Contemplative Practice and the Therapy of Mimetic Desire
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Contemplative Practice and the Therapy of Mimetic Desire

I would like to begin this essay by sharing an intuition. It is an intuition requiring much fuller development, but I see myself making a modest contribution to it here—and that is the prospect of integrating mimetic theory with Christian contemplative practice. Such integration would, I imagine, be the beginning of something very ancient and very new.

I am aware of some promising developments in this direction,1 but my conviction is that its potential is barely tapped. It would probably be too much to suggest that such integration could result in a distinctive "school" of spirituality, though that is not inconceivable. Perhaps a better analogy for what I envision can be found in the emerging field of Contemplative Studies, with which some readers may be familiar. A highly interdisciplinary field that is just now reaching a critical mass in terms of publications, institutes, curricular initiatives, and workshops, Contemplative Studies brings together a host of disciplines, including cognitive neuroscience, psychology, pedagogy, medicine, philosophy, and religious studies, in order to investigate the possibilities of human transformation through the cultivation of mindfulness, empathy, and compassion.2 One striking feature about this movement is the effort to [End Page 73] combine third- and first-person perspectives. While drawing upon the natural and social sciences for understanding human cognition and behavior, explicit value is given to the experiential insights gained by practitioners of the ascetico-contemplative life. The image of a Buddhist monk meditating with EEG electrodes on his scalp, or a Catholic nun praying while having her brain scanned by fMRI technology might be overly simple representations of what goes on in Contemplative Studies these days, but they convey something essential about it, which is the effort to marshal a broad range of disciplines, both scientific and humanistic, in order to understand and appropriate ancient contemplative practices for our contemporary age.

Those familiar with the work of René Girard (and the cottage industry that has grown up around it the past three and a half decades) know what I mean by describing mimetic theory as a "one-stop shop" for interdisciplinary work. It may be somewhat hyperbolic to claim that Girard is the "new Darwin of the human sciences"3, as does Michel Serres, but the sentiment captures the scientific bent of his engagement with literature, cultural anthropology, and religion, as Girard himself is keen to highlight.4 It also highlights the remarkable explanatory power of mimetic theory, whose range proves as trenchant for reading the Gospels, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche as it does for engaging political theory, social psychology, and the sciences of human cognition and imitation.

Regarding the latter, one of the more promising developments in recent years has been the engagement between mimetic theory and experimental research in human imitation. No doubt this engagement has received a considerable boost by the discovery of so-called "mirror neurons" in the brain, which neuroscientists have linked to human capacities for learning, empathy, and social cognition. Such a discovery lends strong support for Girard's insistence that human imitation is largely pre-cognitive, and that what we call "the self" is in fact received from the other. The self is "we-centric," as Vittorio Gallese puts it.5 But it is advisable not to make too much of mirror neurons, as if their discovery legitimates mimetic theory by identifying the neurological bases for human imitation, or that it can explain the full range of human imitation. What is more urgent, I believe, is to bring the bounty of experimental research in imitation across a variety of fields into interaction with the perspectives afforded by mimetic theory. Scott Garrels is right when he points out that, while much of the research on human imitation has greatly enhanced our understanding of social bonding, identification, and cognition, it has not sufficiently accounted for the conflict, misunderstanding, and violence it makes possible, even likely; and, of course, it is the central contribution of Girard's work to illuminate those darker dynamics.6 [End Page 74]

If I could identify a much-needed intervention in the emerging field of Contemplative Studies, it would be the introduction...

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