Sleep Walking or Waking Up? Yoga, Mindfulness, and American Culture

Sleepwalking1-300x225Yoga and mindfulness have grown exponentially more popular in the U.S. in recent years. As a dedicated yoga practitioner, I’m naturally inclined to see this a positive and even important development. Yet when I consider that the growing popularity of these practices has been paralleled by an expansion of economic inequality, social insecurity, political dysfunction, ethical corruption, cultural division, and environmental devastation, I have to wonder. As a social scientist, I can’t help but ask myself such troubling questions as: Is there some sort of correlation, or even cause-and-effect interaction, between these two trends?

Put differently, I find myself wondering whether the reason that yoga and mindfulness have become so popular is that they offer an effective means of coping with an increasingly dysfunctional society. And, if that’s really the core reason that they’ve become so widespread, are there good reasons to see that as a problem?

Perhaps not. Personally, I’m not against coping mechanisms. On the contrary, I regularly use yoga and meditation as means of coping with stress myself, and am thankful to have those resources in my life toolbox.

What concerns me, however, is the possibility that these practices have become so bound up with the dominant culture that they’re becoming tools for training people to cope with excessively high levels of stress, while at the same time tacitly teaching them to ignore, deny, accept, or even perpetuate the ideas and practices that are causing this stress in the first place.

To the extent this is true, it means that practices designed to help us to wake up to the world so that we can live more meaningful lives are being turned into tools that enable us to sleepwalk through the difficult realities of our time without truly seeing, let alone confronting them.

By and large, I don’t think we’re there yet. But I do see worrying signs that we may be moving in this direction. If so, that’s certainly a problem. Because what’s needed in this time of growing national dysfunction and global crisis is to harness the creative powers of yoga and mindfulness for positive transformation – not to turn them into coping mechanisms that passively support, or even actively perpetuate the status quo.

 

From Margins to Mainstream

Yoga and mindfulness have moved from the scruffy, vaguely disreputable social margins into the spiffy, elite-sanctioned cultural mainstream. Despite the protests of religious fundamentalists, the cultural profiles of yoga and mindfulness have been scrubbed squeaky clean. (“Mindfulness,” of course, itself being a recent American reinvention of Buddhist meditation practices.) This is good in that it makes these beneficial and potentially even transformative practices accessible to a much bigger percentage of the population. It’s problematic, however, to the extent that this gain in accessibility entails a loss of greater possibility, meaning, and purpose.

This isn’t to suggest that I believe that the only legitimate reason to practice yoga or meditate is to “seek enlightenment” or something like that. I don’t (although I certainly have nothing against it, either). On the contrary, I’m enthusiastic about the ways in which these practices have been adapted to help people with everyday, pragmatic concerns of physical and psychological health and well-being.

I do believe, however, that such practical issues should remain embedded in a larger framework of meaning and practice that offers much more. And, I feel that until recently, this was usually the case. Back in the mid-90s when I first started taking yoga classes, for example, I told myself that I was only in it for the stretching. Still, I was aware that yoga had blossomed in the U.S. back when I was a kid as part of a counter-cultural movement full of visionary, ambitious agendas.

So, I wasn’t surprised to find my yoga classes being taught by post-hippieish types who regularly said odd things, floating ideas that seemed culturally foreign, but substantively deep. On the contrary, since it was yoga and not step aerobics, I expected it. It was part of the package deal: stretching, plus some odd stuff that I didn’t (yet) understand.

Of course, it remains true today that yoga teachers are expected to throw in little nuggets of information that make their classes seem different from other exercise classes. But my sense is that this has become much more formulaic. And, the substance often seems different as well.

Maybe I’m romanticizing the past. But I used to feel that my yoga teachers offered me a glimpse into a very different, and decidedly non-mainstream set of ideas, practices, and values. Now, while I don’t go to that many new classes, I regularly read writing by yoga teachers whose perspective seems tailor-made to encourage students to embrace the status quo without question. “Everything is perfect just as it is.” “Don’t be judgmental.” “Think only positive thoughts.” And so forth and so on.

The underlying message seems to be that if you see any problems in the world, you’re being overly negative. And if you experience any problems yourself, it’s your own fault.

I’m all in favor of taking responsibility for one’s own life choices, and facing the world with as much positivity as we can muster. But it seems pretty obvious that these values only really become meaningful when they’re placed in a bigger context that recognizes the enormous challenges of our world.

Remaining positive in the face of tragedy is courageous. Enforcing positivity by practicing denial is dysfunctional. They’re not the same thing, at all.

