The Incompleteness Of Something Like The Genetic Fallacy: On The Importance Of ‘Cleaning Up’

In philosophy, there is something called “the genetic fallacy.” It holds that it is illegitimate to consider the merits of an argument based partially or exclusively on the details of the arguer’s background. One should assess the argument from–to use John Rawls’ term–behind a “veil of ignorance.” To take an extreme example: to assess Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, The Industrial Society and its Future, based on the fact that he is the Unabomber is to fail to reckon with the arguments he makes against the industrial technological system.

Something like the genetic fallacy seems to me misleading or, in any case, incomplete when it comes to the claims we make in our own lives. Seeing this will bring us straightaway to what Ken Wilber calls “cleaning up.”


Recently, I was looking at the Russian sages growing around our house, and it struck me that they were spreading wildly, uncontrollably. Not one normally taken to feeling overwhelmed, I nonetheless began to feel just that. Is this property too much for my wife and me to take care of? If I paid attention to the aesthetic claim, “Russian sages growing too wildly are ugly,” I would have missed the pith. Would have overlooked what was happening inside of me.

Following an approach pioneered by the spiritual teacher Stephen Wolinksy, I began to trace back this feeling of overwhelm by asking myself, “What’s so bad about X?” So,

  • Q1: What’s so bad about feeling overwhelmed?
  • A1: Maybe taking care of this property is simply too much for us.
  • Q2: What’s so bad about its being too much for you?
  • A2: When the time comes and we want to sell this house, we won’t be able to. (NB: What should be clear by now is that this is not, strictly speaking, logical reasoning since this process of inquiry is getting us to see, and feel, what predates the birth of rationality in our lives.)
  • Q3: What’s so bad about not being able to sell the house?
  • A3: Then we’ll be stuck here, stuck in this city.
  • Q4: What’s so bad about being stuck in this place?
  • A4: I’ll be unfree and I can’t stand being unfree.
  • Q5: Is that the worst of it, or is there something worse than being unfree?
  • A5: Yes, there is. It’s the feeling of utter powerlessness. That’s the worst of it for me.

Notice that the aesthetic claim, “This is ugly,” is not untrue and so far as it goes, it’s fine. And yet, if I only paid attention to that claim and not to the perturbations or stirrings within me, I would have missed precisely what this scene is telling me. It’s telling me that I have some “baggage” related to my feeling of powerlessness, baggage that needs to be seen clearly so that it can be released.

One of the discoveries, or insights, coming from integral theory is that waking up to our true nature (that is, enlightenment) may not be enough. There needs, it’s urged, to be a parallel process that involves “cleaning up” whatever baggage we have. A number of concepts such as “pain bodies” (Eckhart Tolle), “baggage” (Culadasa), “shadows” (Jung), and our “false core” (Wolinsky) as well as a number of approaches such as the Bio-emotive Framework (Doug Tataryn) point in this direction.

Why is cleaning up important, even necessary?

1.) Because you really don’t yet see how many daily occurrences are actually reinvoking or reactivities some fairly basic pain bodies. To that extent, you’re actually being controlled by said pain bodies.

2.) Because nobody wants to suffer and because your own suffering may not come to rest without deeper, more intuitive, more felt kinds of inquiry

3.) Because those on a spiritual path may observe that the depth of their seated meditations can be quite discontinuous with the suffering of their daily experience: they’re still saying and doing foolish, hurtful things despite their commitment to spiritual practice, especially in the form of seated meditation.

4.) Not the least because being enlightened may but also may not resolve one’s pain bodies. The misconduct of certain enlightened spiritual teachers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries should give us pause. (I discuss the case of Joshu Roshu in this talk.)

In the end, we should try to hold onto two different perspectives. From one perspective, we need to continue to give weight to claims and arguments–others’ as well as our own. There would be no room for genuine intellectual discussion, and more, if this weren’t possible. Nor do we want everything to devolve to a “therapeuticized culture.” I discuss the shortcomings of the latter in the thread below:

Yet from another perspective, a more intuitive or “felt sense” one, we need to be able to “see behind” certain claims when it’s the case that there seems to be some existential struggle occurring in ourselves or in others. It feels like a new power, the power to “see through” or “see past” what one or another is saying and to begin to ascertain what might be the true source of the hurt. For an example of what I have in mind, you can listen to the opening part of my very poignant conversation with Guy Sengstock:

Isn’t Buddhism About Not Having Desires?

After a recent podcast interview, my interlocutor, with whom I was discussing the prevalence of burnout among medical residents, said, “Isn’t Buddhism about not having desires?”

“No,” I replied, “it isn’t.”

A man loves a woman and she loves him. However, circumstances are such that they can’t be together. The man wrote to me: “I can’t help but miss here.”

“Then miss her,” I said. “Missing someone you dearly love is only natural.” “However,” I went on, “fantasizing about how you and she will be together and about how you’ll have children together and all the rest: this is where the dis-ease arises.”

“Therefore,” I concluded, “Experience the missing fully while letting go of any residual fantasizing.”

This is the essence of Buddhism.

