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Monday, January 31, 2011

The (Zen) Buddhist Heart of I ♥ Huckabees

The previous post about meditation reminded me of a film I like a lot, I ♥ Huckabees. As it turns out, I have written a paper on the film with the above title for the Journal of Religion and Film. The paper was written in late 2007-early 2008, before I began my PhD research. It represents the very broad contours of the preliminary ideas for my dissertation, which at the moment is titled, 'Buddhism, cultural theory, and the politics of spirituality'.


The film's director David O. Russell has said in an interview that the film is influenced by various philosophical ideas, including Nietzsche and existentialism. But first and foremost, he says the film is influenced by Zen. Russell was exposed to Buddhism via Robert Thurman in college and subsequently got into Zen Buddhism. As I mention in the paper, in addition to the many Zen references, there are also possible connections to Tibetan Buddhist ideas. Anyway, you could read the article if you are interest. 


I want to reiterate that the paper presents some of the earliest developments of my research. To be honest, looking back at it, I do feel somewhat self-conscious and a little embarrassed about what I've written. Such feelings may be unwarranted, but hey, this seems to be something that many writers experience: constantly feeling dissatisfied with what they have done before. I wonder why. Do you feel like that too, if you are in the business of writing or other sorts of crafting?


I also want to point out that the Buddhist ideas I present in the paper are largely from the Mahayana tradition. I do not practice in the Mahayana as such. Rather, my Buddhist practice--the formal aspect of the practice like meditation, anyway--are rooted in the Theravada, which I appreciate for the practical advice it offers for day-to-day practice. While I have an interest in the different approaches to Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, or otherwise, I've only had face-to-face interactions with teachers and students in the Theravada. So, I prefer to consider 'Buddhism' (a unified category reified by Western scholarship of the nineteenth century) as a constellation, or better, an ecology of schools, lineages, knowledges and practice rather than a monolithic tradition. That is, 'Buddhism' is composed of various living traditions evolving in relation to one another and to its host environments. 


On this note, I anticipate that some readers, depending on their favoured lineage(s) of practice, may take issue with some of the Buddhist ideas I represent in the paper. I acknowledge that some of those ideas are contested within and across different schools. I also acknowledge that I have presented them in a simplified manner. But please understand that the paper is written for a general audience. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, the aim of the paper is not so much to explicate the critical debates surrounding different interpretations of Buddhism, but to use the film to hypothesise about the relevance of Buddhist ethics and spirituality for some of the ethico-political conundrums facing us today--whatever arguments and counterarguments about the notion of 'interconnectivity', that's for another discussion.


So, here are some clips from the movie. I share them as they pick up on what I highlighted in the previous post (and comments) about some of the common (mis)perceptions of meditation. As the director Russell puts it, he wanted to debunk the notion that meditation is something mystical. And as I've suggest previously, there's also the common perception that meditation is about turning 'inwards' as a means to detach oneself from worldly affairs, as a means to seek comfort from the challenges of everyday existence. But meditation is really about learning to see what is happening in our body-mind right now--it is not 'other-worldly' or 'transcendental' as such. This is what Russell attempts to portray in the film. 


POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD


This is a good scene which I think parodies one of the common misperceptions of meditation. In the clip,  Isabelle Huppert (always a joy to see her) also touches on some points about the unsatisfactory nature of existence that are consonant with Buddhist ideas, although her views in the film are somewhat nihilistic:





There are a few scenes in the following clip. They all demonstrate what the film calls the philosophy of 'universal interconnectivity'. I suggest in the paper that this is an allusion to the metaphor of Indra's Net, a key teaching of the Huayen school of Chinese Buddhism.. Anyway, what I like about this is how the film uses a body bag to demonstrate how it is like when one attempts to meditate: one is invariably confronted by a barrage of thoughts which can sometimes be very strange, annoying, if not discomforting!





And finally, I read this bit as an allusion to the Zen practice of koans, paradoxical questions or statements which meditators contemplate to unsettle the rational mind and all its self-satisfied assumptions. This is said to displace the deluded sense of a fixed 'self'. A famous example is 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?' But it can be something as simple as 'What is this?' or as the film puts it 'How am I not myself?'





