Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Politics, Spirituality, and Postmodern Malaise

I was at a dinner party the other night with a group of people I don’t know very well. It was a nice evening, if for me a bit socially foreign, as this wasn’t my usual, more culturally sympathico crew. We quaffed icy margaritas in luminous blue “bird bath” cocktail glasses, ate a lovely meal, had a bit of wine. As the night wore on, the talk turned a bit silly. Some of the women started competing to tell the funniest story about the all-American crapola food their mothers had fed them back in the day – “TV” dinners, plastic-wrapped “treats,” and water-reconstituted “mashed potatoes” straight out of the box!

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.

“Yeah, I just like it to appear on the shelf in neat little plastic-wrapped chunks on white Styrofoam trays,” a witty brunette chortled. “I mean, that’s just how Mother Nature makes it, right?”

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.

I felt kinda bad about it. I do care about food politics – a lot. (Note: If you don’t know the issues at stake, watch “Food, Inc.” and keep going from there. There’s tons of information readily available about the horrors of industrial food and mass-market meat production.) But I let it go. The moment passed. Life went on.

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).

Spiritual Apathy

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.

Really taking it all in like that, however, is fucking hard. And it poses a challenge that’s utterly absent in the way that these ideas tend to manifest in yoga circles, where there’s an implicit insistence that being properly “spiritual” means staying locked inside some pastel-colored bubble where everything looks beautiful and right and good – PERIOD. No unpleasant issues raised; no difficult questions asked.

Confronting Crisis

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.

And when you start taking it all in, it’s deeply frightening. Because really, what we’re looking at are numerous trends that point toward the destruction of life as we know it – both socially and, even worse, environmentally.

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?

Moving Forward

No, I think that it’s perfectly natural – and to some degree, even healthy and necessary. Because nothing’s gained by overwhelming people with so much bad news that they become despondent, dispirited, and depressed. Or, for that matter, get angry, resentful, and possibly violent (because if this isn’t happening in the yoga community, it sure is elsewhere).

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.

Practicing Freedom

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.


  1. Well done Carol. It's time to call out mystical apathy.

  2. and there's the legitimate hope,

    "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." -

    and i do believe, our shared tastes of freedom, provide a hunger for more...

    the best of all wishes, for all of us ;-)

    thanks carol

  3. bravo carol! this is fantastic. it's interesting, because i was just thinking about this today as i was writing my review of michael stone's book.

    i so agree that the practice is to do what we can. i admit that at times my practice makes me feel more sensitive, rather than internally strong. not that this makes me want to retreat into a fuzzy pink spiritual bubble, but that it becomes difficult to do anything.

    joanna macy talks about this a lot, this heartbreak, and much of her work is around using practice to nourish activists. i like this approach, and i think the yoga communinity can connect with the activist community by offering classes that nourish.

    in his book, michael stone talked about the need for yoga communities to collaborate with other faith-based organizations that have been serving in the community for a long time (ie, jewish, catholic). i love this.

    i'd also like to see more creative expressions of activism from yoga community. yoga malas are great but seriously: not activism. i'd like to see more yoga fundraisers that don't involve so much... yoga. by which i mean asana. i want more stories of yogis doing cool non-yoga things and not-yogis doing things infused with the essence of yoga.

    anyway, i am reassured by what you say: "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." yes.

  4. Thanks all for your comments - you are an inspiration.

    Roseanne - yes, I feel that same way re: increased sensitivity. But there's a balance to be had - sometimes it's as simple as upping the "yang" elements of your asana practice - literally creating more physical energy and strength.

    Also I've noticed that increasing my meditative sensitivity to what feels strong and vital, as well as what feels sad and vulnerable (which can be a magnetic pull to the point of being a default) helps.

    These are the sorts of issues that would be good to develop further - how do you work with these energies in your body? How does this play out as you live in the world?

    Looking forward to your review of Michael's book - did you know that I recently studied with him in Madison??

  5. Thanks Carol for some thoughtful observations. I've been enjoying your blog these past few months. I think Frank Jude listed it on one of his blog rolls. I like your fresh and witty words written in such a flowing way.

    I've been writing in my Buddhist blog these past 8 months, but my web site has been up for five years. Stop by and say Hi if it moves you.


  6. "we don’t want to know and don’t want to take a stand."

    somestimes people are just shallow and vacuous and lazy. and sometimes it has nothing to do with any type of "spiritual apathy."

    that being said, of course the yoga world is filled with people who talk the talk but don't walk the walk and who love to spout platitudes like "manifesting" this or that. it's just like any other social world.

