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A few of my favourite Buddhist stories

Posted by Realsociology on 26th October 2013

Below are a few stories and passages which illustrate some of the key aspects of Buddhism. These provide an immediate feeling for Buddhism (in no particular order), important since Buddhism stresses the importance of whole-being engagement and conscious practise rather than just mere intellectualism.

I’ve selected these stories because they’ve helped with my own understanding of the ‘spirit of Buddhism’,  and together they remind me of the following core aspects of Buddhism.

1. Buddhism is about compassion
2. Buddhism is about just being happy and at peace
3. Buddhism is about well-being, inner peace and stability
4. Buddhism is about being here, now and not running away from your problems
5. Buddhism is about paying attention to everything you do.
6. Buddhism is about realising the inconceivable
7. Buddhism is nothing special

(Two quick qualifying points: this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and these texts do have overlapping themes so might illustrate many of the key ideas below.)

(1) Kusuda The Physician (from the sotry ‘stingy in teaching’)

A young physician in Tokyo named Kusuda met a college friend who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.

“I cannot tell you what it is,” the friend replied, “but one thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die.”

“That’s fine,” said Kusuda. “I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?”

“Go to the master Nan-in,” the friend told him.

So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in.

Nan-in said: “Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat your patients with kindness. That is Zen.”

Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. “A physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of your patients.”

It was not clear to Kusuda how such teaching could remove the fear of death*. So on the forth visit he complained: “My friend told me that when one learns Zen one loses his fear of death. Each time I come here you tell me to take care of my patients. I know that much. If that is your so-called Zen, I am not going to visit you any more.”

Nan-in smiled and patted the doctor. “I have been too strict with you. Let me give you a koan.” He presented Kusuda with Joshu’s Mu to work over, which is the first mind-enlightening problem in the book called ‘The Gateless Gate’.

Kusuda pondered this problem of Mu (No-Thing) for two years. At length he thought he had reached certainty of mind. But his teacher commented: “You are not in yet.”
Kusuda continued in concentration for another year and a half. His mind became placid. Problems dissolved. No-Thing became the truth. He served his patients well and, without even knowing it, he was free from concern of life and death.

When he next visited Nan-in, his old teacher just smiled


Commentary part one

Kusuda’s ‘access’ ‘no-thing was staring him in the face every day -  all he needed to do was to ‘lose himself’ in the practise of treating his patients with compassion. This short story should serve as a reminder that many of us, in fact, have ample opportunity to practise compassion in our day to day lives. Of course contemplation of Mu may have helped, but the point is, Kusuda was not living a robe wearing monk, initiated into any special sect, his life was nothing special’. In other words, there is no ‘great secret’ to Zen Buddhism. Developing the genuine intention of kindness is sufficient to release yourself from the fear of death  (*fear of death is one of the basic forms of suffering, one of the basic elements of our ordinary mundane existence).

Commentary part two

The importance of compassion is most commonly emphasised in The Tibetan Buddhist tradition, expressed below by The Dalai Llama:

‘Mental states such as kindness and compassion are definitely very positive. They are very useful… I would regard a compassionate, warm, kind-hearted person as healthy. If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door… You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, as you are able to relate to them much more easily. That gives you a spirit of friendship. Then there’s less need to hide things, and as a result, feelings of fear, self doubt and insecurity are automatically dispelled… I think that cultivating positive mental states like kindness and compassion definitely leads to better psychological health and happiness.’

Cutler, H. and The Dalai Lama, 1999 (p28)

(2) Take my Hand -  A Poem by Thich Nhat Hanh

Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will enjoy our walk,
without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Walk peacefully.
Walk happily.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.

Thich Nhat Hanh (2011)


The simplicity of this poem speaks volumes. It is a perfect reminder that Buddhism is about peaceful contentment with whatever it is you find yourself doing, in this case walking:

Walk for the sake of walking, walk peacefully, walk happily, and do so in peaceful companionship with others. Walk, just walk.

(3) Matthieu Ricard’s ‘ocean analogy’

About five minutes in Ricard says…..

‘Well being is not just a pleasurable sensation, it is a deep sense of serenity and fulfilment: a state that underlies all emotional states, and pervades all the joys and sorrows which can come one’s way.  Look at the waves coming at the shore. When you are at the bottom of the wave you hit the bottom, you hit the solid rock, when you are surfing on the top you are all elated, so you go from elation to depression, there’s no depth. Now if you look at the high sea, there might be a beautiful calm ocean like a mirror, there might be storms, but the depth of the ocean is still there, unchanged.’


Here, Matthieu Ricard (2004) contrasts the analogy of waves breaking on a shore to the calmness of the deeper ocean to distinguish western notions of happiness from Buddhist notions. Ricard characterises the western notion of happiness as involving ‘doing something pleasurable’ which is analogous to surfing on the crest of a wave, but at other less-pleasurable times, we might be having our heads smashed against a rock onthe shore-line. Whereas in Buddhism, we are striving to develop a characteristic of mind that is more like the deeper ocean rather than the shoreline. Although there are still peaks and troughs of waves, out in the deep, the depths remain undisturbed. It is this deep and stable peace that we are striving for in Buddhism, a stable condition of mind that pervades and enables us to endure all emotional states, all the joys and sorrows that come one’s way.

(4) That’s Not Your Door

In Zen monasteries you must pay constant attention to what you are doing. All your activities are prescribed, and they’re carried out in deliberate stillness. After a time, this can get to you (as it did to one particular zen student) who went to see the master and said.

‘I can’t take this any more, I want out’

The master said ‘O.K, then leave’

As he started for the door the teacher said ‘that’s not your door’

Oh! Sorry.’ The startled fellow looked around and spotted a second door. As he headed for it the teacher said ‘That’s not your door’

‘Oh!’ He looked around for another door. He could see that behind the teacher was a little door normally used by the teacher’s attendant. As he headed for that door the teacher screamed at him ‘That’s not your door!’

Totally bewildered and exasperated, the poor fellow said. ‘What do you mean? There’s no other door! You told me I could leave, but there’s no door I can leave by!’

”If there’s no door you can leave by,’ said the teacher ‘then sit down’.

Hagan, S (1999, 34-5)


Wherever you go, there you are. We’re always here, Examine your life and you’ll see this is the case. The master’s ‘sit down’ means to start paying attention to what’s actually going on, rather than running away from it. Right here, and right now, whatever it is you are experiencing, that is the thing to pay attention to. That is Buddhism, plain and simple.

(5) Every Minute Zen

Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”

Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.


Buddhism is about paying attention when you are in formal meditation, you must pay attention in day to day life, to whatever it is you are doing, even the most mundane and ‘in-between’ activities. In fact, paying attention to the ‘in-between bits can be very useful practise, given that they actually make up several minutes, sometimes hours in our day. The Venerable Soto recommends paying attention to opening and closing doors, given this is one of those times when we are most likely to be thinking of something else (i.e. what is through the door); Thich Nhat Hanh once made a ‘pact with a staircase’ and every time he now climbs or descends stairs he is careful to do so mindfully.

(6) The Flower Sermon

One problem with any discussion about the nature of Enlightenment is that Enlightenment is something which transcends conceptualisation, and thus the actual experience of it cannot be expressed in words.  This is illustrated in the The Flower Sutra, within the Zen tradition which stresses wordless insight more than most other types of Buddhism.

Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching. But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water. The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching. When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak.

“What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

Mahakashyapa became Buddha’s successor from that day forward.