A very pertinent question I think, whether we are Buddhist or not: How am I not myself?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Observing discomfort: an extrapolative reading of 'religious' Foucault, Vipassana meditation and Buddhist social theory

I am working on a paper which extrapolates on the possible relationships between a 'religious' Foucault, Vipassana meditation, and Buddhist social theory. I am surprisingly enjoying the writing process (I usually procrastinate a lot when writing). Maybe it's because I have been developing these ideas for a long time. So, given how part of the purpose of this blog is to shape my public academic persona, and hopefully engage with an audience outside of academia, here is the outline of the paper:
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Vipassana Meditation offers free ten-day courses on the practice of vipassana (‘to see things the way they are’). Although it is based on orthodox Buddhist principles the movement does not identify with Buddhism, but instead describes the practice as a ‘non-sectarian technique’ which aims at ‘self-transformation through self-observation.’1 Its claims notwithstanding, Vipassana can be reasonably positioned as a form of ‘Western Buddhism’ (although given the contemporary globalised milieu, it is better described as a form of 'global Buddhism'). To this extent, it is subject to Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism which, he argues, reflects ‘the onslaught of New Age “Asiatic” thought’ that ‘is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism’; Western Buddhism is ‘the fetish which enables you to (pretend to) accept reality “the way it is”’.2 On Zizek’s account, the seemingly ethical and liberating gesture of ‘self-transformation’ merely provides a false sense of comfort in the neoliberal environment. The Western Buddhist meditative stance, he argues, ‘is the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.’3

This paper, however, argues that Buddhist meditative stance can in fact be quite discomforting. In a Vipassana course, practitioners are not allowed to read nor write, observe silence for nine days, take only two meals a day (lunch before noon), and spend up to ten hours daily in seated meditation. If anything, Vipassana requires one to confront a great deal of physical and mental discomfort--if not engendered by the conditions of the course then from the sheer challenge of sustaining non-grasping, non-judgemental attention on a body-mind accustomed to stimulation and distraction rather than stillness. The aim is to generate insight into the Buddhist doctrine of anicca or impermanence, so as to decondition the habitual tendencies of the ‘Three Poisons’, greed, ill-will, and delusion, believed to be the roots of dukkha or existential discontent. Buddhism posits that in understanding anicca and relinquishing the Three Poisons, one is liberated from dukkha. This paper seeks to theorise the ethico-political implications of Vipassana. Contra Zizek, it argues that the Buddhist meditative stance potentially challenges neoliberal values. To do so, I draw on ‘Buddhist social theory’ which extends the concept of dukkha to social dukkha. Rendered thus, existential discontent is both a personal and social condition to be overcome. Accordingly, the Three Poisons are not merely personal habitual tendencies, but are also located at a broader socio-cultural level in various discursive and institutional practices such as transnational corporatism (greed), the military-industrial complex (ill-will), and the manufacturing of consent in the media (delusion).4 Buddhist social theory therefore aligns the soteriological schema of the Three Poisons with the view widely accepted across the humanities—and incisively demonstrated by the Foucauldian schema of knowledge-power-subject—that the self is constituted by socio-cultural forces.

Buddhist social theory, however, does not articulate its critique in Foucauldian terms even though it has been noted that Buddhism could appropriate ‘the Foucauldian scenario to explain the Three Poisons in contemporary terms, and thus better expose their clandestine operation in American society today [and by extension neoliberal politics and other late-capitalist societies].’5 From this perspective, Buddhist meditation not only allows individuals to recognise and interrogate the Three Poisons at the personal level, but also to recognise and interrogate the broader discursive practices or relations of power that constitute the neoliberal subject. If this is indeed the case, then, the Buddhist meditative stance performs an ethico-political function as much as a soteriological one. Interestingly, Foucault appears to have anticipated this reading when he commented on his brief experience of Buddhist meditation: ‘...if I have been able to feel something... then that something has been new relationships which can exist between the mind and the body, and moreover, new relationships between the body and the external world.’6 Foucault is commenting on Zen Buddhism but given that Zen meditation shares some general principles with Vipassana it is not unreasonable to extrapolate on Foucault’s comments. This paper will therefore situate Vipassana within both Buddhist social theory and a 'religious' Foucauldian framework assembled around the themes of ‘spiritual corporality’ and ‘political spirituality’,7 so as to investigate the cultural politics of Buddhist meditation. 



