Can Yoga, Meditation & Mindfulness Change the World?

 

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Having tracked news stories on yoga, mindfulness, and meditation for several years now, I’ve become accustomed to the endless stream of announcements of relevant books, blogs, conferences, workshops, festivals, research initiatives and the like that cascades through my news feed daily. Simply because there’s so much of it, today’s high level of interest in these mind-body practices has come to feel natural, even inevitable.

When I stop to think about it, however, I realize just how remarkable this situation really is. Personally, I’m old enough to remember when yoga was seen as a weird practice favored by hippies, while meditation was only for Buddhists and mindfulness largely unknown. Plus, having studied the history of these practices, I know that their current level of popularity is – strange as it may seem to say it – unprecedented in human history.

This fact becomes even more remarkable when I reflect that the recent explosion of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness in the U.S. has coincided with plummeting levels of public confidence in the value, integrity, and functionality of our foundational institutions, as well as the social fabric more generally. Again, I’m old enough to remember when there was a sense of widespread faith in promise of American democracy (strange as that may sound today). Yet, I’ve become so used to the endless stream of negative news about American political dysfunction, economic inequality, racial conflict, environmental irresponsibility and the like that this, too, feels natural, and even inevitable.

Distrust in government is at record highs; faith in the future at historic lows. Divided into mutually hostile “red versus blue” blocs that don’t understand or respect each other, the only thing Americans seem to agree on is that the overall state of our society seems dismal.

This inquiring mind wants to know: What’s the connection here? Why have the popularity of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness hit unprecedented highs, even while levels of cultural confidence, cohesion, and harmony have fallen dismally low? Is this simply a coincidence? Or are there important connections here?

We don’t need to answer such questions conclusively to make thinking into them worthwhile. Doing so opens up other, even more important areas of inquiry, such as: How can those of us who care about yoga, meditation, and mindfulness work with these practices most skillfully today? More pointedly, do these traditionally individualistic practices have a potentially important role to play in healing our sick society?

 

Wishful Thinking

Of course, many yoga, meditation, and mindfulness advocates have a ready response to these questions: How to practice? Just do it! The main thing is just to get started with something and stick with it as much as you can. Will it help society? Of course! As you can’t change society without changing yourself, any practice you do automatically improves the rest of the world in the process.

I don’t know how to say this nicely, but . . . while I recognize that such views are widely, fervently, and most sincerely held, I also believe that they’re rooted in wishful thinking and unconscious denial, not real life.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no truth to them at all. Certainly, I agree with the view that it’s best to remain open-minded about how best to begin (and continue) with mind-body practices, as different people need different things at different times. There’s no one-size-fits-all “right answer.” Anyone who claims otherwise is either blinded by fundamentalism, suffering from megalomania, or trying to sell you a bill of goods.

I also agree that yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can be transformative for individuals, and that even more mundane versions of these practices (e.g., a good yoga class at the gym) can – and frequently do – have very positive effects. I think it’s critical to keep in mind, however, that they can have negative ones as well. These may be physical (e.g., injuries from asana or even an overly zealous sitting practice), psychological (e.g., practicing in ways that support emotional distancing or delusional beliefs), or even spiritual (e.g., becoming deeply entangled with powerful teachers on abusive power trips). All these problems (and more) are actually quite common.

Logically, if individual outcomes are so variable, then any related social outcomes will be even more so. Of course, it’s quite possible to practice in ways that inspire, inform, and support positive engagement with one’s community, society, and environment. In order for this to happen, however, it has to be intentional – and integrated with everyday life, not restricted to the mat or cushion. Like anything else, we have to work at it. Otherwise, there’s no necessary connection between yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices and pro-social outcomes – or even any pre-packaged set of outcomes at all.

 

Blind Spots

While simple enough, this basic fact of the potentially variable outcomes of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness tends to be widely unacceptable, if not controversial in practitioner circles. In part, this is because it can be legitimately confusing. As a longtime yoga practitioner, for example, I know that while the practice has benefitted me enormously, pursuing it has also led me down some blind alleys that I had to work hard to get out of. And if it’s true that that’s all part of the practice, it’s also true that it’s possible to get stuck in some dark places.