Commentary (by Zen Master Bon Haeng)

The Buddha was teaching about the essential nature of reality, an essence not separate from the everyday. It’s the essence we can experience of any and every thing, of every moment. It is just “thus!” Sometimes it’s called “thusness.” This experience is truly indescribable. It doesn’t need to be described because there’s nothing lacking. No words are needed and no words are adequate. This is a taste of “thusness,”…. You could say it’s the essence of life or of awareness, expressed in breath and consciousness and time and you all as one complete perfect moment.


(7) Nothing Special – From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

If you continue this simple practice (zazen), you will obtain some wonderful power Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special. Strictly speaking, for a human being there is no other practice than this practice. Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature.

While you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year your experience will become deeper and deeper, your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life.. The most important thing is to forget alll gaining ideas, all dualistic ideas. In other words, just practixe zazen in a certain posture. Do not think about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything. The eventually you will resume your own true nature. That is to say, your own true nature resumes itself.

Suzuki, S, 1998 (pp46-48)


Shunryu Suzuki single-handedly brought Zen to the West, and his life and words he emphasised the utter simplicity of Zen practice. Sitting in quiet meditation, giving yourself to your breath, just sitting there, is the core practise in Zen Buddhism. The problem with just sitting there is that it is too easy to fall into the habit of ‘trying to get somewhere’ or ‘praising yourself for getting it right’ or ‘imagining luminescent states’ which, actually, is differing to just sitting there. However, Enlightenment is both wonderful and nothing special, which is different to sitting there thinking how special the inexperience is.

Hence why, as outlined in the very first section of his book (and his only book), just to take this posture (properly) and focus on the breath (attentively) and just sit there, without any gaining thought, this is all you need to do and not-do, this is the conclusion of Buddhism.


Hagan, S (1999) Buddhism Plain and Simple, London: Penguin

Howard C. Cutler and His Holiness The Dalai Lama, (1999) The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Mobius.

Ricard, M, (2007) Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Atlantic Books

Suzuki, S (1998) Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, New York: Weatherhill

Thich Nhat Hanh (2011) The Long Road Turns To Joy: A Guide To Walking Meditation, Parallex Press, Berkeley, California.

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‘Buddhist Sociology’ by Inge Bell – A summary

Posted by Realsociology on 24th October 2013

Summary of Bell, I.P (1979) “Buddhist Sociology: Some Thoughts on the Convergence of Sociology and Eastern Paths of Liberation” in Scott G. McNall, ed. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: St Martin’s Press.

I haven’t done any commentary on this yet, but I thought I’d get this summary out anyway…

The first explicit call for a ‘Buddhist Sociology’ was made by Inge Bell (1979) who suggested that an examination of sociology from within the perspective of the ‘eastern  disciplines’ could  challenge some of the theoretical assumptions of Sociology,  inform research methods, and contribute to a critique of the profession itself.

Buddhist challenges to sociological notions of socialisation

In contrast to sociology’s view of socialisation as a mainly positive process, Bell conceputalised the realisation of Enlightenment as a process of desocialisation in which the individual unlearns everything society has taught them, including dualisms such as good and evil, subject and object, casting the enlightened being as one who, having gone through the process of desocialisation, was free to deviate from social norms and, able to see the world afresh without human concepts.

Bell further suggested that the process of realising Satori, or Enlightenment did not involve resocialisation, a process instead variously described as ‘assimilating a thought system which denies the validity of all thought systems; ‘regaining the qualities of childhood’, and ‘experiencing an expansive, unlimtied state of existence in which ‘every deed expresses originality, creativity…. [in which there is] no conventionality, creativity, no inhibitory motivation….’

Bell however did not entirely dismiss the utility of Socialisation, and accepted that there were some posiitve aspects, such as learning  language, learning to use technology and learning basic social codes, which she contrasted to ‘dangerous’ aspects of socialisation which were those tied to and generated by conern for the fate of the self, such as ideas about the afterlife; beliefs that one can be immortalised through celebrity, myths which justify the will to power, and the master illusion of the self as seperate from its environment.

Buddhist challenges to sociological conceptions of the self

Bell congratulated sociologists such as Mead and Bulmer for recognising that socialisation normally results in the creation of an ideal social-self, which is seperate from the ‘subjectively experienced self’, and that emotional problems such as anxiety can emerge when the ideal self and the ‘me’ don’t converge, but went on to criticise them for viewing the ideal-self as a necessary construction and a legitimate structure without which the individual could not function socially, and one which enabled goal-oriented behaviour, underlying a growth-process.

Bell contrasted this to the ‘Eastern view’ according to which the self is not a fixed entity, rather only a series of occurances and experiences,  and as such ‘I’ am merely a process, a continuous creation and re-creation, changing as ‘I’ enter each social situation. In such a view subjective reflections on one’s ‘ideal-self’ merely represent a refusal to accept reality fully (and thus one has to question the validity of engaging in depth-studies of the constructions of such ficticious selves)

Bell suggested that Peter Berger’s micro-analysis of the self came closest to Buddhist conceptions of the self, evidenced in such lines as ‘deception and self-deception are at the very heart of social reality….. in the end we must return to the nightmare moment when we feel ourselves stripped of all names and identities’, but criticised Berger for seeeing the proccess of realising one’s lack of self’ as a wholly negative process.

As a way of overcoming the attendent fear at the ‘death of the self’ Bell argued that we should incorporate the possibility of an Enlightened being into Sociological analysis, a being who plays many roles but does not use them to confer a sense of self; and one who has seen through the view that the self is normal and inevitable, but none the less goes on as before, but does so with a sense of lightness.

Finally in this section, Bell pointed out that incorporating an Eastern sense of self into the sociological imagination would help us realise that there is something more valuable than the conceptualising, knowledge creating ntellect, called basic intelligence, which is our ability to perceive and deal with reality without reference to accumulated knowledge.

A Buddhist contribution to methods

In a relatively short section on Metholodogy, Bell suggested that the Eastern paths could offer social researchers a  potential way of going beyond the distortions which arise because of self-interest and to engage in genuinley value-free research.

She celebrated Mannheim, Mills and Gouldner for their realisation that to do so man must understand his own position in history and how this shapes perception, but then argued that intellect alone was not enough to lift us above our values. To illustrate this, she cited the example of Mannheim (Ideology and Utopia) who, having developed an analysis of how social position formed ideology, went on to evelate his own class, the ‘social intelligensia’ to the position of the only group in society capable of seeing objectively.

Bell concluded that self-interest is rooted not in intellect, but in emotion, and so in order to transcend self-interest, we need detachment from our emotions, and ultimately to detach ourselves from self. She went on to say that enlightenment must revolutionise the practise of Sociology, which to my mind implies that Bell was suggesting that some form of spiritual training towards self-transcendence is necessary to realise a truly value-free sociology.

Toward an Enlightened Sociology

In this section, Bell vents her frustration at the fact that Sociology has almost nothing to say about how students might actually live in order to raise the quality of their lives, and that this should be remedied by restoring teaching, and personal contact between teacher and student as a central value of the profession in order to encourage students to engage in ‘enlightened self appraisal’.

She suggests that the teaching of Sociology would be most useful if it focused on encouraging students to reflect on what can be changed, as well as offering adivse on how to cope with what cannot be changed. Bell believed that at the root of all of this lay a deep-appraisal of the universe and one’s place in it, which meant getting over the notions that ‘good’ is whatever contributes to ‘my happiness and security’ and ‘bad’ is whatever threatens these things.

As a means to develop such an outlook, she suggested that the teaching of Sociology should focus on developing students’ empathetic understanding, rooted in cultural relativism which could be promoted  in a number of ways: students might be required to live in some unfamiliar part of society for a year, they might be guided into what she calls ‘sociadrama’, involving taking on the roles of others, as well as visits from various people.

