You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the sheer volume of practitioners these days would be having more of an impact on the social dialogue. You’d think with all of these OMs that the larger fabric of politics, legislation and commerce would be more explicitly conscious of history and future aims. This series of posts is my observation of where our golden hearts and brilliant ideas go to stagnate and eventually die. There are a couple of notes on what I perceive to be the “poison pills” of spiritual rhetoric.
Also note that for some reason comments, while I can see them from within WP, are not posting publicly. You aren’t being censored, at least not on purpose, winky face.
“The Burning Man Paradox”
[N.B. I'm picking on Burning Man even though I like it and believe in it, and love so many people that love it. Bear with me, here]
Most visionaries have a utopia in mind, either in the past or in their visions, or as in the Burning Man festival, a specific temporary time period. If only things were that way, the argument goes, our grief would be less and our consciousness more elevated.
I’ve never had the pleasure of attending the festival, primarily due to a creeping horror of dry skin. But I’ve watched many friends come and go over the years. Usually there is a community frisson immediately after their return, especially in the case of my yoga teaching colleagues. It’s very much like when people return from retreat or from study. You can feel the magical charge coming off of them. Sometimes the ideas are more compelling, better articulated; it’s a groovy transmission of feeling, and it’s always temporary.
While I know that fits and starts of charitable projects, microloans, creative collaboration have indeed been born out of crucibles like BM, the primary yearning in the participants appears to be to get back to Burning Man the following year. It’s not as explicit as the individuated journey undertaken by the meditator or yogi [cf Remski, “the internalizing arts”] but it’s still so segregated and rarefied [and literally privileged] that IME it disconnects more than it connects. Any concepts of any worth are so hothoused by utopian thinking that implementing them almost always requires some sort of fantastic or violent shift: destroying current government, forced liquid acid consumption u.s.w. [they get weirder, but you get the idea]. I can totally get why you’d feel like those measures are what would be required given the intensity of preparation and experience required to undertake these deep “retreat” or “festival” experiences. I’ve been the person coming back from Maui all high on lilikoi and Ram Dass and thinking that I was making sense and just headed further down the rabbit hole.
But what’s hilarious to me is the strictly regimented nature of the BMF or any of the retreats I’ve been privileged to attend: always very focussed on the purpose of the event and as a result deliberately constraining individual choice in order to attain this purpose. How this differs from current governmental regulation and legislation is beyond me, except that it isn’t sexy or romantic. Within that of course there are huge flights of subjective freedom [drugs, meditation depth, asana depth, energy transmission, art, music etc etc] but the larger structures take priority. This is the only way the festival or retreat functions. It’s not another type of governing, it’s just funkier and therefore seems better. And no matter how naked or how vegan or how high or how loud or how tropical, the ad hoc sub-government still relies on the larger systems for health, safety, addressing violence and all of the other invisible blessings we take for granted.
“The Best Thing I Can Do For You Is Work On Myself; I Hope You Enjoy This Smoothie”
A dear friend came over to take care of the twins last year and in chatting about the larger frame in which we experience yoga, she concisely expressed a trope that had been giving me a rash for about five or six years. She said that only the privileged would think that their individual experience was an analogue for the collective; that only they would see their body and the vehicle of their consciousness as somehow a microcosm of the larger whole. That’s where we get poison pills like “all I can do for the world is to work on myself” or “be the change you want to see” [Baptiste and Gandhi respectively. Let me clarify that there is of course a seed of merit in these concepts: they articulate [in a sort of fluffy modern way] the boundary between individual agency and controlling others. They also hint at the atman/brahman axis which proposes that the individual self contains the same constituent consciousness as the larger collective consciousness, in the same way that a tablespoonful of seawater is related to the ocean, which is conceptually legit, if unfalsifiable.]
