on toward that fantastic castle-city.  But my problem is that this is the same thing he says in all his books, repeatedly, not just to children, and he never gives any indication that he sees this as only a first step.  For Thich Nhat Hanh, drinking tea, chopping carrots, and looking at flowers simply is what the Buddha meant by enlightenment.

This may be comforting to the bookstore Buddhist who wants to believe her garden parties or his golf swing really is the end of the Buddhist path.  But it is very, very clear from everything that the Buddha says about his own awakening that he had something much more in mind.  And it may not always be so easy to accept.

Certainly what Thich Nhat Hanh says sounds, at first, like wonderfully “wise” answers—until we realize he hasn’t told us anything we couldn’t get out of a fortune cookie.  For instance, when he discusses “engaged Buddhism,” he tells us to encourage our leaders to  “understand the world situation” (103), and to “bring about awareness”(104), but he never says anything specific about what would help, or what exactly should be done.  Who doesn’t think that leaders who understand the problem would be a good thing?  There’s nothing Buddhist about that.  What about discussing a Buddhist position on the absurd naiveté of the voluntarist idea that leaders could change the world if they just wanted to?  What is the Buddhist position on the problem of structure and agency in social formations?  These are harder questions, clearly, and require more than fortune-cookie answers.

And they require thought, which Thich Nhat Hanh consistently discourages.  I began counting all the disparaging remarks about “philosophy” and “rationalism” and “intellectuals,” but really, there’s no point.  I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s anti-intellectualism is pretty obvious in all his books.  On his understanding of the dharma, the Buddha believed thinking was the source of our problems, and just sipping a cup of tea in the garden would clear everything right up.  Now, Americans hate thinking, so I can see why this is popular. To quote Heidegger, is there any greater anxiety today than the anxiety in the face of thinking?  But the Buddha doesn’t seem to have this terror of mental effort. The figure of the Buddha presented in the Pali canon clearly knew all the major philosophical trends of his time, and developed a fairly sophisticated one of his own.  It isn’t all that complex, but it is very difficult because it is thoroughly counter-intuitive, and requires not just thought, but also practice.  This is an important point.  We need to both practice, and to be able to think clearly about what we are practicing and why.  Samadhi, in fact, seems to originally have served as mental training to produce the powers of mind necessary for complex philosophical thought in a non-literate culture, where one couldn’t just take notes or “google” something.

Like many self-help Buddhists, Thich Nhat Hanh is adept at telling people what they want to hear, and making it sound profound.  When he tells the luxury-car-driving nuclear warhead designer to keep his job, because he will do it mindfully, I wanted to scream.  Really, go ahead and facilitate mass murder, just do it in a mindful fashion?  Would he have said the same to Himmler, when he was drawing up the plans for more efficient mobile gas chambers?  Weapons-dealing is one of the things the Buddha most explicitly says is NOT right livelihood.  So sure, go ahead and keep whatever job you have, and don’t worry about whether you are producing bad karma; but, you should realize that you will never become enlightened, are not practicing Buddhism, and will contribute to the dukkha of countless other people.  But, hey, as long as you are mindful while driving your Mercedes, right?

Answers from the Heart is full of evasions, vacuous platitudes, and empty clichés.  Consider some of the questions in the “spiritual practice” section.  When someone asks what “looking deeply” means, he defines it as “being deeply aware”(66).  Yeah, real helpful.  “What is the best way to nourish our bodhicitta?”  We should desire to ”help awaken other people, relieve their suffering, and bring them happiness”(68).  Okay, this is a (vague) definition of what bodhicitta is, but it doesn’t tell us how to acquire it, and tells us nothing about what will really bring people happiness.  All this feel-good empty advice is not just harmless, because it makes people think they are actually learning Buddhism, when they are learning nothing at all.  Thich Nhat Hanh merely helps people strengthen their existing tendency to avoid facing the hard questions and solving the hard problems, the tendency to be only as “engaged” as we can be while we watch reality television and surf the internet, drive our luxury cars and drink our tea. We only need to wish people well, not do anything about it that might actually put a crimp in our lifestyle. Instead of challenging people to face the truth, Thich Nhat Hanh produces the worst kind of capitalist post-modern ideology, and calls it Buddhism.