Toward a Practicing Sociology

In this section Bell criticised the profession of Sociology, on a number of grounds for being full of ideas about reforming society, but making little connection between these ideas and their day-to-day actions. She cites as examples:

  • Theorising about community while junior colleagues suffer from insecure positions.
  • Moaning about inequality while thinking their own students are unworthy of their attention.
  • Claiming to be concerend with improving society yet being primarily concerend with career advancement
  • Supporting the competitive system of publish-or-perish which leads to a obstructive body of material that demeans those who write.

Ultimately Bell argued that the problem of professional Sociology was that it demythologised American culture, only to replace it with the myth of ‘academaya’, where the professional role was one of striving, competing and deadly seriousness. She saw all of this as a highly developed form of concern with the ego which propogated the idea of goal-orientation as the only possible mode of human conduct. In Bell’s own words…. ‘we enlighten our students to the edge of liberation only to ensnare them again in the authority structure of the acadamy and the related professions’.


Bell, I.P (1979) “Buddhist Sociology: Some Thoughts on the Convergence of Sociology and Eastern Paths of Liberation” in Scott G. McNall, ed. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Posted in Buddhism, But what can I do?, Sociological Theory | No Comments »

Who are you? (Laughter)

Posted by Realsociology on 5th October 2013

The video below shows a number of people laughing when asked the question ‘who are you’? (1.55)


These people are all highly respected, typically well- educated (in the formal sense of the word) teachers from a range of different spiritual traditions (most, if not all wiill be in attendance at the Science and Nonduality conference 2013 - SAND honors and nurtures the exploration and experience of nonduality as a pathway to greater wisdom and wellbeing in the context of the unique challenges of the 21st century.

Their laugh-response to the question of ‘who are you’ reminded me of a line in Paul Willis’ 1977 classic, Learning to Labour. Just in case you don’t know this off by heart…..  Willis discusses role that messing around and ‘avin a laff’ play in the counter-school-culutre, concluding that ’the laugh confronts the command’. Willis argues that the laugh is a collective response to what the lads see as a ludicrous situation – school tells them to study seriously to prepare themselves for middle class jobs, but the lads have already decided they want ‘proper’ manual jobs that don’t require qualifications, and even if they did try to take school seriously, they’ve penetrated the truth of the situation and realised schools are middle class institutions, so the odds are stacked against them. In such a ludicrous situation what can you do but laugh at it?*

Obviously there are differences in the laughter in video above (it’s individualised, not collective; it’s not overtly challlenging authority in an ‘in your face way’; and it’s extremely middle class and not at all laddish) but a little analysis drags out a few parallels too. To my mind, their laughter when asked ‘who are you’ says ‘what a ludicrous question’, and it’s ludicrous because the subject of the question, ‘you’, or rather ‘I’ is an illusion. Most of these people have been through an intense and long process of introspetion, realised this, and come out the other side, and now they laugh at the question.

Given that the laughter above stems from a realisation that there is ‘no-I’, such laughter oould also form the basis for confronting the ultimate command in a postmodern consumer culture – the command to ‘express yourself’, the command to expend a huge amount of money and effort on perpetually reinventing and presenting your constructed-self, the command to avoid looking into the true nature of your ‘self’ and ‘working through’ the realisation that there is nothing there.

Furthermore, this laughter reminds us of two things, especially important in a culture of intellectualism – Firstly, simply the importance of asking meaningful questions. Secondly, answering meaningful questions requires going beyond the intellect, to a place of lived experience, and the process of coming back and re-engaging with an intellectual culture and attempting to render such experiences into concepts will probably be easier (at least less fraught) if one maintains a sense of humour.

*Finally I should just mention that just like the lads’ realisation that school was a middle class institution didn’t really help them achieve a good ‘quality of life’ in the long-term, an initial realisation the ‘truth of no-I’ at a relatively superficial level (that’s all I’ve managed) probably won’t result in your walking around in a perpetual state of bliss-consciousness, that will take a good deal more right effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Related Posts

David Loy (who features in the video above) on our fear of existing

Posted in Alternatives, Buddhism, But what can I do?, Postmodernism, Things I like, What is Sociology? | No Comments »

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity – Chapter One

Posted by Realsociology on 1st October 2013


Chapter One – Emancipation

168787The chapter begins with Marcuse’s complaint that, by the mid 1970s, most people didn’t see the need to be liberated from society, fewer were prepared to act on that wish, and in any case no one was certain how that liberation might differ from the then current social situation.

Next Bauman outlines his conception of liberation, noting that ‘to feel free means to experience no hindrance, obstacle, resistance or any other impediment to the moves intended or desired’. He then argues, following Schopenhauer, that feeling free from constraint means reaching a balancing act between one’s wishes (or imagination) and the stubborn indifference of the world to one’s intentions. This balance might be achieved in two ways – through either expanding one’s capacity to act or through limiting one’s desires (imagination).

Distinguishing between these two strategeis to empancipation makes possible the distinction between subjective (to do with how one perceives the ‘limits’ to one’s freedom), and objective freedom (pertaining to one’s capacity to actually act). This highlights the fact that people may not be objectively free but feel free because they either fail to realise they are not free, or, more worryingly in Bauman’s mind, because they dislike the idea of freedom given the hardships that come along with that freedom, which brings him onto the ‘mixed blessings of freedom’…

(P18) The mixed blessings of freedom

This section begins with an episode from the Odyssey in which Odysseus manages to trap a sailor who had been turned into a hog by Circe. Odyssues (through the use of a maginal herb) manages to release the sailor from his betwitchment. However, the released sailor, Elpenoros, is far from greatful who complains

‘So you are back you busybody? Again you want to nag and pester us, to expose our bodies to dangers and force our hearts to take ever new decisions? I was so happy, I could wallow in the mud and bask in the sunshine, I could gobble and grunt and squeak, and be free from doubts… Why did you come? To fling me back into the hateful life I led before?’

Bauman now poses two questions (NB this isn’t that clear from the writing!) – Firstly, why has freedom been slow to arrive? Secondly why, when freedom does arrive, is it so often seen as a curse?

Bauman explores one possible answer to the first question, which is that men are not ready for freedom. These types of answer tend to be accompanied by either pity for the men duped out of their freedom or anger at the masses unwilling to take up their liberty. Such answers are also accompanied by attempts to explain why men do not perceive the need to be free, with the blame being laid variously (by other commentators) at a modern culture which replaces ‘having’ with ‘being’; the embourgeoisement of the underdog, or a culture industry which makes us thirst for entertainment rather than spiritual fulfilment.

A possible answer to the second question (the answer that Elpenoros would have given) is that men are not prepared to face liberty because of the hardships it brings. This type of answer criticises libertarian notions of Freedom such as those outlined by the likes of Charle’s Murray in which happiness is related to individual resourcefulness. Murray argues that what fills an event with satisfaction is that ‘I’ did it, but this is flawed, Bauman points out, because being thrown back on one’s own resources also portends a paralysing fear of risk and failure without the right to appeal and seek redress.

On a personal note, I would generally agree with this critique of libertarian notions of freedom. The thought of working on projects such as moving house, or clearing my allotment,or, on a larger scale, building an eco-village are much less daunting, and actually only made possible with the co-operation of others.

