The Inadequacy of Faith: Real World Politics and Transcendental Philosophy

This article is in response to the recent  criticisms of yoga and activism organization Off the Mat, Into the World for its attempts at a non-partisan political campaign embodied by YogaVotes, an offshoot aimed at getting more yogis registered to vote—but especially by the members’ presence offering yoga and massage at both the RNC and DNC last month. Full disclosure: I am friends and colleagues with most of the major players and have no bone to pick. But I do think there is an interesting issue to explore regarding spiritual philosophy and political engagement.

First let me commend Chelsea Roff on her really great interview with Seane Corn and Kerri Kelly from OTM.  I also want to salute them both for how they have responded to the often unkind and perhaps unfair criticism.

I, for one, think it is a bold and powerful statement to go into the lion’s den of the RNC to offer space for people and engage in practices that we believe can evoke compassion, mindfulness and a deeper connection to our embodied intelligence. I am not sure this would have made any difference in their political persuasions, but perhaps it might shift their consciousness over time. Being introduced to a grounded practice might inspire extending self-care to caring for others. Their religion may already represent this for them, but might stop short at unbelievers, gays and socialists.

Mostly, I am going to respond to Seane’s central message, as it perfectly exemplifies a popular though perhaps confused underlying article of faith in our community.

“Yoga teaches me that we are all connected and that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them.” This is the opposite of yoga and is a collective misperception. If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.”

 

This sentiment expresses a very common idealistic and sincere meme in the yoga community, but I think it is incorrect. As with a lot of spiritual philosophies, it blurs the line in a confusing way between inner work and outer reality, or between relationships based in trust, love and communication and those simply based on competitive  beliefs or agendas.

First of all, I hear a lot of people say what “yoga” supposedly “teaches.” As is often the case, I am not sure where exactly the teaching “that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them” is sourced. Granted, she may be saying that this is simply what she has learned somehow from doing yoga —fair enough.

Patanjali, though, is no great activist for saving the world —his advice is to transcend it. Traditional Hindu culture is in fact quite mired down in an orthodoxy that oppresses women and people of lowers castes, and is flush with religious teachings that justify such biases on cosmic grounds.

Personally, I don’t care which religious idea anyone uses to justify their political philosophy. I would rather hear well-reasoned arguments and references to evidence any day of the week. No one’s pet metaphysical intuitions are bedrock; religious conservatives have their own deeply held faith, but that should not be what politics is about, whatever side of the aisle you fall on. I would even go so far as to say that in the spirit of separating church and state it is inappropriate to make a political argument on religious grounds.

That aside, the underlying metaphysical belief here is:

We are all one and all of the world’s problems come from a limiting misperception that sees duality. Duality of course creates opposition and the way beyond this is to transcend duality, dwell in oneness and overcome separation….

This popular way of trying to reconcile the dissonance between pop spirituality and the political predicaments we face is a kind of mash-up of two different philosophies:  Patanjali’s (quite dualist) notions and  Advaita Vedanta-esque claims. Patanjali’s emphasis on becoming identified with the “seer” instead of the “seen”—in other words, transcending the world of form/physical reality gets stirred into a perhaps misappropriated Advaita riff about an ultimate enlightenment that is beyond all duality. This hodge-podge gloss on Indian “philosophy” is then boiled down soundbyte-style into a basic principle: we have to overcome separation with love and higher consciousness. That’s what “yoga” teaches!

Sounds nice. The real question is: How?

I hear echos of the 20th century King/Ghandi/Mandela model of noble peaceful resistance. What may be missed is that these non-violent resisters of oppression were extremely direct and righteous in their message. They understood their distinction between right and wrong, oppression and freedom, as well as what kinds of ideas and beliefs made the world better or worse. They made no apologies for being for certain ideas and against others, and for respectfully but directly naming their enemies.

While I can empathize, the problem may be a fairly typical one for spirituality: It is tough to reconcile abstract metaphysical beliefs and the uplifting feelings one has when in a safe space with a like-minded, loving community with the tough and sometimes ugly realities of the world we live in. There is oppression, there are crucial and tangible issues of the day, and real people’s lives are being devastated by bad policies based in incorrect beliefs about the nature of reality.

Despite its status as an ultimate transcendental trump card, “oneness” is context dependent: being non-oppositional in conflict resolution with people who value coming to a loving place of shared active listening is essential. But in politics, where people really are pushing an agenda and have no interest in making nice, not so much. Oneness takes a back seat here regardless of the power of your intention or the love in your heart.

In the second part of the quote Seane says:

“If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.”

 

I  hear in this a version of the idea from Jungian psychology about “the shadow.” This says we do well to look at our own unconscious material and how we may be projecting this out into the world. The noble idea is that by working on ourselves we take responsibility for not being part of the problem we perhaps have a tendency to only see (or project) “out there.”

