The Great Obstacle of Stubbornness
Joseph Campbell remarked that we must recontextualize our mythologies every generation or else the stories will be without value to the latest generation. Many myth cycles we study and cite today occurred during the Axial Age (500 BCE-500 CE). Treting them as influences, we have a wealth of stories to borrow from as we create our own tales. Unfortunately, too often we gaze backwards, pretending those stories fit perfectly in modern society. This can quickly be evidenced by observing various American Christian sects being more concerned with an illusory Rapture and gay marriage than addressing topics such as climate change, women’s rights and aiding the poor.
Strange instances of this habit of looking over our shoulder instead of directly in front of our eyes happen in regards to Eastern practices, such as yoga, meditation and philosophy. One particularly juicy example can be found on this site in the comments section concerning Chinese medicine. The general idea is that because some revered piece of wisdom dates back millennia, it by default must be true. This line of thinking is usually followed up with some rant against ‘Western’ medicine, as if every scientific breakthrough in the last 200 years is really part of a scandalous conspiracy to hide the virtues of grape seed extract and resveratrol.
To be clear, I’m all about using herbs in place of pills when warranted. The quick-fix mentality of persistent over-the-counter drug takers is not helpful. But neither is the fundamentalist attitude towards ‘ancient’ healing techniques, especially if the science debunks the claims. We’ve reached a point where most every substance can be studied in a laboratory. This is a good thing, as we can verify what does and does not work. We should not confuse pharmaceutical greed and ignorant doctors with the fact that certain drugs really work, just as certain herbs really work.
Which is why I was shocked to learn from a friend about one outdated practice she experienced in Ithaca, NY, at a Zen center called Body Mind Restoration Retreats. (Note: I have never been here, and am not criticizing an entire center for one retreat. I’m just setting the stage.) She attended a silent retreat, which includes a total ban of talking during eating hours. I mentioned that Kripalu has a silent breakfast and lunch, and that I really enjoy being in the company of hundreds of others with no chatter. You become more conscious of how you’re eating, which usually translates into taking slower, more thoughtful bites, not to mention developing a clear relationship with what you’re putting into your body.
That’s when she told me the philosophy in Ithaca was different. During a brief break you were to eat as quickly as possible in order to rush back to meditation. In theory I understood it. In practice, I felt like I was being exposed to a discourse on the wonders of bloodletting and phrenology.
- Weight gain
- Acid reflux
- Stress reduction
The last is ironic: one of the great benefits of meditation retreats is reducing anxiety. Why then would attendees want to do anything standing in the way of this goal? As someone who has battled heartburn my entire life, I immediately recognize when I’ve eaten too fast, as well as the difference in acid reflux when I do not. You don’t even need the science on this one. Common sense should prevail.
‘Science’ is not a cure-all for the human condition. It is a tool that we’ve been honing and crafting, sometimes for ill, others for benefit, for centuries. Regardless of how ‘ancient’ a theory is, if it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s not worth pursuing. One giant obstacle to exposing more Americans to the beneficial aspects of yoga, meditation and mindfulness involves stubbornly clinging to ideas that no longer work—a trend that inherently damages those who believe without being concerned about how the fruits of their labor are actually sprouting.