 

Mindfulness or Mind Control?

It may seem silly to take such New Age platitudes as “everything is perfect as it is” seriously. But my concern is that to the extent they’re advocated in conjunction with practices that teach you how to direct your attention and control your mind, they can become a form of self-induced brainwashing that keeps practitioners literally tuned out.

This may seem hyperbolic, particularly when it comes to yoga. Even though it’s constantly referenced as a “mind-body” practice, most people assume that it’s really only the body that’s affected by asana. However, if you believe that there really is a mind-body connection, and that even a reasonably well-instructed asana class is designed to spark it, then it becomes clear that the “mind” aspect is worth taking seriously as well.

Concerns about mind control, however, are much easier to apply directly to mindfulness – which, after all, focuses more or less exclusively on the mind. Consider, for example, this report on recent developments in the mindfulness field from yesterday’s New York Times:

Two and a half millenniums ago, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama traveled to Bodh Gaya, India, and began to meditate beneath a tree. Forty-nine days of continuous meditation later, tradition tells us, he became the Buddha — the enlightened one.

More recently, a psychologist named Amishi Jha traveled to Hawaii to train United States Marines to use the same technique for shorter sessions to achieve a much different purpose: mental resilience in a war zone.

“We found that getting as little as 12 minutes of meditation practice a day helped the Marines to keep their attention and working memory – that is, the added ability to pay attention over time – stable,” said Jha, director of the University of Miami’s Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. “If they practiced less than 12 minutes or not at all, they degraded in their functioning.”

The article goes on to explain that despite such stellar results, there may be a fly in the ointment: Too much laser-like mental focus may block creative problem-solving. Therefore, the author concluded, we need to learn how to make our minds focus or wander at will in order to maximize desired results.

 

Creepy

I hope it’s obvious what’s missing here. The troubling implications of having mindfulness techniques scientifically honed to train minds to maximize efficiency in performing whatever social roles they’ve been assigned aren’t even flagged – let alone, explored.

Personally, I find such nonchalance about harnessing the power of mindfulness to whatever socially utilitarian purpose the Pentagon (or whoever or whatever) prefers to be creepy. It seems pretty obvious that training people in efficient techniques of self-induced mind control isn’t necessarily always a good thing. Yet because there are a lot of warm, fuzzy, positive connotations surrounding anything having to do with yoga and mindfulness, the negative possibilities of this often don’t even appear on the radar screen.

Yoga and meditation practices were traditionally rooted in a commitment to liberation. And, there were widely shared frames of cultural meaning, as well as well-established sets of social practices, that supported this vision. In the U.S. today, however, we lack such historically-rooted bases for these practices. And, in our effort to make them widely accessible and pragmatically useful, we’re increasingly divorcing them from ideas and practices that might create discomfort by causing us to question the status quo.

Of course, this sort of super-aggressive acculturation is only one dimension of a much wider field of practice, which encompasses many different ideas, commitments, and directions. But, it does seem to be growing. (Amishi Jha, the psychologist who’s working with the Marines, for example, reports that the word “meditation” only started to become acceptable in her field in 2005. Now, she has a $1.7 million grant from the Defense Department.)

I don’t think it’s worth trying to stop this trend, which seems inexorable. But, I hope that there’s more and more work that counterbalances it. Yoga and mindfulness can be powerful practices. As much as possible, I’d to see the commitments to integration, transformation, and liberation they traditionally embodied be reanimated in ways that are meaningful not only for individual practitioners, but for our society and the world at large. We can harness the power of our minds to move in many possible directions. Let’s challenge ourselves to choose meaningful ones.

 


29 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this development. As a long term practitioner of both yoga and meditation, I share many of your concerns. Although yoga and mindfulness can/are being used as “effective means of coping with an increasingly dysfunctional society”, my experience has been that this does not render the techniques ineffective in empowering social change. Quite the contrary in fact. It seems that if practice is sustained, it quickly becomes a barometer for measuring lifestyle choices and often results in the strength to face and question social functions/attitudes/norms. The use of yoga/meditation techniques with striving to achieve the ultimate super human (whether it’s the US Marine or the Super-bodied Super-Mum in her late 40’s) is not a new phenomena. Historically we have seen the use of these techniques by the Siddhi driven Sadhu in search of social power and wealth, and then there are the Samurai and Martial artists of Asia that used meditation to perfect the warrior. It is no doubt important to keep questioning the purpose and intention with which the techniques are being used… But if it is to increase compassion, empathy and kindness, I think we can build an army of Buddhas.