Very often I hear yogis go to the extreme of saying that if one did all of one’s own inner work there would in fact be nothing out there that could push your buttons and bring up “judgment.” The tricky part about this is that there are plenty of real problems out there, and we are not just projecting our shadows when we see this, have feelings about it and engage in oppositional action!

My key point: If we follow the metaphysical belief that we have to overcome separation in order to heal the world or else we’ll be part of the problem, then logically it should imply that when we are in a state of promoting unity, love and seeing the atman in everyone it will naturally inspire resolution.

But this does not appear to be pragmatic or in fact true. I think the conservatives would love it if liberals just stopped being oppositional and approached them in the spirit of love and compromise. This is how Obama approached the first two years of his presidency. Even though Democrats held a majority in the House and Senate, he tried to negotiate with Republicans on every issue to meet them halfway. They greeted this gesture toward overcoming separation by bullheadedly blocking every bill he tried to pass, even ones they had previously supported—even legislation they had themselves proposed.

The problem may be in trying to apply a transcendentalist philosophy that seeks to go beyond conflict to a real world situation that is very much about conflict. Contrary to feel-good beliefs, conflict is not an illusion; it is not a misperception of a deeper unity. This is a disguised religious belief about ultimate truth that usually goes unquestioned, and I would suggest that the next stage of integrating yoga and activism has to do with moving beyond an untenable and frankly somewhat superficial core philosophy. The world will still be the world, we will all still love yoga, and yoga will hopefully inspire us to do good, but we do not need a quasi-religious and ungrounded metaphysics in order to do so.

 

Distinctions that Matter

It actually matters that the evidence says global warming is a serious threat to human survival. Climate change deniers are wrong. We cannot resolve this issue by seeing both sides as one.

It matters that women should have a right to reproductive freedoms. We cannot overcome the religious right by chanting Ommm while we massage their feet. They’d accuse us of witchcraft anyway!

It matters that homosexuality is actually not an immoral lifestyle choice but a biological reality, that marriage equality is the next frontier in civil rights. We cannot make a stand for our gay brothers and sisters by singing kumbaya with the homophobic Christians who want to segregate gays from their supposedly moral society.

Historical figures like King and Ghandi and Mandela made it absolutely clear that on certain issues we have a moral imperative to speak up for what is right. Does this create tension? Sure. Is it divisive? Absolutely. But not as divisive and tense as living under religious and political oppression.

Many of us are drawn to spirituality because we want peace; we have low tolerance for conflict. Sometimes this is because of trauma, or because we are just sensitive people. For spirituality to be sustainable it must enable us to tolerate conflict with more resilience—to stand our ground, speak our truth, feel the feelings and keep honestly learning about reality. I know that the folks at OTM are on the same page with their extraordinary activism and service work. We might do better not to oversimplify real world political issues with well-meaning platitudes.

Conflict is part of life and we live in a democracy that says, “Yes, argue, make your case, try to sway people to your point of view, you have a right to free speech! We’ll let the people vote based on what you say.” Conflict eventually leads to the best ideas being adopted—especially in an educated society, but let’s not get off the point!

What we sometimes miss as we blithely romanticize ancient and faraway cultures is that the modern democratic values that lead to a party political system, free speech and divisive debate are actually a massive step forward from dictatorships, one-party states, warlords, caste systems, monarchies, theocracies, and the litany of oppressive realities in non-democratic countries. Democracy says: Argue for what you want as strongly as you’d like, we ain’t gonna kill you or put you in jail for it!

Is it possible then that we have misnamed the problem?  Perhaps it’s not that divisive political debate overlooks the ultimate truth of “oneness”, but that there is often a lack of incisive critical thinking and compassionate concern driving those debates. This is where yoga might really make a difference politically.

So here’s my suggestion: Spiritual practice is about cultivating compassion, insight, ethical acumen, resilience and clarity. The integration of spirituality and politics can be about speaking truth to power in lucid, well-informed ways that invoke compassion and non-violence as powerful values driving our reasonable and evidenced positions.

Remember, the religious right has no problem claiming the high ground on values. In our attempt not to be similarly fundamentalist, we spiritual liberal folks often abdicate the importance of actually making a stand for the real liberal values: equality, compassion, dignity, reason, evidence, education, and protecting those less fortunate or weaker than ourselves.

Too often we think the opposite of fundamentalism is relativism, when actually it is reason, the freedom to think critically, and respect for evidence.

I really do get the evolving experiment that my beloved friends Hala, Seane, Suzanne, Kerri and others at OTM are attempting. Getting people registered to vote regardless of political affiliation is good, but a more this-worldly approach to politics would be more in line with the other amazing missions they enact in support of the disenfranchised, poor and oppressed peoples of the world. Letting go of the unnecessary posturing that accompanies the metaphysics I deconstructed above seems to be necessary for this to happen.

