This was all quite funny. It also deepened my feelings of alienation a bit, however (a character flaw, I’m prone to that). After all, my mom had experienced a health food conversion back when I was eight and banned all white bread and the like from the house (which I protested at the time, but have of course since come to appreciate). So I had no stories to share.
The women’s talk then shifted to what they feed their kids now. While the boxed mashed potatoes have been ditched, the tradition of questionable “food” lives on in new forms. “Let’s face it, I don’t even want to know where my meat comes from!,” one vivacious blonde laughed.
Ironic laughter. But I found it hard to laugh, because I was thinking: Should I launch a little speech about how it’s good to think about these things, even if it’s unpleasant? I could appeal to their maternal interests by pitching it as important for the kids’ health . . . Should I tell them that I avoid eating much meat and that if I do buy it, it’s only organic – and that I’ve even trekked out to a small, family-owned farm in Wisconsin to meet said cows “in person”?
Um, no. I didn’t. I stayed silent. Too worried about being the fish out of water, bursting the fun bubble, seeming stuffy, sounding self-righteous, rocking the boat. Wanting to be polite. Wanting to fit in. Wanting to avoid airing unpleasant facts that might make others uncomfortable – and me even more alienated.
Yesterday, however, I read this fiery post critiquing the stunning degree of political apathy among American yoga practitioners and started thinking about it again. Because I feel that a lot of what’s going on in the yoga community today parallels my little dinner party incident. Whether we admit it or not, we often don’t want to know the disturbing details of the larger political, economic, social, and environmental realities our lives are enmeshed in. And even when we do know, we often don’t want to take a stand because we don’t want to inflict this unpleasantness on others (or make it more uncomfortable for ourselves).
In fact, I’d say that these dynamics are so powerful that a whole set of “spiritual” beliefs has grown up to legitimate them. Functionally, these ideas keep many of us from having to confront the disquieting fact that we don’t want to know and don’t want to take a stand.
Here, I’m thinking about beliefs like “thinking positive thoughts produces positive outcomes” – not just in particular circumstances, but all the time, no matter what. One of my (now ex-) yoga teachers, for example, once lectured me on how small-minded I was because I didn’t believe that “sending healing thoughts and breath” out to the BP oil spill would be sufficient to stop the flow! If that sort of belief doesn’t (unconsciously) function to rationalize political ignorance and disengagement, I don’t know what does.
Then, there’s a lot of spiritual beliefs floating around like “everything is perfect as it is right now,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “The Universe always gives you just what you need right now.” Now, these could (and in my mind, should) be interpreted as inspirational calls for a depth of radical acceptance of what is that’s exceedingly difficult to realize, precisely because it entails an eyes-wide-open embrace of both the joy and pain, beauty and tragedy, sublimity and horrors of life.
That’s not reality. Just read The New York Times (not perfect, but one of the only decent newspapers left) and it’ll become clear pretty fast that our world is in crisis. If you’re still reading this post, you most likely know the litany all-too-well already: global warming, environmental destruction, economic recession, double-digit unemployment, growing inequality, dysfunctional government, Wall Street criminality, family breakdown, human trafficking, irrational demagogues, cultural decadence, obesity epidemic, reactionary backlash. The list goes on – and on – and on.
Plus, most of us who aren’t right-wing reactionaries feel like there’s no existing political movement to join that seems like it might be effective in addressing these problems. Some of us (like me, for example) invested a lot of hope in the 2008 election and are now feeling disappointed and bereft.
Then there’s that horrible feeling of postmodern malaise – that the problems confronting us are too big, too amorphous, too complex, too embedded, and too interwoven to provide us with any solid points of leverage for positive change.
Seeing this, is it really any wonder that we’re attracted to ideas that sugarcoat the situation for us?
I myself stopped reading the newspaper for awhile because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Day after day after day of bad news. What’s the point in knowing this stuff, anyway? What good does it do? Because if you’re not politically powerful (and maybe even if you are), what can you do? And if the answer realistically appears to be “nothing,” why bother with anything?
These are, I think, legitimate questions. I certainly struggle with them. My conclusion at this point, though, is that it’s important to be as politically informed and engaged as we can be without sacrificing whatever practices we (hopefully) have to cultivate inner strength, compassion, equanimity, and other good stuff in our everyday lives.
Ideally, for those of us who experience yoga and meditation as spiritual practices (or have other, equivalent commitments), there’s reciprocity between the individual and the collective here. That is, the more that we build our internal strength, the more that we’re able to take in – and appropriately respond to – the social and environmental crises we face. And, conversely, tackling the challenge of that sort of difficult learning and engagement increases our spiritual strength.
I would love nothing more than to see contemporary practices of yoga and meditation (as well as progressive-minded spirituality, religion, and/or ethical humanism more generally) start cultivating more conscious commitments to engaging with our current crises in newly creative ways. The old models aren’t working. We want – and need – some compelling new paradigms. But nothing’s emerged yet.
So the practice, I think, is to do what we can. It may be as tiny as finding the right way to raise issues about the politics of food at a dinner party. (Next time . . . ) It may be cultivating the inner strength necessary simply to learn about something that you know is important, but find disturbing. It could be as big as challenging damaging politics-as-usual at work – or at the ballot box – or in the streets.
I don’t know what’s coming; none of us do. I do, however, believe that the more people who’re working to be positively engaged with politics and society and to be spiritually centered, the more hope there is for our collective future.
Even though it’s difficult, the more that we do this work, the more that we’re liberated from the pervasive post-modern fear and malaise that’s eating away at us all (whether we recognize it or not).
And come what may, we can be comforted by the fact that even having a taste of such freedom is beautiful, nourishing, life affirming, and good.