My Sadness For Saccaka–And For Us

Right after having finished reading an early Buddhist text called “The Greater Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36) for the first time, I felt moved and sad at once. I want to tell you why.

In this sutra, Saccaka, someone Ananda describes as “‘a debater and a clever speaker regarded by many as a saint'” has come to the sangha. With what intention? “‘He wants,” Ananda continues, “‘to discredit the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha [i.e., the Three Jewels].'” Ananda concludes: “‘It would be good if the Blessed One [Gotama the Buddha] would sit down for a while out of compassion.”

The Buddha is so willing.

As he does with other known spiritual teachers, Saccaka proceeds (in his own words recounted at the end of the sutra) to “assail[]” the Buddha by making “discourteous speeches” with a view to getting a rise out of him. But while other teachers, when so assailed, “‘showed anger, hate, and bitterness,'” Gotama’s skin “‘brightens and the colour of his face clears.'” This strikes me as truthful but also as fulsome blandishment. If, as I interpret Saccaka’s approach, I can’t perturb him, then at least I can flatter him–and see what happens.

I want to loop back to the end shortly in order to say why it’s significant and what brought me to sadness. But first: what has the Buddha recounted?

(1) In the face of Saccaka’s challenge which is that the Buddha is only developed in mind but not in body, he had shown how it is possible to fully develop body and mind.

(2) He has detailed at considerable length the extensive and excessive bodily austerities he once undertook in order to show, alas, the futility of this approach. As he states, “But by this racking practice of austerities I have not attained any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.” Evidently, this kind of discipline, taken to its very limit, must be a dead end.

(3) Thus, in the final section, he narrates how he attained enlightenment after having asked the beautiful question: “Could there be another path to enlightenment” (my italics)?

Having answered each of Saccaka’s questions with earnestness, gentleness, openness, and lovingkindness, the Buddha ends in equanimity.

For right after this teaching, Saccaka says, “‘And now, Master Gotama, we depart. We are busy and have much to do.'” Equanimously, the Buddha replies, “‘Now is the time, Aggivessana, to do as you think fit.'”

The final line of the sutra reads, “Then Saccaka the Nigantha’s son, having delighted and rejoiced in the Blessed One’s words, got up from his seat and departed” (my italics).

Let me say here that I am no Buddhist scholar, only a Buddhist practitioner. Therefore, I’m not familiar with the commentaries, only with own interpretation. Given this, what do I find so sad about this text?

First, it seems to me that Saccaka came just to be entertained and once he’d had his fill, he makes a lame excuse about being busy and promptly leaves. Second, Saccaka provides us with a picture of someone who is existentially open. Consequently, the teaching, at least at this point in his life, is utterly lost on him.

How often do we, out of our tragic love of diversion, miss the teaching and depart without first having given ourselves completely to the Noble Search? Worse, we might make a mockery of the most beautiful and true teachings there are.

This is what I find moving and sad at once.

The Noble Search And The Ignoble Search

The Buddha comes to brahmin Ranmaka’s hermitage where he finds some mendicants (bhikkus) ready to hear his discourse. It’s called “The Noble Search” (MD 26).

Listen, he tells them, for there are two kinds of searches: one is noble, the other ignoble.

“And what is the ignoble search? Here someone being himself subject to birth seeks what is also subject to birth; being himself subject to ageing, he seeks what is also subject to ageing; being himself subject to sickness, he seeks what is also subject to sickness; being himself subject to death, he seeks what is also subject to death; being himself subject to sorrow, he seeks what is also subject to sorrow; being himself subject to defilement, he seeks what is also subject to defilement (my emphasis).

Notice what is happening here: the seeker is (a) essentially asking not only the wrong question but also the wrong kind of question. By asking the wrong kind of question, (b) he ends up seeking for salvation among temporal objects. He seeks more of what he already knows.

Worse than ignoble, I might say, is the futility of this kind of search. In no uncertain terms and with great pith, the Buddha is saying that you cannot find abiding happiness in or among anything temporal. Not in success or familial love or wealth or status or friendship. In short, you can’t find genuine happiness in secular modernity.

What, then, is the noble search? Observe the Buddha’s breakthrough in thought and in practice both:

Here someone being himself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeks the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna [or nirvana–AT]; being himself subject to ageing, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, he seeks the unageing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, he seeks the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, he seeks the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sorrow, having understood the danger in what is subject to sorrow, he seeks the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to defilement, he seeks the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna (my emphasis).

This is stunningly remarkable. In fact, it’s hard to overstate how remarkable is the Buddha’s insight. Essentially, the noble seeker learns to (a) ask not just the right question but also the right kind of question and, in so doing, (b) learns to seek not what he is subject to but rather what is not at all subject to (call it) the human condition. He seeks not the temporal but the ultimate; not the born, aging, ill, or dying but the unborn, unaging, un-ill, and deathless; not more of what he knows but what he does not know.

Two things will make what he is inviting us to see more concrete. In the first place, secular modernity rejects a priori the very inquiry he wishes us to embark upon. In effect, only the ignoble search is bequeathed to us (unless we call secular modernity into question). In the second place, when we are in seated meditation, we often to continue to default to the ignoble search. How so?

