I’ve become more and more interested in the secular application of Buddhism over the last couple of years. As an atheist and materialist, I was never one for typical monotheism but still interested in how one can tap into numinous experiences. I began studying the practice of mindfulness broadly and a despiritualized Buddhism specifically. Living with anxiety and finding no clear respite for the daily onslaught of dread, I wanted meditation to become a way for me to alleviate some of my own personal suffering without increasing medications or falling into previous bad habits.
I was first acquainted with secular spirituality through Sam Harris, whose book, Waking Up, opened my mind to the possibility of a spiritual life without supernatural or religious commitments. His musings on mindfulness (through the ancient practice of Vipassana) really intrigued me, so I signed up for his meditation app, also called Waking Up. I enjoyed the meditations a lot, even finding myself becoming more calm and less stressed.
However, something lingered in the back of my mind about this entire project, a concern I couldn’t quite shake. Is the practice of Buddhism in this way, with its focus on mere stress-reduction and happiness, actually nothing more than a panacea? Is it just a way for me to feel better without actually addressing the reasons for my discomfort in the first place?
This is the central question that Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek addresses in his book, Event. In the chapter “Buddhism Naturalized,” Žižek argues that the modern world’s insistence on scientific naturalism, coupled with the demands of neoliberal capitalism, makes us desire devices or systems of pleasure that don’t ultimately leave us satisfied. We then desire them more and more instead of addressing the underlying forces that drove us toward artificial satisfaction. To make his point, he discusses a device known as the “Stamina Training Unit.” This device is a flashlight-shaped pleasuring system that a person uses to achieve sexual gratification. The opening of the device is often shaped like a mouth, anus, or vagina, and “you put the erect penis into the opening at the top and move the thing up and down till satisfaction’s achieved.” In other words, the Fleshlight.
Now, what in the world does the Fleshlight have to do with Buddhism? In a hilarious, yet profound way, Žižek’s comparison of the Fleshlight to Buddhism is pretty damned apt. Buddhism in the western, capitalist context is the same kind of hollow experience that the fleshlight is for sex; it makes one feel better in the short term but doesn’t actually remedy one’s issues in the long term. In this variant, Buddhism is no more a challenger of our material conditions then right-wing Christianity. As Žižek writes, “Although Buddhism presents itself as the remedy for the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit (self-surrender), it actually functions as capitalism’s perfect ideological supplement.”
But these complications don’t stop political and economic elites from shoving this kind of nascent spirituality down our throats. As William Davies documents in his excellent book, The Happiness Industry, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland has been abuzz with talk of Buddhism, mostly through encouraging mindfulness. In 2014, they invited Matthieu Ricard, the French-born Buddhist monk who routinely ranks high on personal levels of happiness and contentment. He encouraged attendees to employ mindfulness to their working lives. Davos then took this kind of self-care to the next level, providing attendees with wearable devices to track their movements, heart rate, and rest levels. In this regard, Davies agrees with Žižek that “the future of successful capitalism depends on our ability to combat stress, misery and illness, and put relaxation, happiness and wellness in their place.” Thus, Buddhism and mindfulness serve as a means for preserving the global economic order that requires so much from us and provides little contentment in return.
According to this watered-down version of Buddhism, we achieve happiness by “solving the problem of suffering, so its first axiom is: we don’t want to suffer.” By contrast, Žižek underscores something he views as foundational to human life: some forms of suffering are actually worthwhile. Suffering can act as a catalyst for change, such as when one fights for a cause one believes in despite personal hardship. Karl Marx, while toiling over his most important and influential writings on capitalism, lived in relative squalor and lost some of his young children to illness. Abraham Lincoln, arguably America’s greatest president, buried a son while in the White House and agonized over the ravages of America’s bloodiest conflict. Yet, both men used their suffering to strive towards something greater than themselves; for Marx, it was the eventual collapse of capitalism itself and for Lincoln it was ending slavery and preserving the Union. I highly doubt that if either men had taken up a westernized mindfulness practice that their lives or works would’ve been as endearing.