I submit that we’ve gone way [way, way] overboard with this trope. We’ve got to the point where people are interpreting their crystal pendantry and green juice as an act of service which is, frankly, jive turkey. There’s usually nothing wrong with whatever trip you’re on but it benefits you and you alone, and any attendant benefits to others will derive from your words and ACTIONS after the juice has been consumed or the sensory-deprivation tank exited. If the words and actions are informed by the trip, fantastic. But not mandatory, y’see? They’re not explicitly causally connected.
I was aghast to read one of those Forbes Magazine “Ten Habits of the Mentally Tough” or something like that. One of the habits was to not demand anything from one’s employer; to simply abandon any sense of due process on the grounds that claiming fairness was a sign of mental weakness. If there is a better indication of how our sub-cultural values in yoga have been co-opted by capitalism to ensure a fluid, cheap underclass of employment, I’d like to see it. I mean, jeezy creezy, I really did think this Gilded Age “you’ll work for 13 hour split shifts and like it, and if you complain not only will Baby Jesus not love you any more but you are ever so replaceable” died on the socioeconomic vine before my parents were born. I can understand why people in the grasp of this hideous corporatism yearn for the transcendent element, found in practice, that asserts your intrinsic Self is not in fact subject to this one-sided unfair relationship, and that you are strong in mind, but to insist that standing up for what you are worth in an employment or contract situation is a sin of mind? [barf]
“Hippie Pangloss a.k.a. The New Calvinism”
If I never read the word “abundance” in the context of yoga again it’ll be too soon. I used to love the concept. Loved the permission slip for pleasure that it signed; loved the idea of attracting energy to you. It felt so good to be told it was okay to want things. I still cast a jaundiced eye on asceticism.
However, whatever healing merit it may have had has been completely overwhelmed by the bombast of marketing/branding/social media aggression trying, so desperately, to Sign up for my workshop! And Attend my 8:45 am Pilates class! And here’s a picture of me doing a challenging arm balance because if I don’t have that how will I compete with the abundance [heh] of other teachers who have a picture of themselves doing a challenging arm balance on their Facebook page?
Sure, it’s annoying on a surface “get off my lawn” kind of way, but I actually don’t mind the internet and I don’t mind capitalism although you’d never know it. No, the issue is the magical thinking behind this tsunami: that if you ever express doubt, lack of conviction, inquiry, quietness, passivity, insecurity, paranoia, poverty, ugliness, addiction, anxiety, depression etc then you haven’t said the right prayers and your practice doesn’t work so why would I come to your event and risk contaminating my radiant energy field with your saggy reality? And plus, if what you were doing was so great, wouldn’t you be happier? Prettier? Younger? Faster? Newer, fresher, brighter, more “creative” or “vibrant” or “authentic” or whatever code word we’re using these days? No way, man, my aura can’t take it. You must have done something really awful in a past life. It’s that whole 90s/early aughts “The Secret” thing, but on the flip: everything is for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds, and as such any failure or hint of shadow indicates a fatal flaw in the practitioner/system/concept.
Now it’d be totally disingenuous to pretend that we don’t respond to that powerful conviction of the fresh young true believer [or the old true believer!]. But that’s as stupid as shrugging in the face of lingerie ads and saying “sex sells” and considering that to be the end of the problem. That’s the BEGINNING of the problem. That’s the beginning of the conversation. After all of this interior work, is it possible that we are as unsophisticated in the face of marketing as adolescents? Have we covered the distinction between appearance and substance? Or have we, as yoga teachers and practitioners, actually made it worse by celebrating the surface? By casually celebrating the “lightness” in a vinyasa, the “floating” press handstand or the “beautiful backbend”? What if it’s not light or beautiful; is the soul within unworthy? Or have we fatally coupled the observable body with the interior quality? I gotta guiltily raise my hand and acknowledge participation in this phenomenon by way of theming in the Anusara Yoga vein. Not everybody who themes their classes does this but it comes up a lot: physical capacity does not indicate spiritual quality. I forget when we stopped making that important but it’d be really good if we could start reintegrating that distinction into our offerings.