Lecture One: Enaction 1.3

1.3 The Eastern Escape


One of the great merits of Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s work is that it repeatedly emphasizes that the tension, or even conflict between a first-person (subjective) perspective and a third-person (scientific) perspective on experience is neither something that can be simply ignored, nor a problem that will go away by itself if it is not addressed head on.

The conflict cannot be ignored because the first- and third-person perspectives cannot be divorced. The third-person perspective offers an attempt to conceptualize and clarify the experience encountered in first-person perspective, but even when this is done, the scientist remains a human being who will have to experience their life from their own first-person perspective. A sharp divorce or contraposition between these two perspectives leads to either subjectivism or objectivism, often in the form of setting up a more ‘humanist’ view against a more ‘scientific’ view. This output is fairly common in the West, even today, although unwelcome. Given the prominence and authority that science has acquired in most of today’s societies around the world, devaluing its perspective as uncapable of coping with authentic human experience creates a sort of cognitive dissonance within society itself, while simply invoking science for dismissing a ‘folk understanding’ of experience makes science looking inhumane, despite being one of the greatest human achievements. This problem can be rephrased in terms of overcoming the adversarial approach. The opposition between first-person and third-person perspective is in fact another declension of that approach. The challenge for enactivism is to show that first- and third-person perspectives can be not only reconciled, but that exploring and deepening the experiential dimensions of groundlessness is also the way to operate this reconciliation.

Looking at the Western philosophical tradition, the authors explicitly acknowledge their debt to the twentieth-century phenomenological tradition, with special reference to Merleau-Ponty.[1] Phenomenologists have also reflected on the need to escape from an overly rigid subject-world distinction and reconceptualizing this distinction from the point of view of an intrinsic interplay between these two poles (Heidegger’s existential analytic based on the ideas of Dasein and being-in-the-world is another example of such an attempt). However, the authors also point out that the major limit of the classical phenomenological tradition concerns its method, which remains purely speculative. Phenomenologists (not dissimilarly from Descartes) recognized that the ordinary ‘folk’ or ordinary first-person perspective is fraught with potential prejudices and pitfalls. They then aimed at devising a more rigorous method to both obviate these problems and provide a more ‘objective’ account of first-person experience. According to Varela, Thompson and Rosch, the problem with the classical phenomenological method is that, even when it aims to be pragmatic (as in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty’s cases), it remains a purely theoretical activity that occurs in reflection, somehow post factum, after that experience already occurred, and it is mostly based on reasoning alone.

For present purposes, the limits of classical Western phenomenology can be spelled out in a slightly different way. The problem is not just about using reason to reflectively examine first-person experience. The problem is assuming that reason, by itself, can have both the power and the lucidity to see through prejudices at will, or to assume that taking a reflective attitude, by itself, allows one to bracket one’s prejudices. Descartes seemed aware of this problem. So much so that, in his Meditations, he began by setting up a global skepticism that is meant to function as a sanitizer against the potential danger of any hidden or unnoticed bias that could survive the ensuing reflection. Descartes (like many other early modern philosophers, including Bacon and Spinoza) had no naïve faith that one can simply stop prejudices at will. Cartesian universal doubt is meant to provide a particularly inhospitable environment for these prejudices, thus allowing reason to perform its function. But if one doubts that Cartesian methodological scepticism might actually do the trick, equally problematic appears Husserl’s confidence in the possibility of performing an epoché at will.

A profound and implicit assumption in these strategies is that reason, in order to work reliably, needs to be first isolated from any other emotional forces and preconceived beliefs. Reason works best only when it works on its own, possibly in a completely sterilized environment. Unfortunately, no such environment can be easily created. Even if that could happen, no cognition would take place there, because reason would have nothing to reason about on its own. But even if cognition could happen in such an extremely idealized scenario, its results could not be really significant and have some normative force with respect to a completely different form embodied cognition, since assessing the latter on the basis of the former would be like judging life on the basis of mineralogy.