The fact that even committed and experienced practitioners can (and almost certainly will) encounter some challenging twists and turns on their path can be difficult to accept. It may be hard to see it at all, even when you’re in the middle of it. It’s scary to think into the reality of uncertainty. And while this, too, it part of the practice, it’s much easier said than done.

And, of course, confessions of uncertainty don’t sell well.

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In fact, I think the primary reason it’s so difficult to have yoga, meditation, and mindfulness enthusiasts accept that these practices have widely variable outcomes is that they’re so commonly hawked as virtually foolproof techniques for improving health, reducing stress, gaining insight, finding inner peace, or whatever – and, as an added bonus, automatically improving the whole world in the process.

There are a lot of factors feeding into this marketing juggernaut, including the need for teachers to sell their services to survive, the widespread belief in mechanistic models of healing, and the easy faith in practices presumed to tap into the ancient wisdom of the “mystic East.” Combined with the fact that these practices do, in fact, work wonderfully well in one way or another for millions of people, it’s easy to see why they’ve been sucked into the standardized marketing machinery that processes so much of American culture. We’re sold these practices as infallible cure-alls. We want them to deliver, and in many ways, they do. That’s a powerful combination, and offer an attractive psychic anchor to hold onto in our rapidly changing, high-stress society.

 

Beyond Žižek

From this perspective, it’s easy to see why Slavoj Žižek’s critique of “Western Buddhism” has resonated so widely among politically-minded practitioners of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness alike:

Although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement . . . Instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of techno-logical progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modern logic of domination. One should, instead, “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being . . The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.

In fact, one could argue that it’s even worse than Žižek imagined. It’s not simply that “Western Buddhism” provides a set of ideas and practices that enable people to feel comfortable disconnecting from any sense of social engagement. It also offers an alternative set of beliefs that reassure those who want to effect social change that the best way they can do this is by simply sitting on their cushions and meditating (or, by extension, practicing asana or mindfully drinking tea). Whether you want to improve or renounce our crazy society, in other words, you can feel supported in pursing an identical course of social withdrawal and political disengagement.

To a certain extent, this is a compelling critique. And, it’s one that I feel that anyone who’s teaching yoga, meditation, or mindfulness today should at least try to understand. Ultimately, however, I find it to be irritatingly myopic, one-sided, and self-righteous.

There are several reasons for this. First, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness do help many people cope with the stress of everyday life today in remarkably healthy ways. Even if their practice never moves past the point of being a coping mechanism, pure and simple, I still see it as a good thing. Certainly, this way of coping is much better than many others out there, which are often unhealthy, if not addictive and destructive (e.g., substance abuse, shopping addiction, eating disorders).

Second, who’s to say that a well-considered world-renouncing position is inherently wrong? In my view, we only have one life to live, and if someone wants to spend it meditating in a cave, exploring the outer reaches of consciousness, more power to them. To be fair, Žižek was not, of course, writing about traditional renunciates. Still, the same point holds by extension. If someone has seriously considered their spiritual commitments (as opposed to blindly swallowing some preset package of beliefs) and concluded that social engagement is simply not part of their path, I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s not for everyone, and that’s OK.

Third, Leftist critics such as Žižek have a maddening tendency to recycle new iterations of the same old quasi-Marxist paradigm over and over again without even attempting to come to grips with the enormous legacy of problems associated with it. Abstracting from any concrete consideration of historical experience and current conditions, capitalism is sensationally presented as an all-encompassing, monolithic system that must be smashed at any and all costs in order to usher in some undefined utopian society. The upshot is a traditionally masculinist romanticizing of “revolutionary” violence that takes great pleasure in denouncing all that currently exists without feeling any authentic sense of caring or connection to anyone or anything at all.

