In May 2015 a group of young people from Europe, Mexico, and the United States came together in Mexico City and Pátzcuaro, Michoacán for the Ziji Collective Leadership Retreat. The Ziji Collective “is a global network of inspired young people, dedicated to the…radical view that human beings and society are fundamentally good,” and the work of creating “a society that is uplifted, caring, gentle, and wakeful.” In this pursuit, local Ziji groups “work through the practice of meditation; through the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and wisdom; and through collective action.”
Although we came from different places, we connected through our shared experience as young people facing an uncertain future of climate change, debt, limited options for rewarding stable work, disappearing free time, technology and media disconnecting us from each other and our bodies, surrounded by overt and subtle forms of violence. We explored ways to support each other across borders by initiating collaboration and establishing communities of practice. Over enchiladas in Pátzcuaro’s busy square and during contemplative walks in the gardens of the Casa Werma retreat space, we held many discussions on how to foster the spirit of ziji (“primordial confidence” in Tibetan) in our own lives and in our communities through activism, writing, community building, and social meditation.
Over the weeklong program Acharya1 Adam Lobel gave a series of talks and invited conversation on how our personal, social, and political lives are interconnected.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s first year in office, progress on climate change has been undermined; racism, sexism, xenophobia, and white supremacy are emboldened; structural and cultural violence remain entrenched in institutions; and the oppression of indigenous peoples continues at breakneck pace. Acharya Lobel’s teachings from May 2015 could therefore not be more timely. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Acharya Lobel about his teaching at the May 2015 Ziji Collective Leadership Retreat. Below we present an edited version of some of these teachings along with our recent interview.
In his fifth talk at the Ziji Collective gathering, Acharya Lobel explored the work of philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose 2012 book Declaration examines the Occupy movement and new forms of organization that emerged in the wake of Occupy and the Arab Spring. An Italian political philosopher and Marxist sociologist, Antonio Negri was a leading theorist of the Autonomia Operai—a movement among students and workers against state socialism and capitalism in Italy during the early 1970s. Autonomists sought liberation from the authoritarian hierarchies of “modern institutions,” and instead worked to “involve people directly in decisions affecting their everyday lives.”2 Michael Hardt is an American philosopher who, with Negri, co-wrote Empire (2000), and whose work explores the role of joy in political life. In Declaration, Hardt and Negri investigate specific ways in which our modern economy and society produce disempowerment and depression. They write:
“The triumph of neoliberalism and its crisis have shifted the terms of economic and political life, but they have also operated a social, anthropological transformation, fabricating new figures of subjectivity.”3
In this talk, Adam summarizes what Hardt and Negri describe as the four subjectivities of modern civilization:
I’m going to describe what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call the four subjectivities, which are four different ways of experiencing our sense of self in the modern world. These four subjectivities speak to the authors’ context in Europe and the U.S., and they resonate for me given my social location within the U.S. They may or may not generalize to all contemporary social groups and contexts. For example, Hardt and Negri talk about indebtedness, and some people do not have the luxury even of debt. So I invite readers to reflect on how these four subjectivities apply to contexts they care about. And I also think there’s a broader shape to the ideas I’m offering: that we often are imprisoned by subjectivities that obscure our primordial confidence.
These four subjectivities describe how global capitalist society makes it incredibly difficult to experience unconditional confidence. This goes beyond the basic obstacles to confidence created by the normal ego structure, habitual patterns, fear, and cocoon that Shambhala and Buddhist teachings often emphasize. On top of these individual challenges, we—our generation and many people in the world today—face four different subjectivities or senses of self, identities.
The first is called the indebted, which means very literally that many in our world are in massive financial debt. In order to get a college education or buy a car, buy a home, buy things with a credit card—in order to do just about anything within the marketplace of the world—the debt starts piling up and up. This has a huge impact on what our options are. You can just get a feel for what we are bound to and the amount of fear that many of us experience. Yet this has become normalized.
This same indebtedness wasn’t there even fifty years ago; but now our whole economy is based on debt. Debt defines and determines our experience of life, of what’s possible. We’re tied to jobs we need in order to pay off our debt, even if we don’t want to have those jobs. This means that the majority of your life may be spent doing something that you don’t want to do, that’s not necessarily meaningful. Why? According to Hardt and Negri, it’s because of an economic structure that is sucking the wealth out of the 99% and drawing it up into the 1%. This structure only benefits a tiny portion of people. This quality of being indebted forms and molds our sense of self and our subjectivity. It generates tremendous anxiety, stress, and fear.
Even if you have wealth, you’re likely to have given your money over to the market to increase that wealth, which means you are indebted to that whole cycle. Even satisfaction is deferred endlessly.
