Foucault, Zen and the Biopolitics of Wellbeing – Part Eight

Foucault encountered Zen both in his reading and during a brief stay in a Zen monastery practicing the life of a Zen monk. In the spring of 1978 (Davisson 2002), Foucault travelled to Japan to visit a number of Zen centres and was invited by Zen master Omori Sogen, head of the Seionji temple in Uenohara, to spend several days living as a monastic and practicing Zazen. In discussion with his teacher at the temple, Foucault expresses his interest in Zen, its practices, its exercises, and rules…observing:

For I believe that a totally different mentality to our own is formed through the practice and exercises of a Zen temple.(Foucault, 1999:110)

When Foucault took up that invitation to sample the life of Zen monks in the Spring of 1978 he would have been struck by the physicality of Zen practice and the emphasis on the material or practical aspects of the life. In the Soto Zen tradition, in particular, students are constantly called back to the basics of posture, the body, and “just sitting” (shikantaza). One experienced practitioner, recalling his early impressions of Zen practice, suggests that the instruction can be so physical, so concrete and specific that the student might well wonder when the “Zen” part begins. In fact, the Zen practice is just that: to pay attention intensely to the body in all its details, to be present with the body in its physical immediacy (Fischer 2005:216). The practice extends to daily immersion in the chores of the temple, notably ‘kitchen practice’. Fischer (2005) notes that far from offering a path to transcend the material world, the process of Zen practice deepens and opens the material world, revealing its inner richness. This is accomplished not by making the physical world symbolic of filling it up with explanations or complications but simply by entering the physical world wholeheartedly, on its own terms:

When you do that, you see that the material world is not just the material world, something flat and dumb, as we might have thought…As the Zen masters show us, the material world is not superficial or mundane. What is superficial and mundane is our habitual view of the material world, which we have so long insisted on reducing to a single dimension.(Fischer 2005:218)

Zen training is the effort to learn to enter the material world at such a depth and to appreciate it. From the Zen perspective the underlying challenge is not that we are ‘too materialistic’ but that we ‘are not materialistic enough’ (Haller 2009). Too many people fail to treasure the simple things that are available, and do not have an appreciation for their utility. There is a widespread (perhaps institutionalised) forgetfulness or failure to realise that the kitchen knife can last a lifetime, that we can not only own and wear those clothes but mend them too for reuse. Haller, the Co-Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Centre, one of the earliest Zen institutions in the West, recalls that there is another way of relating to material objects that we already possess and this alternative must be part of our redefinition of prosperity. Haller notes:

It is about connectedness and the way in which we are involved with our material world and with our environment. As the intimacy of involvement grows, the satisfaction grows. I think that is a shift that all of us are invited to make. That is part of the wonderful thing about awareness….mindfulness…it initiates that kind of intimacy…it initiates an appreciation for what is happening. And as we do that [practice of mindfulness], quite naturally for us there is a shift in how we define prosperity for ourselves. And as that happens for us, the compelling urge to consume more will start to dissipate. (Haller 2009)



Up to a point, Zen shares an understanding of the human condition with traditions of Western psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and existentialist philosophy. The Buddhist teaching on ‘not-self’ (anatta), for example, implies that the sense of “I” is a social construction. From this standpoint, an important question turns on how we explain the origins of the self as construct. Here the view is taken that the ungrounded or impermanent nature of the ‘self’ is repressed and gives rise to some of our existential longings for security and identity. Matthews and Hattam (2004) believe that our need to objectify the world to protect ourselves from the unbearable thought of death leads to a projection of that apparent objectivity. We live as though the world is independent from us. The apparently objective world is unconsciously structured by the ways we seek to secure ourselves within it (Loy 1996:66). Fantasies, as automatisations, are not just mental but become embodied. Projections are actually embodied in the world in the form of our own individual structuring which connects to ‘a collective dream’ (Loy 1996:67), maintained by each of us striving to secure or realize ourselves within that dream. As Miller and Rose (2008:120) describe, the consumer has emerged as a highly problematic entity, by no means a passive tool for manipulation by advertisers, but someone to be known in detail, whose passions and desires were to be charted, for whom consumption was to become an activity bound into a whole form of life that must be anatomized and acted upon. The extent to which ethnographic research methods have been deployed by manufacturers is extraordinary, as the relentless production of novelty demands ever more detail about the life world and day-to-day practices of consumers and their children.