Although Varela, Thompson and Rosch do not make this point explicit in their work, its significance is worth stressing. The main limitation behind classical phenomenological method is that it assumes that reason can be objective only when it is not disturbed, and hence it strives to directly jump outside the conditions of disturbance by creating an appropriate (sanitized) thinking environment. The result is that this method either cannot escape disturbances (it cannot escape life after all, since that is also its object of study), or that it has to just pretend that it can.

Regardless of the reasons why the classical phenomenological method might be seen as insufficient (which surely should not lead to dismissing the whole phenomenological tradition as such), the authors identify in Buddhist meditation practice (what they refer to as ‘mindfulness/awareness’) a disciplined practice that provides at the same time a valid access to first-person experience, and also a way of discerning within that first-person experience the emergence of the same groundlessness pointed out by scientific research on cognition. In Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s work, Buddhism plays multiple roles, including that of providing an instance of a different philosophical tradition that still reaches conclusions similar to those put forward by the enactivist approach. From a theoretical point of view, then, Buddhism is interpreted as a different and yet convergent research path headed towards a similar converging point. However, it is its meditation practice that seems to be the most unique, distinctive, and needed contribution that Buddhism can bring to the table. To put the core point of the authors more bluntly: we do not necessarily need Buddhist philosophy to know that the self is a construction, but we do need Buddhist meditation in order to live with this knowledge.

The sort of practice to which the authors refer (‘mindfulness/awareness’) is admittedly a recent construction in the very long and diverse history of Buddhism(s). We shall return to this point below. However, it is true that a very widely spread feature of Buddhist meditation throughout its various forms is the idea that practice has much to do with directly facing prejudices, emotional structures and beliefs. One does not start by running away from them, but rather by systematically understanding how they work, what sorts of effects they produce, how they shape experience, and gradually also appreciating how it is possible to defuse them and escape from their grip. In other terms, meditation does not begin once disturbances are set aside and one has created a fully sanitized rational environment. On the contrary, one begins by getting fully acquainted with the force, structure, and working of what are commonly called the ‘hindrances’ (what Descartes called the ‘prejudices,’ Bacon ‘the idols,’ and Husserl ‘the natural attitude’), and gradually learning how to step outside of them. In this process, one sees how the very notion of self is fully entangled in the hindrances and moving away from them also has profound consequences for how the self is experienced from within.

This latter point is emphasized by Varela, Thompson and Rosch:

First, contemporary cognitive science does not distinguish between the idea or representation of a Self [the underlying sense of personal identity] and the actual basis of that representation, which is an individual’s grasping after an ego-self. Cognitive science has challenged the idea that there is a real thing to which the former applies, but it has not even thought to consider the latter. Second, cognitive science does not yet take seriously its own findings of the lack of a Self. Both of these stem from the lack of a disciplined method for examination and inclusion of human experience in cognitive science. The major result of this lack is the issue that has been with us since the beginning: cognitive science offers us a purely theoretical discovery, which remains remote from actual human experience, of mind without self. […] We construct the belief or inner discourse that there is an ego-self not because the mind is ultimately empty of such a self but because the everyday conditioned mind is full of grasping. (Varela, Thompson and Rosch 20162 124-125)

The advantage of Buddhist meditation practice is that it starts from the task of understanding the workings of what is referred to as ‘a mind full of grasping.’ An ordinary untrained person takes this condition for granted, and hence grasping becomes transparent, invisible. Meditation begins from the moment one decides to take grasping as a topic of investigation, looking at why it happens and how it works. In other terms, Buddhist meditation does not seek to create ideal sanitized conditions for a neutral and objective reasoned reflection, but rather seeks to learn how to best to operate in a cognitive environment that turns out to be fully shaped by powerful conative and emotional forces. Most importantly, this environment is not limited to the ‘inside’ of one’s experience, but it encompasses the whole range of domains in which grasping expresses itself, which are traditionally classified in the three areas of actions: bodily actions, verbal actions, and thoughts. Meditation is about all the three of them, and hence it actually concerns the whole individual in their complex interplay with the world in which they live.

