Practice: Spirituality for the 21st Century

“It is time to reveal humans as the beings who result from repetition”, declares Peter Sloterdijk.


Ever since God drowned in Nietzsche’s writing, a new climate devoid of metaphysics and invigorated by material progress prevailed. But as the unseen fabric of mental health in industrial societies continues to unravel, a collective yearning for a new paradigm is taking shape. The transition from theory to practice may define the 21st century revival of the spiritual impulse. 

Practice is defined here simply as the repetitions that occupy our days. Those recurring actions, large and small, in response to which our neural pathways recreate themselves, and impress patterned responses to life’s chaotic stimuli into our internal wiring. Researchers tell us we spend ~40% of our days performing repetitions, and Annie Dillard reminds us that our lives are clusters, and results, of our practices:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

Commonly, responsibility for how our days are spent is thrust upon the individual. What I do with this particular hour is my choice, subject only to physics, finances, and willpower. This is the great supposed achievement of modern capitalism: the freedom to choose. 

But this neglects a Freudian principle: nested environments condition each other. Freud discovered the influence of the larger unconscious upon the conscious mind, but the same insight has scant been applied to the repetitions that both comprise and create our lives. Sociocultural context exerts unseen influences upon individual practices in this same Freudian fashion. Practice does boil down to the individual, but no practice develops in a vacuum. The broader social, political, and economic contexts in which they develop are imperative to a broader understanding of the practices that define us. This relationship between cultural paradigms and the practices they endow is rarely considered at scale, especially as they relate to mental health.

Practices that take well-being as their focus — call them ‘existential repetitions’ — are rarely considered society’s responsibility. The discipline of economics prides itself on remaining “value-neutral”, leaving consumers full autonomy in their decisions. But there’s a latent hypocrisy here, where the economic realities of work, advertising, and consumption subject us to forms of conditioning that mold the very consciousness that existential repetitions take as their subject. Industrial capitalist culture relegates existential repetitions to diminishing chunks of ‘personal time’, making room for its own, self-serving repetitions that are failing to satisfactorily promote well-being.

If the tenuous seams of mental health in industrial capitalist societies are unraveling, a narrow view of practice suggests a failure of the individual, while a broader view suggests a more complex dynamic that implicates the individual alongside their larger environment.

If practice is the engine of human becoming that Sloterdijk declares it to be, then any inquiry into who we are, or what we might become, must examine individual practice as more than just a matter of personal constitution, but simultaneously as a product of sociocultural context.

 
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The Practice of Work

Sloterdijk invokes Marx, whose critique took aim at these very human-molding tendencies of capitalism: 

“…Marx and the Young Hegelians articulated the theory that man himself produces man…But if man genuinely produces man, it is precisely not through work and its concrete results, not even the ‘work on oneself’ so widely praised in recent times…it is through life in forms of practice.”

My question is how directly, and how dogmatically, rapidly globalizing capitalist culture defines the forms of practice available to us. Are we moving towards autonomy, or conformity?

For example, the form of mindfulness now propagating throughout progressive work-cultures is well suited to preexisting conditions, because it can be fully enacted in a mere 10 minutes in the morning, or even while one sits in their cubicle. Simply remain present to the sensations in your fingertips as they collide with the computer keys. 

But if a contemplative practitioner is to deepen their practice with annual 10-day (or more) retreats, the average American worker’s allotted vacation days — between 8 and 15 — must all be spent.  

The chart includes only full-time workers, who enjoy much greater job security and ability to take time off than most of the 27.3 million¹ part-time workers. 

This friction between typical work schedules and partaking in advanced practice environments suggests a larger point: our existential practices, those we undertake for our own well-being, are forced to adapt to our work schedules, which include sets of practices aiming for little more than subsistence. Existential practices bow to subsistence practices, rather than the other way around. This would be sane, if subsistence were at stake. But we’re prizing subsistence over well-being in an era where the former is — for an increasing share of humans — secured, and the latter deeply insecure. 

The ‘forms of practice’ that shape our lives are predominantly forged at work, and work is increasingly disconnected from existential practices for well-being


Basic Income & Time

This troubling state of affairs is what anarchist & anthropologist David Graeber takes aim at in his splendidly candid book, Bullshit Jobs:

“I would like this book to be an arrow aimed at the heart of civilization. There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves. We have become a civilization based on work…as an end and meaning in itself. We have come to believe that men and women who do not work harder than they wish at jobs they do not particularly enjoy are bad people unworthy of love, care, or assistance…It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement.”

Through a web of narrative accounts and theoretical critiques, Graeber arrives, albeit cautiously, at his corrective proposal: Universal Basic Income. Drawing on Michel Foucault, Graeber suggests that UBI could expunge from today’s capitalism the crippling, psychologically traumatic relations of dominance — forcing and trapping people in undesirable labor, and thus undesirable repetitions with little time to nurture other, existentially-oriented practices. The ideology mirrors that of safewords in BDSM culture, where safewords ensure that all relations are fundamentally voluntary. As things stand, workers can rarely declare “basket!” to a soul-deadening livelihood. 