Žižek elaborates on this point through psychoanalysis:
For a Freudian, this already is problematic and far from self-evident – not only on account of some obscure masochism, but on account of the deep satisfaction brought by a passionate attachment. I am ready to suffer for a political cause; when I am passionately in love, I am ready to submit myself to passion even if I know in advance that it will probably end in catastrophe and that I will suffer when the affair is over. But even at this point of misery, if I am asked, ‘Was it worth it? You are a ruin now!’ the answer is an unconditional ‘Yes! Every inch of it was worth it! I am ready to go through it again!’
Suffering allows us to know what’s beautiful, what’s true, what’s real. Learning a painful truth is still more noble, more worthwhile than a blissful lie. If we never felt pain or sorrow, we couldn’t understand what brings us relief or joy. There’s a dialectic of sorts between pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering. To have and know one is to have and know the other, which in turn make one-- the human experience.
Furthermore, in many westernized forms of Buddhism, the question of suffering turns rather pernicious. As Žižek asks, is our goal to alleviate the experience of suffering through only an internal change in one’s being or should we advocate towards changing the conditions under which we needlessly suffer? If we only strive towards the former and negate the latter, we ignore the suffering of others and reject the very idea that there are systemic variables that contribute to our unhappiness. If our loci of introspection is only ourselves, then the way in which we achieve this happiness (either intense introspection or pharmaceuticals), really doesn’t matter. Žižek nails this point, saying that “there is really no difference between deserved and non-deserved happiness: in both cases, the underlying process is chemical. In other words, if Enlightenment can be generated through chemical means (‘Enlightenment pills’), is it still a true Enlightenment, an authentic spiritual Event?”
Žižek’s answer is that “these impasses of Buddhism indicate is that it is difficult, if not outright impossible, to get rid of the dimension of subjectivity in the sense of free responsible agency. There is always something false in simply accepting fate, or in treating oneself as an objective entity, part of neurobiological reality.” Humans are always in relation to the world, not in contradistinction to it. In an ironic twist, the kind of determinism proffered by the likes of secularists like Harris is a denial of our ontological connection to the material world. If we really are determined, nothing but puppets on strings, that should compel us to accept responsibility for our mistakes, not shirk it. The retreat into the often-vacuous phraseology of “mindfulness” or the “loss of self” is merely an abdication of agency in a world that requires us to show up and take part, no matter the consequences.
This setup allows capital and its vast army of lobbyists, intellectuals, and corporate elites to sell a form of Buddhism that says, “Hey, don’t pay attention to the climate crisis. Don’t care about the consolidation of corporate power. Don’t worry about the authoritarianism all around you. Don’t question the systemic ways in which your life is harmed. Just practice some ‘mindfulness,’ realize that the ‘self is an illusion,’ and keep buying what we’re selling.” This hollow, insulting form of spirituality should be seen as the farce that it is: a cheap ploy to lull the public from seriously investigating their position in the capitalist system.
So, are there forms of Buddhism that’re worthwhile? Most certainly. In fact, if you’re looking for an insightful, rewarding study of it from a secular perspective, I highly recommend the writings of Stephen Batchelor. His short book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, boils down many of the core concepts without falling for the same pitfalls of thinkers like Harris. Also, I think mindfulness and meditation can be deeply moving and improve your life. I’m not advocating we give up all spiritual or religious practices. What I am saying is that you shouldn’t use these practices as a license to ignore the injustices and sufferings around you. It should embolden you to create a better version of yourself while working to improve the world in any way that you can. In short, practice Buddhism because you want to, not because capital says you should.
Justin Clark is a Marxist public historian and activist. He holds a B.S. in History/Political Science from Indiana University Kokomo and a M.A. in Public History from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His graduate research focused on orator Robert Ingersoll and his contributions to Midwestern freethought. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Instagram at @justinclarkph.