By Be Scofield
Originally posted at Tikkun Daily Blog on August 9, 2011
It takes a special type of warrior to drop bombs on someone. You have to be able to cultivate a certain amount of mental clarity, presence, focus and inner calm. That’s why for some, yoga is the perfect tool to help get the job done.
In August, 2006 Fit Yoga Magazine featured on their front cover a picture of two naval aviators practicing yoga on a battleship. What pose were they in? Of course Virabadrasana 2, aka warrior pose. At the time even the editor of magazine admitted that it was a “little shocking,” but on second glance she realized that “on their faces their serene smiles relayed a sense of inner calm.”
According to Retired Adm. Tom Steffens the Navy Seals dig yoga too, “The ability to stay focused on something, whether on breathing or on the yoga practice, and not be drawn off course, that has a lot of connection to the military,” he said. “In our SEAL basic training, there are many things that are yoga-like in nature.” And in March 2011 the Military officially added yoga and “resting” to the required physical training regiment all in the effort to “better prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat.”
If you’re not in the Military and don’t have any plans to join up anytime soon, no worries. Just tune to the Pentagon channel’s “Fit For Duty” which is “a show by the military, for the military.” Major Lisa Lourey will teach you all the yoga you need to know to become a highly trained killing machine. It’s my top choice for online asana.
Yoga has also found a home in another surprising place; the highest echelons of corporate America. You know, the big wigs who defrauded people of millions. Bloomberg featured an article about yoga instructor Lauren Imparato titled, “Princeton Grad Quits Morgan Stanley to Teach Yoga to Bankers.” It states, “At Morgan Stanley’s fixed-income group, Lauren Imparato wore power suits and sold currencies to hedge funds in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Now she spends her days in form-fitting Lululemon pants, teaching yoga to former Wall Street colleagues…Imparato’s two weekly classes have attracted traders and analysts from Merrill Lynch & Co., Barclays Capital Inc., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.”
Does any of this upset your yogic sensibilities? Do you think there should be no OM in the office? No bakasana on the battleship? No hero pose in boot camp? Isn’t yoga about peace, compassion and love?
I highlight these examples not because I think yoga doesn’t belong in the army, but rather to question an assumption many yoga and spiritual practitioners make. It’s the belief that spiritual liberation is inherently socially or culturally revolutionary. World-renowned yoga teacher Donna Fahri expresses this idea in the documentary YogaWoman. She states, “Yoga is one of the most politically subversive practices that any person, male or female could do in our time.” In other words, spiritual/psychological/physical transformation is politically subversive. I understand and appreciate how beneficial spiritual practice can be to transform the mind, body and spirit. I know yoga improves lives everyday. It has profoundly changed mine. However, yoga, like other popular spiritualities as they are mostly taught in the West, reflects a cultural obsession with the self, one which is rooted in furthering self-interest. This is in many ways due to an emphasis on an individual and privatized self brought to you by a happy marriage of Western psychology, spirituality and capitalism. Furthermore, as the military and corporate examples above illustrate, yoga or any individual spiritual practice will reflect the cultural and political interests of both the practitioners and the dominant power structures. They aren’t inherently politically subversive. Richard King explains, “The use of an idea such as ’spirituality’ is always bound up with political questions, even when the term is defined in apparently apolitical terms (in which case it supports the status quo). In employing the world, it is important to identify which ideological concerns are being supported.”
This emphasis on the individual is echoed strongly amongst the conscious lifestyle, wellness and new age spirituality circles. While “politically subversive” may not be the common expression for spiritual practices, many people in these communities believe that the transformation of inner states of being, either individually or collectively is capable of changing the world. This is reflected in Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” a book that supposedly describes a path to a more peaceful future. For Tolle, transforming the ego and inner consciousness is the best place to address the world’s problems, “A new heaven is the emergence of a transformed state of human consciousness, and a new earth is its reflection in the physical realm.” Some downplay the need for transformation and claim that only the power of the mind is required to change the world. There is even a “Center for Subtle Activism,” called the Gaiafield project. What is subtle activism? David Nicol describes it as “activities of spirit or consciousness primarily intended to support collective healing and social change.” The organization Common Passion, which recruits people for global meditations and prayers claims, “With a rigorous Western approach to practical application of Eastern wisdom, world peace may well be within our reach.” They believe they can create social harmony through “science” and “faith-based applications of collective consciousness.” It’s like The Secret meets the Peace Corps. They just use the power of their minds to visualize world peace and bam! it’s done!