So, one final point, on the idea of anatman.  Thich Nhat Hanh absurdly conflates ideas of a “healthy sense of self,” self esteem, and a sense of superiority, and then suggests that what is really meant by “no-self” is simply not being a narcissist.  Having compassion is our “true nature of no-self”(75).  This ridiculously oxymoronic phrase is the worst explanation of anatman I have ever seen, and I’ve read some bad ones.  No-self means realizing that we have an essential true nature of compassion?  Yikes!  If he was going for the Zen paradox here (to realize no-self is to realize our essential self), that would be bad enough, but clearly this particular example is just a case of convoluted thinking.

I used to be indifferent to Thich Nhat Hanh, thinking he was a harmless popularizer; but the more I read of his books, the more I think he is one of the worst things to happen to Buddhism in America since Alan Watts.  People are just getting over the idea that Buddhism means dropping acid and having sex with your students.  Now they are likely to think it means sipping tea and looking at flowers, and general anti-intellectual American complacency.  Maybe that’s just a feature of the audience–the baby boomers are getting old. Thich Nhat Hanh, though, seems consistently better able to reinforce delusions than remove them.

But of course, this is what sells.  The bookstore Buddhist wants comfort, not challenge.  She wants to be reassured that the only test of the truth of anything is whether it corresponds to what she already believes (this is what the Kalama Sutta says, right?).  And that “the Buddha says” that “intellectualizing” is the source of suffering, and that we must accept everything in the world, including our own mind, and never make an effort at improvement.  The Buddha says these things, right?  It’s on that plaque I bought at T.J. Maxx, it must be true.  Thich Nhat Hanh has paved the way for a whole host new teachers who spout platitudes in soft voices at retreats and sell their books online.  Everyone’s afraid to ask them a question, because pointing out that what their saying is simplistic or just plain wrong is rude.  And, if you do it, they get irrationally angry, call you names, and start listing their “qualifications,” then condescendingly smirk at your ignorance.  After witnessing this once or twice, most people just won’t dare to ask a question.  They choke down the cloying comfort-food version of Buddhism, and when they can’t stomach any more move on to something else.

Enough with the mindfulness already.  There’s nothing wrong with thinking!  For millennia, even Buddhists did a lot of it.

Why I Can’t Write

Looking back at previous posts, I see I haven’t really written anything new in over a month. I’ve started several essays, and been unable to complete them. So, I’ve spent a few days thinking about why I just cannot bring myself to write anything new.

Over the past year, I’ve made an attempt at starting a few new projects, including my series of essays on the inadequacy of public education, some writing about the problem of addiction, and my two short pieces on “white privilege.” But I quickly lose momentum—I had almost written “lose interest,” but that’s not really the problem. I am still very concerned about all of these problems. I just cannot summon the energy to write about them.

Similarly, I often think of things I might write for Imaginary Relations. Ideological analyses of movies, tv shows, and mostly of books. I’ll spend a few days thinking about them, figuring out what I would say if I were to write about them…then can’t find the motivation to actually sit down and do the writing. Mostly because there seem to be very few people who would be interested in reading them, and fewer still who would understand them.

Here’s the best I can do to figure out why I can’t write: writing just is a social practice, and it is a practice that is mostly gone. Certainly, blogging is considered a thing of the past now—everyone has a podcast, on which they ramble for an hour without really saying anything, but somehow that’s much more appealing to most people. Perhaps because there’s no need to really attend to the podcast (because they don’t really say anything), or perhaps because nobody wants to really make the effort to think through an actual argument anymore. I don’t know…I’m just too out of step with the world. I can’t listen to podcasts myself, or at least I can only with enormous effort, afterwards feeling that I’ve wasted an hour I could have spent reading something worthwhile.

Since there is no longer a social practice of reading and writing texts, there is no “literate” collective subject in which I can participate. In short, I think I cannot write because I am just no longer a part of any collective subject at all…and so am no longer really a subject. There’s no audience to write for, but also no writing for me to be an audience of. I read old novels and books written in the previous century…because books written in the past decade or two are mostly not “literate”, in the sense of not being written in a literate discourse. That is to say, they are long transcriptions of what Walter Ong called secondary orality. (I’m referring here mostly to recent works of philosophy and history, but also to some extent this is true of popular fiction.)

One cannot write for nobody, and cannot write without the possibility of someone writing back. My mind, that collective mind of which I was a part for most of my adult life, has mostly faded away, or at least drastically shrunk to the point where I find myself excluded from it. I want to make reasoned arguments…but that’s not done anymore. I want to be part of a mind that seeks to progressively understand the world and work to change it for reasons; but in today’s world change and understanding are both assumed to be impossible, and desires are mistaken for reasons.