    • chorton

      Thanks, Jacqui. Your comment encapsulates the ambiguities I’m struggling with – yes, sustained practice does seem to yield positive results, but, there’s also many cases that show that this alone is not enough. Purpose and intention are crucial – among, I think, other things. The difficulty for the yoga world in particular is that there’s no agreement on the importance of much, if anything beyond asana.

      Frank Jude Boccio sent me a very interesting detailed, helpful post that he wrote on what differentiates more and less meaningfully robust understandings of mindfulness – I’m adding the link here in case you and/or other readers might find it useful: http://www.mindfulness-yoga.blogspot.com/2012/03/so-what-is-mindfulness.html

  2. Hi, Carol.

    I support you urging everyone to be more committed to critical social causes and making the world a better place. And I support your idea that yoga and meditation can be powerful tools in this effort.

    In my opinion, you are definitely romanticizing the history of yoga. Yoga’s past in India is at least as wildly diverse and impossible to stereotype as it is today in the West, exploding in all manner of different directions simultaneously, supporting warriors and ascetics, royalty and monks, and everything in between.

    But again, I’m just suggesting you are romanticizing yoga history, not disagreeing with your objective of directing yoga practice toward social good.

    I think a reasonable and laudable objective would be to build a robust, growing, well-organized and highly influential yoga social action movement in the U.S.

    As with any movement, you’re not going to get everyone. But thinking of it in this way, instead of “Woe is American Yoga” I think will prove to be far more effective in influencing the course of the issues that are important to you.

    Why not a yoga movement on the left as powerful as the Tea Party on the right? This is what if will take to really have any impact.

    Otherwise it is so much philosophizing, something I really enjoy, of course. But let’s not confuse philosophizing about the state of yoga with effective social action, unless it leads to a movement like I describe above.

    Contrary thoughts welcome from all. To tell you the truth, I’m just trying to think this through myself, thanks to your article and other socially minded yoga writers, like Matthew and Michael.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Demystified

    • chorton

      Thanks, Bob. As you know, I have been struggling with the yoga/social action relationship for awhile now. And, my thoughts on it are still evolving, as well. However, at this point, I definitely don’t feel that something along the lines of a “yoga-based Tea Party of the Left” makes any sense.

      There are many reasons for this, but one big one is that yoga practitioners don’t share any common set of beliefs, political or otherwise. It is a very individualized, decentralized, diverse movement that’s held together more by a shared love and appreciation for modern asana practice than anything else. If trying to get yoga practitioners to agree on what “yoga” is has repeatedly proven to be completely impossible, how could you ever hope to organize a political movement? It just doesn’t make sense.

      Therefore, while I didn’t make it clear in this post, my thinking is now more along these lines: if yoga culture generally encouraged and supported a more frank recognition of both positive and negative developments in society, the world, and our lives, it would be better both for individual practitioners and society. An unbalanced emphasis on “positivity” pushes people toward denying real problems. But, a balanced view supports staying strong and positive even when we see complexity and difficulty.

      Combined with a more pro-social engagement ethic, we could see more creative work coming out of the yoga world that’s politically relevant as a result. To some extent, that is already happening with the yoga service movement, etc., but it would be good to see more.

      A sort of rambling response, but I hope you get the gist!

      • Yes, I do get your gist, Carol. You are probably right.

        Here’s the thing. As I said above, I get everything about your efforts to get individual yoga practitioners to become more socially active. I love how directly this can directly improve the local communities in which they live, and how this can be an important movement in itself. I admire what others like Matthew are doing in this area as well.

        What I don’t get is the leap you and others seem to make from this local activism to how it can affect global crises, like global warming and world poverty, etc. When you start talking about these things in the same sentence as yoga activism, I think it’s mostly wishful thinking, and I’m just thinking that to have an impact on any of these things will take immersion in the actual nitty-gritty activism of actual politics.

        I hope that clarifies what I’m trying to say. I guess I just don’t buy that more people practicing yoga alone, no matter how authentically, with have much affect on these larger world crises.

        Bob

        • chorton

          Yes, I agree. I guess we just do what we can. I don’t think, however, that there is a lot of room for positive traction in the “actual nitty-gritty activism of actual politics” right now, either. Again, I undoubtedly have a much more negative view of the Obama Administration than you do. But I did help out with door-to-door canvassing in neighboring states in both 2008 and 2012 (as Illinois wasn’t in question), and now can hardly stand to hear Obama on the radio – I turn him off, just like I used to do with Bush.