2 Slavoj Zizek, On Belief, New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 12; 15.
3 Zizek, p. 13.
4 Ken Jones, The Social Face of Buddhism: An Approach to Political and Social Activism, Boston: Wisdom, 1989; David Loy, The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, Boston: Wisdom, 2003.
5 Robert Magliola, Review of ‘Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy: Two Paths of Liberation from from the Representational Mode of Thinking’, Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 24, 2004, p. 297.
6 Michel Foucault, ‘Michel Foucault and Zen: A Stay in a Zen Temple’, Religion and Culture, edited by Jeremy Carrette, London; New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 112-3.
7 Jeremy Carrette, Foucault and Religion: Spiritual Corporality and Political Spirituality, New York: Routledge, 2000.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Critically reflexive, you and I

In an article I've written to be published in the forthcoming edition of the Cultural Studies Review, I make the argument that the participants of a Buddhist forum I visit are engaging in what has been called vernacular theory, an idea posited by Thomas McLaughlin in his book, Street Smarts and Critical Theory: Listening to the Vernacular

Vernacular theory is articulated in ‘ordinary language’ and ‘does not differ in kind from academic theory’—accordingly, academic theory should then not be seen as ‘an elitist and totalising activity, but as a rigorous and scholarly version of a widely practiced analytical strategy’ (McLaughlin, p. 6). In other words, it is not only so-called professional intellectuals who are capable of 'theorising.' Vernacular theory can be found in, for example, the working knowledge that nurses develop in providing healthcare. Their ideas about healthcare are shaped by their day-to-day experiences at the workplace and may sometimes coincide or contrast with the theories produced by healthcare academics and institutions. However, the vernacular theories about healthcare would not usually be recognised as legitimate ‘theory’. Vernacular theory can also be found amongst the discourses produced in fan communities--e.g. Star Trek fans speculating about the science of the TV series, Harry Potter fans exchanging fan-fiction, psychonauts using discussion forums to learn how to use psychoactive substances safely and responsibly, etc. In this sense, vernacular theory is akin to Foucault’s idea of ‘subjugated knowledge’, which he characterises as ‘an autonomous, non-centralised kind of theoretical production’, a kind of knowledge articulated under ‘the tyranny of globalising discourses’ (Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, p. 81-3).

If this is the case, then, the act of being 'critical' or 'to critique' equally applies to non-academics as well. But what does it mean to be 'critical' or 'to critique'? Following Ian Hunter's suggestions in 'The critical disposition: some historical configurations of the humanities', there are four ways of understanding the term 'critical' or the critical attitude (p. 27):

  1. In the commonly used sense of the word, to be critical refers to fault-finding. As Hunter puts it, it refers to 'any negative comment about anything made on the basis of whatever motive, belief or knowledge.' e.g. 'That guy there making homophobic remarks is a prick!' :-)
  2. The notion of being critical can refer 'to a relatively specialised discipline or group of disciplines that can be associated with a fairly technical appreciation of aesthetic genre and technique.' e.g. 'literary/art/film criticism'
  3. The broad field of criticism found in various public figures or movements. e.g. policy experts making evaluations of governmental policies, Amnesty International disavowing certain political actions, or cultural critics like Germaine Greer making comments about a TV show like Big Brother, etc.
  4. To be critical in the Kantian and post-Kantian sense. As Hunter puts it, this 'requires a mistrust or suspension of experiential judgements as a means to look for their conditions in us.' e.g. the various forms of academic critical theory that adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion.


Following what I've suggested about vernacular theory, the above four forms of critical attitude applies to you and I, regardless of whether we are academics or not. It may be obvious how the critical attitude in 1-3 are adopted by everyday folks (we've all stroked our chins over our favourite film/song/book and clicked our tongues at various public issues, haven't we?). It is less obvious how 4 is relevant to us.


As I understand it, the critical attitude in 4 is a kind of critical reflexivity, an ethos or sensibility. I encounter such an ethos in Buddhism, but whether I honour this ethos faithfully or not is another question. In any case, regardless of whether one is a Buddhist or not, I think such a critical ethos is invaluable because it is related to freedom, to our ability to choose, to the possibility for things to be otherwise--for going beyond what appears to be the 'limits' of the present. In his reading of (post)Kantian critique, found in his much cited essay 'What is Enlightenment?', Foucault describes the critical ethos as:


a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task (p. 39).


Picking up on this, the book Awakening-Struggle: Towards Buddhist Critical Social Theory suggests that critique 'contains an impulse to go beyond the present, to experiment with the possibility of going beyond, or to at least imagine how things might be different' (p. 47).