As we are going to see in greater details in Lecture Thirteen, Buddhist meditation starts from first-person perspective on experience, but without taking its content and interpretation at face value. Buddhist meditation is predicated on the soteriological assumption that the ordinary first-person interpretation of experience is biased by attitudes of grasping, craving, aversion, ignorance, and hence it is ultimately unreliable. By progressively and methodically deconstructing and untying this ordinary interpretation, practice leads to a point in which experience is met without any passionate craving for it to be in a way or another. There is just experience. Experience is no longer appropriated as ‘mine’ or ‘my’ concern, but neither is it alienated as something entirely external from ‘me.’ The self no longer functions as the point of reference for indexing experience, and hence the whole distinction between first-person and third-person perspective is left behind. Moving beyond the distinction makes it possible to recognize the constructed nature of the distinction itself, how it can be instrumentally and strategically used in certain contexts, but also why it has no inherently binding force. The first-person versus third-person perspective distinction is also a product of enaction, and hence groundless.

Throughout their discussion, Varela, Thompson and Rosch often mention the issue of nihilism. Following Nietzsche’s discussion of nihilism as the acknowledgment that old values are perceived to be no longer tenable, the authors stress how an unresolved conflict between first-person and third-person perspective inevitably exacerbates nihilist tendencies. Grasping for a stable ‘ego-self,’ or a capitalized ‘Self’ (a self-standing, independent, perhaps eternal entity, ground and owner of its experience), human beings cannot actually find anything like this in their own experience. They can only delude themselves that they do. Cognitive science stresses that this quest for such a ‘Self’ is in fact a piece of self-delusion. However, this realization on its own might not be sufficient to cut the underpinning grasping attitude. The impossibility of actually finding the Self, and the ensuing abyss disclosed by its absence, can be experienced as a breakdown, as a defeat. The problem is not that the Self is not there, but that underpinning grasping has not been treated, or even understood.

In order to avoid the potentially nihilistic consequences of an unresolved tension between first-person and third-person perspectives, between lived experience and the scientific worldview, more than just theory is required: it is necessary to have some method that can provide a disciplined and systematic way of alleviating (if not eliminating) grasping, while also revealing why the groundlessness of experience should not be feared, nor understood as the deprivation of something, or the dismissal of some value. The opposite is true, as the authors stress by the end of their discussion:

In Buddhism, we have a case study showing that when groundlessness is embraced and followed through to its ultimate conclusions, the outcome is an unconditional sense of intrinsic goodness that manifests itself in the world as spontaneous compassion. We feel, therefore, that the solution for the sense of nihilistic alienation in our culture is not to try to find a new ground; it is to find a disciplined and genuine means to pursue groundlessness, to go further into groundlessness. Because of the preeminent place science occupies in our culture, science must be involved in this pursuit. (Varela, Thompson and Rosch 20162, 251)

The idea expressed here is crucial insofar as it highlights the core emotional component involved in cognition. Within the various families of adversarial approaches mentioned in the beginning of this lecture, one could also include the common antithesis between reason and passions, theory and practice, objective thinking and emotional attitudes. This is also another tribe of views, not just one unified whole. Different philosophers have conceived of the relationship between reason and emotions in different ways. These range, for instance, from Descartes’s contention that reason can have some power in rewiring emotional association encoded in the body by nature (basically, overriding natural instincts), to Hume’s contention that reason can only provide means to satisfy what passions and sentiments demands, with Spinoza’s account offering yet another view in which reason can function properly only if it is supported by active affects, possibly stronger than passive emotions. Despite these (and many more) various accounts, reason and emotions tended to be seen as relatively independent of one another. This drifting is at play also in classical phenomenological methods described above, in which reason has to reach first some form of sanitization with respect to the influence of emotions, otherwise it cannot get an objective view of experience.

