Buddha's Mind or Neoliberal Self?




Thus we need to establish clear priorities for investing our limited time and energies where they'll give the most lasting returns. That means giving top priority to the mind. Material things and social relationships are unstable and easily affected by forces beyond our control, so the happiness they offer is fleeting and undependable. But the well-being of a well-trained mind can survive even aging, illness, and death. To train the mind, though, requires time and energy. This is one reason why the pursuit of true happiness demands that we sacrifice some of our external pleasures.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

By the Forties, long after the great religious revivals and reforms, after the land has been tamed and settled, the railroads and cities built, the gold mined, the oceans of oil tapped and the fortunes of the Carnegies and Dohenys and Vanderbilts made and ensconced in legend, a mounting standardization, desperation, and rancidness has set in, and another war has left men shattered. The only conceivable frontier is within: the liberation of the self from routines, possessions, and habits of mind, whether they’ve been inculcated by trauma or affluence.” (Kent Jones)

The neoliberal self is characterized by depoliticization, the rejection of institutions of social welfare, and the stigmatization of individual misfortune. (...) Features that mark self-help discourses as neoliberal include the centrality of the self in the attainment of wellbeing, practices of self-realization and self-control, and the sale of practices and ideas of the self in the marketplace. As theorized through Michel Foucault’s framework of governmentality, this new neoliberal self is constituted in the West alongside new state rationalities that have emerged with the shift away from the Keynesian welfare state. Strategically framed in terms of 'freedom, autonomy and choice,' neoliberal modes of governing utilize 'technologies of the self' such as self-help practices to produce new subjects who view themselves as responsible for their own social welfare and wellbeing and, consequently, are induced not only to govern themselves 'according to market principles of discipline, efficiency, and competitiveness' but to feel 'empowered' in the process.” (Larisa Honey)


Regardless of a much larger appeal of the smiling Buddha for various marketers today than, for instance, an icon of the crucified Christ, the point of juxtaposing those above seemingly random quotations is not to suggest in some straightforward way that Thanissaro Bhikkhu is an especially hawkish proponent of the free market ideology.

As the article of Larisa Honey clearly indicates, it is not so easy to dump the whole responsibility for the failures of neoliberal transformations on the shoulders of various barefoot gurus. On the contrary, as evidenced by the proliferation of self-help discourses in Post-Soviet block for the past 30 years, one can much easier draw a straightforward conclusion that what in fact those “enlightened” gurus offer is the very panacea for a whole range of evils to which this neoliberal transformation has apparently contributed.

Nonetheless, I think that if one wants to understand to a certain degree the phenomenon of disrupted democracy in Europe today - especially if one happen to be an active participant of such self-help discourses – one cannot simply omit the apolitical overtones of messages spread by gurus like Thanissaro Bhikkhu. It is a dual-type challenge: firstly, one has to realize what is the socio-historical background of this interiorization of the neoliberal self that makes such acetic religious messages appealing in the first place; secondly, one must realize how this fetishizing of disconnected, withdrawn, implicitly apolitical mind en masse might contribute in its own way to even deeper disruption of this shaky political Union in the long run. 

So it is indeed important, as says Thanissaro, that "we need to establish clear priorities for investing our limited time and energies where they'll give the most lasting returns." Otherwise our pursuit of true happiness might be seriously compromised.