So I’m pumped, guys. In a big burst of synthesis, I’ve got a few new topics to write about in this blog. As usual, they all connect seamlessly in my mind; my task as a blogger will be to try to make what might look at first like content chasms to everyone else as seamless to you as they are to me. (This is how I get around that tedious “have a niche” blogging rule. Alternately: my niche is readers who like making connections between niches.)
I’ll start with what seems a fairly easy divide to cross: Buddhism and the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD). It’s easy to see a potential connection between those, right?
Well, even if it’s not, I will, of course, elaborate. Lately I’ve been doing the intellectually overexcitable sponge thing about Buddhism. See, I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for a while now, and linked it superficially to TPD in a previous post. For the past few months, I’ve using The Mind Illuminated, which is a fantastic text for novice meditators; it not only addresses the various specific hurdles faced by everyone from novice to experienced meditators, it also brings in some of the Buddhist thought behind the practice. I have been one of the standard secular-only Western meditators; but on the other hand, I can’t resist learning the background. And then, when I recently went on one of my periodic Coursera binges, I found a course called Buddhism and Modern Psychology (it just started on February 19, so it’s not too late to sign up and join me if you’re interested!), which happens to be taught by the author of Why Buddhism Is True, which incidentally showed up second when I searched for The Mind Illuminated. Hmmmmm.
So yeah, Buddhism is trendy right now in the West. Is this because, as my Coursera professor argues, Buddhism is true, and we’re picking out the right religion/philosophy? Well, I’m not prepared to go that far. Rather, this seems to suggest that Western society is teetering too far in one direction on the Great Wobbly Platform of Human Existence, and mindfulness and Buddhism are traditions that offer an excellent counterweight to our particular ills. (For instance, I am prepared to say that we have created a particularly mindless society.)
And then, to put it in language that regular readers will recognize by now: Buddhism seems to be a tool that many people who are positively maladjusted to our unhealthy society are picking up as they search for answers.
This, in turn, reminded me of something Elizabeth Mika said in that same excellent article I quoted in my recent post on true believers, in which she’s addressing positive disintegration in today’s United States. In talking about why TPD never caught on in the US despite a favorable reception by some respected American psychologists, Mika writes,
[P]eople in general, and Americans in particular, do not like being reminded that pain and suffering are an inextricable part of the human condition. We understandably want to avoid both; and when we can no longer do so, we still try—through distractions, medication, or employment of various forms of magical thinking, from self-help to positive psychology. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with such attempts; however, they offer only temporary solutions—and sometimes no solutions at all; sometimes they obscure the source of our suffering and the means of its amelioration, which is authentic growth and change.
Mika is talking about TPD, but it seems to me that she could just as easily be talking about Buddhism here (possibly excluding that final clause on “authentic growth and change,” but I’d argue even that fits—more on that shortly).
But, right, Americans don’t like dukkha (i.e. famously translated as “suffering,” or more accurately as “unsatisfactoriness.”) I mean, no one likes dukkha, that’s precisely the point, but American culture in particular seems to encourage us to spend a lot of energy trying to hide from the fact that it even exists—and that there is a means to its amelioration. And that, of course, is the central claim of Buddhism.
Mika goes on to add a second reason that TPD didn’t gain broad acceptance in the US:
[T]he theory is counter-cultural in that its ideas go against the prevailing (unilevel, as Dabrowski would call them) beliefs and social mores, with a potential to revolutionize our outlook on mental health and disorder, and our life in general.
Again, a reminder that in this essay, Elizabeth Mika isn’t talking about Buddhism at all; I have no idea what she thinks about Buddhist philosophy. But this melded so well with one of the readings for my Coursera course. Consider this excerpt and see if this doesn’t go against our norms of mental health and disorder, or even the general aspirations of the archetypal American:
The word “noble,” or ariya, is used by the Buddha to designate a particular type of person, the type of person which it is the aim of his teaching to create. In the discourses the Buddha classifies human beings into two broad categories. On one side there are the puthujjanas, the worldlings, those belonging to the multitude, whose eyes are still covered with the dust of defilements and delusion. On the other side there are the ariyans, the noble ones, the spiritual elite, who obtain this status not from birth, social station or ecclesiastical authority but from their inward nobility of character.