But what if, as Nonviolent Communication founder Marshal Rosenberg states, these types of privatized, mind/body centered spiritual practices merely lead people to “be so calm and accepting and loving that they tolerate the dangerous structures?” If you think about it, the powers that be would be absolutely delighted if we all believed yoga and global prayer were the most politically subversive practices.
The Politics of the Divine
What is the nature of the divine? Do you think opening to Divine Consciousness and Oneness can transform social/political consciousness? If you experience a profound spiritual state do you think it would shift your perspective or beliefs about war, economic justice or human rights ? Can an inner state of bliss turn you into an activist? Will it make you a better activist? Is God, by nature, politically subversive? Can consciousness be used to change the world?
It’s difficult to admit but the universe will treat everyone equally regardless of their political, social or cultural views. Thus, spiritual transformation is morally and politically neutral. No matter how good or evil we are, the benefits of spiritual liberation that are bestowed upon us are all the same. Our conceptions of mindfulness, awakening and spiritual liberation are entirely dependent upon our cultural frame of interpretation. I know you might think that the divine is an anti-war, hybrid car loving, kombucha drinking burning man regular. But, sorry to say, God is not on “our” side. Thus, tapping into the Divine Consciousness won’t change political beliefs and thus won’t affect the pressing social issues of the day. It won’t turn an arch-Republican into a left-wing socialist. The pro-life extremist can also pray, meditate and cultivate states of mindfulness before attacking abortion doctors. Even if the ego is dissolved through practice, the greater awareness to relate to people will still be mediated by the fact that racism and sexism are institutionalized in our culture. In fact ’spirituality’ is rather easily incorporated into any institution as a new regime of thought control, whether it be market capitalism, government or militarism.
If the divine were truly politically subversive and could be experienced via yoga could it be incorporated into the military industrial complex? Why wouldn’t it change the hearts and minds of the air force bombers? How could Goldman Sachs bankers practice yoga and simultaneously defraud people of millions? If any sort of spiritual practice were politically subversive wouldn’t connecting to our highest self mean having our consciousness changed on some political level? When something like yoga and meditation is proudly incorporated into the U.S. Military, Navy Seals and corporate America it is pretty safe to say that it is relatively benign in the department of political subversion.
More evidence that the divine is politically neutral is found in the large population of spiritual practitioners in America. Think about all of the white, middle and upper class people who have been practicing yoga, meditating, doing visualizations, OMing and chanting in the West now for decades. Has it made them more aware of injustice? More concerned about white privilege or racism? Better educated about poverty? Has all of the practicing subverted anything political? No. What about when people come together to transform the collective consciousness and change the world in the name of peace, harmony and oneness? What about efforts to raise the planetary vibration? Have they worked? Many of these collective consciousness raising efforts originate in the U.S. but yet we are still in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Over one million people have died because of this. We also remain Israel’s largest supporter. On numerous quality of life indicators the U.S. ranks at the bottom of industrialized nations. Elsewhere, famine, war and catastrophic suffering can be found throughout the globe. How powerful is “coherent consciousness” and what has it done to address the worst injustices on the planet? If it works why bother with social activism at all? Besides, there are a lot more fundamentalist Christians praying for and visualizing a conservative agenda. Do the liberal and conservative collective consciousnesses cancel each other out?