Emotions are inevitably biased. Buddhist meditation begins by systematically investigating how these biases work and shape experience. It rejects the idea that an objective view is reached by somehow separating reason from emotions, and it even challenges the very idea that reason can be successfully distinguished from emotions in the first place. A purely objective view, not shaped by any conative effort, would be a purely non-constructed view, a view in which conative efforts play no part. Since the earliest historical records of the Buddha’s discourses, this condition is equated with the complete cessation of any experience. Experience is either constructed to some degree (and hence not purely ‘objective’), or it ceases together with the activity of construction.[2]

Buddhist thought focuses on the different emotional structures and conative attitudes that ordinarily shape experience and finds that they can be classified in a fairly limited number of basic forms (one simple classification is dividing them into attitudes of greed for the pleasant, aversion towards the unpleasant, ignorance towards what feels neutral). Objectivity or dispassionateness is then pursued in meditation by reversing these emotional structures: greed becomes generosity and gratitude, aversion becomes friendliness and compassion, ignorance becomes wisdom and understanding. All these positive emotional conditions share a common feature: they are not rooted in a strong sense of self-interest and concern for oneself and one’s own control over experience, but are based on the absence of it.[3]

Philosophers seek objectivity because they assume that being objective means being dispassionate towards a certain object, and being dispassionate means not being biased, and hence seeing clearly. Buddhist meditation shows that in order to become dispassionate, one cannot start from an alleged already available dispassionate faculty (reason), but one has rather to reverse passions themselves first. Buddhist meditation is different from a sheer intellectual contemplation, but it does attribute a key role to perceptions and views that one has over experience and its structure. Being aware that an ontologically independent Self is not something that can be found in experience is a precondition, or a working hypothesis, that allows one to explore how the sense of self is actually constructed. However, since the exploration of groundlessness is tackled from an emotional point of view, this practice never becomes a purely intellectual game of replacing a certain theory with another, but it aims at changing the emotional structures that underpin cognition, by thus modifying the way in which the whole cognitive process works.[4]

Two common objections have been addressed at Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s book. First, meditation does not lead to an objective understanding of experience, since it consists in a manipulation of experience.[5] Second, even if there is no ontologically independent eternal Self, we can still conceptualize a processual and changing self, simply replacing a doubtful view of the former with a more scientific view of the latter. These two objections are connected, and miss the point of the authors (and, more importantly, of Buddhist practice). To the first, it is true that Buddhist meditation manipulates experience, but this is because it rejects the view that ordinary daily experience can be trusted or taken at face value. It does not presuppose that untrained experience is naturally unbiased (in this respect, Husserl and Descartes would agree). Since the default mode in which human beings cognize and understand their experience in a first-person perspective is profoundly biased by attitudes of greed, aversion, and ignorance. These attitudes need to be weakened and possibly abandoned for a more lucid understanding of experience to emerge. As we shall discuss in Lectures Twelve and Thirteen, meditation actively engages and changes experience, and it does so for the good, since not doing so would allow all sorts of biases and factiousness to take over one’s judgment (as is ordinarily the case).

Notice that the issue is not about manipulation itself: philosophy, science, art, and almost all human activities are ways of manipulating experience. Enaction is manipulation. Meditation is no different here. The objection concerns the idea that meditation can reach some form of impartial view or absolutely objective understanding of reality by simply looking ‘inside.’ But this is the wrong way of understanding how meditation works, as we shall discuss below. As Varela, Thompson and Rosch point out in their conclusion, meditation is inextricably connected with the cultivation of emotional attitudes, like compassion, friendliness, generosity. It is this emotional training that counters cognitive biases and yields a more reliable and lucid understanding of experience, and not the turning ‘inward’ that a meditator would allegedly perform. Buddhist meditation, if anything, encourages one to deconstruct the rigid division between ‘inward’ and ‘outward.’[6] Turning ‘inward’ sounds something much more familiar and rooted in the Western understanding of mind and subjectivity, as Taylor pointed out (Lecture Zero).

Concerning the second criticism, Varela, Thompson and Rosch are quite clear about the importance of distinguishing between a processual, transitory, even momentary self, on the one hand, and an ontologically independent, self-standing, eternal Self, on the other. The latter is not found in experience while the second is, and cognitive sciences would agree. Now, the critic would say: what’s the problem? Just get rid of the metaphysical Self and keep the empirical self. It is a matter of revision, not a big revolution. However, the objection misses the link between the sense of self and the emotional structures that shape human experience.