The best I can come up with is that I’ve simply lost my “mind,” and cannot find a new one…and so there is no social practice of literacy in which I can participate.

Of course, there’s also a bit of just plain discouragement. I look back at what I’ve written over the years and find that I’ve said all I have to say, really, in some form at some point, but to no effect. There seems no reason to say it again, if I said it as well as I could before and it made no difference. I doubt I’d say it better the next time. I’m getting old, out of work for over two years now and any hope of employment fading, and unwilling to become part of the kinds of collective subjects I see emerging around me.

Perhaps it’s time to give up trying. Maybe find out if it’s possible to be a thoroughly isolated individual, one not part of a collective subject, without simply going completely mad. I doubt it is, have never believed it could be done…

I see that even this has no real content, no substance to it. I feel increasingly like the man-beasts in the end of The Island of Dr. Moreau, reverting to an animal state, or like Neville in I am Legend, unwilling to get a smartphone and an Instagram account and join the future of humanity.

Traumatized by Toast, again…

I read in the New York Times that Epstein has published yet another book. I won’t be reading it myself, having suffered through several of his book already, each one a little stupider, a little more subtly evil. However, it is clear from the host of glowing comments on the NY Times online that most of the “liberal” readers of that paper are quite enamored of the appalling ideology Epstein is producing. In one telling exchange, a reader suggests that the naive worship of Buddhism is at best mistaken and at worst a kind of Orientalism. Here’s the standard liberal response he got, almost immediately:

You’re wrong, and you’re angry, to boot. You’re angry that Buddhism is a real and viable framework for personal faith, and because it’s the path to spiritual enlightenment for millions of people across the world. Or maybe you’re just angry about Buddhism because it’s not Christianity, and anything that’s not Christianity-based is, in your mind, in need of your ridicule. There could be any number of reasons, but the bottom line is, you’re angry. Like, Republican-and-I-don’t-like-opposing-views-in-my-little-world angry. Got it. I have you figured out, alright. It wasn’t hard to do – based on your comment, it was simple.

Here’s the comment from which it was so simple to discern the individual was an angry Christian Republican: “If Buddhism is such a transcendental religion, then what’s with all the problems in Thailand and Myanmar? More garbage, I suppose. This from a Buddhist family.” This same supposed right-wing angry Christian replies to the above rant: “People always look to outside cultures for some kind of transcendental wisdom that they are lacking inside themselves. And Buddhism is often served up as the almighty panacea. It’s even been held to hold the clues to quantum physics.” Any skepticism of Buddhism today, no matter how mild, gets a vicious and, yes, obviously angry response from the neoliberals of today’s “left.”

I can’t bring myself to waste time and money on yet another of Epstein’s awful books. He’s making good money bringing suffering and delusion to the already sick and suffering–but only among the affluent, so I suppose his impact is minimal. As I’ve said before, I met Epstein only once, and have never encountered a more troubling combination of shocking narcissism with a desperate need for approval from others, particularly authority figures and attractive women. He is an extreme version of the most common type of therapist today, and one I would avoid at all costs. So, I will continue to avoid him.

But on the event of his latest attempt to sell delusion to the suffering, I’m reposting here my review of a previous book.

A Review of The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Mark Epstein, M.D.  

These days everyone is traumatized.

And stressed.  And unable to pay attention.  We conceive of ourselves as subjects under siege, struggling to concentrate in a world that bombards us with violent excessive stimuli; the result, we are supposed to believe, is that our originally unified consciousness, our true self, is fractured, disabled, and suffering.

The discipline of psychology, and particularly the practice of psychotherapy, has always functioned as what Foucault calls a “technology of the self,” working to produce subjects always already in need of professional intervention, subjects who can be taught to discipline themselves into productive and uncritical members of the capitalist economy.  The addition of ADD and PTSD to the DSM-III in 1980 worked to institutionalize a particular kind of subject of late capitalism, and the newly released DSM-V, with its addition of a new category of “Trauma- and Stress-Related Disorders,” has made an advance in pathologizing any dissatisfaction with the existing social formation.

