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Buddhist Practice as a Method for the Analysis of Political Ideology

by Richard A. Koenigsberg

About the Author

Richard Koenigsberg received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. He is Director of the Library of Social Science.

The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution and Nationalism

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"A truly bold and provocative treatise."
    —Political Psychology

"Koenigsberg identifies core phantasies underlying modern man's 'absolute faith in the reality of the nation.' His argument possesses a relentlessly propositionally Euclidean quality. Lays a secure foundation for future work."
    —Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism

To analyze an ideology, one must establish a separate psychic location: a place within one’s mind unattached to the ideology. Some cultural theorists claim the self is nothing more than the “discourses that push and pull us.” If mind is constituted by discourse, from what psychic vantage can we begin our project of analyzing political ideologies that generate violence and destruction?

People identify deeply with ideas or cultural objects which come to constitute the essence of their self. People say I am “American”, or I am “German”, or “French”, or “British”, or “Jewish”. People declare that they are “Democrats” or “Republicans”; “progressives” or “conservatives”; on the “left” or “right”.

Ideologies are part of the fabric of culture, even as they are internalized and define who we are. We are often unaware of the presence of an ideology: how it shapes our thinking and behavior. Living within a society, it is easy to become sucked into the vortex: to allow one’s self to be defined by symbolic systems. To analyze ideologies, it is necessary to develop a methodology for separation.

Psychoanalysis was founded on listening dispassionately to the patient’s spoken words. Freud did not say much about how he developed this technique, but called it “free-floating attention.” By virtue of this method, one could enter the patient’s mind or psychic world. When we speak of a “clinical approach,” we refer to a method of observing the ideas, thoughts and emotions of an other in a non-judgmental way. The term “analytic neutrality” refers to this this balanced, non-biased approach to listening.

In the political domain, we have not developed a comparable approach. Rather, particularly in a democratic society, people are expected—often feel obligated—to “take a stand.” The ideology of democracy requires that people have “opinions.” People are encouraged to “take action.” From the perspective of democratic ideology, a posture of clinical neutrality might be considered unseemly, even heretical.

It would appear, however, that activist approaches towards ameliorating political violence have not succeeded. After the Holocaust, the phrase “never again” echoed throughout the world. Yet when new genocidal movements arose, people barely reacted. Millions of people were “against” the war in Iraq, and many protested. Nonetheless, the war was waged, in spite of these efforts.

To distance oneself from ideologies does not mean that one does not possess a value system. My work is guided by one fundamental assumption: that violent political destruction and self-destruction are not a good thing. One might approach warfare and genocide as a doctor might a patient: What is the nature and meaning of the “disease” that has been the source of such monumental destruction?

Ideologies are often at the root of political destruction and mass destruction. Human beings die and kill in the name of some idea in which they deeply believe. One may call this entity “Germany” or “France” or “communism” or “Allah”. Whatever the name, violence is undertaken in the name of defending or preserving the entity to which one is devoted.

One may say that ideology is the cause of the disease: actions that bring about suffering and death in the form of warfare, genocide and terrorism. The “cure”, therefore, revolves around understanding the meaning of these political ideologies that generate destruction. Why do human beings embrace, promote and enact such ideologies?

To accomplish this objective—to cure the disease—we need to develop methods that allow us to distance ourselves from ideologies; to disidentify. One must cultivate and nurture a part of the mind separate from that which identifies with ideologies and political discourse.

When I was in high school, I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on in the “outside world.” One teacher encouraged us to get involved in “current events.” I couldn’t understand why the fellow in front of me in homeroom wanted to read The New York Times every day. Concrete reality—sports, friends, dating, the entire Gemeinschaft society of high school—was more than enough.

Nowadays, people are plugged into current events in a radical way. The Internet—the “mass media of communication”—brings the outer world into one’s home. The messages are ubiquitous and never-ending. They flow into the self from every direction. The world of politics now seems much closer.

Given the pervasiveness and power of the media, it easy to become overwhelmed or caught up in the hysteria. Is it possible to observe and to analyze ideologies of war, genocide and terrorism without being engulfed? Is it possible to develop a methodology or psychological stance allowing for dispassionate observation and analysis?

Buddhism is a psychological practice revolving around the idea of “non-attachment.” It proposes a method that allows the self to develop distance from culture. This methodology is applicable to the study of political ideology: Buddhist practice cultivates a psychic space of distance or separateness from cultural ideals and values. By virtue of Buddhist practice, one nurtures and expands a part of the self that is separate from ideologies with which one might identify. The objective is to develop a psychic place or space that has not been colonized by the symbolic order.

In contrast to contemporary cultural theory, Buddhism seeks to discover the self in a place separate from language and symbolic systems. The Buddhist defines the self in terms of one’s relationship with concrete experience. Buddhism encourages us to focus upon—embrace—our presence within the current moment. By immersing ourselves within concrete experience, we become a witness to our mind and body. We are able to observe what is going on.