Bauman now draws on the legacy of Hobbes and Durkehim to argue that we are right to be sceptical about the benefits of libertarian notions of freedom. He seems to sympathetic with the Durkheimian idea that a degree of social coercion is actually an emancipatory force. To quote Durkheim:

‘The individual submits to society and this submission is the condition of his liberation. For man freedom consists of deliverance from blind, unthinking physical forces; he achieves this by oppossing against them the great and intelligent force of society, under whose protection he shelters. By putting himself under the wing of society, he makes himself also, to a certain extent, dependent upon it, But this is a liberating dependence, there is no contradition in this.’

In other words, there is no other way to achieve freedom other than to submit to the norms of society – the individual needs society to be free. Total freedom from society means a perpetual agony of indecision and uncertainty about the will of those around you, whereas patterns and routines condenscend by social pressures give us roadmarkings, inform us how to act, give us a sense of certainty in this life.

Bauman now outlines arguements which support the view that an element of routine is necessary, citing Fromm’s notion that we need certainy, Richard Sennet’s notion of character, and Gidden’s concept of habit.

Having established that the individual needs some sense of norms, some sense of routine to ground himself, Bauman rounds of this section by introducing one of the central problems of living in a post-modern society – that such norms and routines are much less stable than they once were. Citing Deleuze and Guatari’s and Alain Touraine’s ideas he points out that the time has come when we no longer have a social definition of the self, and individuals are expected to define themselves in terms of their own pyschological specifity and not society or universal principles.

The individual has already been granted all of the freedoms he could have ever dreamed of, and that our social instiutions are more than willing to cede the worries of self-definition to individuals, while universal principles which might guide our lives are hard to find.

Bauman rounds off this section by suggesting that Marcuse’s pining for communitarianism is outdated because there is no social aspect in which we can re-route the individual, all that is left is the psychologist’s couch and motel beds. The individual has become disembedded and there is nowhere to reembed.

(p22) The fortuities and changing fortunes of critique

Bauman’s main point here is that our society is still hospitable to critique, but the focus of critique has shifted from criticising society and positing viable ways of changing that society to ourselves and our life-politics. Today, we are reflexive beings who constantly question what we are doing and express disatisfaction with various aspects of our lives.

The problem is that at the same time as us becoming more self-critical, we have lost control over the agenda which shapes our life-politics. Our reflexivity is shallow, it does not extend in any meaningful sense to our having control over the system in which we are embdded.

There is a parellel here between the individual in a state of constant disaffection with the Buddhist notion of the indivudal being in a constant state of Dukkha, the feeling that something is just not quite right with one’s self. The difference in the two conceptions, however, is that in Bauman’s conception of the self, the disaffection emerges because of the individual’s social disembeddedness, while in Buddhism, it is part of the human condition itself, a universal personal experience that emerges because of the delusion of the true nature of non-self

Bauman now provides a ‘caravan park’ analogy to describe the way we tend to interact with society today. According to Bauman, we are mostly content to limit our concerns to what goes on in our own individual caravans, and we only want to engage with other caravan dwellers occassionally and in a non-commital manner, reserving the right to up and leave when we choose. We only ever complain about the caravan park when certain services break down, such as the electricity or water supply, otherwise we are happy to let it run itself, without feeling any need to to commit to it, or question the way it is run the way it is. (I like this analogy so much, I reproduced the full version in a recent post – one or two earlier from this).

This is very different to the type of social engagement that was the norm when Adorno developed his critical theory. At that time, Bauman suggests, many more people treated society as if it were their house, and they the house-dwellers and, feeling as if it were their house, they acted within it as if they were permanent residents who could, if necessary, alter the structure of that house.

Moving onto one of the central themes in Bauman’s work, he now argues that this changing mood of critical engagenment with society (or lack of it) is because of the shift from heavy to light modernity which has resulted in a profound transformation of public space and, more generally, in the fashion in which the modern society works and perpetuates itself.

Bauman notes that Heavy modernity was endemically pregnant with the possibility of totalitarianism – the threat of an enforced homogeneity, the enemy of contingency, vareity and ambiguity. The principal icons of the era were the Fordist factory, with its simple routines, and bureaucracy, in which identities and social bonds meant nothing. The methods of control in this period were the pantopticon, Big Brother and the Gulag. It was in this period of history that the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley made sense to people (which they do not any longer) and that the defense of individual autonomy and creativity against such things as mass culture offered by critical theory appealed to a wide body of citizens.

However, in Liquid Modernity, we are no longer constrained by industry, bureacracy and the panopticon, no longer does Orwell’s dystopia seem possible. Liquid Modern society, however, is no less modern than it was 100 years ago, because it is still obsessed with modernising, with creative destruction… with phasing out, cutting out, merging, downsizing, dismantling, becoming more productive or competitive, and something else which is continuous with heavy modernity is that fulfilment is always somewhere in the future

But two things make the Liquid Modern Era different to the Heavy Modern Era: –

Firstly, there is the end of the idea of perfectibility. We no longer believe that there will be an end to the process of modernisation – it has become a perpetual process.

Secondly, we are now expected to find individual solutions to our problems. Gone is the idea that reason applied to social organisation can improve our lilves, gone is the ideal of the just society. No longer are we to solve our problems collectively through Politics (with a capital P), but it is put upon the individual tolook to themselves to solve their life-problems, or to improve themselves.

(p30) The Individual in Combat with The Citizen

Bauman starts off with something of a homage to Norbert Elias (and fair play, History of Manners was a terrific read!) for shifting the dualist sociological discourse of self-society to one which focuses on a ‘society of individuals.’

Casting members as individuals is the tade mark of modern soceity and this casting is an activity re-enacted daily. Modern society exists in its incessant activity of ‘individualising’. To put it in a nutshell, individualisation consists of transforming human identity from a given into a task and charging actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (also the side effects) of their actions.

Bauman now points to another difference between heavy and liquid modernity. In the period of ‘heavy modernity’, having been disembedded from previous social-locations, people sought to re-embed themselves in society, through, for example, identifying as a member of a stable social class. By contrast, in today’s modernising society, we have no stable beds for re-embedding, we just have musical chairs, and so people are constantly on the move. In the liquid modern world, there is no end of the road, nowhere for us to ‘re-embed’.

Having established what individualisation is, Bauman now goes on to make three further points –

  1. In the age of liquid modernity the option to escape individualisation and to refuse to participate is not on the agenda -Individualisation is not a choice – to refuse to participate in the game is not an option.

  2. In the Liquid Modern society, how one lives becomes a biographical solution to systemic contradictions – risks and contradictions go on being socially produced; it is just the duty and the necessity to cope with them which are being individualised.

  3. A gap is growing between individuality as fate and the ability for genuine self-assertion. The self-assertive capacity of men and women falls short of what genuine self-constiution would require..

Bauman now distinguishes between the citizen and the person – the former seeks their well-being in the city (read ‘society’), while the later is unconcerned with collective well-being. and basically makes the arguement that part of individualisation is the ending of citizenship

Another unforunate aspect of the Liquid Modern era is that, rather than being used to discuss public issues, public space is brimming with private problems – where people’s individual problems and their individualised biographical solutions are discussed, without any consideration of the social conditions which gave rise to those problems.

Bauman rounds off this section by pointing out that in today’s society, the chances of being re-embedded are thin, and this means that new communities are wandering and fragile, and he alludes to the fact that newly-emerging networks with low commitment are not sufficient to empower individuals.

 He ends with a rather bleak quote from Beck ‘On the Mortality of Industrial Society’… ‘

What emerges from the fading social norms is naked, frightened aggressive ego, in search of love and help. In the search for itself and an affectionate sociality, it easily gets lost in the jungle of the self.. Someone who is poking around in the fog of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isoloation, this solitary confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence’.