Buddhism has not been slow to jump on this bandwagon, and has refashioned itself to be an effective producer of this new ideology of the subject.  Dukkha has become “stress,” attention deficits can be remedied with “mindfulness,” and now we discover that Buddhism always was really nothing but a form of trauma therapy, enlightenment merely a successful cure for the “traumas of everyday life.”

When I saw the title of Mark Epstein’s new book, I was at first appalled.  But then I considered that this might be an opportunity to investigate exactly what ideology of the subject mainstream Buddhism and psychotherapy are cooperating to produce.  As it turns out, the ideology of the subject being produced is a new-age take on the Rousseauian Romantic subject, perfectly fashioned to make the affluent more satisfied with their lives and discourage real thought or social engagement.  The only real surprise is that the subject of late-capitalism turns out to be not much different from the subject of early capitalism.

I want to reiterate here what I have so often said about my use of the term ideology.  An ideology is not an error or false belief (although it may, and in this case does, make use of errors and false belief).  Ideology is a collection of beliefs in practices which construct the role individuals play in reproducing the existing relations of production.  Ideologies are practices functioning to make it seem enjoyable and natural to fulfill our role in the social system.  Things like meditation and psychotherapy are social practices which serve this purpose.   The question is, what role in the reproduction of the relations of production do they serve to make pleasurable and to naturalize?

In the case of Epstein’s version of Buddhist-influenced psychotherapy, it would probably be easy enough to tell what particular class position his ideology serves to produce if we could just get a list of the occupations of all of his clients, readers, and devotees.  But, since this is not possible, we can always uncover the ideological function by simply reading his work.  I will adumbrate my conclusions briefly here:  Epstein’s work functions to reproduce the “professional” subject, living off the excess of capitalist production while functioning to administer the transfer of capitalist wealth from those who produce it to those who appropriate it.  These are usually people who believe they have a morally correct livelihood, that what they do is far removed from the sordid taint of crass commercial exploitation.  They are the lower stratum of the ruling class, and believe what they do is natural, necessary, and that they work hard to earn their comfortable lifestyles.   Their need to remain ignorant of the exploitation and suffering that supplies their relative wealth, to remain ignorant, in fact, of what role they actually play in the social formation, requires that they remain poor or superficial thinkers, working in meaningless jobs, alienated and enervated and turning to “spirituality” or emotional relationships for fulfillment.  Epstein’s pseudo-Buddhist trauma therapy is just the newest practice in which they can find some kind of distracting activity to keep them working, and to ensure that they do what they must, that they “work all by themselves,” without ever really knowing what it is they are doing.

To clarify this, let’s consider the Hegelian master-slave dialectic.  As part of the collective “master” subject, the professional upper-middle class enjoys the fruits of collective human labour, while making relatively little effort.  However, in his pure enjoyment of material comforts, he becomes a peculiar kind of subject.  All his pleasures must be passive, sensory, and fleeting, and intellectual activity must be unpleasant, tedious, rote “work,” because his position in society is produced by his removal from manual labor, and by his insistence that things are as they naturally must be.  Any attempt at thought would expose his illusion.  Compare the position of the laboring “slave” in the dialectic, as described by Peter Singer:

The slave works on the external world.  In contrast to his master, who receives the temporary satisfactions of consumption, the slave shapes and fashions the material objects on which he works.  In doing so he makes his own ideas into something permanent, and external object.  (For example, if he carves a log of wood into a chair, his conception of a chair, his design and efforts, remain a part of the world.)  Through this process the slave becomes more aware of his own consciousness, for he sees it in front of him as something objective.  In labour, even labour under the direction of another, hostile, mind, the slave discovers that he has a mind of his own. (179-180)

The master, on the other hand, remains unsatisfied, alienated, in delusion, and must struggle to “become pure, and to do this it must show that it is not attached to mere material objects” (178).  In reality, it “is doubly attached to material objects: it is attached to its own living body, and to the living body of the other person from whom it requires acknowledgement” (178) and from whom it acquires its own material needs and desires.  The goal of “spiritual” activity, then, and of Western Buddhism and the therapy of the unhappily affluent, is to provide a practice in which they can believe themselves to be free of material conditions, detached, and true to a timeless self uncreated by social systems.  That is, spiritual practices produce the delusion that the master needs to be content.