    I'm doing a yoga fundraisear for the domestic violence shetler where I teach and I was lectured by a woman on how people are sick and tired of "charities" being pushed in their faces. am I going to wonder about her "spiritual apathy"? no, because sometimes people are just....people. and people can be jerks.

  7. Carol,

    This is a topic dear to my heart, you know. For years I've been condescended to by 'spiritual' seekers for injecting politics into yoga. These earnest folks claim that you can believe yourself into your reality. That would be my go to belief if I was trapped in prison and trying to stay sane but otherwise....

    Politics is an extension of us which is even more apparent now that we are bombarded with the lives of strangers at every turn via the internet, even if we don't watch or read the news. It surely has become apparent now that we cannot dismiss politics as irrelevant.

    Many of us will say that our lives don't change with the change of party or policy. Wars wage and politicians fight and our lives go on. That has never really been true because some lives have changed even if they are not ours. And that effects us even if we don't know it. Now though, even the most resistant must see how politics shape more than what taxes we pay or what programs we cut.

    Although it feels awkward to be the moral police in a conversation that isn't yours, I've found ways to offer opinion without making it my banner but AN opinion, a discussion that is out there. Then you don't ruffle feathers although you might be easily dismissed. Hopefully you plant a seed. I say this as a long time feather ruffler who has learned to say what she wants without making herself the victim of attack.

    I agree that what we can do is stay calm, clear and attentive as we engage. It may not seem like much but it is.


  8. Thanks, Carol! The doing-what-we-can piece (that you mentioned) is so important. And yes, saying what Carol really thinks—at the dinner you mentioned—is a step. There are opportunities to speak our truth, and it is important to find sociable ways to do this. The process is trial-and-error for me since I used to prefer polite agreement to saying what I really think about things.

    And doing what we can is important, too. It would be silly to think that I, alone, could do the work of the world, so why should I try to shoulder all the guilt: it's too much. But I can do the part of one person. And that's the right amount for me.

  9. Hi Carol,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I read this quote somewhere yesterday: "Show me a list of the ways you wish the world would change and I'll show you a list of your suffering." How true. How do we hope for and work to create change in the world without attaching to the outcome as a necessary condidition of our own contentment? Can we act out of love for all sentient beings instead out of anger and self-righteousness? When I imagine meeting one of my political "adversaries" is a social setting I imagine myself being filled with ander toward them; but if that same person walked into one of my yoga classes I know I'd treat them with kindness. How do I bring those two parts of myself together? My mat and cushion have the answer...

    My sangha has recently decided to "market" ourselves as "yoga-meditation-community-service" to make it clear to those who wish to join us that we
    Re not just practicing for self-improvement, but for world improvement.

  10. Great post, Carol. I have the feeling that I might get seriously shot down for suggesting this, but I'm going to say this anyway: Could it be that the pervasive political apathy of American yoga practitioners can ultimately be traced back to the socio-economic context in which yoga was traditionally practiced in India? After all, traditionally, yoga and the study of the yogic texts were either undertaken by (1) sannyasins (who have renounced the world, and thus have no motivation to be politically subversive) or by (2) Brahmin householders (who need to fulfill their familial and social obligations, and thus have an inherent vested interest in maintaining the status quo).

    This being the case, is it so surprising that when transplanted to the west, yoga would also appeal either to (1) self-absorbed spiritual seekers who are not motivated to be politically subversive, or to (2) predominantly white middle-class householders, who, because of their vested interests in the system, would ultimately act in such a way as to maintain the status quo, despite whatever progressive causes they purport to champion?

  11. Very intelligent, balanced, sensitive and thoughtful post. Nobel - your comment is ingenious but unhelpful since the issues with American yoga should not be used to scapegoat Indian yoga, doing this only builds on a very poor and distorted image westerners have always had of India and invokes the type of prejudice typical of imperialist ignorance of the nuanace and complexity of Indian society, but hey - you knew you were gonna get that, right? But I am more concerned as to why your opinion persists despite information widely available in the public domain which sheds new light on the way subjects such as Caste have mistakenly been dumped at the feet of Hindus by Asians as well as myopic, European indologists from the age of colonialism, perhaps it is because America is pursuing a colonialist project of its own? (hehe)

  12. Nobel raises an interesting point - Matthew Remski made a similar comment on Be Scofield's Tikkun post on yoga and political apathy, which is referenced and linked to above.

    Personally, I believe that modern yoga, as developed by Indian leaders such as Swami Vivekananda, broke with traditional yoga in promoting openly shared knowledge, democratically accessible methods, and positive social engagement. Great segue here as I'm planning to make that my next post - thanks and stay tuned! :)

  13. My personal favorite is "we're never given more than we can take," since it so pithily explains why nobody ever has a breakdown or dies. (Though I should mention that I was in Darfur back before all the killing began, and those people were sooooo negative. You shoulda seen the nasty shit they were puttin' on their vision boards!) (Kidding...).

