A man believes that he is a grain of seed. He is taken to a mental institution, where the doctors do their best finally to convince him that he is not a grain, but a man. No sooner has he left the hospital than he comes back, very scared, claiming that there is a chicken outside the door, and he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed, but a man.” “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken?”
This joke is told by Alenka Zupancic in The Odd One In: On Comedy. She says that what is at stake here is the post Enlightenment assertion: I know very well, but nevertheless…. (I know very well that there is no God, nevertheless I pray that God will save me from this awful situation, pluck me out of this shit hole). She traces a thread of connection between Hegel and Lacan, between the Phenomenology of Spirit and the concept of the Other. Her twisting of the skeins is provocative, she takes a paradox and plays it as though it were a queen of hearts or seven of spades, the paradoxes proliferate, the tricks are blindingly spectacular. Is it sleight of hand or logic refined to the nth degree?
Yet there is something left over for me, something that she doesn’t directly address though perhaps it lurks and swims around in the lower depths of the joke. What is left over is fear, a kind of fear embedded in category confusion and realized most obviously in phobias, but also in simple fears like the fear of dying. It’s not just me and the chicken, me and the other, but there is a third term: this thing, this grain of seed or let’s call it a corn kernel. Self and Other, these terms are mobilized in a circuit of exchange involving Other Things, and at some stage this circuit involves (or threatens) consumption, and disappearance or annihilation.
I came to chickens and to Buddhism at roughly the same time. Not entirely true, I grew up with chickens, and as an adult have had chickens in my life whenever possible, so in part I was enacting a repetition of the familiar (rather than the sense of discovery implied in the notion of “coming to.” But my relation to chickens has been very different this time). Buddhism was not familiar. After coming to political consciousness as a teenager I settled into an habitual semi-conscious cynicism about religion, or let’s just say faith, or spirit with either a small or large S. But in Shambhala I have found myself sometimes in a not-unfamiliar place. Not the place of religion, but of therapy, specifically psycho-therapy. Another form of repetition, therefore.
Chickens became an obsession when I was pretty unwell and heading into my first treatment. It was hard to work and to write and to do research, actually it was simply hard to find the energy to focus for long on anything. But oddly enough I was able not only to focus on chickens but to allow the chicken world to consume me. It became a totally encompassing obsession. (You can read about this in the piece “Chickens saved my Life”). Obsession, I’m convinced, is potentially curative. It is a form of denial certainly, a delusional projection, an enactment of repetition in the face of death. But it works. Sometimes it works. It takes your mind off things, prevents you from succumbing to another competing repetition, to the mantra of despair, or worse – of resignation.
If we want to use the language of psychoanalysis we might say that chickens are the way the subject’s unconscious (and her relation to herself) are externalized.
Cancer brought me to meditation. I signed up to Shambhala (a version of Buddhism) in order to learn some techniques for meditation. There is no doubt that meditation is a way of calming the body, reducing stress, promoting the anti-toxins, giving energy. Science tells us this though anyone who has meditated can tell you the same thing (still, the scientific writings are fascinating, keep a look out for the coming blog on the “bliss” app). But when I started going to Shambhala I found that the “techniques” of meditation were not so separable from the “ethos” of this version of Buddhism. One way of looking at this is to say that you bring into meditation a whole lot of baggage, and meditation itself shakes loose the careful packing (or repression), interferes with habitual patterns, throws into the unconscious—in slow motion—a Molotov cocktail. “Baggage” has become a remarkably familiar term in everyday language, it’s the kind of language that makes me squeamish. And indeed there are aspects of the Shambhala training that have induced squeemishness (many new age therapeutic models such as mindfulness training draw on and are heavily influenced by varieties of Buddhism, and then in turn varieties of Buddhism adapted to a western environment, borrow the familiar new-age language). Sometimes I have yearned for a more severe practice, for what I imagine the spartanness of Zen to be. But then I remind myself that after all I am not Tibetan, like others in the room I am a predictable westerner looking to Buddhism to change something. So I tell myself this: suck it up.
I came to meditation hoping to find a way of being more at peace in the world (and therefore healthier, better able to fight the cancer). Of course once you start shaking that can of hope around the worms all come squirming out. And you find that you are faced with the phantoms of repetition. And you would like to change, quite simply (and even though it makes me squirm to say it) you would like to be a better person. Being more at peace might also have pay offs – for those around you, those who suffer the importunate blasts of bad temper, inveterate quibbling, acerbic barbs exploded randomly, not to mention hardly-muted envy.
Squirm and quease. Buddhism has in common with psycho-therapy a serious engagement with the unconscious (even though the word “unconscious” may not occur). Often the distinction is made between acknowledgement (just letting it come to the surface, letting it be) and analysis (analyzing dreams, jokes, stories, memories and so on). This distinction is hard to maintain but let us put aside this objection for the moment. Some of the Shambhala trainings are built on a dyadic structure. In a workshop you are given a question, or situation, and then the group divides into pairs. The first person has five minutes to speak (or not). The other person listens, they are not to respond in any way, they should not smile or offer encouragement, express agreement or approval or disagreement. And then you swap positions. And then there is five minutes for dialogue. The hard thing, the really hard thing, is not speaking, but listening in such a way as to resist solicitation.
Over and over again we repeat the same moves. We enter analysis (let’s say analysis, but perhaps we enter into other therapeutic spaces too—the sangha, the garden, the yoga studio, the church). You do this because you want to change, you want to break old habits, alter the way you relate to others or to the Other. Or you want to face life (and death) more fearlessly. Or both these things. But in analysis, as Zupancic points out, it isn’t enough for the analysand to become conscious of her unconscious. Often the belief is that the analyst will enable the analysand (through bringing to consciousness the patterns of repetition) to recognize their repetitious fatality. The analysand is prone to believing that when the therapy is over they will reemerge into the world and be liberated, “cured,” able to act differently. But actually nothing will change until the analysand fully recognizes the Other as something other than a projection of self. And this has to take place in the world.
In short, it is not simply that in analysis the subject has to shift her position (or even adapt herself); the major part of the analytic work consists precisely in shifting the external practices, in moving all those “chickens” in which the subject’s unconscious (and her relation to herself) are externalized.”(16)
I wonder sometimes if I am not Becoming Chicken, clucking and cooing and chirruping, grubbing around in the hedgerows looking for worms. Flapping around like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Holly, Lula Mae, Sabrina (and Funny Face when she was alive) have coaxed from me a much more intimate relationship than I have ever before experienced with chickens. Is this identification? Have I wormed my way successfully into the being of the chicken? Or perhaps more profoundly found a way of acknowledging the otherness of Chicken-Being, realizing how the chicken thinks and feels, out there in the world, independent of my consciousness. I wish this were so, for it would mean a moving around of chickens, a changing of the way of being in the world. Often, as I sit in the garden at the end of the day and the chickens pick and peck and scratch I feel remarkably contented, at one with the world, grateful to have passed through the repetitive obsessive phase. And then Sabrina will suddenly extend her neck, cock her head and stare. Eyes glinting blackly she will dive at my leg and peck. It hurts. She thinks I am a corn kernel.
I know very well of course that I am not a kernel of corn. Nevertheless…