          Of course, the disappointments of his term are by no means his fault as an individual. It’s the whole system. I am significantly less hopeful about its positive potential than I ever have been before in my life.

          That said, I would feel more strongly connected the yoga community if I felt that there were more people seriously trying to grapple with these sorts of issues, and assess what they mean in terms of practice, and spirituality more broadly. And there are some, but it’s a very small subculture. Meanwhile, the obsession with body image seems to be growing nonstop. I am incredibly weary and bored with that, although I certainly understand its importance.

          So, in part my drive to write posts like this is to work through my own thoughts and feelings by articulating them and getting feedback – and then seeing to what extent there is resonance between me and the yoga world that I’ve devoted tons of time to in recent years. It’s helpful, if difficult, to see that I’m pretty out of step in many ways . . . but, so be it. All part of the evolutionary process!

  3. …and just to reinforce my point about the diversity of Yoga history, I’ll remind you that the setting of the original ancient yoga text, the Bhagavad Gita, was similar to that of the Marine being trained for mental resilience going into battle.

    Bob

    • chorton

      Bob, you always find a way to bring the Gita back in! I think your example, however, is a bit of a stretch. The Pentagon isn’t interested in developing mental resilience to realize soldiers’ Dharma. I think that it’s safe to say that the goal is to keep it as utilitarian, bounded, and controlled as possible.

      • Hi, Carol.

        I can assure you that regardless how you might feel about the war, most Marines in Afghanistan consider it their dharma to protect the Afghan people, particularly the women, from the tyranny of the Taliban, and to protect Americans from further 9/11 type attacks.

        I can also assure you that this sense of dharma goes right up the leadership chain, through the Pentagon, to our modern day Arjuna, our own reluctant warrior, Barack Obama.

        Bob

        • chorton

          For what it’s worth, I have a much more pessimistic view of what the US has been doing overseas with our “war on terror,” and the effects that it’s had on Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. But, more on point for the yoga-related discussion – this conversation (as well as the one with Hilary, below) just illustrates how fruitless it is to try to organize any sort of political movement in the yoga community – if I can’t agree with you two, who can I agree with? There are a few, but not many . . . it’s a combination that doesn’t work outside of very particular communities that already share a very strong political agenda. So, we are in agreement on that!

          • Bob Weisenberg

            Hi, Carol. I was actually not saying anything about my own views on the war. We probably agree on that.

            My point is that even those who disagree with us politically, and even U.S. Marines, can have their own Dharma. You seemed surprised that one could suggest this, so I tried to explain.

            Even if you disagree completely with the war, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid analogy to the Bhagavad Gita.

            Bob

  4. Hey Carol,

    Winterscape is a ripe field for ruminating isn’t it? I find your thoughts interesting because I have skin in this game.

    I earned the title rebel yogi in the youth of my teaching by peppering my classes with what they called dharma rants. (I think that’s a common term now.) Everything was a call to awareness. I was considered a yoga teacher gone wrong by the status quo yoga community because,for example, I would stop a class to ask who was moving their arms that looked like limp vines and decry the possibility that if they didn’t have the attention to know that they were in charge of their own arms how would they have the attention to notice that their elected officials were robbing them of their human rights? And I’d bring up something that was news of the day. Of course these rants were done with humor and people did not feel attacked as much as stimulated. We had the luxury of laughing at ourselves, seeing our commonality in our lack of awareness and feeling as one witness to the world.

    Even the musical choices were intended to bring up current affairs and culture. Every class was ripe for thought and chatter but that chatter began in their minds. I later felt that this was not the point of yoga and that I was being manipulative. But the asana class is the main venue for student’s attention and so everything had to be thrown in there.. or not.

    Though classes ended with generous savasanas that allowed the release of that chatter I still began to feel less than the best teacher.

    Though I have not entirely dropped that mantle that made me so popular on the eve of modern yoga’s burgeoning, I use it selectively.

    Why? For one thing I know that people do come to yoga to leave the world behind for an hour or so. In doing that they are better equiped to handle ‘reality’ when they are done. The yoga is not a valium as much as the rest for the mind that comes with meditation; the clearing they need to think straight.

    I attribute my shift to sensing the shift in the culture. When I began teaching there was no internet, no cell phone, no culture of inundation 24/7 of OTHER. People had the energy and humor to engage in query even as they moved and breathed. That has changed.

