Saturday, September 29, 2012

Off the Mat at the RNC-DNC Yoga Activism Debate Revisited


Some weeks ago, the yoga service organization Off the Mat into the World stirred up a flurry of controversy for showing up at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions with a team of eager volunteers to host The Huffington Oasis.

Their intention? To provide politicians and media delegates with “a refuge where they could come to reconnect with their bodies, minds and intentions,” and perhaps approach the “supercharged environment” of a political convention with more mindfulness and compassion. Sounds innocent enough, right? But the response they received from the yoga community was largely one of criticism and anger...

The above is from the introduction to an interview over at the Intent blog with Seane Corn and Kerri Kelly in response to criticism of the Oasis project. Having contributed my own piece to the discussion a little under a month ago, I wanted to offer some additional response to the interview, as well as other posts I've read in recent weeks.

One of the things I read under the surface of the interview is that Seane and the other leaders of their group are placing a lot of focus on the electoral process. It’s an “inside” approach, something that will never be very satisfying to people like me, who view grassroots action and activism as more important in the current conditions than trying to get X, Y, or Z elected and/or to vote for certain laws. But I can appreciate well thought out and targeted inside efforts that aim to address systemic issues, and disrupt the narratives of greed and injustice that drive so much of current policy making. What I see with OTM’s Oasis and Yoga Votes is some of the “right” language, but not nearly enough clear linking of what they are doing to addressing systemic injustice and oppression.

I actually think the non-partisan stance they have been trying to take is a positive. If this were simply a program to get yoga folks to vote for Democrats, I’d be all over it with criticisms because a) the two big parties are miserable is so many ways that regardless of some differences, they fail to represent (in my view) the needs of the majority of us and b) the sense of working together across party lines on issues that they are aiming at would be totally lost.

What frequently disappoints me about the yoga community (and spiritual communities as a whole) is the ways in which all forms of critical discussion are lumped into the category of judgment, and swept away as being "unyogic" somehow. The kind of rigor needed to suss out wisdom and right action tends to be overwhelmed by simplistic, overly rosy thinking in yoga circles. The Oasis project needs to be critically examined by those of us interested in linking yoga practices with social engagement precisely so that future projects can have clearer visions, and be more likely to create the kind of social change so many claim to desire.

On the other side of the coin, the nastiness amongst some of the critics is also a hindrance. My own original blog post on the topic included a few lines I could have written with less venom. For me, that venom comes from seeing so little respect for critical rigor amongst the general yoga community, and feeling marginalized. Perhaps others amongst the critics also feel this way, and are responding by lashing out at public figures like Seane Corn.

I appreciate her efforts to recognize and check those places within her that block her from connecting with the humanity of others. That's an excellent example for all of us. At the same time, optimism and compassion not grounded in wisdom and awareness of the real conditions on the ground leads to more misery in the end.

Overall, I think social movements and politically active people struggle with is figuring out ways to debate and provide critical feedback about issues without descending into personal attacks and us vs. them thinking. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that such us vs. them thinking has arisen in discussions about the Oasis Project and its affiliates.

How can these different sides come together in respect for the gifts each has? How can those with the tools of critical intelligence respect those with the optimism and positive energy?

I've been sitting with these questions for years, as I've see them unfold into oppositional sides again and again.

We need both, but these qualities seem to naturally spark fear and defensiveness. Seems to me that zeroing in on that fear and defensiveness, individually and in groups, is a key piece of work for humanity.

10 comments:

Jeanne Desy said...

Good morning, Nathan.
Seeing through a Zen lens, I think that argument for a specific belief system is often the product of grasping and defending a self.

This grasping gets strong when people are doing a practice to make themselves perfect. In my experience, yoga seems to attract many people with that goal. So,part of that perfection may be eating vegan, for example. You can believe that eating animal products is Wrong. I'm Right, you're Wrong. Yes, how can we get away from all that judging and listen to each other? It is so sad when spiritual people fight within themselves, and seems inevitable. I guess we are still human.

Ji Hyang said...

Dear Nathan,

You've spoken well, here. Came to your blog right after reading Christopher Titmuss' blog on the Diamond Sutra (http://christophertitmuss.org/blog/?p=1110).
I hear a resonance between these--
the direction to not grasp, and at the same time remain passionately engaged in the world. What does that discourse look like....
My activist friend, Colin Beavan and I were discussing this, last weekend: he may take one approach, and another environmental action group may take an approach so completely different they seem 180 degrees apart-- and yet they can both have a positive effect, social systems are that complex.