Photo: Gandhi

Comments
25 Responses to “The Inadequacy of Faith: Real World Politics and Transcendental Philosophy”
  1. Jill says:

    Righteous, Julian. I’ll be quoting “no one’s pet metaphysical intuitions are bedrock” for weeks.

  2. Philip Steir says:

    This is one of the best essays written on the subject of yoga, politics and spirituality I’ve read. Really powerful with one great point after another. Like….”The problem may be in trying to apply a transcendentalist philosophy that seeks to go beyond conflict to a real world situation that is very much about conflict. Contrary to feel-good beliefs, conflict is not an illusion; it is not a misperception of a deeper unity.”
    Serious. I don’t understand why people in the yoga world think like this because in reality they could never behave like this were true.
    Thanks for this post Julian.

  3. Carol Horton says:

    Fantastic post, Julian! I wish that this were required reading (and discussion!) in every YTT course across the country! I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for such a well-reasoned, compassionate, and lucid presentation of the very important issues involved here.

  4. Robert says:

    Precisely:
    “The world will still be the world, we will all still love yoga, and yoga will hopefully inspire us to do good, but we do not need a quasi-religious and ungrounded metaphysics in order to do so.”

  5. Laura Sharkey says:

    Julian – very thoughtful article! But I have a bit of problem with this statement: “If we follow the metaphysical belief that we have to overcome separation in order to heal the world or else we’ll be part of the problem, then logically it should imply that when we are in a state of promoting unity, love and seeing the atman in everyone it will naturally inspire resolution.” I don’t agree with the premise that the first logically follows the second. It is entirely possible to hold the belief that overcoming separation is critical to solving the world’s problems without necessarily believing that overcoming separation will resolve the problems on its own. I, for one, do hold the first belief but not the second. I’m not up to snuff on my Yogic and Buddhist history and philosophy as you are, but it is my understanding that the concept of compassion (which is my understanding the method of overcoming separation) doesn’t imply complacency or passive acceptance of bad behavior. It simply means that there is an element of empathy informing my response. I don’t believe that feeling that empathy (having a sense of understanding about how universal human motivations, fears, desires, etc. connect us to adversaries) and being willing to stand my ground/push back are mutually exclusive. It is very possible to do both at the same time. True, it is very likely, especially in the political arena, that opponents will not react to that compassion in a like manner, but that fact doesn’t have to diminish the effectiveness of my opposition. Your thoughts?

    • Laura Sharkey says:

      Understood – I guess I don’t see that a spiritual belief in “oneness” or non-separation automatically implies that the holder of those beliefs thinks that this perspective is a magic bullet, or that it justifies non-participation. Yes, many people will use it that way, but there’s no predicting or controlling the way anyone interprets any ideology – whether religious/metaphysical/spiritual, scientific, philosophical, political, economic, cultural – so voicing it doesn’t grant anyone an excuse they wouldn’t find somewhere else if that’s what they’re looking for. And while I don’t know Seane, I doubt seriously she meant her remarks to imply that belief alone could solve the problems – if she did, she’d be a guru instead of an activist.

      I can’t speak for anyone else with the “oneness” belief, but for me, it informs my choice about how to show up when I participate, rather than giving me an out. If anything, I am braver and more willing to approach conflict since I’ve developed this belief. And it isn’t necessarily a metaphysical belief – I’m not sure what it is for me. I don’t know right now if I believe in that cosmic oneness of all existence or if it’s just an abstract that helps me attain that empathic, compassionate state of mind, or somewhere in between. What I do know to be absolutely true is that it works for me. It helps me to be more engaged, more present and grounded, more courageous and more willing to be creative about the ways I can negotiate conflict and speak my truth. If there’s a downside to that, I can’t imagine what it could be.

  6. Laura Sharkey says:

    As an example of my previous post:

    “It matters that homosexuality is actually not an immoral lifestyle choice but a biological reality, that marriage equality is the next frontier in civil rights. We cannot make a stand for our gay brothers and sisters by singing kumbaya with the homophobic Christians who want to segregate gays from their supposedly moral society.”