 

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Rethinking Tradition

We can do better. I’d like to propose that politically-minded practitioners critical of our culture’s easy tendency to sell yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as cure-all pills with no possible side effects (that will solve your problems and those of society in only 15 minutes a day, etc.) stop citing Žižek as an authoritative critical voice. Instead, let’s start sharing ideas and practices that promise to integrate processes of individual and social transformation in ways that speak to the needs and concerns of our selves, our society, and our planet today.

Of course, there’s a lot of great work going on in this regard already, and some of it has been around for awhile (e.g., socially engaged Buddhism). By and large, however, these efforts seem very disjointed. The yoga community, for example, tends to be siloed off from the worlds of meditation and mindfulness. Yet, anyone who’s experienced the deeper dimensions of yoga knows without meditative awareness (or mindfulness if you prefer that term), asana practice is nothing but exercise. Alternatively, meditation or mindfulness practices that instill a sense of disconnect from the body foster emotional disconnection and even dissociation.

If yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices are being sold simply as exercise, performance enhancement, and stress relief, experienced practitioners know there is much more to them than that. In my view, all are essentially modern methods of working with the modern self: that is, systematic methods of exploring and developing the nature and mystery of our own being that work well within the particular contexts of modernity and post-modernity. In many respects, they are not that different from psychoanalysis, which initially emerged during the same historical period. But, that’s a story for a different time. (Note: This isn’t to suggest that asana and meditation practices don’t have ancient roots; they do. Rather, it’s acknowledging that the constellation of ideas and practices that we’re familiar today represent distinctly modern formations that first emerged during the late 19th/early 20th centuries.)

Ever since translations of Indian sacred texts first became available in the U.S., some of our most important cultural and political leaders, such as Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., have felt these ancient ideas and the practices associated with them offer something important, and potentially transformative to our modernized, globalized, and technologically-driven world. I share this feeling, and am confident many others do as well. The trick is to coalesce our work into a more coherent movement that challenges contemporary social and political dysfunction, rather than simply accommodating to it. In the process, we can co-create a new vision of an alternative culture in which holistic health and spiritual meaning are actively embraced as social, and not simply individual values. Given the unprecedentedly high levels of public interest in yoga, meditation, and mindfulness today, the time to launch such a collaborative project is now.

 


4 Comments

  1. Powerful piece Carol. I too am confident that these time tested practices and philosophies have somethings to teach us about how to live better in 21st. C. society. The nature of the human mind is the same, and the ancient sages/teachers were definitely interested in how to work effectively with the mind instead of the mind running us around. I’m wondering if you have an idea as to who (plural?) should organize this social+political movement. I’m wondering if that is possible, but then again, I do think people like Pema Chodron, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, Thomas Keating, the writings of Thomas Merton etc… are socially engaged.

    Blessings,
    Dianna

  2. How have Eastern philosophies improved the societies in which they emerged? Is the acceptance of meditation an obstacle to social change? Why does the caste system persist in India despite laws against it?

    • I meant to say “acceptance.” I mean the ability to allow negative thoughts to pass. Does non-attachment diffuse the motivation to fight for change!

  3. Hi there! I’m quite sure that I have something that I can connect and interject, my book is about relevant lessons from my journey towards self-realization. Tried and tested by my activism during my grassroots movement to uphold democracy, I realized that the vigor of my convictions and capacity to uphold freedom was driven by my belief in my inner being. My strong sense of my personal responsibility to protect individual freedom led me to explore and test my inner capacity to sustain the spirit of freedom. I daresay, I launched a democracy movement in order to test my inner capacity to realize my ability to protect what is owed and natural to me in my body, mind, spirit and soul. The desire to be free is a soul searching self-realization.
    Our advocacy is to promote change for the better through self-realization we express the natural genius and open our minds to feel the flow of life energy as it courses through us. By experiencing the life form in its true creative genius we connect to our body, mind and spirit as it was meant to be. The learning from our inner experience in meditation allows us to know who we are. In meditation, we reevaluate life and are inspire ourselves to experience more fully our best selves.
    Help us, visit our website at http://www.iamthechangeiseek.org and also http://www.goodreads.com/kathleensuneja. You can also download the app at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.goodbarber.iamthechange.
    Thank you and have a great day!

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