Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A yoga-related missive on what the fuck is going on

"Every person you meet should be regarded as one of the walking wounded. We have never seen a man or woman not slightly deranged by either anxiety or grief. We have never seen a totally sane human being."
- Robert Anton Wilson

Yoga's populatrity in America has exploded. A 2016 survey found approximately 37 million Americans practice (some form or derivative of) yoga on at least a semi-regular basis. That number increased from 20 million just three years prior. Statista estimates this number will reach 55 million in 2020. Whether it's for strength and flexibility, injury recovery or physical therapy, stress management or spiritual reasons, the number of citizens participating in something that encourages awareness of the mind-body connection has been a major growth trend.

The other day, my brother mentioned to me the uniquely long and enduring pervasiveness of self-improvement books in America, an industry once contained on a single bookstore shelf is now "wholly transformed from a disreputable publishing category to a category killer, having remade most of nonfiction in its own inspirational image along the way". Yoga is perhaps one of the oldest philosophies promoting self-improvement, benefited by thousands of years of input and experimentation. We clearly want to be better.

When my mother certified as a holistic healer some years ago following a career in finance, she would occasionally share various pearls of wisdom from Traditional Chinese Medicine and The Five Elements philosophy with my siblings and I. One that sticks with me is: Listen to the body, for the body is wise. You ignore it at your peril.

It has been said many times how Donald Trump is clearly a symptom - or the manifestation - of a societal illness that the United States has been quietly suffering for many years. But the illness is not new to America nor new to the world at large. It has had such deep and consistent impact to our collective reality for so long, that describing it is difficult. 'Evil' isn't quite right - at least in its oversimplification - as much as some of my progressive brethren may disagree.

Something is wrong. The majority of our body politic seems alert to this malignancy within it. More and more, this awareness brings spontaneous action. From shaming officials at restaurants to marching in the streets. But are we just fighting the symptoms without addressing the cause?

"Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured."
- B.K.S. Iyengar

When my friend Bonnie and I took part in the March 24th "March For Our Lives" in DC, we met Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General and pariah of conservatives and right wing conspiracy circles. He was waiting for a bar order at a crowded restaurant, as we were, tired and hungry after presumably demonstrating earlier with his two daughters.

Bonnie asked him whether he thought our country would get through this - this bizarre time of extreme division, nationalist rage and general uncertainty. He said that yes, he did...

"But I think it'll get worse before it gets better."

How can this all be happening - the attempted undoing of the global order, the disfiguring of America's face to the world, the villainizing and abuse of desperate people, the quarantining of children sundered from their parents, the promotion of base values, the translucent lack of honor, the acceptance of narcissism with nuclear weapons - at the same time there seems to be increased spiritual exploration? An expanding, collective pursuit of goodness and equality en masse coinciding with the apparent rising of our darkest human natures?

But of course this makes sense. Duality permeates our reality. The evolutionary cycles of our collective consciousness have corresponding periods of light and darkness. The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries was preceded by what many call the Dark Ages, and followed by what some scholars refer to as the Counter-Enlightenment, a rejection of rationalist ideas that arose in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. The abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and desegregation were met with fierce opposition despite their ultimate justness. We would do well to remember that true justice is justness, not law.

Theodore Parker, a unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist said the following in 1853, predicting the eventual success of the abolitionist movement:

"Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble."

- From “Of Justice and the Conscience”, third sermon in Ten Sermons of Religion.

His words presaged the American Civil War, which broke out eight years later.

Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased Parker in 1956 following the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, eight years before the passing of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964. King used the phrase in several speeches, as well as in his final sermon before his assassination in 1968.

I have worried that Donald Trump may not be the precipitating downfall of our nation, but the downfall of our species. I think the disease of which he is a symptom is not just evil, but neglect. I think Trump is a manifestation of the neglected Self. And the neglected Self is as dangerous as it is common. 

"Yoga is invigoration in relaxation. Freedom in routine. Confidence through self-control. Energy within and energy without."
- Ymber Delecto

I want to be a better person. Part of that process for me has been yoga. In recent months, as I try for daily practice, yoga and meditation has helped me improve my awareness. Awareness of my own weaknesses and unmet needs. Aware of a sense of truth and good and bad that is easily pacified. Aware that I have not been the most attentive friend; that I haven’t been the most loving partner; that I haven’t been developing as an artist. Aware that I haven’t been taking the best care of my Self; more aware of what holistic health truly means.

There is more to do, not less. And the frustration within has been rooted in the sense that I am not ensuring my ability to grow, and thus be present and most aware, that I am not challenging what is transpiring...that I am letting others deal with it. Hoping that others deal with it. That I am distracted by petty matters of ego and immediate needs.

Yoga teaches many things, including that the ego can lead us astray. President Trump is a marked manifestation of the emotional self out of control; the ego raging to remain affirmed in its role as sacred-deluder. What he displays is within us all if we neglect ourselves. Perhaps it is not expressed by condemning immigrants and equating torture to 'toughness', but when we do not address the parts of our physiological and emotional selves that need maintenance, healing and rejuvenation, we cannot be our best. Animus starts from within before it is dispensed to others.

It makes sense that in the many dualities of our time, the rise of yoga and self-improvement comes alongside the public resurfacing of racism, nationalism and counter-progressive rhetoric.

Besides praying for Vishnu to bless Robert Mueller with protection and strength to counter balance the destruction Kali brought in the form of Trump (as Vera de Chalambert described after election night in 2016), it is important for citizens to voice themselves and protest against bad things their government does. It is also important to put effort into Self betterment. It is vital. So I will march. And I will vote. But this push to save our nation starts from within. Nourishing the Self arms us with tools to improve the world, including clear judgement and commitment to good character.

So, yoga and meditation seems to work for me. It drives me to want to make certain commitments to my Self - not only to be healthier, wiser, a better friend, husband, brother and son - but to be a better citizen. In thinking about MLK's words "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," I really like what Mychal Denzel Smith said in relation to our present times:

"The dawn of the age of President Donald Trump has restored to that quote some of the meaning lost in Obama’s repeated use. We say it to ourselves now because we need to believe, even as all visible signs of progress are eroded, that the world we seek lies waiting for us, just on the other side of this hellscape. It is not going to show up tomorrow, but knowing that it will show up someday should help fortify us for the fight ahead.

This use of the quotation, though, carries the risk of magical thinking. After all, if the arc of the moral universe will inevitably bend toward justice, then there is no reason for us to work toward that justice, as it’s preordained. If it is only a matter of cosmic influence, if there is no human role, then we are off the hook. This isn’t how King meant it, as evidenced by the work to which he dedicated his own life."
- Mychal Denzel Smith

With your Self and your society, the time for betterment is not tomorrow. The time to form and nurture and preserve progress made and goodness coveted is now. Now.

The best maintenance of our communal space requires the maintenance and continued growth of the Self. Our communal space is diverse in composition: spiritual, as well as temporal, physical, psychological, and political. Our individual sense of justness and ethics impacts the ethos and mores of our community - from our group of friends, to our towns and cities, to our countries. We share what we reap and we reap what we sow. 

"For those wounded by civilization, yoga is the most healing salve."
- T. Guillemets