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Practicing Society

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—Practices of Self, Society, and Time on the Way to Personal and Societal Transformation—


While there is no fundamental separation between personal and social transformation, modern conceptions of the self (as internal) and society (as external) can construct unnecessary obstacles for the theorization and practice of contemplative social movements. Instead of imagining a fluid and interdependent relationship between transformations in subjectivity—such as shifts in psychological experience, identity, and awareness—on the one hand, and shifts in socio-economic and political circumstances, on the other, we may be led to imagine a situation in which we must first make “inner” change and then subsequently enact “external” structural change. In this article, I offer a practice-oriented view that understands the sense of self as embedded in everyday social practices, and society itself as a practice, as a way to remove these unnecessary obstacles. In the space opened up, we can better conceive of spiritual practices that include the socio-political realm and socio-political practices that include transformations in subjectivity. The primary example that allows me to trace these themes is the experience of time, especially the fact that temporality is simultaneously the experience of individual human agents as well as the result of shared social practices such as the work week, financial transactions, and technological innovations. Drawing on the theories of time-compression and social acceleration I show that the causes of personal, psychological stresses are often due to socio-economic practices, further exemplifying the inseparability of the personal and the social. In the last part of the article, I inquire into the dangers of the idea that we are responsible for “practicing our selves” and “practicing our society.” I conclude by gesturing to directions for the modes of spiritual practice that could simultaneously contribute to systemic change.

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Illustration by Alicia Brown

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