The constructed contrasts of orientalism and how meditation breaks down such dualities

The constructed contrasts of orientalism and how meditation breaks down such dualities
Selma Fastrup Lyngsø, International Development Studies 
Picture credit: Julie Axelsen 

Orientalism portrays ‘them’ as contradictory to ‘us’. When ‘they’ are portrayed as traditional, backward, and inferior, ‘our’ modern, propulsive, superior force is illuminated. Meditation can show us that contrasts are created within our consciousness and can thus break down this orientalist duality 

We are in the midst of the distancing epoch of dualities. Phenomena and ethnicity are clarified through contrasts. At the same time, critique arises against orientalist depictions of them versus us. We must, for all intents and purposes, distance ourselves from such harmful, divisive, binary thought patterns. 

“You must think about the phenomenon until you understand it,” my lecturer says as he reaches for his forehead. 

Orientalism is based on the portrayal of the Orient (i.e., countries to the East of Europe) as developmentally backward and stagnant. The concept is also seen in other parts of the world, including Africa. Orientalism highlights features of the Orient that are believed to be opposite those of the Occident (i.e., countries of the West, especially Europe and America). In 1978, Edward Said published Orientalism, a strong critique of the cultural representations of the Orient which the Occident created and continues to create. According to him, orientalism has its roots in the European Enlightenment of the 18th century and the European colonization of the Arab world. The Occident constructed the Orient as divergent and inferior, and thus Western intervention and rescue became necessary. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism. 

“I am… you are…We are… they are…”

Orientalism is a dualistic way of thinking (e.g., traditional versus modernstagnant versus progressiveOrient versus Occident) that ignores all gradation and bases itself upon unfounded assumptions. Such thinking is comforting to the thinker as it allows a sense of certainty in a complex world. As Edward Said wrote: “In a sense the limitations of Orientalism are [..] the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region.” The premise of binary thinking is that of making assumptions: if a world as complex as the one we live in is to be fitted into dichotomous categories it must be simplified. This is not possible unless we make assumptions. Bob Johansen writes in his newly published book Full Spectrum Thinking: “Categories move us toward certainty, but away from clarity.” As our assumptions are created by lumping others into preconceived categories, binary thinking can lead to conflict and detachment; we are not curious about them, we create a distance and we are not trying to investigate nuance that might bring us closer together.  

It becomes easier for us to understand ourselves when an opposing image is clearly drawn. It becomes easier for us to delimit ourselves in the face of the opposite. When a culture is defined as the opposite of ours, it becomes easier for us to define ourselves. Anthropologically speaking, the notion of an isolated ethnic group does not make sense because ethnicity often matters the most when groups of people interact. Cultural differences decrease with increasing interaction between groups, but paradoxically, the focus on ethnicity in politics and identity increases simultaneously: it becomes more important to highlight differences. This makes it even more important for us now, as our world becomes increasingly globalized and materially interconnected, to locate tools for us to navigate cultural differences. It is widely believed that the concept of ethnicity is based on objective cultural differences, but ethnicity only occurs when cultural differences are made relevant in the interaction. Ethnicity is not a characteristic of a person or a group. It lies in the boundaries between groups, constituting itself through dichotomization. It is most often people who are on the edge of a foreign ethnic group who are most concerned with maintaining their own group identity. Such people are reminded daily of their cultural differences and thus their own cultural identity.  

But how do we avoid behaviour brought about by such thought patterns when they are so deeply internalized that we are not aware of their influence upon us? Orientalist depictions are repeated in literature, music, visual arts, news and our innocent everyday communication. As children, we may have watched The Lion King or have had our parents read Thousand and One Nights aloud to us. Now as adults, we are exposed to news reports that again and again paint the same picture of the Middle East and Africa. Our everyday lives are full of advertisements from aid organizations that encourage us to support them: Pictures of young girls getting married to older men, children with flies in the corners of their eyes, and women trapped behind bars and by the scarves around their heads. They need our help. The pictures and stories that are drawn through art, news and advertisements show an everyday life completely opposite our own. It is no wonder that these representations sit so strongly within us, shaping our perceptions and bringing about distinct patterns of action. However, these assumptions are problematic as they arguably constitute a new version of imperialism. They are even more problematic when we travel the world with the purpose of helping those who our assumptions tell us are in need.  