    Yes, it matters. It matters a lot to me, because I currently live in a strange legal land in between marriage (recognized by the state of CA) and not-marriage (not recognized by the federal government). While I don’t agree that this is the “next frontier of civil rights” (I feel that there are much more urgent civil rights issues, e.g., a predominance of non-white inmates sentenced to death, the current attempts by many states to repeal voter registration protections, etc.), I agree that it is important, and it is a civil rights issue. I also agree that singing kumbaya with right-wing bible thumpers is not going to solve the problem. BUT – and this is the crucial thing for me – I have, over the years, had conversations with several religious moderates who were undecided on the issue. Based on the responses I have gotten, and from what I’ve heard of similar discussions by others, there is a significant potential for gaining the respect, support and compassion of many of these people who would otherwise be swayed to join our adversaries. What I also got from these conversations was a better insight into exactly what their fears are – they may spout religious ideology, but in the end, that’s almost always just a convenient excuse for more personal concerns. Knowing that streamlines the debate considerably and makes it possible to address those concerns. Will this do it alone? Obviously not. Prop 8 was a harsh lesson in the dangers of giving too much credit to the general public regarding caring enough to look past the scare tactics and propaganda. Direct political action, marching in the streets, marketing campaigns… It’s all instrumental, including sitting down with adversaries and telling human stories to each other about hopes and fears.

    • Laura Sharkey says:

      Regarding gay marriage rights as the next frontier, I do think it is important, but as for the next frontier, I just feel that there are several human-rights issues that are more urgent. Yes, I do believe that choice of marriage partner is an important human right. No, I honestly don’t believe it is either as important or as urgent as some other issues (I mentioned some examples in my original post). This is not to diminish the importance of any LGBT equality issues. What resources are available that can be spent on multiple issues in parallel would hopefully be directed in some part to LGBT marriage rights. But it is only in very limited instances that a lack of LGBT marriage rights could be considered life-threatening. Meanwhile, there are an inordinate number of non-white convicts being sentenced to death while white counterparts get lighter sentences. Lower-class, migrant and many non-white voters are, right now, systematically being deprived of more and more of their rights, most notably the right to vote.

      I would really, really love for my marriage to be recognized on a federal level. I would love for LGBT couples in other states to be able to marry at all. I would love for those in CA who weren’t at the right place/right time in their relationship during that very, very short window of opportunity in 2008 to have the chance at whatever time they are ready to take the plunge. But I can’t, in good conscience, wish for my rights to take priority when there are so many people suffering from types of oppression that are so much more severe and life-threatening.

    • Laura Sharkey says:

      You said: “yes, i am 100% with you on being compassionate, relatable and engaged on a human level with people whenever possible.

      we still can’t get around having to make some serious informed judgments, having opinions of right and wrong and being clear that there actually are people in the world who oppress others.”

      Agreed, but I still don’t think those serious informed judgements, opinions and demands for an end to oppression have to be mutually exclusive from having a compassionate, empathic awareness towards our adversaries. It isn’t easy, and I would never pretend that I’m good at it, but I feel it is imperative to try to hold both those things at once.

      You said: “these things do not go away in the light of some higher order resonance of “oneness.”
      Agreed. That was sort of my point. “Oneness” on its own won’t solve the problem. But that doesn’t mean that it is not a critical ingredient in the solution to the problem.

  7. Dina says:

    Great article. The problem that I see is in the word “debate”. Politicians no longer debate issues in the sense of having an open mind to consider the views of opponents and accept, reject or modify them. Debate has become a euphemism for stating ones own case repeatedly without giving any ground.

    Another problem is the degradation of the democratic political system. Politicians too often take a stand on issues for personal political gain and power rather than because of a belief in an issue.

    That should not prevent us participating for change, but we should recognize what we are dealing with.

  8. Laura Sharkey says:

    I am definitely in that “we are one” camp. I won’t pretend to know exactly how anyone else in that camp would describe it, but from my perspective, I think the reason it is hard to define is because it is in that class of states of mind such as love, happiness, etc., that are very personal and apt to be perceived and described differently by almost anyone asked to define them. Neuroscience may have a way to assess the existence/occurrence of these states of mind, but can’t define them in an objective way that would allow someone who doesn’t feel them to understand what they are. I don’t see it as anything mystical or transcendent. To me, “oneness” is simply a state of mind that, when I am able to be in it, allows me to be more open to productive communication with “others.” It is simply an intention to hold in conscious awareness both similarities and differences, and to be willing to equally honor both the adversarial and the symbiotic potentials of the interaction. If and when I am able to do this, I can enter both conflict and collaboration without allowing myself to fall victim to my own insecurities, fears and judgements, and can honor the other without a need to placate or bow down. I’m not very good at it, but I’m getting better with practice. When I am able to do it, I feel connected to both the other and myself, regardless of the outcome of the interaction. When I am not able to do it, I feel weak, isolated and sometimes a bit despondent.

    I don’t know if I described this adequately; it escapes me, to a certain degree. And if asked again tomorrow to define it, I might well give a completely different answer. Because it is, at least for me, a very personal and subjective mind state, and I would hazard a guess that is why others have not been able to define it to your satisfaction.

  9. Hala Khouri says:

    Julian, I appreciate your post and agree with your reflections. Most of your sentiments are actually core to the Off the Mat philosophy. That said, you have taken these statements made by Seane and then made some inaccurate assumptions about the overall Off the Mat philosophy. This is a very valuable post, but I don’t think it is a fair response to what we do at OTM.