The Shambhala teachings are premised on the innate and unconditional value of our being, our humanity. Unconditional confidence is not the result of having paid back our loans. It is more primordial. Your confidence is your birthright. Yet within the economic norms we have collectively accepted, it may be difficult to experience this basic confidence because we feel the constant threat and obligation of our debt. Why do we feel anxiety? Why is a powerful warriorship and revolutionary energy sometimes difficult to rouse? In part because we are indebted and our sense of confidence feels lacking until that sense of debt is relieved. Yet what if that day never comes? What if an entire social system is driven by the endless multiplication of debt? What are the spiritual and psychological impacts of this system? These are the questions that genuine, politically aware spiritual seekers must ask today. And these are simultaneously the questions that activists and political radicals need to ask about their sense of confidence. In this way, today’s politics are spiritual and today’s spirituality is by necessity political and economic.
The next subjectivity is called the mediatized—as in media, which conveys the notion that our sense of self is shaped, molded, imprinted, inflicted upon by the rush of information that comes through our smart phones, our computer screens, the television, advertising, and the addiction that most of us have to constant entertainment—to constantly giving over our life-force to Netflix. There’s no problem with watching Game of Thrones every now and then or whatever. But when a third of our lives are spent passively absorbing distraction and hypnotized by the next news drama or seduced by the next clickbait, this begins to shape our identity and our lives. The news and information services that we receive define what is considered important, what we are supposed to be panicked about, what we are supposed to think is happening or not happening in the world.
In the summer and fall of 2014, many in the United States were in total panic around Ebola for weeks. It was the most important thing. There was a survey—“What is the most important issue around healthcare in the United States of America?” And 75% of people said Ebola when there was less than a handful of people who had it in the U.S. You’ve got the most unbelievable health crisis issues around addiction, poverty, unequal and unjust access to healthcare—just horrific scenarios that affect millions of people everyday, and yet everyone is worried about Ebola coming and taking us over. This is an example of how a panicked media narrative distracts us from the immediate reality. This is how, in Noam Chomsky’s words, the media “manufactures consent.”
Now in some sense it’s understandable. Perhaps it’s not that crazy. But consider the way our media structures operate: they scoop our consciousness. They grab our awareness and pull it into narratives that become real for us. They shape us and the world around us, driving policy decisions and money flows. Hardt and Negri capture this idea in the notion of being mediatized: our sense of self is actually shaped and formed by the media. These forms of entertainment and information define our values and shape the direction of our lives. They make certain things allowable or not allowable, thinkable or unthinkable.
Most of us engage in a repeated, everyday ritual of checking our smart phones and checking in with social media. This repeated ritual also habituates our sense of who we are and our confidence. Unconditional confidence is self-existing confidence without reference points. We abide without needing constant confirmation from our media networks. This does not mean being isolated islands, but rather that human beings can exist without ongoing comparison, struggle, and competition. Yet our mediatized subjectivity numbs our hearts, can lead to tremendous anxiety, ongoing comparison with others, and an overwhelm of dramatic and pressing information. Rather than such constant information cultivating action and engagement, it often leads to apathy and confusion. The archetype of the warrior is someone who rests in unconditional confidence, with an open heart. This leads to fearless action. In this way, we all have to look honestly at our relationship with media, with technology, and with our iPhone-rituals to reclaim our own attention and life-force.
The third subjectivity that can undermine our unconditional confidence is called the securitized, which is the deep feeling of fear that somehow we will be attacked, blown up, or left vulnerable if there is not a massive military and intelligence system to keep us safe. It’s the feeling some groups of people have that if we don’t have the walls of homeland security or a colossal military-industrial complex or people out there spying on us and everyone else—that if those security regimes are not in place—somehow we will be vulnerable and open to attack. This is the feeling that without these structures we won’t be safe. In some sense there actually is no lasting security ever—we are vulnerable human beings—yet we have the illusion that with a huge security apparatus we will be safe from all the threats. Our sense of self becomes securitized because we actually start to support and buy into methods of being regulated, watched, scanned, made into a statistic. We feel that in order to be safe we have to forfeit our power to this force of securitization, which is the latest evolution of the military-industrial complex. This subjectivity really shows up if you look at when you feel safe or when you feel afraid. This massive trillion-dollar industry of security somehow seems to make sense.
This system of security is unequal, racist, and unjust. This system will impact you and your family very differently if you appear white or if you appear black or brown or if you appear as a Muslim or if you are an immigrant, documented or not. In other words, there are indeed vulnerable communities. But with the securitized subjectivity, it is often those who are most secure that are made to feel afraid. Furthermore, this fear-based system of security is manipulated to establish political power and influence the rhetoric and turnout of elections. It is intimately interconnected with the rise of nationalisms. Our question here is: how does this system of security show up in our own body, our own fears, and our own assumptions? How are you shaped by the fear entailed in being a securitized subject, living behind a wall? Here, discovering and resting in unconditional confidence becomes revolutionary. We discover that we are confident without the need of the walls, the barbed wire, the secret drone assassinations, and the military-industrial complex. In fact, we may find that this system of violence and security is the source of our fear, rather than a protection from fear. Releasing our life-force from its entrapment in fear is not only a matter for meditation and spiritual cultivation, it is a political demand in the present.
The fourth and final subjectivity is called the represented. As the term says, there is this sense that others represent us. What is our political power? What is our voice? We don’t have a voice, but someone else will speak for us. This is the great myth of democracy. In the United States for every one congressional representative in the House of Representatives, there are on average well over 700,000 people who are supposedly represented.