The Occident constructed the Orient as divergent and inferior, and thus Western intervention and rescue became necessary.

One reported consequence of the practice of meditation is the breaking down of dualistic thinking. In a study published in 2013, researchers at the Faculty of Neuroscience at New York University conducted a study examining the neurological reasons behind this. In the study, Zoran Josipovic and Bernard J. Barrs report that: “In terms of large-scale cortical organization, an interesting but speculative idea is that this fragmentation of human consciousness reflects the broad segregation of the cortex into intrinsic and extrinsic networks.” What does this mean? When the brains of non-meditators are scanned, the extrinsic network can be observed responding positively to tasks involving external stimuli. The intrinsic network, also referred to as the Default Mode Network, responds more strongly when we do not perform tasks and has been linked to self-reflection and self-awareness. It thus responds positively when we think about the future, remember the past or daydream. The New York University study examined experienced practitioners of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, each of whom had meditated between four thousand and thirty-seven thousand hours. It found that meditation resulted in a significant decrease in the anti-correlation between the two networks. The study thus reflects the researchers’ speculations: “The typical anticorrelations between the intrinsic and extrinsic networks might reflect the duality of internal self-related and external other-related mentation [mental activity; the process of thinking].” Josipovic and Barrs hypothesize that the higher degree of functional integration that is observed between the two networks within the minds of meditators may be related to an experience of reduced cognitive duality. It appears that meditation may enable a state of mind in which external and internal experiences are increasingly synergistic rather than competing. Asian philosophers dating back to at least the 4th century CE, and perhaps as far back as the 8th century BCE, describe a similar subject-object structuring of human experience accompanied by competition between internally and externally driven mental activity. In these traditions, this binary structuring of the brain is seen as the cause of unnecessary fragmentation of the field of experience, leading to conflict-filled experiences such as ‘us versus them’.  

Many social scientists appropriately problematize orientalism, but their work does not equip us with tools other than our own intellect to combat the problem. 

“You must think about the phenomenon until you understand it,” my lecturer says as he reaches for his forehead. According to this approach, we must think about orientalism until we understand it. And yet, when we finally reach a point where we believe we understand its problematic nature, this understanding does not necessarily reflect anything but an intellectual conceptualization. How can we be sure that we understand something enough to act on the basis of that understanding? It is not difficult to intellectually understand orientalism and why it is problematic. But when we only understand something intellectually, it will not affect our patterns of action as consistently as if we understand it emotionally. And therein lies another constructed duality: we distinguish between the intellectual and the emotional.  A duality that meditation seemingly also has the ability to break down. If we are emotionally invested in something, it shapes our patterns of action more than if we simply relate to it intellectually. A vegetarian who has intellectually understood that the meat industry is problematic will have a harder time living without meat than a vegetarian who is emotionally invested in the decision. For this very reason, it is problematic that we only relate intellectually to issues such as orientalism. We study them, understand that they exist, and critique them intellectually, but we are more likely to change our behaviour if we are emotionally invested in this understanding. 

Orientalism is a colonial discourse that legitimized and justified colonization and still affects us today, both on an individual level and at a much larger scale. It is still to this day expressed through art, news, and advertisements from aid organizations. It is part of a binary way of categorizing the world and its people based upon assumptions that lead to negative preconceptions and prejudices. Many people who travel to carry out aid work around the globe receive courses, for example in crisis management. Of course, it is good to be prepared for a crisis and to know how to negotiate one. But I also believe that we should incorporate meditation into training of aid workers before sending them out to perform relief work. Amongst others things it can help to break down the dualities that make us look at ourselves as different from those around us. When we reach a point where our minds do not automatically create such divisions, we will be able to deal with crises and disputes in a more empathetic and more constructive way.