In defense of the sanctimonious women's studies set || First feminist blog on the internet

When Blogging, Just Blog.*

To say that blogging can be dhammic is not to claim that it can substitute for formal techniques of spiritual practice. Those techniques are designed to help bring us face-to-face with the hard lessons — otherwise, it becomes just another feel-good affair (or, as I once heard Mary Ann Brussat call it, “salad-bar spirituality”). Still, with any spiritual teaching, it’s easy to get too wrapped up in literalism and formalism. So we have to remember to engage creatively with the mundane — the materials already before us. Whether that’s blogging or boxing or BDSM roleplaying.

Yesterday I talked a bit about how sexism keeps us from taking journal blogging seriously. Today, 5 reasons the medium suits dhamma practice terrifically, with particular advantages as a new form of spiritual autobiography.

1. The highest wisdom comes from experience. In the dhamma, there is value in both wisdom heard from others and wisdom reasoned out for oneself, but ultimate wisdom comes only through direct experience. We can understand the texts and lectures, we can meditate, but unless we apply the dhamma in life, we won’t be able to realize and internalize its benefits. Memoir blogging can help put the focus squarely on the stuff of everyday life, a rich and often underestimated field of dhamma. As Chokyi Nyima says,

[H]onestly, it’s not that one has to go to some other place and close the door and be quiet in order to practice. That’s not the only way. It’s definitely the case that we can practice at any given moment. We can always try a little more to be kind, to be compassionate and be careful about what we do and say and so forth.

2. Dialectical praxis. Theory makes practice makes theory makes practice. A basic understanding of journal blogging might be: harvesting raw material from real life, then fashioning them into stories for online distribution and discussion. Something like this:

two people makin' out, while one of them uses a camera phone to document the moment.

But we can also choose to use blogging not just for communication and performance, but reflection. We can establish a dialectical relationship between online and offline activity: particularly when mindfulness and reflexivity are applied in both contexts.

Imagine a mindful blogger who witnesses a beautiful sunrise. With mindfulness and presence, the blogger allows the experience to unfold as it is. Later, composing a blog post, the blogger reflects on the sunrise, sharing the awe, pleasure, and insight into the brevity of human existence that the sight inspired. Through the writing process, responses from commenters, or both, the blogger’s own insight deepens, matures, and evolves: the lesson of the sunrise expands for both blogger and readers, assuming new forms and nuances. In the future, when the blogger or reader witnesses a sky at dawn, the insights developed online may arise: a reminder to remain present, and a sense of connectedness with others in this brief, precious human existence.

This model is more complex than the harvesting idea because it demonstrates the circuitry connecting online and offline experience. Still, as yet there is nothing distinguishing such a praxis (mutually constituting practice and theory) as particular to the art of blogging. A traditional memoirist, for instance, in writing a book, may pass through the same phases: experiencing life directly; communicating these experiences; teasing out and developing lessons from these renderings; and applying these lessons to future life experiences.

3. Temporal location. The “now-ness” of blogging can prove particularly auspicious for ongoing mindfulness practice. A traditional autobiographer reflects on their past, carefully condensing and constructing the messy life-events of decades or quarter-centuries into a digestible, contiguous narratives. Blogging’s structural focus on the present — with posts displayed in reverse-chronological order, showing the most current entry first, and updated far, far more frequently than books are able to be published — shifts attention to ongoing influxes of new experience. This forward motion propels the praxis of mindful blogging in a manner different from autobiography. While the memoirist resides at the front end of the past, the blogger perches on the cusp of the future.

4. Greater room for, and emphasis on, reader participation. I’m fascinated by the participatory nature of blogging because I think it challenges our idea of ‘authority’ or ‘authorship’ in ‘auto’-biographical writing. When a post is published, its life is just beginning! While reader consumption and response certainly reflect and influence the overall impact of a memoir, the memoirist doesn’t turn right around to compose and publish another commentary in response!

When bloggers are open to it, their reader participants can shape the project as much as they themselves do. Threads with intensive back-and-forth replies resemble nothing so much as published correspondence: exchanges among equals, rather than footnotes to the main event of a post. Readers have shared insights with me that I never would have come up with on my own — and oftentimes my favorite part about a post is its thread.

Plus, reader participation provides opportunities for compassionate communication. (Again, the “Ennobling Speech.”) Aware of the ‘realness’ of online community, mindful bloggers can treat reader/participants on their blogs with as much care as they would in real life, considering comments seriously and joyfully, and understanding them as a crucial component to the knowledge-making occurring in the online/offline space.

Journal writing, whether public or private, can help us get a handle on our own experiences. But blogging also remind us that we’re not the sole author of our life story.

5. Shifting focus from media to mindfulness. On a site like Feministe, this probably deserves a whole conversation to itself! But to put it briefly: it’s extremely, extremely hard to maintain mindfulness — the kind of full-body awareness that’s open and receptive — while consuming media. We get sucked into the article, the radio spot, the TV program, and become totally mentally identified with it.

Have you been trying #3 of the dhamma comment guidelines, “honoring the body”? Shit is mad difficult!