How does that exactly work, even if we imagine that representation is not skewed by gerrymandering, money in politics, and more? How is it that our voice, our wisdom, our ideas are represented in the democracy? How does that play out with more than 700,000 of us somehow represented by that one person? And then it’s questionable whether that congressional representative actually has much of a say in decision-making at all. From the very beginning of the political history of democracy you had thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau who said that there is no such thing as a representative democracy. Democracy has to be immediate and direct in order to be a genuine democratic system.
This notion of the represented spans a very long history in Western political thought, some of which starts from the fundamental assumption that humans are violent and brutish, that we all want to be tyrants, that we want to destroy others and get the most for ourselves; therefore we need political systems to control us, either through a monarchy or through distributing that control democratically so that basically no one has any power. Tellingly, important strands of Western monarchy and Western democracy are both based on tremendous fear and mistrust in humanity.
Unconditional confidence could be understood as a state of being politically empowered. Confidence includes trust in human power, even political power. While there may or may not be a need for political representation, we do not need to reduce our political power to being represented by others, and to focusing our political efforts on trying to influence those representatives. We need not defer our potency to others. Though our present liberal democracies claim to give us voice, this is highly questionable. On some level we know this and feel this and it covers our confidence with layers of deception and apathy. We are disempowered. In this way, the warrior’s rediscovery of unconditional confidence summons a political subjectivity that can never be lost through representation. A new politics joins with the rediscovery of ziji.
. . .
These four subjectivities provide a useful contemplation for the unique historical moment that we are in as sentient beings. They identify some of the social, political, and economic structures that undermine our sense of confidence: being in tremendous debt; being distracted by the media; being terrified—we need these massive security systems in order to live; and being represented—someone else will speak for us and we basically are powerless. How can we feel unconditional power and confidence in such a world? How can we feel the wisdom of our awakened hearts when these are the subjectivities that are forming us?
So we have a dual task. We have to work with the normal, sentient, samsaric situation of ego, fear, habit, ignorance, grasping, and clinging. And we also have to work with these social, political, and economic structures that harmfully shape our sense of self. And, crucially, we have to break out of them. We have to open out beyond these kinds of socio-political cocoons, reclaiming this unconditional confidence as individuals and as collectives. This is ziji—the spark of ziji, primordial confidence—which has profound implications that are directly related to transforming our world.
Editor: Adam, it’s helpful to revisit this discussion two-and-half years later. The first subjectivity, the indebted, speaks specifically about debt but could be seen as a metaphor for all kinds of economic insecurity and servitude generated by neoliberal economic structures and market fundamentalism. And yet, as we saw in the 2016 US presidential election and have continued to see over the past year, economic inequality and insecurity are easily misused to generate divisions along lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and gender, arguably among groups whose common interests lie in solidarity. If the feelings of indebtedness and insecurity inhibit us from experiencing unconditional confidence, which needless to say leads to much suffering, how can we use teachings of spiritual warriorship to confront this?
Acharya Lobel: Before going into that very excellent question, I want to back up and offer a little more context about the concepts at hand. First of all, I want to state that I am not in agreement with everything Hardt and Negri espouse. Rather I am using these four subjectivities in my own specific ways. Further, it is important to highlight the use of the term subjectivity, particularly as people interested in the interface between meditation, psychological training, and politics. By subjectivity I mean our personhood or sense of self as well as the ongoing process that that makes us a person. That is, a subject is not a thing or an entity as much as the ongoing relations, practices, and conditions that allow for us to feel like a person. Subjectivity is simultaneously spiritual, personal, and political. It is not a given. Our sense of self and identity is not a solid metaphysical substrate that we can find. As the Buddha realized centuries ago, there is no true self that we’re talking about; nor are we talking about an additional identity or pattern thrown on top of the true self. These four subjectivities are important because they allow us to see that we as human beings are always politicized. We are always being made and we are always making ourselves. Every day and every moment. Our sense of self or identity always emerges through social conditions, gender norms, racial constructs, relationships, the media, technology, and the everyday practices in which we participate.
Each of the four subjectivities could be indexed to a social institution: The indebted is indexed to economics and banks, the finance system. The mediatized is indexed to the media structures, media technologies, information technologies, and the arts. The securitized is indexed to military institutions, the military-industrial and prison complex. And the represented is indexed to government institutions. So we’re seeing the subjective arising of personal, felt experience that is related to these larger massive institutions.
It is also helpful to think about subjectivity in relation to power. In the traditional liberal context—not Left versus Right, but liberalism as a political philosophy—the sense of self is often located within a larger political context: There is Adam and there is Gabe, and then there are many influences upon that sense of self. Power is usually considered one of the oppressive influences. So there’s me and you as individuals, and then there’s something called power, which suppresses us like a heavy lid or imprisons us or tells us things we can’t do. Conventionally, that is how power is often interpreted. In contrast, operating behind the scenes for Hardt and Negri is more of a Foucauldian sense of power, in that in addition to being oppressive, power is also creative. Power produces. Power is incredibly positive in terms of creating and doing things, and one way that power works is to produce our sense of self. Power creates individuals. Power wants to operate through us. In other words the most effective kind of prison is one that you fail to perceive as a prison, one that you think of as freedom, as just walking around in the world free, and yet you are the prison, and you are somehow the prison guard—the operation of power.