As activists and as practitioners we can continue to discover the four noble truths expressed, like rainfall, in innumerable different ways...

Thank you so much for this.

Nathan said...

"the direction to not grasp, and at the same time remain passionately engaged in the world." Yes, this. I think it's really important to keep awake to the tensions that come to us from this. It seems so easy to get lost in one end or the other.

"In my experience, yoga seems to attract many people with that goal. So,part of that perfection may be eating vegan, for example." I've noticed some of this in yoga groups as well. There's a lot "self improvement" energy, which isn't terrible in and of itself. In fact, some of it is probably necessary to get people to look at their lives, and to keep going when things get rough. But when that approach gets upheld by teachers and senior students as THE way, things go array.

Algernon said...

"...the ways in which all forms of critical discussion are lumped into the category of judgment, and swept away as being 'unyogic' somehow."

There is a correlating pressure in some zen circles -- I've gotten it in my own school.

Which leads me to the question of direction and purpose. Is the purpose of practice simply palliative, to function more smoothly while doing the things that a politician does -- or to open up critical enquiry into those actions?



Ji Hyang said...

That is a question that Rita Gross has taken up in Buddhism After Patriarchy--
who points out that some of our value system around this (Buddhism and social action) is based upon being Westerners..
she notes that in the history of Buddhism the highest ideals of compassion and social equity have coexisted with very oppressive social regimes. "It is not that Buddhism does not have a social ethic...but Buddhists have not been willing to engage in social action in realization of that ethic...Probably most Buddhists have felt that individual transformation and enlightenment are so high a priority and that society is no intractable..that social action becomes a diversion and a waste of energy".
She sees the prophetic voice as a cultural carryover from Christianity, one which is vitally necessary to empower compassion.

When I teach on Buddhism and gender I always draw on that passage. My own experience with monastic training in the East and in dialogue with Asian monks and nuns confirms Gross' view, with the exceptions, like Maha Ghosananda and Sulak Sivaraksa that prove the rule.

It is not only the effect of our individual zen circle/ yoga community: it is a cultural element which runs deep. And yet that, too is the Bodhissatva way. Kwan Seum Bosal with one foot coming off the cushion...

Anonymous said...

At the same time, optimism and compassion not grounded in the real conditions on the ground leads to more misery in the end.

This can be said about anything. Lack of being grounded in wisdom and awareness of the "real" conditions of life is indeed a fundamental problem.

And this is where the fine line of internal work meeting social service can become a sticking issue. All too often people will attack the world, try to change the world, or force the world into a different shape, because they consider it to be "wrong". They are unwilling to look within and challenge their own viewpoints, their own subjective interpretations of what "right" and "wrong" actually mean. The concepts themselves are not absolute and unchanging values, and to think that they are indicates the slavery of absolutism, which is the foundation for divisiveness in general. It is what leads to "me" against "you".

But identity is not absolute and unchanging, and falling back solely on predefined laws and hand-me-down "knowledge" to define its parameters by proxy is an activity which in itself reveals the resulting failure of such activity to adapt to actual circumstances as they happen in "real" time. The desire of identity to solidify and become unchanging in a complete way is not unique, but rather ingrained in the monolithic aspirations of human culture in general. It primarily has to do with the survival impulse being unconsciously abstracted into the conceptual realm, but there are many other factors as well.

People who are drawn to activism can easily fall into the trap of avoidance. If they are unwilling to examine their internal (personal) dynamics which have created their external (social) motions, then that kind of external momentum can continue to develop on its own and carry them along its mechanically reactive course while being further empowered by numerous other external factors. Like a weather-vane responding to wind pressure, they may reach a point where virtually all their motivations are environmental, and thus activists risk becoming another part of the environment itself rather than being directed by their own internal sense of navigation. In buddhist terms they are motivated by samsara to create further samsara and thus themselves become samsara at a very basic level. The obscuration of prajna can become as continuous as an occupation, which greatly reduces the possibilities of this human life.