(p38) The Plight of Critical Theory in the Society of Individuals

The modernising impulse means the compulsive critique of reality, and the privatisation of that impluse means compulsive self-critique, and perpetual self-disafection. It means that we look harder and harder at how we can improve ourselves.

I’m in two minds about what to make of Baumans idea of perpetual disafection – On the one hand I’m impressed by the sympathy for the basic plight of the individual – it is, after all, an experience of the perpetual suffering that accompanies the human condition; on the other hand I’m concerned that what Bauman’s going to try and argue later on is that this disafection wil disappear once individuals gain some greater degree of control over the process of their self determination. In Buddhism, the fact the individual seeks to self-determine in the first place is the source of the disafection, so this diisafection won’t be remedied through merely reinventing one’s relations with one’s social context (although this is part of the process in Buddhism – through right livelihood) – this disafection is probably better seen as individuals en masse realising their true nature – and this disafection needs a deeper solution, which will combine the various factors found in the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem with this is that there are no ‘biographical solutions’ to systemic contradictions – except for imaginery ones, and as a result, there is a need for us to collectively hang our fears on something – and so we scapegoat ‘strangers’, and go along with moral panics, it is these kind of fears which fill the public space voided of properly public concerns.

The job of critical theory is now to repopulate the public sphere – to bring back politics with a capital P – to bring back the two groups of actors who have retreated from it – The person and the elite.

People do not engage because they see the public sphere as merely a space in which to private troubles without manking any ‘public connections’. The elite meanwhile now exist in ‘outer space’ and remain for the most part invisible, their favourite strategic principles being escape, avoidance and disengagement.

The job of critical theory is to figure out how to empower individuals so they have some level of control over the resources which they require for genuine self-determination.

(p41) Critical Theory Revisited

Bauman starts with a section devoted to Adorno’s view that the act of thinking is itself freedom, but that any attempt to give thoughts a market value threatens the genuine value of thought.

He then talks about the tension between ‘the cleanliness of pure philosophy’ – drawing on the notion of the withdrawn intellectual contemplating life and refining systems of thought and the problem of then applying the ‘truthes’ found to the ‘dirty business’ of getting involved with the world of politics as one attempts to enact one’s ideas. He essentially argues that thought in isolation from society is useless – In order for it to have any value at all, thought has to be applied to society.

Bauman concludes this section by pointing out that the unfortunate corolloray of this is that whatever truthes come to power will inevitably be tainted by those in power.

(p48) A critique of life-politics

In this summative section Bauman points out again that it is up the individual as an isolated actor to themselves find individualised solutions to social problmes… He points to a range social situations, from us being called upon to adapt to neoliberal flexibalisation at work, to our efforts in seeking romance, and he rounds of my reminding us that any search for liberation today requires more not less public sphere, so any critical theory today must start from a critique of life-politics – a crique of the paucity of individualised solutions to systemic contraditions.

And 3,2,1 drag - that's a wrap.

And 3,2,1 drag – that’s a wrap!


Bauman, Z (2000) Liquid Modernity, Polity Press.


Posted in Buddhism, My 'life', Neoliberalism, Sociological Theory, Things I like | No Comments »

Three Buddhist Inspired New Year’s Resolutions

Posted by Realsociology on 1st January 2013

1. Be mindful

2. Be compassionate

3. If you fail at either of these, just try again

(Not necessarily in that order, and with thanks to The Buddha etc.)

Posted in Buddhism, But what can I do?, My 'life' | No Comments »

Why our obsession with self-expression is ridiculous

Posted by Realsociology on 13th May 2012

As a society we are obsessed with expressing ourselves, thinking that our happiness depends on our ability to do so. Here’s why I think ‘playing the game of self-expression’ won’t make you happy.

Self expression is closely related to self-construction, and by this I mean the reflexive process of actively picking, choosing and attaching myself to those objects, people and activities which ‘I’ think are desirable and developing a notion and coming to understand ‘myself’ as something tangible and meaningful which is fundamentally tied up with these things. The expressive element of self-construction involves any means whereby you ‘communicate’ something about yourself to the world: It is that process of reflecting on what you like and dislike about the actions, aspirations and opinions of others, and then identifying with or against some of these actions, aspirations and opinions, and finally deciding which of these is identifications is worth ‘shouting about’ – hence expressing yourself.[1]

What I refer to as ‘the game of self-expression’ is widely celebrated in modern Britain. We see its practise in both the public and private realms of the tangible social world, from the high street and the night club, to our living, dining and bedrooms; and we see it in the hyperreal domains of virtual worlds, from the professionally orchestrated world of popular culture to the user-generated world of Facebook. There are many different ‘selves’ out there being expressed and many numerous ways of expressing ‘one’s self’ – but the message is clear, whatever self-identity you choose to construct, and by whatever means you choose to express it – you should express that self loud and clear for others to see.

Our culture compels us to express ourselves – Our very happiness seams to rest on our ability to not only figure out ‘who’ we are, but also, crucially, on our ability to adopt successful strategies for  proclaiming this unto the world – happiness lies in self-expression, misery in self-chastity. This notion of self-expression as being crucial to human happiness is something that goes largely unquestioned. In fact, the very discourse of happiness is infused with the ideology of self-expression – One of the most widely accepted indicators of happiness is the extent to which you are free to express your ‘true self’.

For many of us, our unconscious ‘vision of happiness’ is of someone actively engaged in an activity that involves them vivaciously ‘expressing themselves’ – Media types singing, dancing and having a jolly good time on the studio set being one archetype, but at a more mundane level this might involve visions of oneself engaging whatever leisure activities reflects one’s own personal preferences –sport, art, dance, holidaying, religion, politics, or a more exciting mixture of any of the above. Conversely, we pity those who are not free to express themselves – Everyone from veiled Muslim women to Mummy’s boys whose identities have been stifled by motherly love; we pity them, because they have been cut off from playing the game of self-expression.

In fact, so integral is ‘the self’ to our notions of happiness, that the very act of ‘constructing myself’ is itself is viewed as something that makes one happy – This could mean shopping for clothes, the hour or more ritual of getting ready to go out, which effectively involves painting a particular ‘image’ on oneself, or it might mean the more ‘day to day’ business of updating one’s Facebook status. So crucial is our success at expressing a social identity to our happiness, that there is even an industry built up around it – of personal shoppers, body language experts and life-coaches and so dominant is the idea that ‘constructing and expressing the self is crucial to happiness, that an inability to ‘successfully express oneself’ is seen as a reason for failure in all sorts of fields of life – most egregiously in pop programmes such as the X factor where one of the criteria fledging stars are judged on is their ability to ‘express their personality’ through their music, while back in the mundane world, some of us may fail in everything from job interviews to first dates because of our inability to express ourselves as someone worth knowing, irrespective (crucially) of who we really are.

The dominance of the ‘discourse of self expression is evident in the incredible array of ‘techniques of self expression’ that is available to us to ‘express ourselves’ – We find its logic in fashion, which has to be the most publically visible and the most obvious example of how we express ourselves – Many of us buy clothes not just for their functionality, but to say something about ourselves – or at the very least to ‘fit in’ with image-trends. Similarly, the houses in which we live are not just vessels to keep us warm and dry – they are vessels in which we store stuff that tells the story of ourselves – many of us live as if someone were going to look ‘through the keyhole’ – dressing up our living rooms, bedrooms, and even our kitchens, with objects that express something about ‘myself’.