Sit down and close your eyes. Notice–to use one schematization–that thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations begin to arise. Now here’s the ignobility: we indulge those thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations as if inquiring into them could bring us abiding happiness. Yet such is folly! It is only when we begin to trace our way home “beneath,” “behind,” or “in back of” thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions that the noble search truly gets underway.

To be even more concrete: suppose you’re having trouble in your relationship. Don’t you find yourself indulgently thinking about the objective or phenomenal contents of that relationship? Your attention is “caught” by the content of thinking and thus is deeply involved in the objective content. Thus is the mind swept away on a current whose aim might be to ascertain what’s the matter with the relationship and how to “sort it all out.” And this is but one example from one small time slice. Do you see how this exemplifies the ignoble search? You will never end your suffering (nibbana or nirvana) by this means, no matter how hard you try.

Instead, you have to first posit that there is an unborn (some Zen Buddhists have said you need to have Great Faith or Great Trust), and you have to surmise that you, essentially, are the unborn you seek. Of course, you do not directly know this, but Great Faith (there is the unborn) and Great Doubt (I inquire deeply with a view to knowing the unborn as myself) are your guides. Or as my Rinzai Zen teacher put it to me recently, “Let your genuine need to know [the ultimate Truth of things] be your guide.”

Out of lovingkindness and gentleness, the Buddha was showing us how to turn ourselves around and find our way home. After his awakening, he worried that most who heard his dharma, or teaching, would have “dust in their eyes” and would lack “ears to hear.” Let us, dear reader, open our ears and hear his words and begin our inquiry into our true nature today.

To do so, we need, I’m afraid, to forget almost everything we have learned because almost none of it will help us. What we’ll need is a complete reorientation, a radical “wheeling around in body and soul” (Plato, Republic). What we’ll need, to put it poetically, is conversion (metanoia): a complete change of heart.

Against Setting Boundaries In Relationships

Quite often we hear that it’s good to “set up boundaries” between ourselves and others. More recently, boundary-setting has been regarded as a kind of “self-care.” This idiom–to wit, boundary-setting–comes from a therapeutic setting and has since spread into facilitation talk, coaching talk, and has, more generally, become a fairly standard piece of relationship advice. But is it wise advice?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s a pretty bad idea.

For starters, setting up a boundary implies professionalism, and professionalism is itself a bad approach to life. To set a boundary that another cannot cross, or can only cross under certain conditions, is tantamount to making oneself into a nation-state or into a classical liberal. Here, you say, there shall be no encroachment. The utterance is cold, distant, “tolerant,” and unnecessary.

Moreover, the very desire to announce to others that you’re setting up a boundary is a precious piece of self-importance, a form of self-importance that has yet to be examined and let go of.

As to that self-examination, it would be wise and skillful to see that you feel threatened by the encroachment of another or others. What is that feeling of being threatened? Go within and look more closely at it. And not only do you feel threatened; you also feel powerless. How so? Why so?

Lastly and from a nondual point of view, most tellingly setting boundaries (declared or implicit) perpetuates the belief and feeling that you are a separate self and that others are separate selves. If nondualism is true, then this strategy models illusion and delusion. It is a strict contradiction.

Is there another way? Of course. To begin with, you can actually examine your dis-ease, which dis-ease is giving rise to feelings of (a) helplessness or powerlessness, (b) the sense of encroachment on “personal space,” (c) the desire to flee or pull back, (d) the fear of being fully engulfed and hence without any autonomy, and so forth. Is it possible to see into tanha, that is, the graspings and aversions that have been governing your seemingly immediate negative emotional reactions?

Once genuine understanding emerges and also once the push/pull of tanha has been quieted and equanimity begins to settle in, you can open yourself up to different rhythms in life. On this understanding, you don’t have to say “no” or “yes” in some invariant way; instead, you can say, and mean it, “perhaps later” or “not right now” or, if need be, you can issue a gentle, non-egoic no.

On the lighter side, you can slow down the pace at which you see someone or some ones. (Or quicken the pace when something lovely is occurring between you and another.) Yet slowing down the pace does not mean, or entail, building a wall. Rather, it is a graceful way of allowing the relationship to come back to a more proper footing.

On the more emphatic side, you can, as I said, learn to say “no” but without that bone in the throat. Can you be loving and gentle while doing so? Can you decline without intending to hurt the other person’s or other persons’ feelings? And can you let go of a relationship in the event that it becomes abundantly clear to you not–no, no–that it’s not “serving you” but that there’s no genuine possibility of sweetness, conviviality, and mutuality here? If we can’t sing together, then there’s no use in pretending (to ourselves) that we can. Let’s stop trying.

In short, self-understanding, wise discernment, and graceful application make for a better approach to being in relationship than boundary-setting. Where the former allows us, at varying speeds, to breathe together and then also to breathe apart, the latter carries a kind of violence born of regarding others as antagonists or threats. From the vantage point of enlightenment, life is friendly.