This subject, in order to happily fulfill its tasks of mindlessly administering the appropriation of social surplus value, creates an image of itself as pure and transcendent and inherently good, just as Rousseau and the Romantics did during the beginning stages of the capitalist mode of production.  Just as Rousseau convinced himself that he was a pure and inherently good soul trapped in a fallen and corrupt world, the subject of late-capitalism attempts to convince itself that it is a good and transcendent “true self” trapped in a body and world that is alien to it, that hampers its attempts at happiness and goodness.  Thus, for instance, we can be prevented from “paying attention” by an inadequate brain, but this is no reflection on our core, true self.  We merely need techniques by which this core consciousness can master and overcome its faulty bodily host.

This pure self can take pleasure only in passive, temporary, and sensory stimuli.  Thinking, because it is part of what the brain does (it is not an act of the soul, which can only feel), is part of the problem, and to be avoided.  Effort, bodily or mental, is always unpleasant.  Change cannot be enjoyable, because it is part of the material, impermanent world, and only the eternal world of the soul gives true pleasure.  Emotions are the only part of this true self that we can experience in this world, and they are not to be understood as socially constructed, but as expressions of the soul.  The soul is fractured, traumatized, by the inadequacy of this world, and to restore true happiness we must only stop thought, feel deeply, and passively live in intense states of bliss.  We can’t achieve this all the time, so pursuing it in therapy, in mindfulness, in meditation, becomes the practice that can keep us deluded, ignorant, and powerfully attached to the material world while we believe we are serenely detached.

Now, clearly, nobody puts it this explicitly.  The “soul” is usually denied, hidden by rhetorical sleight-of hand or sophistry.  But this Romantic-era assumption of a pure transcendent soul trapped in a fallen corrupt world structures most, perhaps all, of American psychology and Western Buddhism.  The belief in a core, unified, transcended “self” that freely chooses to attend, that can be “stressed” and “traumatized” and “fragmented,” is the implicit ideology of the subject underlying both the DSM (III through V) and Western Buddhism.

By way of illustration, then, I want to consider Mark Epstein’s combination of Buddhism and therapy in his newest book The Trauma of Everyday Life.  By critiquing the assumptions about the subject underlying the kind of practice he suggests, we can see how he works to produce delusion, attachment and aversion, and call it enlightenment.  And we can see how he produces an ideology perfectly suited to keep the alienated professionals at the lower strata of the capitalist (master) subject working, in Althusser’s phrase, “all by themselves,” happily convinced that their actions are natural, necessary, good, and not at all in the service of horrid exploitation and oppression.  And anyway, even if they were to notice this, it wouldn’t matter—because like Rousseau claimed, what is really important is the good intentions of the pure soul.

Epstein’s claim is simple, and not really different from all his previous books except in the emphasis on the term “trauma.”  The goal of therapy, as he sees it, is the same as the goal of Buddhism.  Both seek to help us to stop thinking, and to learn to feel, deeply and intensely, emotions that we supposedly have, that exist, like some kind of bodiless substance, but of which our “mind” (which is completely separate from our “thoughts”) remains unaware.  We somehow “have” these emotions, but don’t know we have them, and therapy seeks to avoid understanding, and revel in unexamined emotion, allowing us to feel these repressed emotions, because that will make the “fractured” mind whole once again.  The mind seems to be made up of a swarm of emotions, and trauma “fractures” it, leaving one part of the original whole mind floating in some frozen limbo. Reclaiming this lost emotion is how we achieve states of blissful happiness.

The goal of therapy, for Epstein, was always “to help [his] patients find and achieve the kind of love and intimacy they wanted and deserved”(1).   It is only recently, however, that he has come to realize that they fail to achieve this emotional happiness because they have failed to fully feel some traumatic emotion.  As Epstein explains human maturation, we are born as a pure and innocent mind, and it is the obligation of the mother to create the illusion, the mistaken impression, in the child that “he was the center of the world.”  This is, he says, “her first major task as a mother” (43), and once the child is deluded in this way, the mother should begin “gradually easing her child into ‘disillusionment’”(43).  The goal, he tells us, is to convince the child of what Lacan calls “imaginary plenitude,” a state in which the child is the center of the world, of everyone’s complete interest and intention, and its every need and desire is instantly filled without any effort.  Epstein never questions why it would be important to create this illusion.  It functions, however, to structure the entire rest of our lives.  We then seek forever to approach this state of infantile bliss we never actually had, and are “traumatized” by the dissatisfaction of our lives.