I could spend pages listing the vast array of objects that are used to the ends of self expression, suffice to say for now there are many, and to just briefly comment on how far this logic of self expression has penetrated – even into the realms of our personal lives where relationships and family lives themselves have increasingly become about ‘self-expression’ – Consider how much time couples spend clothes shopping, decorating their house, or preparing themselves for evenings out – mutually reflecting on how best to express themselves as a ‘couple’.

It is hard to dispute the centrality of ‘the game of self-expression’ to modern social life, and it is similarly hard to dispute the notion that many of us expend considerable time, money and effort in both constructing and expressing ourselves in the belief that this effort will make us happy. Unfortunately, while our expressive indulgences might well make my believed to be tangible constructed self temporarily happy, in the long term, playing this game is more likely to perpetuate ignorance and misery.


Why ‘playing the game of self-expression’ won’t make you happy

Here I select three reasons why playing the game of self expression is unlikely to lead to true happiness. The first reason is that it perpetuates ignorance of the true nature of self, the second is that it encourages selfishness rather than compassion and the third reason is that it encourages fear and anxiety because of the contingent nature of ‘game’.

Firstly, and most importantly, playing the game of self-expression won’t make you happy because it contradicts the truth of the insubstantiality of self. In short, there is no essential self to express and thus constructing and expressing a self is merely an expression your denial or, more likely, ignorance of this truth.

From the point of view of Buddhism, all of futile hours you spend constructing and expressing your identity – all of those hours spent choosing your clothes, cultivating your special friendships, advancing your hobby and updating your Facebook page, all of this is nothing other than the projections of a deluded mind that is not at peace with itself and its true nature. Worse, not only is this practice the symptom of a deluded mind, it is also likely to lead to the perpetuation of this ignorance – because all of the time you spend reflexively constructing and expressing your social self, you are distracted from looking inwards, and quietly realising, through direct and immediate experience that you, the constructor, has no essential nature to express.

Secondly, happiness is unlikely to be forthcoming because the process of self expression is, by definition, inherently selfish, which is the antithesis of compassion. It is selfish because it presumes attention from others – An assumption that other people will give up their time to muse upon your constructed (and, remember, not really existent) identity. We dress a particular way, drive a particular car, or update our Facebook page expecting others to notice us – and the closer the ‘other’ to us, the more feedback we expect about the identities we express. The danger here is that if we receive attention, especially positive attention, from others about ‘my identity’ then all this will do is reinforce the deluded notion that ‘I’ matter more than everyone else, which is highly unlikely to be conducive to compassionate action where I act for the benefit of others.

The game is also selfish because it holds the potential for harming others. If we assume a reciprocal relationship where you reflect on my constructed identity in return for my reflecting on yours then there is also the potential for your own self-construction to harm others as you further reinforcing someone else’s ignorance of the true and insubstantial nature of their own self by reflecting on their mistakenly believed to be substantial social identity.

It is worth also reflecting briefly on how ludicrous playing the game is – If we generalise this selfish assumption – that ‘I’ matter’ and am worthy of the attention of others, then the situation becomes farcical, because in a society in which everyone expresses themselves thinking that others are looking at them, in reality no one would be looking at anyone in particular because everyone else would likewise be so wrapped up in their thoughts of how others are reflecting on them that they would, in fact, be too busy to notice anyone else.

The third, and for now final, reason that playing the game of self expression is unlikely to make you happy is that it is in fact a very fragile strategy for happiness. This is because the process of identity construction involves ‘me’ attaching myself to particular things – and when our identity, and thus our happiness is contingent on particular things, it is also fragile because these things can cease to be – Objects wear out or get lost or stolen, and people will die. The really tragic fact here is that the things I attach myself to do not actually have to be taken away for me to be miserable – quite often, the fear and anxiety at the possibility of their being removed are sufficient to make me miserable.

In reality, of course, this notion of expressing ‘myself‘through picking and choosing particular things to be of particular significance to ‘my identity’ is ridiculous because true nature is oneness with everything – something that can never be symbolically expressed.

The alternative to ‘playing the game of self-expression’, is to avoid playing it and to instead spend your time quietly and calmly looking inward, developing ‘right understanding’.

[1] Some sociologists might argue that the two acts of self-construction and self-expression are so interwoven as to effectively be the same thing, as the means whereby come to understand ourselves involves reacting to feedback to the social selves we express, consciously or unconsciously to the world. I use the two terms separately however, construction to refer to the process of literally that – constructing a self – this might be quiet and reflective, largely done in private, and by expressive I mean any aspect of myself already constructed that I forcibly project onto the world.

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Dreams can come true

Posted by Realsociology on 19th April 2012

Or at least that’s what the guy serving me coffee this morning informed me as he sang along with Westlife on the radio.

I don’t think he was prepared for my response* – Poor bastard caught me in a muse mood.

‘No, they probably won’t’  I said as I fished for £2.65 worth of shrapnel, ‘and, if you wish to be truly happy,  it’s not necessary that they do anyway… Surely our dreams (I assume Westlife are referring to day dreams) actually prevent us from focussing on what is actually going on in front of us, right now, from focussing on what is, rather than what could be; and it is our day dreams, too often based on unrealistic notions of what is actually possible, that make us miserable.

I say this because, in reality, what we have got here in front us, right now, isn’t actually that bad at all, and that there is nothing inherent in our typical day to day to lives that should make us miserable. Here we are, two people, both working or on their way to work, amidst a couple of hundred other people in a similar situation, and there is nothing inherently bad about this station, or this day. We are not starving, we are not in a war zone, we are not being persecuted – We are all well fed, housed, clothed, have access to a wondrous array of social services and huge consumer choice, and yet look around at how many people around us appear distracted or just down right miserable.

‘So why is it’, I continued, coffee and silly little biscuit now firmly in hand ‘that so many people are miserable? Could it be that they compare their perfectly adequate lives to unrealistic and unattainable media manufactured fantasies, day dreams if you like, and as a result feel unsatisfied with what actually is? Could it be that these fantasies, these dreams, these unreal figments of the mind, are actually responsible for making people miserable in their day to day to lives?

I would suggest, that instead of hoping that ‘our dreams come true’, we just give up on Westlife, give up on the mainstream media, and give up on their (not our) dreams and just simply focus on what is – Instead of dreaming, just be happy.’

Oddly enough he didn’t really seem up for responding, so I just closed with ’Thanks for the coffee, have a nice day’ – and I really, really meant it!


The lyrics to ‘dreams can come true are here - This is probably one of the worst pop songs of all time – This is objective truth – check it out for yourselves – Here –

*OK – Some of this conversation, I may have just had with myself in retrospect, but what’s a little unreality in the age of post modernity?

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A Buddhist wouldn’t Criticise Fashion, but the thought might sometimes arise…

Posted by Realsociology on 5th March 2012

This is a not-so-brief post on why I think Fashion is pointless – from a Buddhist point of view. It starts off with an allotment analogy but ends up with 6 reasons why I don’t like Fashion. (NB this first draft is quite abstract, I’ll jazz it up with a few pop. Culture references laters….)

Here we go……

When I go to my allotment I don’t tend to think too much about what I wear, other than to ensure suitable functionality for the tasks in hand. I just chuck on a pair of old walking trousers or traccy bottoms, combined with an out of shape T shirt and sweater – and of course my wellies – and off I trot.

Dressing for the allotment should be a model for dressing in wider society – because on the allotment, what you wear simply doesn’t matter, no one is in the slightest bit interested in judging you by your attire, and your outward appearance is almost completely irrelevant to your engagement with the land, the veg. and other people.

