Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Yoga Activism and its Discontents

I have been reading and commenting on some fascinating posts about yoga and social action, including this one and this one. It's a fascinating discussion that really, in my opinion, shows the many struggles to merge spiritual practice with social action in the larger world. Please go over and read the posts and the comments that follow each for more details.

The following issues struck me as noteworthy.

1. Many commenters slammed the author of the Tikkun post, Be Scoefield, as having an overly aggressive, shaming, and mean-spirited tone. While I think he makes unsubstantiated generalizations in places, I honestly feel that much of the "tone argument" is really a smokescreen for hurt feelings and bewilderment as to why the author is criticizing the work of the program in question, Off the Mat. Perhaps I'm just missing something here.

2. The responses of one of the program's trainers, Nikki Myers, are troubling, especially given the influence someone in her position would probably have with participants.

Her first response offers some clarification of one of the programs in question.

There seems to be some confusion about the OTM programs that you “investigated”. The 7 week program is designed to help people uncover their passion and how they can turn that into action within there local communities. Many outstanding projects have been created from this work all over the united states. One of which is the blossoming of my project the yoga of 12 step recovery, serving those affected by addiction.

The Seva Challenge is designed to mobilize the yoga community into action. Not sure what you mean by exotic, but that is certainly not what I would call working in a toxic garbage dump in Cambodia or laying bricks in the pouring rain while building a school in Uganda.

This is helpful in terms of showing that Scofield's focus on the international part of the program is only one facet of the work being done. However, Ms. Myers moves on into suggesting that the entire post made by Mr. Scofield is about the author's personal failings and hangups.

Your blog on spiritual activism seemed to focus a lot on activism with little emphasis on spirituality. Spirituality and healingis a huge component of the work in the 5 day intensive. This program takes into consideration the emotional well being and motivation of a person who wants to serve. It recognizes that without the tools to process the shadow aspect, it is their shadow that motivates their action. This leads to reactivity, judgement, shut down, defensiveness and burn out – the tone of which was evident in the blog as well as in the comments where you openly took ownership for your emotional fatigue and the resulting reactions. . This is precisely the work that OTM suggests that those who choose to engage in outreach consider because these are the tools necessary for activism to be done from a place of equanimity, patience and respect. The inner work reflects upon the outer work. This is precisely the environment I recommend you explore for clearly the work you’ve done is a reflection of your own shut down. Unfortunately with your intelligence and incredibly capable skills, you can create more harm than good when what is driving you is unresolved anger.

Scofield responds to this by saying:

Myself and others have been wondering about how and when feminist, cultural awareness and power dynamics factor into the trainings. What texts, articles, ideas, methods, workshops and teachings are presented. Again, I haven’t found it yet.

And he receives the following from Ms. Myers in response to his question:

I can’t help wondering why it is so important for you to examine articles, text, publications, etc. Given your writings, perspective, and history of taking things out of context – why would OTM ever offer to show you anything? Besides that, who made you the sheriff? This occurs to me as arrogance gone wild. Please consider taking the training.

I don't know if there is a history with this particular writer concerning the OTM organization which is playing into the defensiveness of this response. If there is a history, then I would respond quite differently to what I am seeing. But as it stands, it's troubling to see an important member of an organization that portrays itself as dedicated to "seva" (self-less service) responding to criticisms in such an un-reflective, defensive manner. Certainly, there are probably issues with the way Mr. Scoefield portrayed the organization, but it's the job of the organization (in my view) to demonstrate the teachings it claims to live in handling such criticisms. Or to simply ignore such criticisms if they are deemed not worthy of consideration for some reason.

Along these lines, someone else from the OTM organization offers a critique of the post, which I felt brought up a lot of valid concerns, including his mistaken assumption that all of the leadership and participants in the programs are white women. However, towards the end of the response is this, directed towards Mr. Scofield:

Are you aware that your continued assertion (and assumption) of our
race, gender and socio-economic circumstance places you in the same
racist, elitist and unconscious position that you claim us to stand?
Through all these judgments and uninformed opinions, you simply created
an unnecessary division, when you could have chosen to use your
experience and education to inform us on how to proceed with even more
awareness and sensitivity. We could have benefited from your support
and information, and would have appreciated useful suggestions to
improve our work. You could’ve been a great ally, but instead you chose
to perpetuate separation; and ultimately that is the divisive tool that
creates conflict and undermines the connectivity within each other and
the world.

What I find astounding is that the view that the author "could have been an ally," but apparently blew it because his article wasn't the kind of critique they were receptive to. Unless this man has a history of attacking the organization, I don't understand how such a swift dismissal fits into the values and mission OTM claims to represent.

How often does anyone present their criticisms or misgivings well the first time around? How many of us can say we have sorted out all of the personal hangups we have from the valid concerns we want to present before doing so? Maybe this was a case where the author should have sat a little longer on his concerns to make sure he had some clarity. However, sometimes you have to say something as best as you can, and then wade through the mess that follows.

As a yoga practitioner and zen student who is deeply interested in bringing my practice into the world in a socially engaged way, I want to see projects like Off the Mat succeed. It's wonderful to see yoga practitioners like Seane Corn actually attempt to do powerful work, and buck the commercialized, self-focused trend in much of the North American yoga community. Off the Mat is a new organization doing something uncommon in its field, and as such, it's important for anyone offering criticism to also offer patience. Having helped start a service organization from scratch myself, I know how challenging it is in the initial years, especially when it comes to having a clear direction and focus that actually represents the sincere intentions behind its founding. Sometimes, it takes years for a group to figure out how to actually clarify how to manifest their intentions in the world, so I recognize that OTM is probably in such a process.

But this is exactly why it's important now for them to be open to reflections, criticisms, and ideas from others. Being open doesn't mean you have to agree with everything others critique you for or suggest you change, but it does mean that you should do your best to listen to what people have say about your developing programs, and then decide how best to respond. The responses from those who represent the OTM organization on Scofield's post fail, in my opinion, to demonstrate such openness.


Anonymous said...

You'll figure it out someday.

Nathan said...

Pretty cryptic comment there.

Linda-Sama said...

I love your commentary on Carol Horton's blog, especially your comment: "i think there are a lot of spiritual folks who seem to be afraid of making judgments, or seeing other spiritual folks make judgments. things get way too soft and nice amongst a lot of yogis, zen students, and the like - and then when someone does express a strong opinion, all this repressed emotion gets flung out at them, including a lot of judgment of that person. it's kind of sick if you ask me."

I have found the same myself especially on one "yoga-ish" blog.

all I will say is hallelujah.

Nathan said...

Thanks. I just think there is more potential for growth and shifting when people are honest, present their views as best as they can, and then work through what comes up. All the overly "nice" cautiousness that appears in some spiritual circles indicates a sense of attachment.