Lacan claimed that we are “subjects of the symbolic order.” Foucault argued that the mind is defined by discourse. Both emphasize the embeddedness of the individual within society or culture. It is as if there is “no place else to go.” Almost no part of the self, according to these theorists, exists outside of culture, discourse or the symbolic order.

Buddhism focuses on discovering a part of the self not bound to the symbolic order. This discovery requires a practice called meditation, which seeks the self’s detachment—separation—from culture. It is a method for disidentification. Disidentification means letting go of that with which one had identified.

Buddhist practice seeks the experience of a particular mental state called emptiness. Where emptiness is, there no ideologies shall be. Language and the symbolic order dissolve, allowing for a return to silence: the essence of being. Buddhists often compare the self to a vast, empty sky. Ideas and thoughts—even ideologies—are like passing clouds. Why cling to—identify with—a passing cloud? Clouds come and go, but the self—like the sky—remains what it is.

From the space of the empty self, one may observe ideas and beliefs—the clouds that pass through one’s mind and seek to inhabit the self. One no longer identifies with these ideas and beliefs that flow through one’s mind.

Based on Buddhist practice, we have the beginnings of a critical method for studying ideologies. This method entails nurturing a space within one’s mind that is not constituted by ideas or beliefs. One abandons cultural objects with which one had become identified. Within the space of emptiness, discourse loses its power. One is no longer a subject of the symbolic order.

Rather than identifying with language as the essence of the self, Buddhist practice embraces physical experience or proprioception as the source of being. The practice of Buddhism—meditation—revolves around sitting and breathing. One’s body becomes the infrastructure, or foundation, of existence.

“Sitting” involves the continual act of becoming aware of one’s body in its relationship to the ground. Breathing means concentrating on the muscles of one’s diaphragm as they generate breath after breath. During all of this, one is aware of everything occurring in one’s immediate environment.

According to Buddhism, the self comes into being not by virtue of one’s status as a “speaking being” but to the extent that one pays close attention to the physically present self: one’s posture and breathing. By focusing on the immediate moment—thoughts and feelings as they occur or arise—one becomes aware that one exists apart from these thoughts and feelings.

One discovers the self by virtue of the practice of mindful meditation. Contemporary social theory in France—with its emphasis upon language and symbolic processes—descends from Descartes who declared, “I think, therefore I am.” Buddha declares, “I am, therefore I think.” Buddhism proposes that it is impossible to separate mind from its location in the body. There is no “mind-body” problem in Buddhism. The mind is present within physical existence, growing out of one’s interaction with concrete experience.

Recent post-modern theory speaks of a “de-centered” self. According to this theory, there is no core of self. If we exist by virtue of identification with societal discourses, then where is the center? Buddhism does not deny the human tendency to identify with events and objects outside the self. This is called the “monkey mind.” Buddhism seeks disidentification. One comes to terms with the tendency to become decentered by working to center the self. Non-attachment means letting go of those cultural ideologies that decenter the self.

Lacanians claim that if the subject does not bind to the symbolic order, he or she is in danger of becoming become lost in a void, even psychotic. Buddhism, on the other hand, places the void at the core of psychology. Buddhism seeks to achieve emptiness: the discovery of—and capacity to rest within—an internal space not bound to the symbolic order.

Ideologies may be described as systems of belief to which the self has become glued. Achieving a state of emptiness means letting go of these “sticky attachments.” Becoming comfortable within the space of emptiness, one abandons attachment to symbolic objects that have come to dwell within the self. Emptiness is spaciousness. Where ideas were, there nothing shall be.

People attach to ideologies and cultural belief systems as if they are solid, substantial objects. This attachment is a fundamental source of political violence. People go “to the ends of the earth” to defend their own ideology: to prove it to be true. This often involves violent action against those whose beliefs seem to negate one’s own.

People take ideologies and belief systems so seriously, but their narratives (both grand and not-so-grand) collapse and crumble. Hitler’s odyssey revolved around the belief that the German nation was in a state of disintegration or decomposition. He found this unbearable. He was unable to imagine existence separated from his beloved nation.

What would it mean to allow an ideology to disintegrate? What would it mean to disidentify with sacred ideologies? Is it possible to “imagine there’s no country”?

Buddhist practice suggests that this is possible. Buddhism is the practice of non-attachment, seeking to release the self from the symbolic order. The Buddhist self strives to “abide where there is no abiding”: to remain stable when nowhere provides stability. Even as ideologies disintegrate—as the house burns down—one maintains constancy.

Analyzing political ideas that generate war, genocide and terror requires dis-identifying with them. In order to approach ideologies scientifically, one needs the capacity to experience ideologies as separate from the self.