    Anyway, just food for thought. If soldiers are learning to slow down their minds in meditation before they hit the field I think it’s a good idea. They are there to do the duty of soldiers and so that choice has already been made. Maybe it will keep them sane.

    I have been a lonely elitist as many of my generation are because as 60s kids we feel we invented radicalism and yoga to some degree. We have resented what feels like the dummying down of yoga and the commercialism that has allowed yoga to penetrate the masses. We are also sore at losing our places in the shifting sand. But the truth is that as people adopt the techniques of yoga and meditation to help in the work of their lives it will help them. If a dangerous person comes to my class with evil intent and learns how to do more harm by using the tools he/she gets in my class I cannot help that. This is the truth.

    Any of my students reading this would laugh at the idea that I have shifted as many of my classes are forums for ‘thoughts of the day’. My joke is ‘what have we learned today?’ because I don’t mean yoga. But they are quite different still. And I miss my old yoga teacher self but the world would not collude to keep me there. And that is life, eh?

    • chorton

      Hi Hilary:

      As usual, when I was writing I was not thinking about directly translating these ideas into teaching an asana class. I keep forgetting that this is how most yoga teachers will take it. Really, I am thinking about how asana and/or mindfulness practice integrate with the rest of our lives.

      I totally agree that the time on the mat or cushion is better spent shifting the mind into a different gear that will restorative and renewing, rather than getting caught up in thinking about everyday events. Your old classes sound pretty cool and I’m sure that I would have enjoyed them. But, I can totally see why you’d back off from that approach.

      I guess the question that I was trying to frame is more along the lines of: does yoga culture generally encourage students to harness the power of that restorative, mind quieting time to fully engaging with everything that is happening in their lives and the world? Or, are there messages that encourage using it more as a means of checking out and then pushing back anything discomforting in the name of positivity or whatever?

      Obviously, no one can say what’s happening in anyone else’s mind (we often don’t really know what’s going on in ours) so, I am really just speculating. But, it does concern me that we so easily assume that the purpose and effects of something like the Pentagon devising sound-byte mental focus exercises for soldiers is necessarily benign. Mental focus can be used as a way of pushing away questions, thoughts, and feelings that you are not “supposed” to have. This is damaging, rather than helpful.

      Again, I just used that as an example of a general danger that I see as big institutions such as schools, the army, etc. start to get into the business of mind training.

      Maybe I’m being too paranoid about the potentially negative effects – I’d be interested to hear what others think.

      • I don’t think this is paranoia, nor do I believe that we should get lured into focusing on the positives with these issues. Not because there are no positives, but because it’s vital to maintain a questioning mind when it comes to “good works” and “helping” in the world. Especially if you’re coming from a more privileged background.

        This post, including the discussion, raises a lot of good questions and points to consider. http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/the-heart-of-mindfulness-a-response-to-the-new-york-times/

        Beyond that, my own experience with yoga culture is that it’s primarily the land of the privileged. Folks who are rarely, if ever, called upon to seriously question attachments to self, social position, or any behaviors that contribute to collective oppression. The “challenges” tend to come in the physical form. Instead of seriously contemplating our impermanence or social conditioning – even at the individual level – the “rub” of the average yoga class is trying to pull of some physical feat or another. Hell, we’ve introduced multiple meditation classes at the yoga studio I teach at (one of the classes is my own), and neither has really taken off. So, even just getting “yoga folks” to meditate or be reflective for 45 mins or an hour without asana gymnastics is pretty difficult. It tends to take a big named teacher running a one off weekend workshop to get a significant crowd of students willing to dig into the deeper aspects of practice. And even then, it’s a mixed bag. I remember taking a workshop with Jim Bennitt (a student of Rod Stryker) a few years ago, and noticed the student numbers drop by half for the second part of the workshop, which was focused on meditation, mantras, and yoga energetics. To me, this corresponds to the more commonplace behavior of some students in the average asana class either checking out during non-asana parts of class, or doing things like walking out during savasana or end of class meditations.

        As such, I think there’s far too much emphasis on “meeting the students where they are at” and not nearly enough balancing out of that with some legitimate challenges. Including some emphasis on yoga or Buddhist ethics, linking practice to social engagement in some form or another, and pushing “mindfulness” beyond helping people feel ok and perform better at their work or schoolwork. Perhaps running your classes like Hilary did isn’t necessarily effective (although it could be if the student body is more deliberately cultivated), but I think the opposite – little to no focus on social issues – is the norm.

