Monday, July 01, 2013

Authenticity and Buddhism

Another article was recently published in the NY Times op-ed section on line that deserves an appropriate response, at least from a Zen Buddhist/existentialist perspective. This article is entitled "The Gospel According to Me," by two guys, on of which is a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and the other is a psychoanalyst.   That should kind of tell you the direction they're going in ...but  let me put some stuff in here to give some context:

The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being! 
Despite the frequent claim that we are living in a secular age defined by the death of God, many citizens in rich Western democracies have merely switched one notion of God for another — abandoning their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness. The latter does not make the exorbitant moral demands of traditional religions, which impose bad conscience, guilt, sin, sexual inhibition and the rest. 
Unlike the conversions that transfigure the born-again’s experience of the world in a lightning strike, this one occurred in stages: a postwar existentialist philosophy of personal liberation and “becoming who you are” fed into a 1960s counterculture that mutated into the most selfish conformism, disguising acquisitiveness under a patina of personal growth, mindfulness and compassion. Traditional forms of morality that required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity have largely collapsed and been replaced with this New Age therapeutic culture of well-being that does not require obedience or even faith — and certainly not feelings of guilt. Guilt must be shed; alienation, both of body and mind, must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work. 
Whereas the American dream used to be tied to external reality — say, America as the place where one can openly practice any religion, America as a safe haven from political oppression or America as the land of opportunity where one need not struggle as hard as one’s parents — now, the dream is one of pure psychological transformation. 
This is the phenomenon that one might call, with an appreciative nod to Nietzsche, passive nihilism. Authenticity is its dominant contemporary expression. In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now.

This seems to be written by two guys, two intellectuals, who are so detached from themselves that they don't even realize they are writing about themselves here! (Like much of this type of moral scold literature, it's written in the first person plural, but of course isn't meant to be understood to apply to the authors themselves.)  But yes, it applies obviously to them. I mean, they decry a drive towards authenticity as it leads to a breakdown of the "classical distinction between work and nonwork." Do they expect their readers to put in effort into trying to understand them,  with the hopes of profiting from their efforts? 

But that's not why I'm writing this; I'm not really writing this because these guys don't realize that this stuff applies to them. 

To the guys who wrote the article: I try to practice mindfulness and yes, to be authentic at work not because I expect to succeed as a result of that practice, but because the alternative tends to create greater despair, suffering, and intractability.  I may or may not succeed in what I do; "success" per se is not the issue, any more than mindful practice to help me deal with idiotically created traffic light patterns (or lack thereof) won't do anything to reset the traffic light patterns to give everyone all green lights.

So the rest of their argument to the extent it's coherent, falls apart from there. 

And it's not about a search for authenticity or "becoming who you are," it's about understanding  (悟り) who/what/X is authentically (or, less deeply, seeing one's True Nature)  and then appropriately acting and responding.

There are other critiques that can be made of this article, in particular, that it is absurdly indifferent to millions of underemployed Americans, it's absurdly indifferent to what are global trends in this regard, spanning the globe with the exception of Africa and some of the Islamic regions. 

It's really why media such as the Times seems to be falling on hard times.  Once this stuff could be done credibly; nowadays any ol' blogger who's read a smattering of Buddhist literature can see through this type of stuff.

Let me close with this: if you're not acting according to your conscience, acting authentically what then? You don't evade responsibility, that's for sure. People figured that out in the West kinda sorta after World War II.  You can't use the Nuremberg defense against acting according to your conscience, i.e., acting authentically.


genkaku said...

Nice one.


genkaku said...

...and I guess I should add that the words "authentic" and "authenticity" as applied to spiritual endeavor make my skin crawl.

Mumon K said...


I hear you, but if it's not authentic...or how can it not be authentic?

Thomas Armstrong said...

Ha, ha. Justin Whitaker is "collecting" just the sort of post you put up, Mumon -- perhaps in response to the NY Times article that I'm guessing he may also have read.

"What is American Buddhism?" is his query.

For me, I see a battle in US Buddhism between those who seek or favor "authenticity" [just like the word real (i.e., "real") the word authenticity (i.e. "authenticity") is best to always be corralled in quotation marks, since, well, who can know what it REALLY REALLY REALLY is.] and those who seek or favor nice [really, sticky, Hello Kitty, makes-you-vomit nice].

I judge you and me, Mumon, to be authentic. Justin Whitaker and Danny Fisher are nice, but there is hope in saving them through reprogramming and a brain scrub.

Mumon K said...


I'll have to put up something about that "American Buddhism" thing.

I think there's some "authenticity" in the nice, too; the family shame is revealed.