In fact, if you take a moment to reflect on it, what you wear is actually largely irrelevant to realising true happiness in the Buddhist sense of the word, where happiness is defined as realising a stable peace, or equanimity of mind.  

Happiness in Buddhism requires one to walk the ‘Noble Eight Fold Path – and there is absolutely no reason why wearing basic, functional, even tatty, clothes, should prevent you from practising any of the following aspects of this path (narrowed down to 6 because of ease of analysis) –

  1. Reflecting, as you are now, on Buddhism and striving to know your ‘inner self’
  2. Acting with compassion towards other beings.
  3. Renouncing your attachment to particular things –
  4. Doing a worthwhile job – other than requiring certain clothes for functionality in some areas of work.
  5. Leading a routine life that avoids being too fussy and has too much emphasis on ‘picking and choosing’.
  6. Developing meditative awareness – other than requiring clothes of sufficient comfort and warmth.

No, there is no reason whatsoever, that you should be prevented from ‘walking the Buddhist path’ for lack of fancy clothes. In fact, where two aspects of the path are concerned – renunciation and trying to avoid being fussy through avoiding picking and choosing – giving up your desire for particular clothes and not worrying about what you wear would actually be positive steps towards their realisation.

Maybe it’s the fact that I love Buddhism so much that I enjoy the near total irrelevance of attire to human interaction on the allotment – there is definite synergy between the two; and maybe this also explains why I generally dislike most of society so much – because the allotment is actually the only ordinary day-to-day ‘public domain’ I can think of where what you wear simply doesn’t matter.

This is probably why, when I sometimes nip from my allotment into town in order to feed my coffee addiction (I’m not a perfect Buddhist), I feel slightly ill at ease when I’m standing in the coffee queue – I’m not dressed appropriately for playing the ‘expressing my middle class identity through spending £2.50 on some frothy milk and four shots of espresso to go’ game. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t exactly suffer anxiety attacks over this, and I’m not about to stop wearing my scruffy old allotment clothes, but I can feel the ‘you look too scruffy for this place vibe’ coming off some fellow coffee-expressers.

Now perhaps you think I’m being over-sensitive, but if you know me, you know I’m not exactly a sensitive person, so I think this vibe I feel is real – and it’s a result of the logic of ‘having to wear particular clothes in particular situations’ having penetrated so deeply into the average person’s psyche that they actually judge me – ME! – on the clothes I wear rather than ‘my deeper-self’ (which is f**king marvellous btw.)

I mean think about it – learning how to pick appropriate styles of clothes for particular situations is a basic part of our early socialisation – Work, weekends, weddings, for example, all require us to ‘know what to wear’, and in our fashion conscious age, we’re expected to select particular colours and cuts that suit our skin tone, body type, and age. Worse, we are called upon to periodically change our wardrobes to accommodate the latest season’s fashion – autumn/ winter – spring/summer – For all I know things now change more often and less predictably – frankly I couldn’t give a toss if they do.

Worse still – for some members of society, clothes aren’t just about fitting in – they are about standing out – and a considerable amount of money is spent on ‘shopping as leisure’ – many people going into debt in order to ‘look good’. And of course this whole process of adornment doesn’t stop at clothes – there’s also hair, nails and accessories. Obviously, at the time of writing, women have things a lot worse than men.

Worse still – many friendships and relationships are periodically colonised by clothes-shopping rituals – where you pair  or group-up and parade around the shops reflecting on how certain combinations of clothes suit or not. This is actually regarded as fun by millions of people in Britain.

You’ve probably got the impression that I don’t approve of the time, money and effort so many people put into picking and choosing their items of clothing – and the reason I don’t approve is because this ritual that is so precious to so many people in Britain, this leisure pursuit that is so embedded in our popular-culture, all of this time, money and effort will do absolutely nothing at all to make you truly happy, at least not if you want to achieve happiness in the Buddhist sense of the word.

If we go back to the Noble Eight Fold Path you’ll see what I mean – Considering six of the aspects that lead to happiness – we can now see how the ritual of clothes shopping in order to express yourself through outward appearance is actually the antithesis of what you should/ should not be doing-

  1. True happiness requires you to know your ‘inner self’- clothes shopping involves reflecting on what outward forms of dress you think are acceptable/ desirable, or what forms of clothes say a certain something about your ‘social personality’ and then buying or not buying.
  2. True happiness requires that you act with compassion towards other beings – assuming you are shopping alone – you are focussing entirely on how other people see you – purely selfish, the antithesis of compassion. If you are helping someone else select clothes, you may think you are being compassionate, but you are in fact lying to them by perpetuating the notion that outward appearance matters more than ‘inner self’
  3. True happiness requires renouncing your attachment to particular things – shopping involves, obviously, attaching your social self to particular clothes etc.
  4. True happiness requires doing a worthwhile job – Functionality aside – If you are competent in a certain field – you can do a good job whatever you are wearing – but today some professions now require a certain style – There is a possibility that those who can master this style may be deemed more suitable for the job than someone less stylish and yet more competent. Attachment to appearance makes this situation more likely
  5. True happiness requires one to leading a routine life that avoids being too fussy and has too much emphasis on ‘picking and choosing’ – as with no 3. It is obvious that clothes shopping – involving picking and choosing by its very nature – is the antithesis of this.
  6. True happiness requires one to developing meditative awareness – worrying about what you look like and how you appear to others can only work against this.


As a penultimate note I’ll just make one brief qualification – I do think one will generally be happier if clothes are functional to tasks at hand, clean, and fit appropriately. Besides these requirements, I fail to see how buying any new clothes in the next decade could possibly lead to my being any happier.

Finally, If the six reasons above aren’t enough to convince you that spending time, effort and money on fashion is a waste of time – try this for a closing thought – think about it logically – the only people who really care what you look like probably care what they look like – this means that they are probably walking around either worrying about how crap they think they look, or lauding over how good they think they look on any particular day. Either way, they probably aren’t paying you that much attention, so you may as well not bother trying to impress them.

Posted in Buddhism, But what can I do?, My 'life' | 1 Comment »

A Buddhist inspired critique of Conspicuous Consumption

Posted by Realsociology on 15th February 2012

I hope this actually makes sense - I think I may have overcooked it! May add in a few examples to illustrate what I actually mean laters.

The purpose of this blog post is to outline a Buddhist inspired critique of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – which I define as ‘the act of picking, choosing and purchasing products and services with the intention of other people noticing either the products or the effects of the services purchased’.

As I see it – Conspicuous consumption directly contradicts many Buddhist values, seems to go against every aspect of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path, and encourages a number of negative human emotions. For example, because it is inherently linked to the process of ‘self-expression’ it promotes, in the literal sense of the word, self-ish-ness, it is a practice rooted in ignorance (of the truth of no-I) that essentially involves lying in public about the true nature of self by parading around one’s carefully ‘constructed self’. It also involves attaching oneself to objects, making one’s continued happiness dependent on the continued consumption of these objects, thus promoting a condition of radical unfreedom, while at the same time encouraging us to define the very concept of ‘freedom’ as the ‘freedom to pick and choose objects with which to construct my identity’ rather than seeing freedom as being about seeking ‘release from the necessity of being attached to particular objects which I deem to be significant’. Furthermore, the imperative to ‘identify through consumption’ requires money – and thus conspicuous consumption can, in some cases, encourage individuals to seek a livelihood primarily for its monetary reward rather than its social usefulness. Finally, this ritual demands that others pay attention to the ‘social self’ I am expressing’ – thus entangling others into a web of constant distraction in which we are all expected to pay close attention to the microscopic detail of numerous social selves, rather than simply focusing on ‘what we are actually doing’ – which ultimately works against the Buddhist goal of meditative practice in daily life.