I’m not here to tell anybody how to live, or that you should cut down on your media consumption. But I will say for myself, I’ve noticed:

(a) I tend to feel ‘more productive’ or ‘smarter’ when I’m reading — especially reading political media and commentary — versus when I’m sitting and meditating, or just bringing awareness to everyday activities. But ultimately it’s the work on the spiritual path that most affects my quality of living.

(b) I often reach for online reading compulsively, when I’m bored or anxious, specifically as a distraction.

(c) Reading and watching videos creates a lot of noise in my mind. A LOT of noise. Most of the time I don’t notice it unless I put forth exceptional effort to pay attention. But when I go into a 10-day silent meditation retreat, with no reading, writing, music, speaking, or touching other people, there’s no hiding from it. All that agitation is just swirling around, and there’s *nothing* I can do to stop it. Just gotta wait for it to settle down.

Again, this isn’t about condemning media as toxic or something. Media-based blogging is a great tool for the harm side of the equation. But how to keep it balanced? What if we took some of the energy we spend consuming and analyzing media, and devoted it to spreading mindful awareness in our everyday life?

There could be a big payoff for all this internal work — this mindfulness stuff. As S. N. Goenka, one of the teachers of my tradition (Theravada/Vipassana/Insight Meditation) puts it:

By learning to remain balanced in the face of everything experienced inside, one develops detachment towards all that one encounters in external situations as well. However, this detachment is not escapism or indifference to the problems of the world. Those who regularly practice Vipassana become more sensitive to the sufferings of others, and do their utmost to relieve suffering in whatever way they can—not with any agitation, but with a mind full of love, compassion and equanimity. They learn holy indifference—how to be fully committed, fully involved in helping others, while at the same time maintaining balance of mind. In this way they remain peaceful and happy, while working for the peace and happiness of others.


*A little joke based on the Zen saying, “When walking, just walk. When sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.”

19 thoughts on When Blogging, Just Blog.*

  1. When you first made a post about dhammic practice, a useful technique for dealing with life’s problems could be gleaned from it, and I found it useful. However, you have since made many posts about your personal religion, and as someone who is not a Buddhist, I feel alienated from your readership. I would greatly appreciate more posts about gender equality, and less about dogma.

  2. Hi David, Thanks for sharing your concern. I’ve been making a sincere effort not to overdo it on the Buddhism, and instead to share some of its more relatable, easily applicable elements. So it would be helpful to me if you could give some examples of dogma that you see in this piece, or in others. Which parts, specifically, do you find alienating?

    Part of my experience with oppression and resistance, including gender-related oppression and resistance, has to do with the spiritual toxicity of that oppression, and the spiritual liberation of compassionate resistance. Not everyone sees it that way, but that’s my take as a feminist. If you and I don’t agree about that, cool, but please keep in mind that spiritual life is actually relevant to many active feminists, and some of us feel silenced when people on the Left dismiss our spiritual work as dogmatic, superstitious, bullshit, etc.

    Thanks again for your thoughts — I’d be genuinely interested to hear which parts are troubling you.

  3. I find that when I write, the broadest, overarching theme is that of my belief in the ideal, and how the ideal is not met in reality. For a time I tried to keep myself out of my writing, but I find the strongest images are personal anecdotes and/or the anecdotes I have observed in watching other people.

    I suppose one must work with one’s strengths.

  4. I’m quite fascinated by kloncke’s posts, precisely BECAUSE I’m not a Buddhist. I wouldn’t be interested in reading blog posts by someone who was exactly like me, because in that case I could just go talk to myself and I wouldn’t have to wait on updates because I’m right here.

  5. David’s comments bring to mind the flip side I often experienced as a “Buddhist blogger.” When my posts get quite overtly socially and politically focused, and attempt to bring together what I have learned in dharma teachings, I often get some flack. People tell me politics, social justice, discussions of oppression, etc, have nothing to do with Buddhist practice. That’s a great blindness as far as I’m concerned. The same can be said for secular activists who want all religion and spiritual commentary eliminated from discussions and actions.

    Alienation is an interesting concept. What brings on alienation? How do we navigate the spectrum between destructive dogma that puts people out, and real life differences that make the world more lively, and actually aid in each of our awakenings to truth?

    What I find most curious is that many people who are doing work in the world to transform hatred and oppression of peoples who aren’t ruling majorities, often struggle themselves with the very diversity they seek to uphold. It begs the question “What is it truly that each of us want?”

  6. David,

    Here’s an example of a response someone gave me just a little bit ago about a comment I made on the Mel Gibson post. My comment asked what the point was in ripping Mel Gibson, and how such actions might lead to lessen the abuse and power guys like him are about.

    “xtinA 7.2.2010 at 11:28 am

    Nathan, your judgments are unhelpful. It’s a discussion blog and that’s what folks are doing. I get a bit short-tempered with spiritual seekers telling others to STFU because their beliefs are about anger as a sin-got way too much of that as a Buddhist seminarian

    What else can I say other than this person wants me and others like me to shut up. Period.