        Beyond classes, a major difficulty in yoga land with doing or even examining anything from a social or collective context (like the -isms: racism, sexism, etc.) is that it’s all so privatized and individualized. The new head of our yoga studio has been trying to create a more shared culture of leadership amongst the teachers (which I personally would like to extend to the students somehow), but even with this small group of 15 or 20 – all long time practitioners – it’s basically herding cats. I can’t imagine this group coming together to work on some particular justice or social action project any time soon. A few of us do talk about social issues in our classes at times, as well as make links between them and the ethical teachings when possible. I do think the potential is there to do more, but the structure of yoga studios tend to make it a lot harder to create community in general, never mind develop something like the activist groups you see from progressive churches for example.

        In contrast, even though my Zen sangha is also a pretty privileged place, we’ve been able to get social issues on the table. And more recently, had an active group working on the marriage equality bills here in Minnesota, with active support from the teaching staff and board.

        I personally think that as long as the general approach to yoga in North America is built around privatized studios, teachers financed solely or primarily by student attendance figures, and yoga + mindfulness “interventions” in corporations/schools/military/etc which minimize or eliminate ethics all together, there really won’t be much in terms of a social action movement from yoga practitioners.

        I’m not totally pessimistic, even tough my language is strong. I just feel that strong and pointed language in these conversation is probably needed to open the floodgates to change.

        • Interesting but confusing.

          After reading the links that you and Nathan shared I’m a bit confused. It seems there was nothing in either article that indicated any sort of brain washing.

          If someone is a soldier is it appropriate to ask them to think of their enemy as themself so that it is impossible to do battle? The time for that discussion happened before they were put in combat.

          And if stressed out kids in school are learning to care about others why not applaud that instead of saying it’s not enough. When one calls something right mindfulness it indicates there is wrong mindfulness. Do we really want our teachers determining what is right and wrong for our kids to think? Haven’t we had enough fighting over saluting the flag,saying prayers in school to know that this is a battleground? Are we advanced enough as a society for this to work to an advantage or will there be religious right or NRA or whatever teachers teaching mindfulness with a slant to their idea of right?

          I don’t know why asana teachers recite pablum to their students unless they think it’s what students want or unless they have nothing better to offer. I suspect this has little effect on the world. But then looking at the power John Friend had I guess I could be totally wrong.

          However I have to say that I believe that offering folks a general way to be thoughtful is not a gateway to brainwashing or mind control. Once you start a program you may have opened Pandora’s box.

          • chorton

            It is confusing for me, too. One part of me agrees with you, that it’s a good thing to teach mindfulness pure and simple so that people have more tools to use for self-calming, emotional regulation, etc. I teach yoga in jail for that reason; because I see it as positive and empowering. And we are certainly not doing anything other than teaching basic asana, breathing, etc. – no politics, for sure!

            But another part of me is outraged when I see a trend toward institutionalized programs designed to calm people down engineered by institutions that are deeply problematic. For example, as Scott Johnson points out below, “companies incorporate mindfulness for their employees without addressing their own part (through overwork for example) in the reason they are stressed.”

            In this way, mindfulness basically becomes a tool for social control and maintaining a problematic status quo. The onus is once again on the individual to learn how to adjust to a bad situation. Plus, the entire cultural mindset discourages even recognizing the underlying social and institutional problems.

            I think that I’d have to look at each case individually to asses what I think of it, but as a general principle it certainly makes sense to me that there’s both positive and negative possibilities to be aware of in regard to this issue.

            • chorton

              P.S. I find this post to be a good, balanced exploration of this issues: http://christophertitmuss.org/blog/?p=1454

            • I glanced at the post. This strikes me as odd:

              The most common definition of mindfulness, namely the ”paying of attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way”.

              It would seem that the crux of the argument in this post is that people are being made emotional hostages by training themselves not to judge their circumstances.

              I have met a few humans in my time if you know what I mean. How brainwashed would someone have to be to cease judgement because of a mindfulness program?

              I don’t buy that. And is that what every mindfulness program teaches? Just that? And maybe non-judgement refers to the individual and not the corporation.

              I’m in a contentious mood today but not apologizing for that. Just saying that I feel the need to play this card.

              But I’m not a Buddhist and not a mindfulness teacher and don’t know what horrors are on the rise in corporate America. All I know is that I doubt that companies are implementing these programs to keep their employees down. And if I’m wrong then the employees should choose not to go. And if it’s mandatory they can choose not to listen.

              Rebel Yogi, peace out.