These two general types are not separated from each other by an impassable chasm, each confined to a tightly sealed compartment. A series of gradations can be discerned rising up from the darkest level of the blind worldling trapped in the dungeon of egotism and self-assertion [JM note: Level I], through the stage of the virtuous worldling in whom the seeds of wisdom are beginning to sprout [Level III], and further through the intermediate stages [Level IV] of noble disciples to the perfected individual [Level V] at the apex of the entire scale of human development. This is the arahant, the liberated one, who has absorbed the purifying vision of truth so deeply that all his defilements have been extinguished, and with them, all liability to suffering.
You’ll see that in my enthusiasm, I stuck some annotations in there, and bolded some key points. This suggests pretty strongly to me that many of these early Buddhists were thinking along the same lines as Dabrowski, trying to deal with positive disintegration themselves! They’ve even gone and collectively designated a Level V personality ideal, i.e., the arahant.
But wait! A core part of positive disintegration is the third factor—autonomous self-direction of one’s conscience and developing of one’s own, authentic personality ideal. If you just accept the one you’re handed by an authority, that won’t do at all. That’s so second factor! That’s what the true believers do! We don’t want that, do we?
Then I read the next assigned reading, this time from a book, The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin. On page 60, Gethin notes that the Four Noble Truths, which are the foundation of the Buddha’s teachings, aren’t a creed; assenting to them isn’t an act of faith that makes you a Buddhist in the way that the declaration that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger is fundamental to becoming a Muslim. These statements—that of the fact of dukkha, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation—are, says Gethin, realities that both Buddhists and non-Buddhists fail to see as they are. So, if I understand correctly, it’s the intent to follow the prescription laid out in the fourth Noble Truth that makes a person a Buddhist.
A quick clarification: there are, of course, plenty of people who call themselves Buddhists not because of an active intent to follow the teachings, but because of their cultural background, just as a Westerner might call herself a Christian even though she never goes to church and is doubtful that God exists. So when I talk about “Buddhists” here, what I really mean is practicing adherents, not cultural adherents.
And this brings us back to what I was thinking earlier when I said that authentic growth and change actually are potentially compatible with following a map someone else handed you as you walk down a path they recommended. We can try it on for size and see how it fits. Maybe that was obvious to everyone else, but I tended to feel compelled to question everything and even come up with answers on my own. (In that sense, I think I’m constitutionally incapable of being a “true believer,” which is not to say that I don’t have an opposite set of traits that someone could label with a different epithet.)
On that note, even as I get myself all pumped about basic Buddhist ideas, I still can’t say if I will ever identify myself a Buddhist. All I can say right now is that it seems to me that the first two Noble Truths are absolutely true—inescapable unsatisfactoriness is inherent to our ever-changing world—and that digging more deeply into this philosophy has potential to help me both in my lifelong struggle with (positive!) maladjustment (internal growth) and, simultaneously, to become the person I aspire to be (external growth). Going beyond the basics? I can’t speak to that now.
All I know is that, for me, learning about Buddhism might be one path through positive disintegration and back to reintegration.
Your mileage is certain to vary. In general, I think that other religions—adopted autonomously and sincerely, not because of social pressures—can provide similar avenues for Dabrowskian disintegration and reintegration; so can purely secular philosophical traditions; or you can make it up as you go along. For others, rejecting religious belief (especially traditions espousing paths that a Level III+ person recognizes as lower) will have the same effect. In thinking this through, it becomes clear how much the process of disintegration and reintegration has to be tailor-made for each person’s experience. I guess that’s why authenticity is so important. A solution tailored to my maladjustment won’t necessarily be a solution to yours, and vice versa.
So what do you think? Have any of you found any traditions (religious or otherwise) that aided your disintegration and reintegration? How do you feel about the “à la carte” approach to religious beliefs? If you are religious, how does the third factor impact your faith? Knowing full well that I just asked an extremely weighty question, I invite you to share your stories in the comments.
Image credits: Devanath, 4144132, MindBodySpritWorld, suc, and judithscharnowski on Pixabay