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Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Planet of the Apes: On Restraint, Dignity, and Power

August 16, 2011

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Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Theravadan Buddhist monk, lays it down in Tricycle Magazine with a fabulous article on restraint.

(via wonderful dhamma teacher Mushim Ikeda-Nash.)

When you’re meditating, the same process [of restraint] holds. People sometimes wonder why they can’t get their minds to concentrate. It’s because they’re not willing to give up other interests, even for the time being. A thought comes and you just go right after it without checking to see where it’s going. This idea comes that sounds interesting, that looks intriguing, you’ve got a whole hour to think about whatever you want. If that’s your attitude toward the meditation period, nothing’s going to get accomplished. You have to realize that this is your opportunity to get the mind stable and still. In order to do that, you have to give up all kinds of other thoughts. Thoughts about the past, thoughts about the future, figuring this out, planning for that, whatever: you have to put them all aside. No matter how wonderful or sophisticated those thoughts are, you just say no to them.

YES! Good Lord, it always seems like my best, most nuanced ideas come when I’m trying to meditate. And all I want to do is get up from the floor and go write them down. Or else I’ll forget! And this key conceptual innovation will be lost forever! People will die and movements will perish unless I fully formulate and record this thought!

Underlying this mildly desperate grasping, for me, anyway, is the notion that my ideas, my intellectual products, are my most important features and contributions. “Features” in the sense that they might make me more admirable; “contributions” in the sense that they might make me more useful. If an idea can be articulated, recorded, and disseminated, it will be worth more to a greater number of people than my 60 minutes of calm, settled mind, which are beneficial only to me.

But what Thanissaro Bhikkhu is getting at, I think, is that ways of being — i.e. patience, restraint, generosity, and dignity — can be equally important features and contributions.

I think that in some way, this is borne out through his article itself. He’s talking about patience and dignity, he’s using well-crafted language to describe it, which is lovely and useful. But it is our experiences of beneficial patience, restraint, dignity and generosity that leave more profound impressions on us, and on the ways we engage the world. Observing, emulating, and deliberately cultivating these qualities intervenes more significantly in culture (even on the level of our friendship groups, or workplaces, or organizing committees) than an eloquent description of their beauty.

If that doesn’t grab you, and you still think good ideas are the shit, consider this: a calm mind can act as a stronger foundation for discernment and discriminating thought. So even if we have to let go of some idea-streams in the short term, in the long term we may learn to call on a broader range of faculties in determining which ideas are worthy of extended investigation. We may find that we need to ‘chase’ good ideas less, and instead allow them to arise and show themselves in our minds.

I do have one quibble with Thanissaro’s article, though. While I completely agree that much of consumer culture pushes us toward instant gratification, I also think there are a few vital exceptions to this rule: examples of toxic, twisted imperatives toward “restraint” that illustrate important truths about economics, politics, and gender.

Exception 1: The Dieting Industry

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Each year, people in the U.S. spend $40 billion on “weight loss programs and products.” On one hand, it’s true that “restraint” does not figure too overtly into the industry vocab. On the contrary, I think, we often see a marketing strategy of “indulgence.” The health bar that tastes like a candy bar! Sumptuous weight-loss meals prepared and delivered to your door!

Underlying the whole charade, however, is an intense social and political monitoring of people’s bodies: particularly women, queers, and fat people. The logic goes, If you eat burgers, fries, and ice cream all day and have an apparently thin body, More Power To You! But if you are fat, then no matter what you may be eating (or “claiming to eat”), you are gross and need to cut back. Show some restraint! Have some dignity! Stop eating those tacos, wetback beauty queen! Then buy summa this herbal weight-loss supplement.

Exception 2: Work

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I’ll put this bluntly: most people have to work shitty jobs that involve significant amounts of “restraint” or discipline. Don’t take an angry tone with customers; even jerks aggressively hitting on you while you’re at work. Take one 10-minute break every 6 hours. Be a good employee; don’t make demands; don’t make trouble. Risk repetitive-strain injuries in order to keep up with the pace set by management.  You want to keep this job, right?

For teachers and non-profit workers: sacrifice your personal life to log ever-longer hours.  Don’t listen to what your body wants; push yourself harder. You care, don’t you?

Exception 3: Law

“Undesirable” (im)migrant communities who come to the U.S., economically displaced from their homes, get hella shamed for their supposed lack of ‘restraint’ or respect for the law. “Why can’t they wait their turn for citizenship like everyone else?”

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Political militants often draw similar criticisms.  Yesterday at the BART protest spearheaded by “hacktivist” group Anonymous, a couple hundred people took to the streets, impatient with BART police for one reason or another. (Some said “Free Speech;” some said “Disarm BART;” some said “Cops, Pigs, Murderers.”) While anti-police demos resonate with oppressed groups in many corners of the globe, they also inevitably draw criticisms about inappropriate behavior (not acquiring permits through the proper channels, chanting angry and unsavory messages, looting, burning, etc.) and inconveniencing others (in this case, commuters).  In a word, protesters are painted as unwilling to restrain themselves.

Worldwide ruling-class norms around acceptable protest (variable from region to region, but generally shunning property destruction, mass work stoppage, and looting) lead to worldview clashes like the (racialized) difference between a riot and an insurrection. Whereas the British Prime Minister will attribute the UK rioting to “a culture of violence, a lack of respect vis-à-vis the authorities,” working-class sympathizers might see it as a response to systematic violence and exploitation. In a racist, capitalist system, police are paid to protect property, the status quo, and the interests of the wealthy.

See what I’m getting at here? Sometimes, the concept of “restraint” is just another way of saying “Stay In Your Place.” Knowing one’s place is a matter of ‘respectability,’ which does not always foster dignity, and may in fact undermine it.

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Last night some friends and I watched two (count ’em — two!) Planet of the Apes movies: the newly released James Franco experience, and the 1972 Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which lends the quote and image to the above graphic. Both films tell the story of how the transition began from human rule to ape domination on Earth. Whereas Conquest depicts humans brutally training apes as servant/slaves, the modern Rise of the POTA shows a much more literal scene, where pharmaceutical corporations chase megaprofits by testing risky neurodrugs on chimpanzees. And in each, the leader/protagonist ape, Caesar, demonstrates the type of restraint and dignity necessary for survival and revolt.

In the 1972 version, Caesar must quite literally restrain himself from speaking, lest he expose himself as the world’s only talking ape, a mythical figure predicted to catalyze the overthrow of humans by their simian brethren. After an impassioned outburst against brutal human-on-ape violence, Caesar is forced to part from his sympathetic circus trainer and disguise himself as a non-speaking chimp among the other apes being violently trained as servants. Horrified by the brutality, Caesar begins to secretly organize the other apes, and together they steal the knives, firearms, blowtorches and other weapons necessary to stage an insurrection.

Today’s Caesar has a different relationship to verbal language, and his relationship to restraint and dignity is subtler. Key moments include his repeated refusal of the safe life of a pet, choosing instead to remain with his fellow oppressed apes. Rather than getting caught up in intra-ape beef, Caesar patiently wins the trust of the other incarcerated chimps and gorillas, with the understanding that “Alone, ape weak. Together, ape strong.”

So what does all this have to do with Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s article?

I’m just interested in the relationship between restraint + dignity and building power. If we focus too much on the ways that our consumer culture encourages greed, do we lose sight of the ways that capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and racism also constrain our meaningful choices? How can we contextualize restraint in a radical way? What about the dignity borne of doing, rather than refraining?

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