But viewing humans through the lens of practice, and the role of repetitions in making us who we are, UBI may provide a far more valuable currency than money: time. The relationship between UBI and ‘free time’ — which has come to denote any time not spent at work — is under-explored in positive as well as negative evaluations of the policy. 

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber

While ‘work’ has provided a bedrock for meaning, identity, and community in recent centuries, that doesn’t mean that labor, irrespective of the diminishing existential value it provides, ought to remain the stake to which our existential insecurities are tethered. If labor and subsistence are unwoven, a gulf of time may open up leaving individuals to ask, as they’ve never had time to before, how they’d like to live. For better or worse, individuals could receive greater autonomy in designing their existential repetitions, in designing who they are, and who they will become. 

Maybe Graeber would get his anarchy. Maybe society as we know it would erode. Maybe people aren’t well prepared for larger shares of control over their lives. But to busy ourselves with labor-centric repetitions just because we don’t trust humans enough to design their own repetitions stinks of a fascism that liberal democracy has long considered itself to have outgrown. 


Life Forms of Practice

Work constitutes only one domain — dominant though it may be — of practice. Language, sleep, diet, and exercise are all human practices. How we listen to others in a conversation, how we listen to our own thoughts, how we develop — or dampen — our incipient curiosities; our lives are compartmentalized landscapes of practice that all function in subsurface harmony, like trees spread across a vast forest whose roots commingle in the deep soil, to make us who we are.

Language provides a potent example of how practices — when left unexamined — shape us in ways beyond our attention. The grammatical structures we think in condition how we think about, and even see the world. Language is a practice of perception. Just like work, it’s a subliminal set of unexamined repetitions that, without our consent, is making us into who we are. 

Alan Watts, whose work in cross pollinating philosophies of East and West left books, and a life, of remarkable insight, offers the example between English and Chinese: 

“In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs — so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.”

The persistence of subject-object duality, that sensation of separateness so derided as illusory by mystics and contemplatives, may find its origins in the grammatical structure of the Western languages. If one’s relationship to nature is conditioned by their grammar, it’s no wonder that english speaking, industrial capitalist societies find themselves enshrouded by a grey fog of separateness. Language, as viewed through the lens of practice, is a set of grammatical structures that mold our experience of the stream of consciousness, that fundamental substrate that language perpetually interprets.

The sheer magnitude of practice devoted to repetitions of language, both internally as thoughts and externally as speech, ensures that whatever conditioning language has to offer, we receive it. But what english curriculum includes a study of this relationship between grammatical structure and our relationship to Nature? Or how grammar conditions perception? Without examination, we’re liable to mistake our most widely established practices as facts of reality, rather than systems of repetition open for reinvention. 


Constellations of Practice

Practice is that which conditions human becoming. I cannot escape from seeing practice as the nub of all things. All theory, all knowledge, all of the manifold experiences consciousness encounters as it unfurls across the terrain of a lifetime, it all faces final judgment at the gates of practice, where it either takes root and germinates, or it doesn’t take, and withers away into memory. Emerson wrote that “an action is the perfection and publication of thought”; I wonder if practice is the perfection and publication of experience.  

When undertaken consciously, practice grounds our own becoming in an intentional stance. It curves our unfolding around the substance of our repetitions, like spacetime curving towards a blackhole. 

Sloterdijk follows Nietzsche to view, or dream, that Earth is moving towards becoming the ‘planet of the practicing’, “the planet of those who have begun to give their existence forms and content under vertical tensions in countless programmes of effort.”

Directed tensions are what guide practice. With no God above providing the vertical tension for human practice and pulling the string taught and upward that we sought to ascend, we’re left with a limp string and no direction. Like young children who ask why they must make their beds if it will inevitably be un-made, we may wonder — as they did in the French existentialist cafes — why practice if we will inevitably die and decompose in the ground, rather than heaven. But Sloterdijk suggests that the next frontier, the next tension to direct human practice will come from within: “It is not walking upright that makes humans human; it is rather the incipient awareness of the inner gradient...”

The ‘inner gradient’ is Sloterdijk’s tensor. It offers an internal gradient, or direction, of practice. The new ‘upwards’ is a visceral sensation, “vitality”: 

“Vitality, understood both somatically and mentally, is itself the medium that contains a gradient between more and less. It therefore contains the vertical component that guides ascents within itself, and has no need of additional external or metaphysical attractors…With or without God, each person will only get as far as their form [of practice] carries them.”

The sensation of an inner gradient finds expression in endless linguistic cloaks. Sloterdijk’s vitality doesn’t fall far from American poet Anne Waldman’s vividness, and she adds generosity into the mix: 

“We’re here to disappear, therefore let’s be as vivid and generous as we can.”

Spiritual practice may reorient itself towards a somatic awareness of an inner gradient. An expanded awareness that perceives its own vividness and generosity as the trail markers for progress. 


If I have a point, perhaps it’s to examine the constellation of practices that comprise our lives; to turn our attention to the locomotive force that propels our own becoming.

And not to stop at the level of the individual. To examine our practices is to examine the society in which they grow; to view the norms, policies, and structures of culture as a seedbed of individual repetitions. We should approach the crafting of better practices — and thus better lives — from both ends of the stick, as a symbiotic ecosystem between individuals and collectives.