Each subjectivity is like a practice, a way of being that locks us into a certain kind of prison, or repeats a certain kind of performance of power. So we are the operators of power. We are the ones holding ourselves in prison. We are the ones who are lessening our sense of unconditional confidence. However, it is important to note that this is not an equal imprisonment, and the construction of racial, gender, sexual, class, national, and other identities ensure that the privileged benefit within the prison. But we are all in the prison.
Therefore each of the four subjectivities is one specific quality or iteration of that self-entrapment. This is not to say we do it without cause—we do it because we’re interconnected with all sorts of political, economic, and social conditions. This concept of subjectivity is at the cusp of what is personal and what is political, or what is spiritual and what is world-transforming. And that’s why I’ve chosen to explore this particular theme. It demonstrates how spiritual training in the present needs to be politically savvy and powerful.
Now let’s turn to your first question. I think you are absolutely right to locate these four subjectivities, and the indebted particularly, in relationship to the current political context in the United States, and particularly the link between the indebted and the role economics played in the 2016 presidential election.
The indebted is not just about debt. It’s not just about having to pay off our student loans, or owing money on our house or our car or our credit card bills. It’s really our location within neoliberal economic practices and structures. So according to Hardt and Negri, being in debt is becoming the general condition of today’s social life. It is nearly impossible to live without incurring debt. What’s interesting about this statement is that in order to be part of social life, we need to be in debt. Right? It’s the rite of passage of sorts. (Just think about when or if you first applied for a credit card or took out your first loan.) It’s the condition of possibility for having a social life. For many, to be part of our world you have to be in debt. Talk about a prison.
Then we participate and create. Our sense of self or subjectivity becomes related to the scramble to survive, to make money and get out of debt. Or if we have a lot of wealth, then that wealth is invested in debt structures, which create more debt. I think your question is speaking to the way the sense of being indebted leads to a form of collective anxiety, which then fosters a certain response in the political field. If we feel we lack access to wealth, if we feel insecurity around our financial existence, then there’s a tendency to want to elect officials whose rhetoric promises to fix that for us. Furthermore, this general anxiety has historically been used to turn people against each other through the construction of races, racial divisions, and racial antagonisms. Racism, especially in the United States, is in large part a product of economics. Donald Trump knowingly relied upon a tried and tested strategy to win the election—pit human beings against each other, wield a rhetoric of white supremacy, blame, inspire hatred and fear. Is this what you’re pointing to in the question?
Editor: Yes, to a degree. The imagery associated with this question is a Facebook joke posted in 2015 by The Other 98%, which goes: “A banker, a worker, and an immigrant are sitting at a table with 20 cookies. The banker takes 19 cookies and warns the worker: ‘Watch out, the immigrant is going to take your cookie away.’” In this example we could argue that the worker and immigrant share a common economic struggle and would benefit from solidarity, yet the banker uses racism or xenophobia to pit them against each other. This interaction neatly illustrates the core of Donald Trump’s economic political platform. Do spiritual warriorship or the quality of unconditional confidence have anything to offer us in terms of overcoming divisiveness and scapegoating to foster genuine solidarity?
Acharya Lobel: This is very difficult and changing territory. First, There are important questions that we need to ask in this context: How does the arising of unconditional confidence affect internalized, hierarchized understanding of difference? How does a white person’s unconditional confidence support her in letting go of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc.? What is the sustained work that is required to make such shifts and unlearn social conditioning? Can practices that nourish unconditional confidence lead to genuine solidarity?
I think it is important to point out a powerful anxiety that lies at the root of the interactions in this meme or Trump’s rhetoric. To understand this anxiety, the historical context of Antonio Negri is helpful. Negri is coming out of the Autonomous School in Italy, which was an elaboration of Marxist thought that explored what would happen to Marxism in the absence of the same factory-based working class upon which Marx based his analyses. As capitalism has evolved in economically “developed” countries, one sees less and less attention to issues of labor, like unions or the welfare of the working class. These issues lose importance in public discourse as more and more jobs are outsourced and automated, and as unions themselves are methodically undermined. As this occurs, capitalism begins to colonize and infiltrate our whole life. We’re never off. There is no break. There is never a vacation. You are always forced to be productive, and there is constantly an email to return to. Increasingly jobs are temporary and many hold down multiple jobs. Many people work outside of an office or offices attempt to be more like home: casual, you can play video games, eat what you want to eat, and so forth. In these ways capitalism and the marketplace have found a way to subsume, control, and ultimately dominate our whole life. This scenario is precisely what the Autonomists considered in their evolution of Marxist thought. So in that context we can see the indebted as a way that capitalism colonizes our experience, whether we’re at work in a warehouse or workshop or anywhere else.