    A people wonder why the status quo is so slow to change. Because really, how many allies or potential allies with spiritual bents are going to hang around to be whipping boards like this?

  7. I love the “Our reality is less interesting than the story we will tell” quote. For blogging, and really, for any kind of based-on-reality writing like reporting/journalism/memoirs/what-have-you, it’s so true. You could even expand that to include social networking’s weird voyeuristic take on reality — the pictures I see of my friends are far more interesting than their actual lives, and they’ve been chosen for that purpose specifically.

  8. @David:
    As a Buddhist-leaning atheist, I think I might understand your concerns regarding alienation, but I also would ask you to reconsider what might be a false dichotomy. Maybe go read an earlier post an the relationship between Buddhism and feminism: Put positively, though, I’m beginning to believe that harm work and suffering work — political and spiritual engagement — can strengthen each other enormously. In the words of Buddhist meditation teacher Donald Rothberg, “the two paths deeply need each other.” [Emphasis original.]

  9. Meanwhile, to make the effort to derail my derailing, I love blogging. For all the reasons Katie points to and more, it’s a great opportunity to share with others around the world, as well as learn/help others learn sometimes simultaneously. And sometimes, the threads are so delicious, I skip the post itself and go straight for the comments… LOL

    Makes me wonder if there would be a way to set up a blog that is mostly about comments, but is different from a chat room, which often is too fast and out of control to do what blogs do.

  10. @Nathan:
    Regarding your comment on the other thread, I want to add that I felt like you didn’t provide enough of a context for your comments–as they came out, in the place in the thread they were in, they did feel spiritually snarky to me, which I doubt was your intention. One thing that Kloncke does really well, I think, is give lots of Buddhist insight, with lots and lots of context, so that it doesn’t feel like spiritual bullying. Your comment on the other thread does feel a little like spiritual bullying, to me, and I don’t see how you would expect any other sort of response from commentors there, given the lack of context in your comment.

  11. Jeff,

    I get the sense that anything I would have said over besides “Yeah, Mel Gibson is an asshole” would have been taken as an attack. And like I said before, the person who responded to me pulled Buddhism out of the hat, because I said nothing about spirituality whatsoever.

    Do you really think that a lot of context for my comments over there would have shifted responses? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I could have done better. But you have to understand that I erased, twice, more snarky comments, and instead focused on what I thought many people are really after in writing all this stuff: i.e. actually working through and breaking down oppressions.

    And the thing is, even with lots of context you still get people shouting you down cause you’re not tough enough, nasty enough, and frankly secular enough to hang with the crowd.

    I’ve noticed with Katie’s threads here too that the ones that got endless amounts of comments were the most secular, and those that took a more spiritual bent, haven’t gained nearly as much traction. Now, I haven’t spent a long enough time on this blog, reading through comments and posts to see how things shake out, but that was interesting for me to see.

    And back to the topic at hand, it’s a challenging place to find one’s self in – being “too spiritual” when I step into forums like this to blog and comment, and “too political” sometimes when I’m in my spiritual communities.

  12. Hello, just a quick note to say that I’ve been catching up on your Marxist-feminist posts and comments and as an anarcho-feminist I have been quite interested. I appreciate the combination of politics and spirituality . . . not a Buddhist myself, but probably only because I haven’t read up on it. Liked what you said here: “spiritual life is actually relevant to many active feminists, and some of us feel silenced when people on the Left dismiss our spiritual work as dogmatic, superstitious, bullshit, etc.” Any political work I do doesn’t make sense to me unless I can approach it with my whole self.

  13. If you and I don’t agree about that, cool, but please keep in mind that spiritual life is actually relevant to many active feminists, and some of us feel silenced when people on the Left dismiss our spiritual work as dogmatic, superstitious, bullshit, etc.

    THIS. All-the-way-LIVE, this. I’m way too old to be bothered with trying to silence and disguise the inconvenient aspects of myself that Just Don’t Fit In; if this means I can’t be a part of your revolution, so be it.

    I found this post really valuable, in that it emphasizes practice and doing, not….dogma. I wonder if David (and others who feel the same way, but haven’t replied) would have objected to this post if certain words and concepts (dhamma, mindfulness, Theraveda, etc.) were replaced by something more palatable, more “fitting” to the mainstream (white, middle-class) feminist template (dare I say, dogma?)—words like “mental wellness”, “homework”, and “rational-emotive therapy”.

  14. I wonder if David (and others who feel the same way, but haven’t replied) would have objected to this post if certain words and concepts (dhamma, mindfulness, Theraveda, etc.) were replaced by something more palatable, more “fitting” to the mainstream (white, middle-class) feminist template (dare I say, dogma?)—words like “mental wellness”, “homework”, and “rational-emotive therapy”.

    If you are seriously wondering, I will tell you that if your sample catchphrases had been used in place of Buddhist sloganeering, a great many of us would have felt much more free to call it bullshit rather than staying politely out of the conversation (or “silencing ourselves,” as the going phrase seems to be.)

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