Session 2 • Old and new forms of resistance to the inner life
~ Winton Higgins • wintonhiggins.org
On Wednesday night, and in the previous session today, I was assuming that we were all on the same page in embracing the inner life. Why would any of us have come to this workshop otherwise? I imagine most of us would agree with Socrates in affirming the examined life as the only one worthy of a human being. What, after all, would an unexamined life look like?
It would look like going through the day – or year, or decade, or lifetime – putting one foot after the other, doing what those all around as are doing; making habitual responses to the demands of the moment; choosing, acting, speaking (or shouting) without reflecting; avoiding ever asking where it’s all headed; never evolving; never deepening or expanding; never tapping into a richer vein.
The Pali term conventionally translated as ‘rebirth’ actually means repetitive existence. Going round and round in circles, or ‘the wheel of life’ as the Tibetans call it. And wheels going round and round a circuit make ruts. Now that really is something worth giving a swerve! Which is what the inner life – the search for meaning – is all about.
Of course, meditation is just one way into the inner life. It can be summoned up in many other ways: walking in nature, listening to the sounds of nature or meaningful music, keeping a secret diary, intimate correspondence or conversation with people close to us, spending time with works of art, reading good literature, engaging in artistic expression ourselves, or even just living reflectively.
Perennial forms of resistance
The benefits of cultivating the inner life might make it sound like a no-brainer, but resistance to the inner life has been going on since time immemorial. Otherwise Socrates wouldn’t have bothered pointing out the importance of the examined life. In Hannah Arendt’s view (her Exhibit A being Adolf Eichmann), lack of reflection underpins what she called ‘the banality of evil’.
The Buddha dealt with resistance to the meditative process in one of his core teachings – already mentioned in the previous talk under the rubric of the fourth focus of awareness – in the form of the five hindrances: craving for sense contact, aversion in all its manifestations, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety, and shilly-shallying doubt.
Freud identified ‘resistance’ as the principal obstacle to the psychoanalytic process (another road into the inner life) as it manifested in free association. I’m pretty sure he was addressing the same problem that the Buddha did – the drive to skate along on the surface, no matter how thin the ice underfoot is.
Early Protestant theologians even raised resistance to ‘the inner probe’ to the dignity of a pious virtue, and their legacy is alive and well today. If people looked inside and pondered their wretched chaotic lives, the theologians argued, they’d become terminally depressed, if not actually disobedient. To avoid that, the pious Christian should remain perpetually busy.
God rewards busy people by making them rich – a surefire sign of His approval and blessing, went the argument. This was music to the ears of pioneering capitalists and their successors. So we find an archetypal busy capitalist, Henry Willcox, in EM Forster’s 1910 novel, Howard’s End, boasting: ‘I am not a fellow who bothers about my own inside.’
We still live in cultures that affirm busyness as a virtue in itself, and those under its spell brusquely dismiss any form of reflection and contemplation. ‘Don’t ask a busy man like me to think about life, death, and the meaning of it all! Let alone sit around on a cushion doing nothing!’ (The time-poverty of my fellow Sydneysiders is legendary!) I imagine that all of us who meditate regularly have come up against this sort of attitude, and found it difficult to justify ourselves in the face of it.
Another form of resistance to the inner life is distraction. Consumerist culture – ‘the greed and titillation society’, as Donald Horne put it – also self-evidently subverts the inner probe. In the case of the dharma at least, the inner probe depends on a degree of ‘seclusion and not clinging to anything in the world’, our friend Anālayo writes, channelling the Buddha.
Before we go further into the problem of distraction as resistance to the inner life, we might pause to consider the superficial unattractiveness of the inner probe that fuels the resistance, given the human condition itself.
Here’s the great novelist Iris Murdoch’s view of that condition, as summarised by the British philosopher and literary critic Galen Strawson:
We are limited, imperfect, unfinished, and full of blankness and jumble. We [are] unable to domesticate the senseless rubble aspect of human life, the ‘ultimately unintelligible mess’. We are divided creatures, distracted creatures, extended, layered, pulled apart, our minds are ragbags, as we struggle with fear and muddle (nothing is more evident in human life), with the invincible variety, the unmasterable contingency of the world, with moments of senseless horror and ‘scarcely communicable frightfulness’… Egoistic anxiety veils the world. It sets up a haze of self-protective illusion. The mind is ‘besieged and crowded’ by selfish dream life. It is hard to exaggerate our capacity for egoistic fabrication and ‘rat-like fantasies’. We cannot see things as they are.