    And I think that what Nobel says makes a lot of sense. Much of the dismay with "western yoga" tends to be based on very romantic ideas about the tradition and culture it comes from, which has very little in common with the liberal egalitarian community in which it flowered in the west--that of the 60's counterculture. To the extent that progressive politics has become wedded to yoga, I suspect that it's the peculiar legacy of the counterculture--veterans of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements finding eastern spirituality and creating a fusion of values that did not previously exist.

    Of course, this fusion leads to some very strange contradictions, from both directions--from the materialism and hedonism of western yoga culture to progressive-minded yogis who are adamantly opposed to the traditional hierarchies and inequalities of their own society looking for exotic foreigners to bow down to because of their place in the Hindu caste system or who they supposedly were in former lives. And, then, the self-absorption and somewhat paradoxical devotion to the status quo may be a commonality of both sides of that fusion (the counterculture that embraced both radicalism and yoga was predominantly a middle class one, and for every hippie who protested the Vietnam War, there were probably ten who just sat around getting high and, a decade later, voted for Reagan)(and, for that matter, most of those protesting Vietnam lost interest in changing the world once they and their friends were no longer eligible for the draft...and they ended up voting for Reagan, too) (If there's one thing that's been romanticized even more than the yogic tradition, it's the fucking baby boomers).

    Ultimately, thus, I think the goal should be not to fight for the "purity" of the yoga tradition against modern western pollution, but to nurture this fusion as it continues to grow, separating the wheat from the chaff on both sides.

  14. Interesting, Yogi Mat. It is not my intention to scapegoat Indian yoga, I am only proposing a tentative hypothesis based on what I see as a very simple fact of societies: In any given society, those who possess the means of production tend to subscribe to worldviews that legitimize their claim over their possessions. These worldviews might consist of political ideas, religious beliefs, spiritual views, or some amalgamation of these.

    This being the case, the activities that these possessors of the means of production engage in (including spiritual practices) will tend to be activities that legitimize, rationalize or at the very least do not challenge their worldviews. This is certainly true of present-day western society, and I do not see any reason to think that it is otherwise in India, or anywhere else for that matter.

    To be sure, there have been a few individuals (Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King in the United States) who have succeeded in using their spiritual practices to effect a fundamental transformation of themselves and their societies. But one would think that if yoga and such spiritual practices really have the power in and of themselves to transform society, such transformation would have occurred sooner (considering that yoga had been around for, what, some five thousand years before Gandhi came along) and that more practitioners would have stood up to effect such fundamental change. The fact that this has not happened seems, to me, to place the burden of proof on those who disagree with my hypothesis.

  15. Wonderful post, Carol! As I was reading it, I thought of a passage the Precept Group I am currently leading read from Robert Aitken's "The Mind of Clover"

    "The collective ego of the nation-state is subject to the same poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance as the individual. We have reached the place in international affairs, and in local affairs too, where it is altogether absurd to insist, as some of my Buddhist friends still do, that the religious person does not get involved in politics. What is political? Is torture political? As a matter of fact, the denial of politics in religious life is itself a political statement. The time when politics meant taking a position of allegiance to one government faction or another has long passed. Politics in our day is a matter of ignoring the First Precept or acting on it."

    And that was published in 1984.

    The questions of how to stay open to the suffering of the world without drowning in it; and how to work for the changes we wish to see without falling into despair are among the topics we're addressing in my weekly Dharma Lounge as we work with the Bhaddekaratta Sutta. I think you may have inspired me to blog a bit about what we've discussed!

    Again, thank you so much for your articulate voice and passionate heart!

  16. Thanks so much, Frank! I wish that you lived in my area so that I could go to your group. It sounds wonderful. I hope that you do blog about it - if so, please be sure to let me know!

  17. Yoga as it is practiced by most in N. America is largely a personal pursuit driven by personal desires. That's how it is marketed in the mainstream anyway. And promoting this atomized/commercial/individualistic nature of our society in yoga makes it extremely difficult for people to work together and build a community.

    I have to admit that I find the "do the best you can" attitude is somewhat limiting because it is still removed from the concept of a larger network. I know that phrase is not suggesting solely individual actions, but I want to stress that it is NECESSARY to seek out others who are already engaged in the type of work you would like to see yourself doing and to deepen your relations with those people. A mass of individuals changing their environment through his/her own personal actions and purchasing decisions is NOT what fundamentally changes society. I'm not saying it's pointless, but for a more profound change, you need a more profound level of engagement. The level of satisfaction, accomplishment, meaning and connectedness derived from a personal act like shopping ethically simply cannot compare to volunteering for a community project with a group of passionate and dedicated people. Not to mention the greater efficacy/efficiency of the latter. I would say that WE have to do the best that WE can together.