One can see that this idea of the infant state, this ideology of infancy, fits quite well with the position of the master in the master-slave dialectic.  The ruling class wants their children to believe they once had the state of pure autonomy combined withcomplete recognition which the master seeks but can never quite attain.

For Epstein, “failure to be made sufficiently secure in the illusion of their centrality”(46) is the first cause of our suffering.  Then, because we are rarely “disillusioned” as smoothly and gradually as Epstein suggests is the ideal, everything that we experience can become traumatic, and when that happens “the mind’s primary defense”(73) against the shocks of failed illusions is “dissociation,” burying the “emotion,” which, assumed to be a real thing (we have feelings we do not feel—they seem to have material reality, like a shirt I never wear) continue to force us to suffer and act in ways we cannot explain.  “Mind” serves, in this book, as Epstein’s place-holder for the concept of soul or transcendent self or substrate-consciousness or atman.  What we achieve, when we learn to openly feel these forgotten emotions—not think about them, never analyze their social constructedness, never try to explain what thought this emotion functions to prevent us from having clearly—to just feel the traumatic emotions, we will be reunified, whole and cured, able to achieve emotional intimacy and moments of pure bliss.  “Buddha,” Epstein tells us, “found a way of resting the mind in its true relational nature”(182).  This “true relational nature,” what he calls “implicit relational knowing,” is the illusion that our emotions are eternal and true.  Emotions, Epstein suggests, are shared in a kind of empathic psychic state he repeatedly calls “attunement” or “resonating,” and therapy seeks to convince us to share in this absurd delusion, and to keep us from understanding that emotions are really the product of socially produced discourses.  Emotions, as Spinoza, and Freud, knew, are just thoughts that remain unclear; Epstein’s suggestion is that the goal of Buddhism, the achievement of enlightenment, is the same as the goal of psychotherapy: to interpellate individuals into a particular ideology while keeping them ignorant of both the social function of that ideology and the very fact that it is an ideology.

Thought, in this ideological practice, is always a bad thing.  While Epstein repeatedly insists that we must “investigate” our emotions, investigation means only feeling emotions we haven’t felt before.  It never means understanding.  Insight is always useless. One must seek “inner peace, the place beyond thought, the reservoir of contentment”(131), and this is found by realizing that “this world” is “my mind…its thoughts notwithstanding”(132).  If we can only let our thoughts happen, as part of this samsara world, and remain unattached or indifferent to them, our “true mind” can live in pure emotion, and be happy.

The practice of “mindfulness,” of course, is key to achieving this.  But Epstein is troubled by the fact that “the word the Buddha chose for mindfulness” was “sati” which “means ‘to remember’(148).  He is sure that Buddha must have meant what we today mean by mindfulness, but since he didn’t have this word, he chose an unfortunate term.  It is not possible that Buddha actually meant sati, that he meant that the goal was to recall all the causes and conditions of a phenomenon.  He must have meant the exact opposite of what he says—he just chose the wrong word!  Or, perhaps, Epstein tells us, what Buddha meant was that we must remember our traumatic experiences.  We must “allow the experiences of trauma to come out of their frozen states and back into the warmth of time” (149).

There are few examples of what these everyday traumas would be, but let’s take a look at one, just to clarify the ideology of the subject this book is producing.  One of the examples of such a trauma involves Epstein’s own experience eating a piece of toast.  The toast was “gluten free and made from chickpea flour,” and when the “remnants…turned to cardboard in [his] mouth” he let his mind wander to other things while he continued eating.  Then, noticing his toast was gone, that he had eaten it while thinking about doing his laundry, he finds himself “staring into a big, empty, devouring hole where [his] toast, and [his] life, used to be” (105).  The trauma of not fully enjoying one’s morning toast is compared to the experience of Buddha’s disciple Yasa:

He had seen the dark side of his female attendants and I had witnessed the disappearance of my toast.  The yawning jaws of death were all around me and I had a choice.  I could panic or I could return to my mindfulness.  I decided to go for a walk. (105)

While on this walk, thinking about the “trauma of the morning”(130), he comes to the realization that he must “make room for” the inevitability of thought, allow it to happen passively, so that he can achieve what he considers the true experience of anatman: “I had a glimmer of another way of looking at it all.  No-self was not a state to be achieved, it was a testament to my embedded nature.  No self apart from the world” (133).  His realization is that no-self means that we do have an eternal “true” self, one that is permanent and unchanging because it is a part of the eternal world that is (he quotes Albert Hofmann here) “pure energy and colorless substance” (132).  That is, his traumatic toast experience teaches him to stop thinking, and to realize that he is part of the eternal atman.  Unable to tolerate the possibility that Buddha really meant that there is no eternal self or soul, Epstein simply decides to ignore this core teaching of Buddhism, and to redefine anatman to mean exactly what the Vedantic term atman means.