The sense of self is not just a casual addendum to the cognitive makeup, it is deeply engrained in how the whole cognitive system works. In fact, from a Buddhist perspective, insofar as the self is enacted by attitudes of greed, aversion, and ignorance, any living being partaking in these attitudes (and all living beings partake in these attitudes) experiences its own sense of self. As the authors rightly point out, the metaphysical sense of Self does not simply go away because one has read in a research paper that such a Self cannot be found in some cognitive science experiment. In fact, in the beginning at least, that sense of Self does not go away even when one starts meditation practice. Its resilience is due to the fact that a strong sense of Self is not just an imputed agent in one’s experience, but also an object of grasping, a key component interwoven in the structure of greed, aversion, and ignorance. If there is no Self, what’s the point of craving for getting more of this, or getting rid of that, since there is no continuous entity that will underpin this change? Vice versa, if there is strong craving for getting this or getting rid of that, then it will be assumed that ‘I’ will experience the results of this craving, no matter what cognitive science or any other source of information tells me. This view about the reality of a metaphysical Self is so profound and resilient, and so deeply connected with ordinary conative and emotional attitudes, that ancient Buddhist texts consider it as one of the first and most important fetters that needs to be overcome through practice. In fact, from their perspective, achieving this result would already entail having made the first breakthrough towards full awakening.

Simply claiming that one can change a wrong view about the metaphysical Self and replace it with another view entirely overlooks the fact that having a view depends on powerful emotional and conative attitudes. To make any progress on this front it thus becomes paramount to better and more clearly understand why this metaphysical Self is enacted in the first place, what sorts of demands and urges it is meant to satisfy, and whether it does actually satisfy them well, or whether other strategies would ultimately be more effective. Short of engaging with this sort of contemplation, one can surely pretend to think or believe this or that, but such a pretension will do little in terms of actually changing one’s first-person experience. The fact that people might fail to realize that they are not inherently the masters of their thoughts and that they cannot change their views at will, no matter how hard they try, is proof that a person untrained in meditation (regardless of how learned and skilled in other intellectual domains they are) has little familiarity with how their own cognition actually works.

To summarize what has emerged so far, we can say that the enactive approach is a way of exploring a non-adversarial account of experience, in which relations are more fundamental than relata. The sense of self, in particular, is enacted in this way, as part of the autopoietic self-generation of the individual within their environment. In this respect, the self is constitutively relational, because it cannot be encountered or conceptualized as something that stands prior to or at the basis of its own relations with the rest of its world. However, first-person perspective (the perspective through which the self ordinarily looks at and understands experience) seems to reveal just the opposite: I am here, the main character in my own life, my drama. Cognitive science argues that the cognitive processes that underpin the construction of a first-person perspective do not warrant the presence of any ontologically independent Self as their main agent and character. Varela, Thompson and Rosch suggest that Buddhist meditation can offer a disciplined practice for deconstructing the ordinary assumptions that shape first-person perspective and it might ultimately lead to overcoming the opposition between first-person and third-person perspective altogether, by revealing the constructed nature of both.

But we can also push the interrogation about the way in which cognitive science and Buddhist meditation should be integrated further. Is the role of Buddhist meditation just that of providing an experiential backup for scientific findings? Does this mean that Buddhist meditation is somehow naturally akin to a scientific practice itself? And, above all, what are we actually talking about when referring to ‘Buddhist meditation’? Before moving on, we need to bring some clarity to these issues.