    I'll admit that I am frequently frustrated by the level disengagement I see in N. America. Disengagement with society/community is to me, a self destructive luxury. There's often this low-level anxiety, guilt and superficiality that comes with it. I find a lot of people prefer this though because they subscribe to inaccurate perceptions about engagement that focus on self-sacrifice, guilt and moral superiority. Those perceptions make the idea of becoming involved at best, some kind of taxing but noble personal path. Becoming more engaged in the world means win-win. It's about a group of people investing in their own selves, their world and the lives of others. It's about gaining greater compassion and respect for oneself and others... including the disengaged. There's no need to get hung up on shoulds and should nots or whether something's noble or good enough.

    I love the title of Dr. James Orbinski's book An Imperfect Offering. So many people feel deflated by how little he or she can offer but this little imperfect offering or pool of offerings is all any of us can give. It doesn't matter if things seem utterly futile - you can still make the choice to give of yourself to humanity. You can integrate that commitment into your daily life and best of all, share that commitment with others.

  18. I don't disagree with you at all. Truthfully, I need to do more to find that "we" you speak of again. The last organization that I felt that way about stabbed me (and several of my good friends and co-workers) in the back, big time - it's hard to trust again after that. Institutions with the best-sounding missions can harbor the worst politics. That said, we need solidarity today more than ever.

  19. Carol, It is too easy for academics to misinterpret the inaction or disengagement of the yogi as apathetic. What bedevils our attempts at a smooth transition between the classical and postmodern is the tacit presumption that we must search for a punctum archimedis, which is also a fault I think of YFC comments that suggest that people are desperately seeking DHARMA SOURCE when they are more often than not, immersed in DHARMA SAUCE. The battle is not between self and community but between yogis and observers of yoga. This skewed attitude is also apparent within the faults of Singletons otherwise useful book, Yoga Body. Nobel, your hypothesis is interesting but it seems to come armed with similar prejudice and bias. Matthew Remski whom I have grown to love dearly has his own motive for brow beating yogis to engage more, as do most community "leaders", and those motives may or may not have anything to do with yoga.

  20. Every year I spend time at a yoga ashram in India. The founder talks about, essentially, only one thing: raising your consciousness. I sometimes struggle with his message -- is that all?! -- but I suspect he's right. Our thoughts, ideas, words and actions flow out of our level of consciousness. Presumably, as we awaken, develop and grow our consciousness, it will impact our lives on all levels. It's the simplest practise and the most profound I have yet to discover.

  21. Beautiful essay, Carol. Thank you.

    In the end, political, social, and economic action are the only possible ways to make progress, difficult as these can be.

    Dropping out, even to a satisfying third party, is horribly counter productive. Without Ralph Nader, Al Gore would have been President, for example. Now THAT could have made a difference.

    Thanks for writing this.


  22. Two other interesting thoughts:

    1) When faced with a similar action vs. spirituality dilemma, Gandhi found his lifelong inspiration and answer in the Bhagavad Gita.

    2) Even though I also fear humanity is driving itself over a cliff, a little historical perspective is useful here. Would anyone trade 2011 for 1938 or 1858?

    I grew up in the 1950's under the constant fear of sudden nuclear annihilation and went to college under the threat of being drafted for Viet Nam.

    There are only a couple of things that are the slightest bit new on your list of current maladies--global warming and obesity. The rest were generally worse in the past than they are now, especially on a global basis.


  23. Bob - Thanks for reading and commenting. It's good to hear your non-EJ-editor voice again! (not that that one isn't great too).

    I agree about the need for a longer term perspective. I would however add one item to your list as to what's truly new - that is, the creation of a new global elite whose interests are not tied to the nation-state, but who nonetheless have a grossly disproportionate influence on politics and governance - certainly in the U.S., and to greater and lesser degrees in other countries as well. This, I think, is key to what's making it so hard right now to work together effectively for political solutions to our very pressing problems, such as global warming.

    Another factor that's more amorphous but I believe nonetheless critical is the erosion of a sense of meaning in people's lives. Religion doesn't play the same socially supporting role that it used to - while fundamentalism remains a potent force, the more mainstream religious faiths have eroded. At the same time, our faith in science and progress has taken an enormous hit. Ditto our faith in Enlightenment rationality. That doesn't leave much for the average person - and popular culture only sickens the soul with its promises of easy happiness that can never be fulfilled.