    You say “The tricky part about this is that there are plenty of real problems out there, and we are not just projecting our shadows when we see this, have feelings about it and engage in oppositional action!”

    Yes! We agree. BUT without awareness of how “out there” mirrors our personal stuff, we are likely to be blinded by our own reactivity and emotion and thus less effective at dealing with external problems. Often, the issues that we are passionate about are a reflection of our personal wounds. If we haven’t done the inner work to be aware of that, then we can’t distinguish what is a projection of my own suffering and where does the true suffering lie? We DO project our shadow onto the word, and the more we know our shadow the clearer our perception of the world is.

    We train folks in our intensives to be engaged in a personal process so that they can face the suffering of the world in a grounded and rational way and then take action to address the injustices they see as effectively and non-hysterically as possible

    You also say, “The problem may be in trying to apply a transcendentalist philosophy that seeks to go beyond conflict to a real world situation that is very much about conflict. Contrary to feel-good beliefs, conflict is not an illusion; it is not a misperception of a deeper unity. “

    Again, a good point but not one that is relevant to Off the Mat. We never say that conflict is an illusion, so I’m not sure where you got this from. We spend half of our trainings asking people to name and feel what it is about the world that breaks their heart, and then develop plans of action for what they think they can contribute.

    Your points are good, but misdirected. We appreciate your reflections because what we are learning from your post as well as others about us, is that we have to get very deliberate about the language we use in interview and the press. In this virtual world where sound bytes are used to justify long essays about us, we are vulnerable to unfair analyses and criticism. There is plenty about us to criticize and we don’t shy away from that. But criticisms coming from people who don’t know our work isn’t helpful to us. This week we invited a social justice advocate and facilitator to our intensive so she can observe us, and give us in depth feedback about our language, approach and teaching. I’m sure she will offer us some important feedback on our blind spots and errors as well as support for what we are doing effectively.

    You are a dear friend and ally to us, and if you could experience our work, I think you could give us some important reflections. But pulling one quote and using that is not effective for us. While your thoughts are important ones for people to think about, it feels like you are using us unfairly to argue a position that you are personally passionate about (as am I).

    One final thought:

    You say, “But in politics, where people really are pushing an agenda and have no interest in making nice, not so much. Oneness takes a back seat here regardless of the power of your intention or the love in your heart.”

    I ask you this: aren’t politicians who have no interest in making nice human beings who have their own wounds, conditioning and insecurities? Why is the implication that tending to their psyches as one possible way of trying to inspire positive change, seen as a fluffy ideal? Again, OTM isn’t asking folks to chant OM or visualize pink energy around people to change things, we are asking people to look at the larger context of a problem and address ALL of it. Don’t just work on healing survivors of rape, have the courage to investigate what trauma the rapist has that may have led him to perpetrate. That is when solutions begin. If we lock up all the perpetrators and ignore them, then we spend all our time just cleaning up their mess. But if we ask, “Why do people do bad things?” and have a little empathy (because it’s likely bad things happened to them) we are one step closer to finding a solution.

    Seane says hi and has no interest in debating this with you but would like to challenge you to an arm wrestle! ;-)

    • julian walker says:

      hey my friend – listen, i hope i made it clear throughout the article that i feel OTM’s message and work in the world is exactly what you say above. my sense was that the recent political stance was maybe out of step with all the stuff you folks do that i admire and respect so much.

      i have no beef with any of you and think what you have accomplished is absolutely breath-taking. i was just trying to figure out what the backlash was about and offering my own two cents in terms of a subject i find fascination, which is hot deepen the yoga communities sense of “philosophy” and how this relates to real life.

      you are right: i have not experienced your work first hand – but am well-aware by all accounts of how deeply you consider guiding people into the relationships between personal issues and motivations toward activism. you really offer something unique and substantive – i guess it because of this that i found myself scratching my head about the non-partisan position and what it was hoping to accomplish.

      i am sure you are all exhausted and perhaps frustrated with having to deal with criticism, attacks and misinterpretation – i did not mean to add to that cacophony! sorry if i did.

      i also agree (and hope i made clear) that there is an underlying philosophy that generally goes unquestioned in the spiritual community at large that i was addressing and that i felt seane’s quote in some ways reflected/reiterated.

      it was also why i wasn’t sure about whether or not to come to the occupy LA yoga event. some of the language just didn’t make sense to me in terms of how “yoga” was being invoked in terms of protesting but demanding unity and a non us vs them attitude. something in all of that just seems a bit off. i am sure it will continue to evolve though – and hell, maybe i will understand it differently in time.

      you asked where i got the idea that anyone was saying that conflict was an illusion, well here’s the quote on which i based the whole article:

      “Yoga teaches me that we are all connected and that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them.” This is the opposite of yoga and is a collective misperception. If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.”

      i interpret the statements above about the belief of separation, and us vs them being a “collective misperception” as a way of saying that this misperception (or illusion) is in fact what creates conflict and that in order to overcome conflict we have to see through the illusion (or misperception) of us vs them.

      my central point is that there really is conflict (or us vs them) on the political level and that this may have been part of why OTM was getting such flack for taking a non-partisan position in electoral politics.

      i also tried to make sense of how “yoga” was being referenced in terms of “what it teaches.”

      my sense is that if one is going to combine political activism with yoga, then one may have to actually take sides and make good spiritually informed/compassionate/embodied arguments for why certain positions are the ones to support.

      it looks to me like taking a middle-road, non-partisan, we don’t want to perpetuate the misperception of us vs them stance seems to open you up to a lot of criticism for perhaps being naive or not taking the serious threats represented by the “them” that is the current crop of tea party religious fundamentalist republicans to quality of life, reproductive freedoms, gay equality, health care, tax fairness, global warming etc seriously.

      i tried to convey in the article that i thought the idealism of not wanting to play into the conflict of us vs them was sincere and well-meaning but perhaps impractical.

      on the shadow stuff , yes absolutely doing the inner work is SO important – but i am pointing out that very often (not necessarily with OTM) the underlying metaphysics that says everything is one and separation is an illusion, it’s all perfect, we are all just playing out karma, choosing sides would buy into the dualism, would lead people to think that any feelings you have about the political arena are just shadow projections and that conversely the more you work that stuff out the less you will be triggered by so-called “injustice” – i know you get what i mean, and i know you all don’t take this stance. one of my points is that the metaphysical language of the misperception of separation (probably unintentionally) kinda evokes that whole set of related beliefs in relation to the political sphere.

      yes, of course mean politicians are probably wounded, and absolutely we should look deeply into what makes perpetrators do terrible things, and even have compassion for the part of them that was also victimized, i am just not sure any of the RNC delegates are looking for or open to having an experience in their bodies via massage or yoga hat would make them become liberals!

      part of my point is that they have their own very strong religious conviction that are based in the same kinds of emotive appeals as liberal spiritual convictions. they genuinely feel that conservative/christian/tea party values would be better for everyone! so i am not sure we can really reach them – but i 100% get that it is an important question to consider….

      give seane an enormous hug from me and tell her i have no doubt she could beat me in any kind of wrestling match by sheer force of will and charisma. the only problem is i might enjoy it too much.. ;)

      again i really apologize that this felt unfair/inaccurate, i know how that can suck.

      • Laura Sharkey says:

        @Hala & Julian – you two are absolutely awesome! If more of us were able to approach each other this way, there would be very much less of that oh-so-real conflict.

        • julian walker says:

          hahaha! good point laura. ;)

          • Philip Steir says:

            Great article. Great dialogue Hala and Julian.

            Anyway..
            I think there is some real conflict here with the oneness issue.
            The irony/humor in the people who debate the “we are one” stuff.
            The people who think we are one should just not allow the one’s who don’t think they are all one to join their one group.
            The people who don’t believe we are one should be allowed to not participate in that oneness.
            Why would people who think “we are one” even want those who don’t think “we are one” to be part of their one group?

  10. Shyam says:

    Beyond the very good and important discussion surrounding OTM, this post engages in a cultural critique that is vital and essential. To be honest I have yet to see a better articulation of the inherent problems that ensue when we try to address real world issues through the lens of an archaic (or simply overly idealistic) metaphysics. In my opinion, this is the most potent piece of philosophical reasoning to come from my favorite yoga-writer (Julian) and fellow philosophe.

    He grounds his critique in a relevant issue bubbling at the forefront of the yoga-zeitgeist: can a watered down version of ‘non-dualism’ appropriately address real world political, environmental, and social issues? Can a misinformed appeal to ancient authority really help? (“Patanjali, though, is no great activist for saving the world —his advice is to transcend it.”) Can an appeal to an ancient authority (what “yoga teaches”) be of any use if one does not even understand what that ancient authority is even saying?

    (“This hodge-podge gloss on Indian “philosophy” is then boiled down soundbyte-style into a basic principle: we have to overcome separation with love and higher consciousness. That’s what “yoga” teaches!”)

    The clarity with which all of this is done is something rarely seen and difficult to accomplish. Unpacking unexamined religious beliefs and how they hobble political and social progress is something we’ve seen before with regards to ‘Western Religions,’ it is something new indeed to see that very same critique applied to modern yoga. This is necessary. This is an extraordinary example of how a public intellectual can help us to re-clarify what it means to be a socially engaged citizen who wants to make the world a better place–not just in our minds but in the world itself.