  1. One might call the initial phases of phenomenology (coinciding with Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty) ‘classical phenomenology’ in order to indicate that phenomenological thought evolved beyond the original views of its founders, and later siblings might have departed significantly from the initial positions. But these historical developments cannot to be addressed here. Evan Thompson, in particular, stressed in his Introduction to the 2016 revised edition of The Embodied Mind (p. xxii) that their relatively negative judgment about classical phenomenology was unwarranted, and in his own Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (2007), Appendix A (pp. 413-416) Thompson offered a reappraisal of Husserl’s own position. However, when it comes to the point that will be most crucial in our discussion (searching for a disciplined method that could guide both the understanding of how experience unfolds and its reshaping), even Thompson remains fairly general: ‘although I think phenomenology has tended to overemphasize theoretical discussion in the form of textual interpretation (to the neglect of phenomenological pragmatics as well as original phenomenological analyses and philosophical argumentation), I think it is too facile to say simply that phenomenology is a purely abstract, theoretical project lacking a pragmatic dimension’ (Thompson, Mind in Life, 414). On this front, Husserl himself would perhaps have preferred to be accused of being too theoretical, rather than too involved with an actual practice aimed at a soteriological goal (such as the Buddhist one), given that he himself constructed the core difference between his phenomenological science and Buddhist teachings as pivoted around the purely theoretical interest of phenomenology. On this point, see the brilliant essay by Karl Schuhmann, ‘Husserl and Indian Thought’ (2005).
  2. Cf. e.g. SN 22.55: ‘if lust (rāgo) for the phenomenon of form (rūpadhātuyā) has been abandoned (pahīno) by a mendicant, with the abandonment of lust the object is cut off (vocchijjatārammaṇaṃ) and there is no establishment (patiṭṭhā) of consciousness. […] When consciousness is not established in this way, it does not grow, and having nothing more to do, it is freed.’ Contents of experience are not given independently and in their own right, but only as a result of the activity of consciousness. In turn, consciousness works by discerning certain contents in a certain way because of specific intentional attitudes and concerns (ordinarily based on greed, aversion, and ignorance). When (and insofar as) these attitudes fade away, the activity of consciousness fades as well. When (and insofar as) consciousness stops discerning contents of experience, these contents are no longer experienced. Consciousness does not cease to be present, but it ceases to be active, like a clock that stops marking the time. For further discussion, see Andrea Sangiacomo, An Introduction to Friendliness (2022), §7, pp. 313-327.
  3. We shall discuss in greater detail how Buddhist practice is conceived in the older Pāli discourses in Lectures Twelve and Thirteen. For now, these remarks are general enough to apply to various forms of ‘Buddhist meditation,’ in compliance with the use that the authors of The Embodied Mind make of this term.
  4. In their discussion of this point about meditation, Varela, Thompson and Rosch use a common academic strategy: to make the case for introducing X, show that X is both needed and currently missing; and to establish this latter point, show that well-known Y, despite being similar to X, is actually something different. In this case, X is Buddhist meditation practice and Y classical phenomenology. Supporters of the latter will thus have to argue that Y is not that different from X, and hence we do not need X because we already have Y. For those who will perceive meditation practice as something extraneous or alien to the domain (and practice!) of philosophy proper, nuancing the difference will be a way of undermining the case for taking Buddhist meditation seriously (if we already have classical phenomenology, and this performs the same function of meditation, perhaps even better, why bothering with Buddhist meditation?). Hence, nuancing differences can be an exclusivist strategy used to keep perceived alien elements or interlocutors at bay, if not outside of the discussion. This is the reason why, despite all the historical nuances that could be introduced (and the interesting mating of phenomenology and ‘contemplative practices’ in the last few decades, as we shall see in Lecture Two) the rhetorical approach followed in this lecture chooses to stress the difference between Buddhist meditation and classical phenomenology in order to make more apparent what the added value of genuinely including the latter in the discussion is.
  5. For a more extensive discussion on this point, see Richard Legum, ‘Skeptical Doubts about Meditation as Philosophy’ (2022) and Rick Repetti, ‘The Philosophy of Meditation. The Spoken Tao’ (2022).
  6. A core meditation instruction in the Pāli discourses concerns precisely this point (MN 10): ‘[the meditator] dwells observing the body as [just] body in himself (ajjhattaṁ), or observing the body as [just] body outside of himself (bahiddhā), or observing the body as [just] body in himself and outside of himself (ajjhattabahiddhā).’ In another related discourse, a similar point is made in the context of contemplating the element of space (MN 62): ‘the phenomenon of space, either in you or outside of you, is still the same phenomenon of space. That should be seen according to nature (yathābhūtaṃ), with right wisdom (sammappaññāya) thus: ‘this is not mine (netaṃ mama), I am not this (nesohamasmi), this is not my self (na meso attā).’ Having seen that in this way, according to nature and with right wisdom, the understanding (cittaṃ) is wearied of it (nibbindati), and it is induced to be dispassionate (virājeti) about the phenomenon of space.’


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Tragedy of the Self Copyright © 2023 by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.