If you are interested in Buddhism too, doesn't this resonate with the Buddhist idea of how inquiring deeply into the present reality of dukkha is the first step for things to be otherwise, to come out of dukkha? But again, I do not think that this applies only to Buddhists. I think such a critical ethos is relevant to everyone insofar as we want to embody change, for things to be otherwise. Let me again quote Foucault who suggests that critique:


consists in seeing what kinds of self-evidences, liberties, acquired and non-reflective modes of thought, the practices we accept rest on... Criticism consists in driving this thought out of hiding and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as we might believe, doing it in such a way that what we accept as going without saying no longer goes without saying. To criticize is to render the too-easy gestures difficult ('Is it really important to think?' p. 33-34).


So perhaps, as much as I sometimes enjoy calling others a prick or stroking my chin, maybe this ethos of critical reflexivity--especially when turned on myself--is that which really change things?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Probing the boundaries of faith and reason

In the post written about friends I mentioned in passing how recent public discourses of astrophysics and what they suggest about the cosmos have prompted in me a sense of curiosity, wonderment, and even awe. I'd like to ponder further on this by taking a slight detour to highlight some points from the essay, Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason


The author Martin Verhoeven suggests that with the development of nuclear capabilities in the mid-twentieth century an air of ambivalence developed around scientific knowledge--sentiments amplified by the Cold War and colourfully expressed in entertainment genres like science fiction B-flicks and superhero comics, for instance. Increasing doubt also developed within the scientific community itself as various fields of science embarked on an internal re-examination of their foundations and claims to truth. Verhoeven suggests that with the pioneering work of such figures as Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, and Sir Arthur Eddington, the foundations of classical scientific thought began to crumble; he writes

With the "new science" that started to emerge in the post-World War II era, the observer and the observed could not be presumed separate and distinct. Gone too was the neat subject/object distinction that had come to define classical science. This shift away from the study of the "outside" objective world of nature to the "inner" subjective world of the observer is a hallmark of the new science. As Heisenberg observed, “Even in science, the object of research is no longer nature itself, but man’s investigation of nature.”

One important figure to articulate this shift in paradigm in scientific thought was of course Thomas Kuhn who, as Verhoeven puts it, sought to demolish ‘the logical empiricist and purist view that science personified the impartial progression towards a universal truth.’ Leaving aside the specifics of his arguments, Kuhn’s critique illustrates the wider shift in attitudes about science that had begun from as early as the 1940s, a growing sense that science may not have the absolute answers or authority. In such a context, several prominent scientists began to evoke the wisdom of the East to rearticulate the tenets of science. Hence, we find Niels Bohr making comparisons between the teachings of the Buddha and particle physics. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, is said to have recognised the parallels between Buddhist thought and the conundrums of particle physics, purportedly remarking that: ‘If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say 'no;' if we ask whether the electron's position changes with time, we must say 'no;' if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say 'no;' if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say 'no.' The Buddha has given such answers when interrogated as to the conditions of man's self after his death; but they are not familiar answers for the tradition of seventeenth and eighteenth-century science.’ 


A Nobel Prize winning physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, also appears to have paid homage to Buddhism by calling his theory of elementary particles the Eightfold Way, named after the Buddhist idea of the Eightfold Path. Yet another physicist to evoke the parallels between Eastern wisdom traditions (including Buddhism) is Fritjof Capra, whose The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism built on Bohr’s and Oppenheimer’s claims to argue that the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism offered insights into the ultimate nature of reality (The Tao of Physics would set off a popular trend of books using the same allusion to ‘The Tao’ to promote Eastern spirituality and its application in various aspects of contemporary culture; e.g. The Tao of Pooh, The Tao of Leadership, etc). For Verhoeven, these shifts in the discursive framing of science suggest that where late-Victorian proponents of religious thought turned to Buddhism to make religion amenable to science, we now see the reverse such that ‘science is seeking Buddhism to stake out its spiritual or metaphysical claims.’

Many scientists would no doubt take issue with Verhoeven's claims. I do not have the knowledge to say whether science is indeed turning to Buddhism (or any other traditions) to stake out its spiritual or metaphysical claims--I'm guessing that some scientists would be uncomfortable with the idea of 'the spiritual'. But regardless of whether science is turning to Buddhism or not, it seems to me that the discoveries of the astrophysical sciences are quite possibly brushing up against the limits of what can be known with the conceptual schema of 'physics'. It seems to me that even as the astrophysical sciences become more detailed and precise with their observations and calculations of how the universe works, there is always yet some aspect that remains unknown, indeterminate, and possibly unknowable and indeterminable about the universe, existence, space-time and everything else in between. Take for instance the notion of dark matter which, although inferred as making up 80% of the universe, remains a highly elusive concept. This concept of dark matter represents for me the unknowingness that is not merely that which is yet to be known, but that which is the co-presence of what is knowable. 