  11. Just to throw in another perspective in regards to this whole notion of “Oneness” and the assertion that “we are all one,” as in:

    “We are all one and all of the world’s problems come from a limiting misperception that sees duality. Duality of course creates opposition and the way beyond this is to transcend duality, dwell in oneness and overcome separation… ”

    is not only inaccurate for Patanjali, it wouldn’t pass muster with the buddha either.

    The buddha criticized the monist position, saying that ‘feelings of oneness’ are just that: feelings. Neuroscience can even show what parts of the brain are inhibited in order to have this experience. But for the buddha, yogic experience and practice are not simply about feeling, but a penetration of objective truths, understood not as ontology but as functionality.

    The feeling of “oneness” is experienced in buddhist practice prior to the more central awakening experience. This “oneness” is experienced in the mundane levels of concentration (jhana) that are part of the path of buddhist yoga, not the goal of practice. Awakening is described not in terms of feeling but of knowledge defined as “the skillful mastery of the principles of causality.”

    It is quite clear that you are not I and I am not you. It’s a bit fatuous to say otherwise. Barack Obama is not Mitt Romney. The teaching of not-self (anatta) merely states that neither have any essential self-nature: there is no “Obama element” outside, above, below or behind all the myriad causes and conditions that lead to Obama being Obama. They are equally (one could even say identically) empty of self-nature but they are most certainly not the same.

    The “Romantic” and “idealistic” metaphysics of “oneness” has a negative aspect that is overlooked in the contemporary, new-agey yoga world. The notion of “oneness,” Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, can close the “gate” to “radical areas of the Dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered.”

    As well, the ideological metaphysics of such ideas of “oneness” can close off two groups of people who might otherwise benefit from dharma practice:
    1. Those who see that recognizing oneness won’t end the problem of suffering and are looking for a more radical cure.
    2. Those from disillusioned and disadvantaged sectors of society, who have less invested in the continuation of modern “interconnectedness” and have abandoned hope for meaningful reform or happiness within the system.

    Again, I’m just contributing this perspective to shine the light on how even with the various yoga “traditions” there is much diversity of thought. As the late Georg Feuerstein put it: “When we speak of Yoga, we speak of a multitude of paths and orientations with contrasting theoretical frameworks and occasionally incompatible goals.”

    There is not even a “oneness” in Yoga!

  12. etienneisabel says:

    Thank you for this.
    The mystic “oneness” which yoga and various meditation practices helps towards is also available through music, through art, through work that brings one into a “flow” state, through love and sex. It can also be accessed through various hallucinogens, though sometimes with more danger. It is a collapse of boundaries that reminds us, potentially, of commonalities. That’s all.
    As such, yes, it can help generate “compassion” which means literally “to feel with” and this as well can help with one’s endeavors in political activism. Sometimes.
    But as far back as the 19th century sentimental tradition, activists, writers, and practictioners of spirituality have noted the limitations of “sympathy” or compassion. Neither necessarily translate into smart, lasting or helpful political activism. In fact, when it came to missionaries’ treatment of Native Americans in boarding schools, for example, “compassion” only made things WORSE. Forcing the collapse of boundaries into “oneness” was pretty nasty business when “one” defaults to “white.” It still does.
    Activisms (plural) based on notions of “oneness” only or even first are puerile and half-baked and potentionally harmful. “Oneness” is a spiritual term. Some people want it to inform their work for equality. But the two are not the same, necessarily. Civic notions of equality are not about “oneness” as a mystic experience. Equality is about equality before the law: equal access to services, resources, opportunity, and representation. America has failed thus far at treating successfully with difference because the people for whom equality was originally meant were all the same — land-holding married straight white males. Everyone else was excluded. Difference and separateness were therefore constructed philosophically as negative. Therefore, it was the legal and economic systems FIRST that forced everyone else into categories of difference in order to justify exclusion: female, non-white, non-rich, etc. FROM the positions of difference, designated “Others” have wanted to get into the equality boat. You can see the difficulties of expressing equality as “oneness” in terms of human VALUE while realistically being forced into treating with histories of systematic exclusion or oppression in which “different” and “separate” were constructred as “bad” and therefore seen as to be overcome. You can see the legal and conceptual tangles in everything from affirmative action policy to marital law. So from there, I can understand why Corne would conflate “Other” and “different” and “separate” as bad and therefore to be overcome. But it’s not that simple, and I doubt she is that intellectually or politically naive.
    Politics IS about power: power to, power over, powerlessness. Systemic and historically entrenched oppression ARE oppositional and directing repugnant to all understandings of human dignity, equality, and yes, even human, ahem, “oneness.” My civil rights are non negotiable. I do not need to “debate” those rights in the name of “having an open mind;” after a childhood spent trapped among conservatives, I know precisely what those arguments and views are. I oppose them. We meet on the political battlefield. Sometimes, in human history, we have had to meet on the literal battlefield. Sometimes you have to. There are few wars that are justified, but some are. The Civil War, the two world wars. Those battles were real. Real life were at stake. Would you have looked in the faces of the families of 6 million Jews and claimed otherwise? If you would, I have no use for your notions of “oneness.” They are unliveable.
    What we have to do is work to find better vocabularies for difference and separateness even WHILE working for the sameness or equality before the law. Along the way, what anyone wants to experience or express as “oneness” or compassion is fine, as long as it helps them to common political goals: equality, human dignity.
    I do not share the same political goals as conservatives, for whom “different” DOES mean bad, and who have used “different” and “separate” and “other” to excuse oppression. I do not expect conservatives to help change that vocabulary or thinking; in fact, I know they mean to uphold it. Therefore, I don’t care whether they “feel compassion” for me or I for them, or whether I in my yoga or they in their prayers experience a sense of transcendent “oneness.” Their experiences of “oneness” may translate for them only into hoping that as they work to disenfranchise me and my kind, and as we die, we would all meet someday in heaven.
    Puh-leaze.
    Finally, to all: please refrain from pathologizing political struggle as being a matter first and foremost of one’s projections of personal issues. It is insulting in the extreme. Many of us had done plenty of “inner work” etc as well as actual work in the world before we started a yoga practices. Many of us do take responsibility for our shit, as much as we can. Show some respect, people.