Capitalism’s colonization of our entire life produces a sense of constant anxiety around money that leads to a feeling of scarcity or lack—as we would say in the Shambhala tradition, poverty mentality. And then as the meme states, it’s easy to use that sense of scarcity to pit people against each other politically and hide where money is actually flowing, which is the 1% of the 1%. In other words, scarcity itself is an illusion. There is no scarcity; there is abundance. But neoliberal policies want us to feel that there is scarcity, which increases the anxiety, which then may be used to create false divisions and antagonism between human beings.
Whether unconditional confidence—ziji—or other Shambhala teachings on warriorship leads to solidarity is a great question, and a challenging one. I think the first step in answering this question is acknowledging that there is something in our being that cannot be given or taken away—something that is actually not linked to any of these four subjectivities or four social institutions, particularly the indebted and the economy.
Now this is dangerous territory because it can sound like a form of idealism that says, “It doesn’t matter what our material conditions and labor practices are, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. We’re all equally valuable, and we’re all equally confident. Therefore politics don’t matter. All that matters is your psychological or spiritual state.” That is definitely not what I’m saying. Economics, politics, and real social conditions matter, and they affect us each differently, especially if you belong to a historically marginalized group or oppressed population, if you’re not given access to the conditions that allow for success as normally understood. All of that is very real. These are very tangible impacts on the quality of our life, the quality of our children’s lives, access to medical care, and so forth. So it does matter. It’s not just a state of mind.
That being said, there is a political force that comes from tapping into this unconditional confidence. Confidence cannot be manipulated in the same way that fear and anxiety can. The political power seems to come from the ability to stand outside of these four subjectivities altogether, to not play by their rules, not believe the hype, and not get trapped in the prison they want us to co-create in our state of mind and in our everyday life, activities, and practices. Now if there are people in communities who are collectively stepping beyond these four subjectivities, and no longer committed to replicating the sense of being indebted, distracted by media, afraid, and willing to be represented, does that lead to a certain solidarity? Yes. It’s a different political solidarity, though, than that in a more conventional Marxist account, which in the meme would be that the blue collar worker and the migrant laborer would look at each other and say, “Let’s take those 19 cookies, and not fight over this one cookie.” On the one hand, there is something important about that approach, particularly in the way that Paulo Freire describes it in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as a way to unlearn the sense of self that oppressive capitalist power imposes, and to liberate the possibility of the type of solidarity that reclaims the 19 cookies.
However, I think a Shambhala take on solidarity would be to recognize that before there can even be political solidarity, there’s often a kind of unstated invisible surge of confidence and possibility that comes individually and especially in communities and between people. The moment before the migrant laborer and working class person turn to reclaim the 19 cookies, something happens. What is that happening? What is that feeling of possibility, intensity, power, confidence? In a sense there’s a moment of saying, “I’m not indebted. I’m not subject to the social conditions, I need not believe that I must do a series of financial backflips in order to be valuable.” There is a moment of rising sense of value and power, and especially a sense of wealth that precedes some political action. It’s as if the invisible, self-imposed prison suddenly vanishes. The rules are gone. That is what we’re naming here with this idea of unconditional confidence. There’s a reason why the Shambhala teachings as well as many indigenous traditions hold that unconditional confidence is connected with a kind of inner wealth, or a fullness, and a sense of physical wealth, physical health, vitality, strength, windhorse, life-force energy. These qualities are all politically potent…if we want them to be…. It is helpful to remember that Hardt and Negri’s Declaration is in large part a way to understand the forms of subjectivity that can be uncovered in moments of collective action such as the Arab Spring, in Greece, and the Occupy movement. I feel that similar modes of collective action are at least part of the Shambhala movement to create enlightened society.
Editor: The mediatized seems especially pertinent in light of the 2016 election and Trump’s first year in office. Many have argued that to a certain extent the media created Donald Trump. At the same time, many in the news media have been criticized for being part of the liberal bubble that could not foresee Trump’s rise to power. Further, we have seen attacks on the legitimate news media from Trump and his administration akin to what we might see in young authoritarian regimes. And then we have the realm of fake news, not to mention the general blurring of news and entertainment that is the product of a for-profit media industry. What can we do?
Acharya Lobel: This is subtle and complicated territory, and I am not very learned in terms of media studies. There are many important thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and others to turn to for general guidance in this area. So a lot of what I have to say here are my own thoughts and reflections. Let’s start by going back to Hardt and Negri. In their comments on the mediatized, they note that the media are conventionally understood from a political perspective that identifies the problem as a lack of information. If we don’t really know what’s going on, if the truth is hidden from us, then we can’t act. The assumption is that if we really knew what’s going on, we would act. The mediatized actually flips that situation around and shows that for many of us—particularly in the global north—the problem is not lack of information, but rather too much information. We are bombarded by so much information all the time from so many different perspectives that the result is a kind of apathy. If we are to engage in the information surplus, usually the avenues of engagement are part of that very surplus—online petitions, sending memes, writing little comments to each other on Facebook where we only reach the very small portion of the population that already agrees with us. And if we have a debate, it’s usually anonymous and in the comments of a blog or a YouTube video. We feel like we’re being politically active, but actually it’s all just part of this surplus of media and information that constantly bombards us: what appears to be action is actually a kind of impotence. Signing petitions, even sending money to people and offices and so forth—this is often participating in this ongoing sense of entertainment. So what do you do?