The understanding of motivations in their origin tends to undo the slavery that demands their fulfillment - slavery which can appear to be "a given" at the time such motivations appear in the mind, as a non-issue or something inviolable. But such slavery is not inviolable.

This is why the ancient advice to "Know thyself" is still so cherished and comes up so frequently in regards to inner work. It is not merely a hint, but an indication towards the basis for all experience. Eventually this kind of inner work yields certain surprising results, but such a discovery is not functional as some kind of belief system or a matter to be taken on blind faith alone. In this case, the means is the end. What you get out of it is directly related to what you put into it.


("We're only human" is just our excuse to say we're not in control over our actions, preferring to blame some "natural process" for our own self-indulgence in personal gain)

Ji Hyang said...

Anonymous' comment is also very thoughtful, from the other end of the spectrum. In the words of Audre Lorde, the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." We need to work on the roots of these social issues within our own body/mind. Creating change within is a like stone thrown into water which ripples out, changing the world around us.

And at the same time, the world needs our passion which-- in the light of clear awareness-- becomes true compassion: a willingness to see that practice and moment-to-moment engagement are "not- two" This is the generation in which we are letting our hearts become our temples.

Nathan said...

" Is the purpose of practice simply palliative, to function more smoothly while doing the things that a politician does -- or to open up critical enquiry into those actions?" This has been on my mind so much over the past few years. And I think the lack of critical awareness and willingness to engage in the "dirty work" of society amongst many spiritual practitioners, is also deeply present on the "opposite" side in many activists, as Anonymous' comment accurately points out.

In fact, having spent a lot of time in the local branch of Occupy over the past year, I've been reminded how deeply hostile some folks are towards examining their "inner worlds" and questioning the assumptions they've made about what's happening in the world, and what they think needs to be done. The weather vane image image really resonates with my experience of the shifts and changes I saw happening as law enforcement crackdowns and struggles to manifest "victories" occurred here in the Twin Cities. Instead of digging inward to reconsider the bigger issues we had originally raised, the tide flowed towards a focus on police officers, and trying to counteract petty laws set up by public officials. Which, to me, was just playing into the game set out by the current elite to stifle the movement.


Nathan said...

"It is not that Buddhism does not have a social ethic...but Buddhists have not been willing to engage in social action in realization of that ethic...Probably most Buddhists have felt that individual transformation and enlightenment are so high a priority and that society is no intractable..that social action becomes a diversion and a waste of energy".

What I wonder about this quote is whether the history that's been passed down has minimized, missed, or whitewashed social engagement made by Buddhists historically. If, for example, what was recorded was mostly recorded by monks in established monasteries where the ethos was entirely, or mostly, focused on individual liberation - then what we've received is only a partial record. It's like all the stories of great women Buddhists that have had to be pieced together from tiny, scattered fragments. Perhaps, as well, actions weren't done under the banner of Buddhism, and thus weren't seen as being Socially Engaged Buddhism per se. Furthermore, there's the issue of the Orientalized lens that 19th and 20th century European and white American scholars and practitioners applied to constructing a narrative about Buddhist life and practice.

I do think she's right that Buddhist teachings have coexisted with some deeply oppressive regimes throughout the centuries. And it does seem like individual transformation and enlightenment rule the day for many of the ancestors whose teachings we continue to study now.

And yet, I think of the sutra where the Buddha attempts twice to intervene and stop a war between his clan and another. The first time, he appears to succeed. But things fall apart, the second attempt fails, and he's left to accept what's happening. Other sutras are littered with social teachings aimed at leaders in the "secular" world, suggesting that their practice was, in part, about how they engaged in social action.

I don't have a conclusion on this. It's more a wondering. Because somehow, the stories about the development of Buddhism throughout the centuries feel incomplete.

Ji Hyang said...

I like to think there was more to the story, too. Sally Tisdale's Women of the Way is just as delightful for the elements of the story she has added in....of course some degree of this is revisionist.

And yet, if we look at the placement of Buddhism within East Asia within Confucian cultures, in which social order and fulfilling one's role within that order is paramount....

Realizing within East Asian cultures the most important parts of the self have not been the individual's feelings but roles, stability in relationships, calmness, connectedness.

I imagine our social activist ancestors being a bit more subtle-- advancing when social contexts presented an opening, retreating during the monsoons. Yes, some action happened and we have just a few ideas from the records.