At the root of the sense-of-lack that accompanies the Cartestian error is the struggle by conditioned consciousness to become unconditioned, autonomous or real. Anxiety ‘is generated by this fictional self-reflection for the simple reason that I do not know and cannot know what this thing I supposedly am is.’ (Loy 1996:21) The ego-self is the effort or the struggle of awareness to objectify itself in order to then grasp itself and flee from contingency and groundlessness. For the Zen practitioner, the solution to the problem of death-in-life is not a struggle against the terror of death but rather the practice of terror endured. The Zen path recommends abiding (‘sitting’) in the anguish with simple awareness. This is askēsis as embodied deconstruction, a practice dedicated to the realisation that there is no lack because there has never been any inherently existing and autonomous self that stands separate from reality, an assault on the contradictory dualistic subject-object structure of the ego in ego-consciousness. Magid (2005) describes how an experience of emptiness is simply a non-resistance to the flow and transience of our lives. In mindfulness practice, the subject watches where she resists, letting things come and go. These nodes of resistance are forms of attachment. Non-attachment is an acceptance of impermanence and non-avoidance. Magid (2005:61-62) identifies this practice with the essentials of Zen meditation:

The analysis of our resistance to change, of our unwillingness to face, accept, or mourn the impermanence or limitations of our bodies, relationships, or understanding, becomes part and parcel of what we literally sit with in the zendo[ii].

For Magid (2005a:82-83), Zen practice challenges the dualistic pictures of self and other, self and world, body and mind, inner and outer that have subtly permeated Western philosophy, including psychoanalytic therapy and theory. Zen directly confronts and destabilizes Cartesian presuppositions of the essential interiority of the self – as well as any belief in a ‘true,’ ‘inner,’ or ‘essential,’ self or nature. The true self is non self: simply the immediate, non-self centred response to life as it is.

Contemporary expressions of Buddhism, including Zen communities of practice, have carried on a sensibility for the natural world first established by Shakymuna Buddha (the historical Buddha), who began his teaching ministry by leaving home and choosing to live with his followers in the forests of Northern India. For example, Haller (2009) reported that the San Francisco Zen Centre, one of the earliest and most influential practice sites in the West, had ties with influential figures in the ecological movement from the outset, including Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, and Paul Hawken, who has jointly developed the influential concept of natural capital in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (1999) co-authored with Amory Lovins. The San Francisco Zen Centre and two associated centres, Green Gulch and Tassahara, were established in quick succession during the 1970s. Green Gulch was converted to organic production with the explicit objective of learning to live off the land, living ‘less is more’, and challenging the prevailing culture of consumerism in the US. In doing so, the Zen students, priests and monks were integrating the first wave of Western Zen practice with countercultural themes of their times, which have now become highly influential questions for the dominant economic model in advanced industrialised societies. The early practitioners had set out to use Zen to (re)discover a way of valuing the materials available to them, and appreciating that ‘each tool was worthy of mindfulness, worthy of careful attention, acknowledging that this object could be a tool for a lifetime’ (Haller 2009). Haller adds:

We were aware that the very nature of mindful engagement in what we were doing would produce an economy of use…in contrast with consumerism, which gives us this false notion that we don’t have to be careful, that there is this endless abundance…that we can just simply consume, discard and start over.(Haller 2009)

For Haller (2009) the invitation to our times is to look deeply and insightfully and investigate, with a radical honesty, which elements of the status quo continue to serve our interests. He continues: ‘What is asked of us now is to touch deeply what is important…so deeply that we’ll be willing to bring forth the effort that is required to shift.’ The primary function of Zen is not to pose an enormous philosophical question that has to be absorbed and understood. First and foremost, the simple teaching of the Zen tradition is ‘come into the moment’:

The process and practice of Zen, of how to discover the capacity to be in the moment; how to translate the intention into the lived activity – that is the process of Zen. This is why we consider it a daily practice, on an ongoing basis. (Haller 2009)

The writer Philip Pullman (2008) has observed that environmentalists, essentially, tell a story about us and themselves and our place in the universe. In this sense, environmentalism has something in common with the function of religion. Questions are posed: Why are we here? What is here, and what does it consist of? Above all, perhaps, we are confronted by the question ‘What does it mean to us to be conscious of what we are doing to the world?’

The questions posed by ecological crises are, above all, a series of provocations. That’s why writers have detected that the scale and nature of the ecological crises invite us to revisit our most basic assumptions. Žižek (1995:34) caught the mood with his suggestion that the radical character of the ecological crisis is due not only to the effective danger. What is at stake is our most unquestionable presuppositions:

…the very horizon of our meaning, our everyday understanding of “nature” as a regular, rhythmic process…( Žižek 1995:34).