Now, we want to also recognize that things are changing quickly, and that Hardt and Negri’s book Declaration came out before Trump’s rise to power. They were really thinking about a more standard neoliberal context, in which neoliberal capitalist media sources were a problem. Whereas now it’s unclear what different parties want and what they’re up to. When you see the US President ban New York Times and CNN reporters from the White House, that sounds more like classic despotic, tyrannical, repression of information and trying to destroy or control access to information and change it. The challenge of course is that Trump is incredibly skilled at relating to the media and thrives off media attention, whether it’s positive or negative. And I think this is one of the things that liberals tend to miss right now: it doesn’t matter whether the news on Trump is horrific or fantastic—the fact is, he’s in your mind. He’s like a demonic presence that wants to constantly assert itself in your consciousness. So in this light, consider this quote from Gilles Deleuze: “…it’s not problem of getting people to express themselves. The problem, rather, is providing little gaps of solitude and silence, in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.”4
Editor: That sounds very Dharmic. This account of the mediatized evokes the neurotic aspect of the what is known as the karma Buddha family, a style of busyness that permeates one’s life but doesn’t get much done. The wisdom aspect of the karma Buddha family is that all-accomplishing action—in this case the rare thing worth saying—doesn’t come from doing a lot of things. It actually comes from space. And that is what allows for all-accomplishing action to occur. (Perhaps this is a political rationale for meditation practice.)
Acharya Lobel: Exactly. That is exactly what Deleuze and many members of the Autonomous community in Italy were pointing to—there are a lot of people pointing to a similar version of that—a political version of the sense of genuine action originating from space and wisdom. There are thinkers like Franco Bifo Berardi who look at how work is exhausting. Constant activity is alienating. In a world where there’s alienation through constant activity and doing, that reclamation of space, of silence, of not being productive, of refraining from being useful, of not engaging in the political, has a certain revolutionary potency to it. There is an illusion of political action that really is just participating in the frantic, busy, mediatized identity. We have a whole generation of political activists who are basically sitting at home alone on their computer writing things, and it’s questionable to what degree that is political participation. And it is in that very context that Trump rose to power. That’s the point. He and future populist, charismatic leaders are going to be masterful at wielding what Guy Debord called “the society of spectacle.”—this spectacle, spectacular society, where everything is like a giant holiday special event, all the time, and it’s always dramatic, it’s always intense, it’s always personal, and somebody’s yelling at somebody and blamed, and it’s like Worldwide Wrestling meets twenty-four hour news. That’s precisely what Donald Trump knows how to command better than most.
So the question becomes, how do we relate to the media? The traditional Left now is saying, “We need real news, we need news that tells the truth, because Donald Trump and the Right equals fake news, and alternative facts.” That is a dangerous oversimplification. Everybody makes decisions over what “real” news is. The Obama administration had its own record of restricting press access to the White House, and came under sharp criticism for what some journalists saw as undermining freedom of the press. If you look carefully at The New York Times, even though it’s excellent journalism much of the time, where does the advertising come from? It’s oriented towards the incredibly wealthy: the most luxurious, high-level, elite real estate and fashion. The Times is an elite media source. It speaks to a certain kind of socialization and status in society that I might participate in, that you might participate in, that many of us might identify with. But we must remember that it is a news source and a social context and even a way of speaking that might be incredibly off-putting to precisely the people that are often least served in our world. This is where the Left really has gotten confused and why Donald Trump represented a huge wake-up call that there is a certain elitism and isolationism that comes from sticking with the closed loop, the closed cocoon of our own way of speaking and thinking and writing, and there are a lot of people who aren’t welcome in that cocoon. It is also important to remember that this cocoon is often white, patriarchal, and classist.
So to conclude, I don’t want to say that the proper, confident relationship with media and with information is the Left version or the Right version; rather, it’s a much more primordial sense of freedom from reference points altogether, which is actually somewhat groundless, indeterminate, and shaky. It is a space that allows for the confident vulnerability of warriorship. As we discussed in the context of the indebted, there is political potency and power in this restful, vulnerable, uncertainty. The fearless warrior taps this power, which cultivates a different political subjectivity that is somewhat off the hook—off the roller coaster of hope and fear, the Left and the Right, the society of the spectacle. I am interested in that, but not as a form of escapism, not as a way to ignore and close our eyes. I’ve heard too many Shambhalians and Buddhists saying, “I’m not going to watch the news, it’s just too upsetting.” I don’t think that’s the answer either.
Editor: It seems to be a question of motivation. Is our motivation to seek out that space because we want to escape, or is our motivation to seek out the space because we are looking for clarity on how to engage skillfully?
Acharya Lobel: Or another way to say this is that there is more energy, explosive energy, and thousands of suns, in just a thimble-full of space, if you know how to tap it.
