Sleep Walking or Waking Up? Yoga, Mindfulness, and American CulturePosted on Jan 15, 2014 in Blog
Yoga 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.
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.