Echoing Wittgenstein, Žižek concludes that the ecological crisis bites into ‘objective certainty’, into the domain of self-evident certitudes about which, within our established ‘form of life’, it is simply meaningless to have doubts. It is impossible, nevertheless, to seriously maintain today that in some very important way we do not ‘know about’ these problems, according to John Maguire (1996). Were we to decide seriously to understand and tackle them, however, we would require ‘increased amounts of (differently framed) knowledge. Maguire (1996:171) believes that what prevents us from pursuing such action and such knowledge is not plausibly a lack of data:

It is much more centrally a failure to integrate those data, a failure to make them real to ourselves, to give them the proper frame.

How we frame knowledge and, subsequently, our responses to crises can be enclosed by the very problems and problematizing frames we are seeking to address. One example has been identified by Szasz (2007), who has described a ‘consumeristic response’ in the form of an ‘inverted quarantine’[iii]. This is a hyper-individualised response to risk, which, in contrast with the response of a social movement or collective protest, retreats to an attempt to isolate or contain the individual from a ‘toxic, illness-inducing’ environment, often through acts of consumption.  What is proposed here is a very different response. With Hattam (2004) and Bachelor (1997) I want to suggest the need for tools and techniques that counter the social conditions that can undermine individuals’ attempts to integrate knowledge and make it real, through the pursuit of ethical practices. Hattan (2004) suggests that Zen meditation (with which Erich Fromm conducted an extended dialogue (Suzuki, Fromm and de Martino 1960)), for example, should be regarded as a ‘technology of self’ (Foucault 1988) and a basis for an ethico-political life consistent with a culture of opposition to the logic of consumerism. Citing Foucault’s interest in askēsis (Foucault 1985), Hattan (2004:112) continues:

These knowledges are yet to be commodified, or tamed by the human sciences, and have as their modus operandi a form of consciousness that is the antithesis of the logic of capitalism (Hattan 2004:112)

Heidegger used the word Gestell (Gelvin 1989) to conjure up the image of the technological disclosure of all things under the sway of ‘instrumental rationality’. Informed by being as technology, people force nature to conform to their subjective needs and expectations. Affluent consumers are supported by an infrastructure of well armed imagineers. Whenever nature proves unsatisfactory for human purposes, people reframe it as they see fit and are seduced by a misplaced technological optimism (‘technology will save us’) associated today with an over investment in the rhetoric of ‘decoupling’ economic activity and environmental impacts. Heidegger saw that this drive towards a technological ‘reframing’ inevitably compels entities to be revealed in inappropriate ways. These transgressions have begun to rebound in a multitude of environmental crises as the limits of natural systems are overwhelmed by a rising tide of technological hubris concealed by an ego-centric forgetfulness that the world it [the ego] encounters is but one possible forced disclosure among many possibilities. The applied psy sciences have co-emerged and subsequently conspired to accelerate a concealment of the modern subject’s forgetfulness as a state of being; undermining the potential embrace of a life lived in the immediate, non-self-centred response to life as it is. This is not a path to a denial of materialism, but a path to a new intimacy with the material world, supported by a meditative knowledge of beholding, gratitude and easy relations with the contingency and impermanence of life. It is one of the paradoxes of the ecological crisis that our future might be secured (for now) by an act of letting go of foundational assumptions designed to distance us from the underlying contingency of life. Contemporary practices of askēsis, notably Zen practice, are invitations to embody a radical honesty that can hold the practitioner in this surrender while, paradoxically, supporting a mindful intimacy with the world and others.

[i] Uta Liebman Schaub (1990) has argued that there is an ‘Orientalist sub-text’ to be found in Foucault’s earliest writings, and that a particular influence can be traced to the Mahajana Buddhist tradition associated with Nāgārjuna. In 1982 he seemed to recall his visit to Japan, in comments that paid tribute to ‘cultures of silence’ (Foucault 1988).

[ii] Zendo is the traditional Japanese term referring to the meditation room.

[iii] Szasz (2007) uses the term ‘inverted quarantine’ to contrast the consumerist response with the traditional notion of quarantine, wherein individuals are isolated in order to prevent the spread of a disease or illness and maintain healthy overall conditions. Today, that logic is inverted insofar as individuals pursue individual protection within a system that is, itself, a source of environmental and health risks.

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