Furthermore, we should remember that spiritual practices can also empower people to cause harm and support the status quo of any given society. For example, yoga assists the bombers in being more precise with their targeting. Their body awareness, concentration and presence all increased as a result. It gives the Goldman Sachs banker more clarity when trying to figure out how to steal money. Imagine a KKK group who incorporated yoga and meditation. Would it subvert their racism? Change their political consciousness? Would any spiritual practice? No. Rather, because of their cultural context it would merely reinforce their own social and political views. It would make them more mentally and physically stronger. And yet KKK members would still express the compassion and kindness gained on the mat to their loved ones. Likewise, Eugene de Kock, the police chief in South Africa known as ‘prime evil’ for his role in kidnapping, torturing and murdering hundreds of anti-apartheid activists went home to his family every day and expressed love, care and compassion to them. What I’m arguing here, and this may seem radical, is that cultural context shapes one’s understanding of spiritual transformation. I believe wholeheartedly that Eugene de Kock could have practiced yoga, meditated and connected to the divine but because a cruel system had become normalized to him any spiritual insights would be seen through his own socio-cultural lens. Likewise, you and I are part of larger systems, many of which are incredibly damaging to the planet and people. We, along with air force bomber pilots, racists, pro-life extremists, corporate crooks and (you fill in the blank) can all experience spiritual transformation and remain oblivious to the dangers of our surrounding culture. This is why it is so important to understand the limitations of spiritual practice in efforts for social change.
I think it best, therefore, to view spiritual practice as only politically subversive as something like psychotherapy. Connecting to the divine is often a transformative and renewing experience, but merely growing developmentally or awakening to deeper states of being won’t subvert the political structures or change political consciousness.
And finally, while spiritual practices like yoga can help you de-stress, center and cultivate compassion it won’t make you a better, more informed activist on matters of social justice. Yes, self-care and spiritual practice can be vitally important for many social activists and I strongly support this pairing. Finding stillness and inner calm in your day can positively benefit your life and work for social change. By all means cultivate loving kindness, compassion and generosity. We need lots more of this on the planet. However, becoming a more aware, just and informed activist only occurs when a different kind of consciousness is raised; political.
Justice or Presence?
“Why, one wonders is dissatisfaction with social injustice and a willingness to resist exploitation not seen as a sign of ’spiritual intelligence’?” - Richard King
Marshal Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication offers an important critique of what’s found in popular spirituality today.
Unless we as social change agents come from a certain spirituality, we’re likely to create more harm than good…spirituality can be reactionary if we get people to just be so calm and accepting and loving that they tolerate the dangerous structures. The spirituality that we need to develop for social change is one that mobilizes us for social change. It doesn’t just enable us to sit there and enjoy the world no matter what. It creates a quality of action that mobilizes us into action. Unless our spiritual development has this kind of quality, I don’t think we can create the kind of social change I would like to see. [emphasis added]
The activist, writer and spiritual teacher Starhawk also recognizes the limitations of a privatized spirituality. She states, “Transforming the inner landscape is only a first step. Unless we change the structures of the culture, we will mirror them again and again: we will be caught in a constant battle to avoid being molded again and again into an image of domination.” [emphasis added]
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also knew this. His last years were spent challenging militarism, economic exploitation and racism. When he was assassinated he was just days away from leading a nationwide effort to shut down the capital of Washington D.C. until capitalism as he knew was radically transformed. They were going to clog the bridges, jam the streets and set up camp in the capital. He wanted guaranteed incomes, jobs and housing. The plan was to be as disruptive and disturbing as violent riots while being nonviolent. He said, “We must demonstrate, teach and preach until the very foundations of our nation shake.”
Imagine if there were places like Omega Center and Spirit Rock or community organizations which instead of being only about a privatized spirituality were dedicated to unmasking the dominant power structures and teaching people how to resist them. These places would prioritize justice over presence and uncover the political and ideological forces that shape our notions of spirituality. Low-cost workshops, retreats and trainings would be offered in the spirit of the Highlander Folk School, a civil rights and labor organizing center where Rosa Parks and Dr. King briefly studied. In the true spirit of interdependence and solidarity as is reflected in many of the world’s religions the center(s) would empower individuals to collectively address racism, the prison industrial complex, poverty, militarism, patriarchy, environmental injustices and more. These systems of domination keep us separate, and thus dismantling them is a spiritual priority. Dr. King said it best when he stated, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”
I leave you with Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of the second precept of generosity:
“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need.”
Robert James Scofield, "Be," is a San Francisco based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. He writes for Tikkun magazine and his work has appeared on Alternet.org, IntegralWorld and FactNet.