Editor: It seems that through the securitized we inevitably create the physical insecurity that we fear, sometimes for ourselves and sometimes for others. In other words the securitized is a collective subjectivity. Much of it is in some sense imagined. But through the imagination of our insecurity, we actually end up creating and projecting very real concrete, material situations of insecurity for many people. How do we work with this dynamic? What do we do when our collective fearful rhetoric generates genuinely threatening situations? How do we respond skillfully when Mexican Americans or Muslim Americans are in real danger of being targeted by violent acts by virtue of the securitized rhetoric based on unfounded fear?
Acharya Lobel: You just described samsara. That’s how it works. It’s a chicken and egg scenario: Does the collective socio-economic and physical reality and the reality of warfare and xenophobic violence produce our sense of anxiety, or does our anxiety produce these terrifying conditions? Nobody knows. That’s the dialectic. So the securitized is a good example of a self-fulfilling prophesy, which I think is what you’re speaking to here: Because we are so afraid of some ‘other’ or ‘enemy’ attacking us, we create conditions where this actually occurs. It is important to recognize that today’s militarized states and many multinational corporations thrive on both the fear of attack and warfare itself. Analyses of neoliberal thought like those by Naomi Klein illustrate that many crises and conflicts are exactly what private capital and government contractors seek for business. The two Iraq Wars, especially the second, exemplify the creation of colossal violence, death, and conflict that persist today in pursuit of power and wealth through ‘democracy expansion’ and control over oil markets. These samsaric patterns are painfully intensifying here ‘at home’, with our family and compatriots, othering and dehumanizing people in order to sustain a sense of identity, of self-versus-other. In all of the teachings about Buddhist thought, that dynamic of self-versus-other is the orientation of samsara, or endless cycles of confusion. We’re seeing this dynamic on a collective political scale with increasing intensity.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t have a good answer about that other than that we have to have at least a three-pronged strategy: One prong would be protecting people in the most literal, direct, loving way possible from all physical attacks based on racism, ethno-nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia. We could engage in actual protection, extending the cradle of loving kindness to ensure that we don’t see the kind of horrors that we’ve seen in our present, not to mention the past. That’s one prong. A second prong is working to undercut the sense of othering and fearing, and there’s beautiful work being done in this area. We all need to participate in work in which we learn to commit, “I’m not going to play into dehumanization through rhetoric and imagery, and instead work to extend myself beyond my comfortable community, developing ally relationships with other groups and ways of being in the world.” This goes way beyond political correctness. The third prong involves working to undercut the whole procedure by which power feeds on conflict, othering, and securitization in order to sustain control. Hardt and Negri pose this question: “Why do you accept being treated like an inmate? In a previous era the prison, separated from society, was the institution of total surveillance, whose inmates were constantly observed and their activities recorded, but today total surveillance is increasingly the general condition of society as a whole.”5 They also make the interesting point that we’re “not only the object of security but also the subject.” 6 We’re the ones told to look around at the subway, make sure there are no bombs, look at people that might look threatening and scary and report them. And that will increasingly, I think, be the case.
So unconditional confidence will mean discovering a state of being that is not subject to this anxiety—a state of being that feels genuine trust and love for every human being, regardless of how they look, their religion, or their nationality. It is this love itself—this connection, kindness, and interdependence with other human beings—that is under attack. So the third prong lies beyond Left-versus-Right politics, beyond identity politics or traditionalist narratives. It means actually discovering how much we love each other, as our natural state of being. That love is part of the confidence that is under attack, which we are reclaiming. The warrior’s journey is learning to uncover this original confidence, which is our birthright as human beings. And with this confidence comes the exact opposite of the securitized identity: We don’t need the walls. We don’t need the border crossings. We don’t need the spying and surveillance. We don’t need this insane, aggressive, fear-based world that we’ve created together. We can trust; we actually can overcome the trauma, the anxiety that we have collectively forced upon each other. We can trust. That is why unconditional confidence is so important.
Editor: We could discuss many perverse examples of the represented: the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton’s or Al Gore’s popular vote victories, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, money in politics, and on and on. But what about those who lack even nominal political representation? We see in the protests at Standing Rock the lie of sovereignty, the farce of self-determination when the right of peoples to protect their own water and land is ignored. Within this context, when even direct action and calls to our representatives fall short, how do we empower our political voice? How do we reclaim our political agency, and what can spiritual warriorship offer us in this pursuit? A related question worth contemplating is how to give voice to entities that, in the conventional, literal sense, lack a voice that could even be represented, like the natural environment itself?
Acharya Lobel: The simple answer is that we need an entirely different politics. We need to acknowledge the illusion of democracy and the deceptive narrative of progress. Doing so begins with a kind of sadness, rather than necessarily a revolutionary fervor, although there’s room for that too. The sadness is a recognition of how democracy comes in part from some trust in human wisdom. In Athens, for example, there was some trust that a collective (of men with property) could rule themselves, or make decisions together that would be beneficial. That is at least part of the story of democracy. With representation, we see the doubt in that trust. Even Rousseau said that as soon as we have representation, we no longer have true democracy. There are interesting statistics linked to this notion. As I asked in my talk in Mexico, how on earth have we been convinced that our voice, even nominally, is represented if we are one of 700,000 people? How is that representing our voice? If you push that question even further to those who are not even given a voice in the 700,000, such as immigrants and indigenous peoples—not to mention nonhuman animals, the forests, the oceans—where there are few if any viable access points for voice, what do we do?
