Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Study the Whole Self, Not the Marketed Self

Marketing of the self. Aren't we taught to do that pretty early on in life? You gotta stand out or you'll be forgotten, right? You better promote or you will never be successful, right?

I believe there is a double bind around all of this in modern societies. The human tendency to self cherish is the main dish. Humans have been eating it, probably since the beginning of our species. In addition to the main dish is a set of side dishes called consumerism, capitalism, and commodification. Ever seductive, they add endless flavors and textures onto the main dish. I suppose it might be the case that plain old self cherishing gets kind of dull after awhile. It's so much more exciting to be the hot, new product on the block. Or the respected, reliable old one.

The pressure to be a product is damn strong, so much so that even spiritual teachers are falling for it in droves. Being a person with some wisdom mixed with a bag full of delusion doesn't feel good enough. Being a person who takes a shit and can't quite wipe it all clean isn't sexy enough. Being a person who is articulate one minute, and has nothing helpful to say the next just doesn't cut it. And so, we end up with teachers with trademarks at the end of their names. Teachers who spew endless amounts of flowery language. Teachers who market themselves as healers, and then end up abusing the hell out of anyone who gets close to them.

It is any wonder that so many of us are so confused in this life?

Dogen said we need to study the self to forget the self and be liberated by the whole of the universe. This is a great teaching ... and if you think that the self doesn't include the world around you, you're missing the boat. If you think the self doesn't include the racism, sexism, classism, consumerism, warfare, and violence done in the name of religion that we see going on every day, you're simply not studying the self.

I think a lot of Buddhist folks end up studying the "marketed self," as opposed to the whole self. The marketed self might be full of emotional warts and conflicted narratives, but it somehow is treated as a stand alone object, outside of the culture of the society it lives in. This is particularly the case for folks living fairly privileged lives. It's easy to ignore that the murder of black folks in the streets by police officers is just as much about you as the feelings you've held for 30 years about the challenges you had in your childhood.

Some people get really irritated with me when I start talking about systems and collective conditions. Speaking up about white supremacy and systemic racism in white dominated Buddhist centers, for example, tends to create some upset and discomfort. People say things like "spiritual practice is about you. Focus on yourself and stop pointing the finger at others." But this isn't about being petty and judgmental. It's about cultivating an awareness of the larger patterns that are influencing our thinking and behavior. About seeing much of what we see as "normal" and "true" isn't, and that to the extent that we continue mindlessly eating it, we'll be used and controlled by it. And finally, it's about being willing to change and act in support of liberation for all, not just the privileged few.