To convince us that this ideology of the late-capitalist subject is timeless, universal, Epstein tells us that it is the great discovery of Buddha, who was, he tells us, the world’s first trauma therapist.  He retells the familiar myth of the Buddha, of his mother’s death a week after he was born, of the three palaces, his splendid isolation, his abrupt disenchantment on seeing sickness, old age, and death.  But Epstein seems completely convinced that this myth, which he acknowledges was written several hundred years after the death to the historical Buddha, was literally true.  Buddha’s six years of spiritual seeking was a “reenactment” of the repressed trauma of the loss of his mother, and his enlightenment comes with his ability to stop thinking or making effort, and the realization that the “actual nature of life is bliss”(79).  It is once Buddha realizes that attempts to understand the causes of things in the material world are futile, once he abandons any “egocentric” attempt to engage with the world at all, that he realizes that “the thrill of bliss can be sustained in a human body…once this bliss is understood as an expression of the compassionate connection that binds us all the way a mother is naturally connected to her baby”(79).  We need only accept the state of infantile imaginary plenitude as our ideal, and we will be content.  Epstein combines this retelling of the Buddha myth with the language of object relations theory, to produce the idea of a kind of emotional atman, a mystical energy combining all beings, which he repeatedly describes in the vague metaphors of “attumenent” and “responsiveness” (38), in which even pain becomes bliss when transmitted and shared within this mystical psychic network.

It might be interesting to examine this mythical narrative as a reactionary attempt to contain the dangerous truth of Buddhist thought.  But Epstein is more interested in participating in that containment, determined that Buddhism must not be suggesting that we really are impermanent, that it must not really be asking us to think, to understand the true nature of reality—he desperately wants a Buddhism that offers comfort in passive pleasure and willful ignorance, so he invents one, partly by simply rewriting the concept of anatman, which he seems completely unable to grasp.  If anatman means that we have no “true” or eternal self, that we are nothing but the production of the habits, actions, discourses, and social practices in which we participate, well, that hardly offers much solace to the unhappy affluent.  If emotions are not some unearthly substance, floating out there unfelt and demanding our attention, then there isn’t much value in creating stories of some ideal state of delusory infancy only to make people feel miserable about never having had it.  Certainly, we can produce these feelings of “repressed traumas,” but we need to keep in mind that they are feeling we are producing right now, in our current practices, not ghostly feelings out there waiting to be “unfrozen.”  A correct understanding of Buddhist thought would demand a thoroughly different kind of therapeutic practice—perhaps one which recognizes “trauma” as the aporia or lack in our existing symbolic system, instead of understanding it positivistically  as an experience that must in itself somehow be traumatic, and the effects of which float endlessly in a spirit world waiting to be laid to rest, like ghosts in bad horror novel.

The ideological project of Epstein’s book (I would say of all his books) also demands a refusal to understand psychoanalysis.  Epstein seems to have little knowledge of Freud  beyond the popular misrepresentations one can find in any undergraduate psychology textbook.  He explains Freud’s idea of “evenly suspended attention” as “don’t bother about keeping anything in mind” (81), when in fact Freud means the opposite—the analyst should keep everything in mind; Epstein misrepresents Freud as suggesting a kind of thought-free “attunement” with the patient’s emotions, like what Rogers suggests.  He understands the unconscious to be what we don’t remember, a positive “repressed” content, while for Freud it is clear that the dynamic unconscious is primarily a lack, what we cannot think within the discourses that construct our minds.  He repeatedly asserts that Freud claims we could be cured by recalling our early experiences, when in fact Freud is very explicit that this is neither possible nor desirable; our earliest memories are never correct, but this does not matter for Freud because what they tell us about is the structure of our currentthought, the “unconscious” gap in our present symbolic system.  Epstein also frequently repeats the old saw about Freud claiming that analysis only turns misery into ordinary unhappiness, despite the fact that this grossly misrepresents the intent with which this statement is (almost) made.  When one of Epstein’s patients suggests that her extreme anxiety before her approaching marriage is a result of the trauma of her mother’s suicide when she was four, Epstein simply accepts this shockingly naïve explanation, and uses it as one more attempt to dismiss the value of psychoanalytic insight and to insist that the patient simply needs to “face emotions” she failed to feel in the past.  Any psychoanalyst would surely see that this explanation of the anxiety is mere rationalization, and that sitting around “feeling pain” is no way to help someone; what she needs is to come to an understanding of the real cause of her anxiety.  As Freud learned from Spinoza, there is no emotion that is disproportionate to its cause—we are merely often wrong about the true cause of the emotion, which is always in the present.

