Performing Meditation: Vipassana and Zen as Technologies of the Self
Carvalho, Antonio Manuel Simoes Lopes Paiva de
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
I wish to publish papers using material that is substantially drawn from my thesis.
The aim of this dissertation is to reflect on technologies of the self, a term coined by Michel Foucault to study western practices of self-formation. Influenced by his work on subjectivity and by Science and Technology Studies (STS), I explore two forms of meditation – Vipassana meditation in the tradition of S. N. Goenka and Thich Nhat Hanh’s practices of mindfulness – in order to analyze the entanglements between technologies, associations and subjectivity. Two research questions guided this study. First, how do Vipassana and Zen assemblages bring forth subjective transformations? Second, what are the politics of meditation practice, considering that Vipassana and Zen perform particular paradigms of subjectivity and aim at transforming the “social”? In order to address these questions, I relied on qualitative research methods, developing a multifaceted methodology that included participant observation at four meditation retreats, semi-structured interviews with meditators, the analysis of relevant literature and my own personal experiences as a beginner. I argue that the mechanisms of subjectification employed by meditation rely on two main devices: the transformation of habitual webs of associations, including couplings between selves, other humans, nonhumans and spaces and the installation of new automatisms. Vipassana and Zen technologies invite subjects to become aware of particular automatisms – regular ways of eating, sitting, walking and breathing - and to direct their attention towards them in novel ways, installing specific ways of managing their selves (stopping and breathing whenever they hear the sounds of bells; developing an attitude of equanimity when they are looking for sensations in their bodies). Vipassana and Zen are mediators that generate new experiences and ways of being informed by meditation, as well as a number of social applications that rely on the paradigmatic changes enacted by these practices. Informed by the dualism between modern and nonmodern, I argue that Zen and Vipassana can be understood as technologies of the nonmodern self (Pickering, 3 2010), suspending the dualism between body and mind, self and others, humans and nonhumans, contributing towards the establishment of nondual paradigms of selfhood and innovative forms of social organization that include new ways of performing human reformation, social action and humanenvironment couplings. The theoretical contributions of this dissertation are threefold. First, I want to extend current STS scholarly work on the self. Second, I want to contribute towards a post-humanist understanding of meditation assemblages. Finally, I am informed by Michel Foucault’s insights on technologies of the self to study meditation, but instead of focusing on the history or genealogy of the western self, I analyze a number of devices of subjectification mobilized to operate subjective changes and to transform the social.
Foundation for Science and Technology, Ministry of Education and Science, Portugal
PhD in Sociology
SFRH / BD / 62928 / 2009