In general we are faced with two different options, both of which I think are needed: the first option is to try to reformulate our modern representative democracies toward creative, direct, and inclusive democratic practices and institutions. There are different experiments in direct democracy, for example. More importantly, as my colleague David Kahane would say, healthy direct democracy is about a whole political ecosystem: a culture of education, engagement, mutual respect, and the support of minority rights. Most likely, some blend of representation, direct democracy, workers collective, and anarchist practices would be helpful.
So that leads to the second option, which is an unknown. I don’t know what it is. Nobody does. It is the notion of making the impossible possible. It is the imagination that goes beyond globalization and capitalism and liberal democracy. And it is in this unknown politics that the Shambhala tradition is best situated, I think. It is in this politics that unconditional confidence will most serve us. What that politics looks like, and how it is to be framed is a very creative field of possibility and potential. We could ask: What new political possibilities might become visible for groups of people working from a place of unconditional confidence? It does not mean tinkering with our current democracies and nation-states, but rather entails a radical deconstruction and creative opening of something that humanity has yet to see. I think we’re at that limit point. We may be seeing the limit points of the arc of political ideas that was set in motion in Greece 3,000 years ago, and something new is being called for.
Editor: You closed your talk with the following charge: “And, crucially, we have to break out of [the subjectivities]. We have to open out beyond these kinds of socio-political cocoons, reclaiming this unconditional confidence as individuals, and as collectives.” What concluding advice would you offer for doing so?
Acharya Lobel: Each of the subjectivities could be mapped in terms of a relationship with fear. The first is that the sense of being indebted creates the anxiety and fear of relating with the world of money. To break free from that subjectivity doesn’t mean that you get your finances in order or figure out how to make a lot of money, and therefore that anxiety is eased. That is the deception and illusion of the first subjectivity. The true exit is finding a source of wealth—innate wealth, unconditional wealth—that is not subject to the roller coaster ride of either being indebted or being “financially stable.”
It’s the same pattern with the mediatized. There’s the fear that maybe we’re not getting the full story or the right information, which leads to a sense of lack: “What we need is more information.” But what if the problem is the surplus of information? What if The Arrow Journal is the problem? Here we are, on an online media source, that both of us feel is helpful, and yet it is even more information accessed through the internet. I’m being self-reflexive here because we have to examine what we are valuing and participating in. Would the answer be not to have this journal? No. But what is the answer? Unconditional confidence carries us toward a relationship with information, knowledge, and creativity that is not subject to the game that capitalism forces us to play. That is silence. From that silence comes a different voice.
Third, in terms of the securitized, feeling the fear of our vulnerable bodies and our fellow human beings and their vulnerable bodies can lead to care, justice, and connection rather than increased fear. We can stop othering and conflict and warfare. Here unconditional confidence would mean breaking free from fear and discovering a fearless love. Vulnerability becomes our strength. Unconditional confidence is a strength that comes from tenderness, rather than walls and armoring.
Finally in the analysis of Hardt and Negri, the represented: it is not merely a matter of trying to reclaim our voice, which is a classical Leftist rhetoric that now the Right has coopted because they feel they have lost their voice. It is so easily manipulated. In contrast, what is individual—and more importantly collective—unconditional confidence? It is not seeking representation. It is not about trying to give voice to anything. It is already completely and fully empowered and all-victorious. The moment you say “I need a voice in your system,” you are subject to that system’s gateways and roles. But the moment you say “My human power and goodness and the beautiful world I want to live in are already the case, and I don’t need your permission,” then the situation can change radically.
Now it is one thing to say that as a white, privileged, heterosexual, highly educated person, and it is different to say that when you are part of an oppressed community. And yet we have seen consistently throughout history that oppressed communities tend to be the ones that teach us precisely this lesson. This is the lesson that we actually all have to learn from communities that are not seeking permission and power and voice, but rather already know their complete humanity and strength and are not asking for permission from anyone at all. In other words, I want to reverse the assumption of where political power is located; it is often privileged classes that are the most impotent, most afraid, and most committed to all four of these subjectivities, because that is the context in which we have our privilege and our power. The image of the mystic, the person who has left home (in the Buddhist context), the desert traveler who has nothing to lose and is not afraid of protecting their property—this person is not afraid of their blog receiving poor comments or their startup losing funding. This person who is not afraid of anything—this is the figure of the unconditional warrior that we want to claim for our politics.
Illustrations by Alicia Brown
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- Acharya is a title for a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition, taken from the Sanskrit āchārya, meaning ‘teacher’ or ‘spiritual guide’. ↩
- Georgy Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (AK Press. 2006), 6. ↩
- Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Declaration (New York: Argo-Navis, 2012), 9. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 129. ↩
- Hardt & Negri, Declaration, p. 20. ↩
- Hardt & Negri, Declaration, p. 20. ↩