Why the refusal to even consider the real thought of psychoanalysis?  Why the absolute rejection of the Buddhist concepts of anatman and sati?  I would suggest it is because both of these discourses seek to critique and explain our ideologies, and they tend to leave us with motivation to make some real change in the social formation in which we live.  An ideology suited to the administrative and professional members of the capitalist class (those such as stockbrokers, accountants, corporate management, as well as the ideological professionals like teachers, psychologists, writers) could not permit such critique, or such motivations.  If we were to understand, with Spinoza, that emotions are not timeless expressions of our soul, but are thoughts we are not quite clear about, this might lead to actually understanding how our cultural institutions produce our unhappiness.  Instead, Epstein’s project is to produce an ideology that reinforces ignorance and delusion, and teaches those who participate in it to take pleasure even in their emotional misery, as it reassures them of the depth and purity of their eternal soul.

This is not to say it won’t work.  Consider the anxiety of the engaged woman Epstein mentions.  She believes that she is anxious because her husband might “disappear as precipitously as her mother did”(206), but this supposed insight gives her no relief.  Now, purely hypothetically, suppose that the real source of her anxiety is that she has the typical Western belief that the most important component of human happiness is our romantic and sexual relationships (as Epstein tells us, facilitating this is his goal in therapy).  And suppose that she knows full well that her marriage will not possibly give her this complete happiness, that there is no mystical “attunement” or “resonance” between herself and her future husband—just as there never was between herself and her mother.  Psychoanalysis would seek to lead her to an understanding of the false beliefs, and absurd expectations, organizing her romantic life.  Ultimately, she would have to decide whether or not to marry this man with full understanding that he will not magically give her the sense of imaginary plenitude she has learned to want.  However, Epstein’s approach is the complete opposite.  Assuming that “love” is some mystical otherworldly communication between souls, beyond all human understanding, he reassures her that her anxiety, and thus her lack of complete happiness with her husband, would be caused by forgotten pain which she must now experience.  The failure of her marriage to give her imaginary plenitude is a result of her need to first feel misery, and her very unhappiness, her anxiety, becomes a reassurance that she has found the right soul-mate, the one who can “unfreeze” her repressed trauma.  Obsession with unanalyzed emotion, then, becomes a sort of fetish to keep the subject occupied, a form of emotional entertainment and enjoyment perfectly suited to the subject who doesn’t want to know how ignorant or alienated she is.  She may very well be “happy” as a result of this.  But her happiness requires that she never consider the enormous human suffering and misery that is required to produce the material comforts she enjoys.  In fact, this ideology would insist that such things are mere ephemera, abstractions, not “real, concrete and immediate,” while her emotions are “really real” and so much more important.  Of course, this is exactly to reverse the meanings of ephemeral and real, but isn’t that what Western Buddhism is all about?

In conclusion, I want to ask: why bliss?  Why should this be the goal?  Why not use Spinoza’s term: Joy.  For Spinoza, for Freud (and, I would argue, for Buddha), the goal is not passive pleasure, delusion, and happy ignorance.  Instead, we can take real pleasure in effortful interaction with the world, but only once we are made fully aware of our ideologies as ideologies, and become able to transform them to better fit human needs.  Trauma is not an inevitable truth of human existence.  It is what our ideologies cannot account for.  Don’t bother trying to live fully in the sensory experience of a piece of toast.  Start thinking about why so many people have no breakfast.  Then you can begin to wake up, and maybe you won’t need so much therapy.

Works Cited

Epstein, Mark.  The Trauma of Everyday Life.  New York: Penguin,  2013.

Scruton, R., Singer, P., Janaway, C. & Tanner, M.  German Philosophers: Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.