Again, I must say that I'm not very knowledgable when it comes to matters of science. What general knowledge I have about astrophysics has come from the Internet and from TV programs, especially those by the British astrophysicist Brian Cox. It is through my encounters with these forms of scientific discourse that I've felt a sense of wonderment and awe. These media and entertainment texts arouse in me a curiosity and interest in the great unknowingness that is the universe. For me, this curiosity about unknowingness can be very powerful insofar as it provides the conditions of possibility for feelings of awe and wonderment to arise. And such feelings, for me, are important for arousing faith and hope.


To come back to Verhoeven's article: leaving aside the question about the relationship between Buddhism and science, I think he does raise an interesting point about the boundaries between faith and reason. Science, if I may generalise things, has traditionally been about ascertaining facts about the world and the space beyond, and about solving the practical problems facing humanity. To this extent, science has typically been positioned on the side of 'reason' against 'faith' which, insofar as it is directed at other-worldly concerns, belongs to the realm of religion. Such an opposition turns on what I feel is a simplistic notion of faith which is conflated with unthinking, fervent and clinging belief. Given how I am trying to rethink faith--as I've suggested in the previous two posts about Christmas and friendship I'd like to think of it as related to ethics, responsibility and hope--I do not subscribe to such an opposition between reason and faith. But to what extent is contemporary science receptive to faith, to a reconsideration of the relationship between reason and faith? 


It appears that in recent times there is indeed a growing desire to rethink the relationship between religion and science, between faith and reason--see for example, Adam Frank. On a more personal level, how does faith relate to reason? I suppose most of us are clear about what reason involves (I suppose our understanding of reason is very much the legacy of the European Enlightenment). Faith, on the other hand, is a hazy concept. For some of us, it may even be quite meaningless. But why should this be so? Just because religious nutheads choose to misuse and abuse a narrow conception of faith--and thus incite critics to denounce faith--doesn't mean that it has no relevance for our lives whatsoever (I'm assuming you are not a religious nuthead). Taking the hypothesis that faith is indeed related to ethics, responsibility and hope,  a reasoned, undogmatic faith rather than an unreasoned, dogmatic faith might serve to support our efforts at clarifying this-worldly ethical dilemmas confronting us as a shared humanity, dilemmas that demand of us, if things are to be otherwise, the duty to be honest about our intentions and to act with fidelity to our intentions--the very behaviour that is so lacking not only in institutional religions but also in governments and corporations. 


So how might we conceptualise faith? What is faith? Perhaps we could start with everyday sentiments which I'm guessing most people have expressed regardless of whether they are 'religious' or 'spiritual' or not:  what do we mean when we say 'In good faith' or 'Yours faithfully'?


Well.... on that note, Glee has performed a cover, but I still prefer the original:



Thursday, January 6, 2011

What is spirituality (part 2)? 'Know yourself < Care of oneself'

One of the ways in which I'm attempting to reconceptualise 'spirituality' is via Foucault's late work on ancient/classical Greek ethical knowledge-practices collected in the series of lectures entitled, The Hermeneutics of the Subject. Picking up on the ideas introduced in the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality, Foucault begins the series of lecture by drawing attention to the ancient/classical Greek idea of gnōthi seauton (know yourself) and its relationship to epimeleia heautou (care of oneself).

The precept or rule of gnōthi seauton, inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, can be said to be a founding expression of philosophy, or Western thought at any rate. This precept certainly appears around the character of Socrates, regarded of course as one of the founders of Western philosophy. Foucault, however, points out that for Socrates (and in fact right through Hellenistic and Roman times) the precept of 'know yourself' was intimately tied with another precept of 'care of oneself.' This is what Foucault writes of the two precepts as they appeared in ancient/classical Greek discourses (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, p. 4-5; emphasis added):