The rest of this post analyses how conspicuous consumption goes against many Buddhist values -

The first problem with conspicuous consumption is that it works to prevent the individual from quietly sitting down and realizing the ‘true nature of self’, which (and to the non-Buddhist this will sound paradoxical) is that there is no inherent, distinct, isolated ‘self’. Conspicuous consumption is the antithesis of this simple, albeit hard to realise truth, as it is a self-expressive act which involves ‘me’ investing time and money in picking and choosing products and services that ‘I’ like in order to consciously construct a ‘social- identity’ – an identity that, ultimately, has no essential nature outside of the effort that I put into constructing it.

Conspicuous Consumption is thus, quite literally, an act which promotes ‘self-ish-ness’ – in the sense that ‘I’ start with the assumption that not only do ‘I’ exist, but that ‘I’ am significant enough to warrant other people’s attention when ‘I’ express myself through the products and services ‘I’ consume –  ‘I’ then return the favour of other people’s attention by noticing and commenting on their consumption habits, the end result being that our ‘society’ consists of people mutually engaged in the reflexive construction and expression of fictitious selves.

A preferred alternative to this farcical world of mutually reinforced ignorance would be a society in which we really do (and, again, somewhat paradoxically) act as individuals and quietly reflect on the ‘truth of non-self’ – which involves the gradual, and difficult to accept realisation that ‘I’ don’t actually exist as an independent identity at all, but rather, at root, ‘I’ am just one with everything else, and, in the grand scheme of things, am simply not that significant.  

The second problem with conspicuous consumption is that it encourages us to seek happiness through attachment, rather than peace of mind through freedom.

The fundamental logic of conspicuous consumption involves linking together a selection of things, and then linking these things to ‘my idea of myself’ – and then consuming this selection of things in a public space, thereby constructing a ‘social identity’. The problem here is that my social identity is dependent upon things outside of myself – it is thus contingent and fragile – and open to the possibility of being destroyed unless I can maintain the continued consumption of those things which ‘I’ deam to be significant. This notion of ‘self identity through conspicuous consumption’ is characterised by a profound sense of unfreedom –because it locks ‘me’ into a cycle of continuous consumption in order to maintain myself. Put another way, identity construction through conspicuous consumption is identity consumption through attachment, which stands in contrasts to the Buddhist notion of seeking happiness through non attachment.

To make matters worse, we fail to see that this ritual of consumption is characterised by ‘unfreedom’ because, in our collective ignorance, we have come to define ‘freedom’ as the ‘freedom to pick and choose a selection of objects in process of identity construction’ – rather than defining freedom as ‘freedom from contingent identity construction through conspicuous consumption’.

A third and, for now final, problem with conspicuous consumption is that it demands attention from others and thus distracts us from the mundanities of daily life.

Think about it – there is an assumption behind the act of conspicuous consumption that other people should pay attention to ‘my social self’ – which in turn means their making the effort to understand the subtle meanings that I give to the products and services which I consume.  

It is usually expected, for example, that people at least acknowledge new items of clothing, or a new haircut, or that ‘I’ve been on another holiday’ – and the closer my relationship to another person – the more attention they are expected to pay to my consumption choices.

The assumption that the fictitious self I have constructed is important enough to warrant input from other people really is the height of selfish arrogance – not only do I distract myself with consideration of how ‘I’ appear to others, but I also expect others to recognise and thereby assist in the perpetuation of this fictitious and insubstantial self-identity. Ultimately, this works to distract the attention of others away from ‘whatever they may be doing’ – away from the calm, meditative practices of daily life that are crucial to developing the kind of sustained concentration necessary for realising true peace of mind.

Of course the conspicuous consumption does not make it impossible for individuals to lead a Buddhist inspired lifestyle in some respects, but its very logic is so antithetical to Buddhist Ontology and the potential to discourage Buddhist ethical practice so huge, that if anyone wants to achieve real happiness, rooted in truth, it is probably best to avoid it altogether.

So to conclude, if you want to develop lasting, stable happiness, or more accurately peace of mind, that is non-contingent, and based on the ‘truth of self’, and if you wish to contribute to the construction of a society which allows others the freedom to do likewise, then don’t waste your time on constructing a fake and insubstantial social identity through conspicuous consumption.

So what – you may ask – is the alternative? Well, for a start, you could just sit there!

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Want to be happy – then start with rejecting everything you’ve learnt about how to achieve it…

Posted by Realsociology on 8th December 2011

In honour of Buddha’s Enlightenment day – a quick post on how the Buddhist view of how we should ‘realise’ happiness appears to be the antithesis of how most of us in the west typically go about trying to ‘achieve’ happiness.

The Buddhist Path to Happiness

The key to happiness in Buddhism is to follow something called the noble eightfold path – and this essentially boils down to the following eight principles – this isn’t a full interpretation of what’s involved in following Buddhism but these are some of its core principles – (the tenets as named in the path are in brackets)

  1. Knowing yourself and your ‘true nature’ (‘right understanding’)
  2. Developing compassion (‘right thought’)
  3. Residing in the truth (‘right speech’)
  4. Renouncing material goods (‘right action’ – NB there is a lot more to this, but this is key!)
  5. Doing worthwhile and ethical work (‘right livelihood’)
  6. Leading a disciplined, routine life (‘right effort’)
  7. Being aware of what you are doing and not being carried away by passionate emotions (‘right concentration’)
  8. Meditating (‘right meditation’)

It’s worth noting that these tenets (which aren’t that dissimilar to most other mainstream religious ethical codes) argue that self-constraint and thinking of the social consequences of one’s actions are as important as ‘taking care’ of your ‘self’. It is further worth noting that all of this links into a certain view of the nature of self and reality – there is logic behind what we should do to be happy and what the nature of the self really is – but I’m not going into that here (it’ll take too long)

The Buddhist view of happiness compared to the Western view of happiness

It is striking how the means whereby so many of us are encouraged to achieve happiness in the West is the complete antithesis of how to achieve happiness (defined more accurately as peace of mind) in Buddhism – to contrast to the 8 fold path above – it is not unusual to see people suggesting that one does any number of the following to be happy -

  1. Constructing and expressing your self – i.e. your self-identity – through consuming products, constructing a narrative of the self on Facebook, and our obsession with biography and celebrity all suggests we see this as crucial to happiness
  2. Putting yourself, or at least your family first and acting out of self-interest – rather than devoting yourself to the service of others (ok so a lot of people give to charity, but this is after one’s sorted oneself out)
  3. Acting/ concealing aspects of the truth or just downright lying  – ok I’ll admit that lying is generally frowned upon, but our obsession with privacy maybe suggests we like to conceal the fullness of ourselves from the world – and isn’t acting out social roles really just lying about who we really rather than being fully open and honest?
  4. Accumulating stuff and attaching yourself to particular people and values – this is obvious – and it includes our obsession with romantic love and children.
  5. Doing a job primarily for the money rather than the social good – ok once again there are plenty of people who choose to do socially useful jobs, but many who see work as just a means to an end.  
  6. Being free to pick and choose, being freedom from routine, trying new things, striving to constantly reinvent yourself – this speaks for itself
  7. When at work – switching off – again – this should ring true with many
  8. Always doing rather than sitting still – one of my pet hates – we tend to think the happiest people are the busiest – not necessarily true.

So According to Buddhism, being truly happy may well involve rejecting most, if not all, of the values of our modern neoliberalised culture…. go on, do it, give it up, let it go – see if you can chillax without the flash…

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