              • chorton

                I agree they are not implementing the programs to oppress workers. The question is rather if working conditions themselves are already oppressive, it is so benign to applaud the introduction of programs designed to enable to cope with that better if that intervention is part of a package that pushes “acceptance” and rejects criticism? I personally would rather see interventions designed to improve the working conditions directly. But, by and large that is written off as impossible in the age of global competition. If everyone buys into the idea that it’s impossible, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

                On the other hand, maybe it is impossible and these companies are just coping the best they can, as well. As I said, I’d only to be able to feel comfortable assessing this on a case-by-base basis, which is not going to happen. But I remain very uncomfortable with the idea that yoga and mindfulness may increasingly be turned into tools of social conformity and control.

                Anyway, see convo with Bob for agreement on the fact that in the end, yoga and politics really don’t seem to mix well!

                • As far as I’m concerned, corporate America loves mindfulness programs precisely because they help employees handle the stress of their jobs better, which means more profits. F

                  Focusing on the “brainwashing” commentary is a total red herring. These issues are usually more subtle and complex than that term implies. It’s not about creating “emotional hostages,” it’s about framing on the job issues as “personal,” individualized problems.

                  To be honest, I’ve grown a bit tired of mindfulness discussions because they seem to go nowhere new. Folks offer some pointed questions/criticisms, and others knock them down with appeals to the benefits (or possible) benefits of mindfulness programs. And then there tends to be a digging in of heels on both sides.

                  But you know, that’s just where I’m at. Feeling like the systemic issues get ignored, dismissed, and/or minimized by folks who are mostly doing ok under the status quo. Or who have rationalized that they’re doing ok under the status quo.

                  Frankly, it’s difficult to take seriously the benefits of mindfulness programs being run at corporations like Monsanto, given all the misery they produce in the world. It’s kind of like getting excited about putting a drop of clean water in an ocean of toxic waste. When I read articles like this one http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/why-mindfulness-and-meditation-are-good-for-business/ a small part of me is glad that folks have better relationships with their co-workers and that they’re more “hopeful.” And the rest of me thinks mostly what they’ve done is make these giant companies more effective at destroying the planet, making wealth for the elite, and maintaining the status quo in our governments.

                  I’m all for supporting planting good seeds wherever you can. At the same time, if soil ends up being mostly corrupted, the odds of those seeds sprouting and growing into full plants are pretty damned long.

  5. Great piece Carol.
    It’s also interesting how companies incorporate mindfulness for their employees without addressing their own part (through overwork for example) in the reason they are stressed and ultimately their own conduct in the world. Perhaps an element of the movement that Bob mentions should be one of addressing corporate responsibility in how people are treated, and how they are acting in the world, when employers enquire into teachers teaching mindfulness to their employees.

    The last paragraph is a wonderful sentiment…

    • chorton

      Thanks, Scott. I agree, but the question is, how could that really happen in practical terms? A corporation will not employ a mindfulness consultant who is going to encourage employees to question its policies or management. They will only hire someone who sticks to stress reduction and the like. There is a good discussion of this in the article I linked to in reply to Hilary, above.

      Here is its conclusion, which I’ll quote at length as I like it:

      “We must remember that it is not within the remit of mindfulness programmes to question the modus operandi of the corporations who employ the services of mindfulness consultants. Buddhists and activists need to be clear on this point.

      We cannot expect such consultants to help change a single core belief of a company.

      Yes, mindfulness belongs to a path of inquiry, of examination of causation for suffering, of awakening, of compassion which leaves no stone unturned. It is an eight-fold path not a one-fold path (mindfulness).

      MBSR and similar programmes reduce personal stress. That is the remit of MBSR. Its authority is tied to that. MBSR states honestly what it does. That is to its credit.

      Activists, scientists, social critics, educationalists, researchers, journalists, Dharma teachers and numerous others have the responsibility through inquiry and insight to get to the roots of the matter of suffering, as the Buddha advocated, and inquire into any level of corruption of mind. It is unreasonable to expect mindfulness teachers offering a course to a company to have the skilful means to investigate the underworld of big business.

      Let us address to our best capacity the entire path, the inner and the outer. Our life is short. We may never be back. If we do not work to change the inner and the outer, there may be nothing left to come back to or nothing much left but a hell realm for future generations because we said nothing, wrote nothing and did nothing.”

  6. Prazak

    I wonder about this: “…it means that practices designed to help us to wake up to the world so that we can live more meaningful lives ….”

    That may be why some of us practice yoga, but is that yoga’s design? Julian Walker addressed this concisely in your 21st Century Yoga, and Mark Singleton had much to say on the topic.