Now not always, but often, and in a highly significant way, when this Delphic precept (this gnōthi seauton) appears, it is coupled or twinned with the principle of "take care of yourself" (epimeleia heautou). I say "coupled," "twinned." In actual fact, it is not entirely a matter of coupling. In some texts... there is, rather, a kind of subordination of the expression of the rule "know ourself" to the precept of care of the self. The gnōthi seauton ("know yourself") appears, quite clearly and again in a number of significant texts, within the more general framework of the epimeleia heautou ("care of oneself") as one of the forms, one of the consequences, as a sort of concrete, precise, and particular application of the rule: You must attend to yourself, you must not forget yourself, you must take care of yourself. The rule "know yourself" appears and is formulated within and at the forefront of this care [Foucault then points out how in Plato's The Apology of Socrates--widely regarded as the most reliable source of information about the historical figure--Socrates appears as the person whose 'essential, fundamental, and original function, job, and position is to encourage others to attend to themselves, take care of themselves, and not neglect themselves.'].  

Reading about this was a real eye-opener for me. Regardless of whether one is trained in philosophy or not, I'm pretty sure that most people are familiar with the precept of 'know yourself.' I have encountered this precept of 'know yourself' in different philosophical and/or religious traditions, Eastern, Western, or whatever. And I suspect many people would, to some degree or another, hold this precept in high regard--I certainly do. This is a general sentiment that I've come across not only in Western thought but also in Buddhism, with its emphasis on self-reflection, meditation, contemplation, and so forth (though I can't say for sure the phrase 'know yourself' as such is found in canonical Buddhist discourses).

In any case, in pursuing Buddhism for the past six years or so, I have gradually come to feel that even in Buddhism the notion of the 'care of oneself' takes precedence over that of 'know yourself.' I can't say if this is something that has been influenced by my study of Foucault which occurred concurrently with my pursuit of Buddhism. But in any event it doesn't really matter. This is how my experience has panned out and this is what I'm curious about now. 

I'm still figuring this out, possibly making things up as I go along.... While I can't quite articulate it just yet, the emphasising of 'care of oneself' over and above 'know yourself' has had quite a powerful effect on me, reorienting the way I approach knowledge vis-a-vis the self and my attitude to life in general. Hence, the use of the mathematical symbol < (less than) in the title to express how I think of the relationship between the two; mathematical symbols make things look profound and sexy, don't you think :-). Anyway, I'm speculating that the subordination of 'know yourself' to 'care of oneself' can offer a way of reconceptualising and remobilising the notion of 'spirituality'; I'm still thinking this through, though. In any case, until I clarify my thoughts, here's how Foucault delineates three key points about the notion of 'care of oneself' (p. 10-11; emphasis added):

  • First, the theme of a general standpoint, of a certain way of considering things, of behaving in the world, undertaking actions, and having relations with others. The epimelea heautou is an attitude towards the self, others, and the world;

  • Second, the epimelea heautou is also a certain form of attention, of looking. Being concerned about oneself implies that we look away from the outside to... I was going to say "inside." Let's leave to one side this word, which you can well imagine raises a host of problems, and just say that we must convert our looking from the outside, from others and the world, etc, towards "oneself." The care of the self implies a certain way of attending to what we think and what takes place in our thought. The word epimeleia is related to meletē, which means both exercise and meditation.

  • Third, the notion of epimeleia does not merely designate this general attitude or this form of attention turned on the self. The epimeleia also always designates a number of actions exercised on the self by the self, actions by which one takes responsibility for oneself and by which one changes, purifies, transforms, and transfigures oneself. It involves a series of practices, most of which are exercises that will have a very long destiny in the history of Western culture, philosophy, morality, and spirituality. These are, for example, techniques of meditation, of memorization of the past, of examination of conscience, of checking representations which appear in the mind, and so on.

So why is it that while the rule of 'know yourself' remains widely esteemed, the principle of 'care of oneself' has been forgotten? How might we go about reconsidering the role of 'care of oneself' in contemporary times, and especially its implications for how we engage with those knowledge-practices (e.g. digital media, porn, drugs, etc) unique to our times? When coupled or twinned, what do the two precepts of 'care of oneself' and 'know yourself' imply for our relationship to 'truth'? What, in other words, do they imply about 'knowledge' and 'truthfulness'--two interrelated terms where the former doesn't necessarily lead to the latter?

[BTW, I do not think that these precepts are unique to Western thought. But given how Western thought in general has (at least since the 1800s) strongly influenced global outlooks, I think it is helpful to take Western philosophical assumptions as starting points for reconsidering how we've habitually made sense of life and the world, regardless of whether we come from a 'Western' cultural background or not.]