Welcome to the tiger’s cave, my friends! Those old Protestant theologians had a point, then, didn’t they? Choosing to spend time exploring this inner landscape demands a certain amount of self-confidence and intestinal fortitude. A meditative sit isn’t always a dance on roses, even with our friend sati by our side. Fear and loathing of the inner world – of the mind itself – has become so intense that it has, according to Christopher Bollas, attracted a psychoanalytic name: psychophobia.
Resistance in the digital age
Thanks to our sped-up lives and new ‘information and communication technologies’, our distractedness has ballooned. In Net loss: the inner life in the digital age, a brilliant essay in defence of an inner life under threat, Sebastian Smee writes: ‘Today, being human means being distracted. It is our new default setting.’ When we occupy that default setting, inner life eludes us, making us different, drastically reduced selves.
To be clear: the new technologies haven’t forced the recent changes on us. The problem lies in how we deploy it and build it into our way of being in the world – allowing it to become a bad master rather than a good servant. As a good servant it can help us achieve skilful purposes – witness the #MeToo movement.
But as a bad master, the new technologies accelerate our pre-existing resistance to looking inside and to acknowledging ‘the whole catastrophe’ that awaits us in there. It encourages our propensity to split off aspects of our inner worlds that we find painful; that don’t fit some template or other, including our own self-preening delusions; or that we deem unfit for public consumption.
In the first instance, what we post on a social-media platform masks our inner selves by creating what Smee calls a performative self – in many instances a performer desperate for approval and applause – not just in editing what is revealed and concealed about her/his reality, but doing so in the debased language that these platforms support. This is a language stripped of nuance, doubt and ambiguity; it consists largely of clichés, platitudes, stock phrases (often reduced to their initials, like OMG), emoticons, and thumbs-up and thumbs-down signs. It’s a language that lends itself to the abrupt, ‘emphatic non-sequiturs’ that typify social-medial utterances, such as Trump’s tweets.
The tragedy is that over time we can gradually become these inarticulate caricatures of ourselves. They become naturalised. They become who we are to ourselves. Which is precisely what the owners of the platforms require. Those who use social media platforms constitute the platform-owners’ products to be on-sold to advertisers. These products need to be reduced to the labellable and quantifiable units that can be factored into algorithms and targeted for micro-marketing.
We can link the art critic Sebastian Smee’s alarm at what’s happening to our inner lives to that sounded (also last year) by the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. He embeds his diagnosis of the inner life’s current plight in a bold historical survey of successive, culturally induced ‘frames of mind’.
In our digital age, he suggests, we arrive at ‘transmissive selves’ who melt themselves into various sharing circuits, and receive and re-transmit so-called ‘information’, often intensively. There’s no search for truth going on here, just the need to remain networked in some sense to virtual ‘friends’. Which largely consists in sharing trivia and everyday logistics, and imposes conformity and the subliminal attitudes that underpin the process. Bollas refers to the conformism of the transmissive self as ‘normopathy’ – being abnormally normal.
Becoming hyper-connected transmissive selves doesn’t liberate us or add something to our lives – it reduces us, squanders our attention, and ties us to a standardised, hollowed-out way of being in the world. And of course, it militates against our delving into our inner lives.
The meditative life in the digital age
The Buddha thought it worthwhile to name the forms of resistance to the inner life that he encountered long before our complex societies and technologies arose. Maybe he was applying the strategy of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer.
The rewards of pursuing a meditative life are invaluable, but we do need to be alert to cultural factors that tend to obstruct our pursuit – as well as those on his original list. As many great meditation teachers have shown, the hindrances can be our teachers – they constrain us to look at negative aspects of the mind that we need to acknowledge and let go of. We can apply the same strategy to today’s cultural obstacles, including those sporting the blandishments of digital devices.
• This talk was given to a daylong workshop in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand on 16 Feb 2019. Audio of this talk can be found at:
Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. A member of The Tuwhiri Project editorial board, he has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.