    • etienneisabel says:

      PS sorry for the typos.
      For better sources about treating with difference, see This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Anzaldua and Moraga, eds). Danzia Cenna’s novel Caucasia. Basically all the writings from Dorothy Allison. Ronald Takaki’s brilliant A Different Mirror: A Multicultural History of America. Virtually all the work of Howard Zinn.
      Many of the best vocabularies for working through difference in a celebratory and respectful way WHILE working together for justice in such a way that ALSO makes room for mystic oneness, compassion, rationalities, AND healthy interpersonal/cultural independence are to be found in the fields of “others” studies — women’s studies, GLBT studies, African-American studies, etc. They are also to be found in ethnic studies, which is of course why the racists who run the state of Arizona have wanted to BAN ethnic studies.

  13. I have two responses to this piece that suggests that a social scientific perspective alone would suffice to suggest a deeper unity.

    The first comes from critical reflection on Lewis Coser’s *The Functions of Social Conflict*, which when it was fashionable to do so, placed Georg Simmel’s ideas about social conflict into the form of testable propositions. He argued that that conflicts are more intense in closer relationships. This, taken along with other propositions, has often been paraphrased as “conflict presupposes a relationship.” The underlying unity is what is the basis of the conflict, even if it is something as gross as claim to the same material resources.

    The second comes from the first great peace researcher, Norwegian Johan Galtung. He suggests that Gandhian strategic nonviolence built in conflict resolution features in a few very important ways. The first of these is that satyagraha breaks relations at the structural level while reinforcing them at a personal level. An example would be a strike or boycott with intensified bargaining. Attenborough’s film “Gandhi” depicts this in what is likely a composite, and therefore fictionalized scene. The Viceroy asks “Mr. Gandhi, you don’t simply expect us to walk out of India?” Gandhi replies “Yes, that is precisely what you will do, and when we part, it will be as friends.”

    In a more contemporary example, Otpor, the student movement which opposed Slobodan Milosovic, wanted to depose him through elections, partly because of the bloodshed that had existed in Serbia, and partly to prove to the rest of Europe that Serbia could be civilized.

    I rather see the dilemma as one of how one may be contentious for peace. I see this dilemma as largely rhetorical. It is possible that American individualism—which is amplified in some variants of “yoga philosophy” may obscure the existence of social structural “realities,” and therefore the opportunities which exist to break relations at the structural level, and maintain a deeper unity on the personal level.

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  1. [...] Finally, OTM has spoken to the criticism, via a lengthy interview with Chelsea Roff at Intent.com (conducted by email and in accordance with OTM’s consensus-based way of making public statements). OTM’s co-founder Seane Corn and executive director Kerri Kelly stepped up and contributed to the dialogue. And shortly after the post appeared on Intent, Julian Walker responded with a killer post on YogaBrains. [...]

  2. [...] the political sphere is this constant ‘oneness’ I keep seeing repeated. Julian Walker succinctly dealt with this issue, so I will not repeat his brilliant exposition on the topic. The point here is this: we are not [...]

  3. [...] also followed the link in the beginning of the above mentioned article to this article which is an excellent read and a worthy attack on superficial spirituality and the resulting poor [...]

  4. [...] yogis in the political sphere is this constant ‘oneness’ I keep seeing repeated. Julian Walker succinctly dealt with this issue, so I will not repeat his brilliant exposition on the topic. The point here is this: we are not [...]



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