    And therein, I think, lies part of the problem you address: when yoga practice is (and has always been) applied to so many widely, indeed wildly, divergent purposes, historically through to the present, and across cultures, it is necessarily difficult to reach consensus on what we’re doing when we bend into asana, let alone to identify a shared framework for social action.

    I sometimes think of asana practice as loosely analogous to prayer in the Christian faith or to meditation among Buddhists, in this sense: Christians of every stripe will extol the power and virtue of prayer, but clearly that does not yoeld a shared conception of why they pray, let alone a shared framework for social action. Likewise, we as yoga practitioners all experience the power of aligning body, mind, and breath in asana, even as we practice asana differently and for completely different ends.

    For this reason I have a difficult time judging those who practice yoga strictly for physical health as somehow not practicing in the proper yogic spirit. It’s a perfectly legitimate reason to practice yoga asanas. For the same reason the Ashtanga tradition appeals to me: give me a mat and let me practice without an instructor playing his/her idea of yogic music or intoning his/her own take on what it is we’re doing and why. Let me the one who to determine that.

    In that context, though, and in the broader context of diverse and divergent yoga practices, I don’t see how we’ll ever have a “yoga movement” that applies itself to shared social causes, outside of local groups doing a few local things.

    • chorton

      I guess it wasn’t clear from this post, but actually I completely agree with your view that it’s both expected and OK that different people practice yoga for different reasons. This post was less driven by a concern about the integrity of yoga than by a sense that sociologically, perhaps yoga is so popular because it offers an escape from dealing with everyday stress combined with an worldview that encourages people to not think that dealing with the world is necessary or important. So it was really more of a social concern than anything else.

      For example, you could practice yoga strictly for physical health but still be very socially aware and even politically involved. It’s really the culture of yoga in this country that’s the focus, which of course I’m generalizing about but I think it’s safe to say that overall it supports social disengagement more than the reverse.

      Hope that makes more sense – thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. Prazak

    Sorry, tapping on my ipad yields the inevitable typos.

  8. Kristin

    There’s a lot of interesting ideas and concerns here, but I have one overarching question: why, Carol, does “non-judgmental” seem to preclude discernment? I don’t know about you, but when I started practicing (asana, which then led to meditation) with any amount of rigor, all kinds of s*#& started flying. Meeting what came up without judgment really only allowed me to look at it without pushing it away or dressing it up. But from there on it was anybody’s guess what would happen- I reconsidered many fundamental assumptions I didn’t even know I had been relying upon.

    So lets say I work for Monsanto (I don’t, but lets just say I do.) If I spend some time everyday with some distance from my habitual thoughts, regarding them without fear or favor, I will inevitably have insights about who I am and what I’m doing. They might not be the insights you want me to have, but if I already work there, I probably think Monsanto is a good thing, and if I come to consider my work or my workplace more non-judgmentally, I have already moved closer to neutral. There’s no downside here.

    Similarly, the soldier in Afghanistan: hopefully his practice *will* make him better at his job- maybe it will keep him from making mistakes with tragic consequences. (And thank you to Bob for citing the Gita here- so apt.)

    I don’t understand the brainwashing concern. I’ve only ever been led to look; I’ve never been told what to see.

    Yoga and Mindfulness were already a Thing when I started- I was not ahead of the curve in any way. I teach power vinyasa yoga- firmly placing me in the “ham-fisted thug” category of yoga teachers. My only point here is, really, if I can find a better way to live in this world through these practices today, anyone can. Have I effected a wholesale paradigm shift in society? Not yet. But have some faith- there are more and more of us pulling on the oars.

  9. Rebecca W

    So insightful. Thank you.

  10. RevW

    Thank you. The surge in ‘mindfulness’ marketing has given me a definite sense of something being wrong, something missing, as well as noticing that ‘mindfulness’ is both a catchy new label for traditional meditation techniques, but … we just did this, right down to specific exercises, in the 1970s. Mindfulness, as it has been presented to me, discourages problem solving and encourages an odd sort of avoidance behavior. I think that version of mindfulness is where the self-brainwashing comes in. In the current pursuit of mindfulness the distinction between not dwelling on the past/future and neither learning from the past or planning for the future, for example, seems to have gotten lost. And as soon as the corporate universe latches onto something – anything – that may or may not actually benefit their employees but that is guaranteed to demonstrate that The Company Cares, there has to be the question: if this really enabled all those employees as individuals, would the company promote it?

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