December 4, 2010

Woo Woo II: The Yogi Kool-Aid Reconsidered.

The glory of God is the person fully alive. –St. Irenaeus of Lyons

First of all: it’s none of my business. Really. Whatever people see fit to make fun of is fine with me; satire is potent social commentary, and laughter is the best medicine.

Nevertheless, when I read Joslyn Hamilton’s very funny article, The Plague of Woo Woo: Signs That Your Friends Have Chugged the Yogi Kool-Aid–a heads-up for those of us who fear our yogi friends may have crossed the “sanity line”–I remained haunted by a sense of something missing. Something subtle, like molé rojo with the cinnamon left out.  And after some thought, I believe I have identified the missing ingredient as compassion.

Now, I hasten to say that unlike Joslyn, I have not spent ten years in the company of goji berry-scarfing über-yogis, so I can’t really critique her assessment of that world from an accuracy standpoint. Neither have I ever been emotionally injured or abused by anyone in the yoga world.

I have, however, done my time in both the Miraculous Medal and the What Would Jesus Do-bracelet neighborhoods of Christianity, so I do have a grasp of spiritual hooey.  And after many years hanging around the church–including an ugly and painful foray into the pre-ordination process–I am prepared to compare lacerations with anybody. (We could reenact that scene in Jaws where Quint and Hooper get drunk and show off their scars.)

I’ve no doubt that many people turn to yoga in a misguided attempt to avoid the moral strictures that conventional religion would enjoin on them. (In doing so, of course, they show how poorly they understand yoga.) And naturally, plenty of people turn to ‘Churchianity” in order to have all their moral decisions made for them, allowing them to sit in judgment on everybody else–while enabling the faux yogis (fauxgis?) to judge them right back.

So I’m not saying there isn’t hypocrisy, posturing, and all manner of mischegoss in yogaland. There is, of course.  I’ve gone to kirtan sessions and seen people all dressed up in their yogi costumes. I’ve known people who’ve replaced their birth-certificate names with “spiritual” names (I don’t believe the nun at the front desk in St. Joseph’s Hospital was christened “Sister Kevin”) and I’ve known enough Twelve-Steppers to learn the difference between “faking it till you make it” and plastering over our real selves with bogus “spiritual” selves.

But why do people put on strange clothes, names, and affects, if not because they desperately want to replace something in themselves with something they believe to be better? Maybe Jesus’ strange metaphor is more relevant than it appears at first glance:

When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.[i]

Maybe, having told their old selves where to get off, people sense the need to replace them with something right away, lest the bad old selves come back with a vengeance. Maybe they don’t understand that the “self” that needs dethroning is not the real self, but a “demon”–a false self made in the image of the fallen, maya-tossed world. Maybe, when we mock the new false self conjured up to replace the old one, we might, in the interest of compassion and equanimity, encourage the real, true, God-given self to step forward and be fully alive?

So here’s the point: there are hypocrites and compartmentalizers and spiritual predators and everyday dumbasses in the yoga world, of course.  (And in the church, too.) But I try to look at it as Socrates–and, if I understand Buddhism correctly, the Buddha–did: hypocrisy and greed and selfishness are not the root problems. The root problem is ignorance.

Everybody, Socrates believed, is doing the best they know how. Some people behave badly, not knowing they are behaving badly, while others know they are behaving badly, but believe they must do so in order to be happy. If any of us knew for sure how to do better, we would.

When I was living in a very conservative county, one of my neighbors went to a church that only used the Authorized (or “King James”) Version of the Bible, believing all other translations corrupt.  I remember a friend explaining to him that the language of the AV/KJV was not, as he believed, some kind of sacred God-speak, but the way people actually talked at the time the translation was made. The man, who honestly hadn’t known that, was flabbergasted and confused. After he left, my friend’s Dad said,

“You didn’t do that for him; you did that for you. You just messed up that guy’s faith.”

In contrast, the biblical Book of Isaiah describes the archetypal “servant of God” this way:

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.[ii]

I would rather give any number of genuine hypocrites and charlatans the benefit of the doubt than risk messing up the faith of sincere, though possibly misguided, seekers. Because I have been a bruised reed myself, I am loathe to risk snuffing out the smoldering wick of love in anybody.

Does that mean I leave ignorance alone? Hardly. But on my good days, I remember to ask myself whose benefit I’m battling it for–the other person’s, or my own?

So let me talk to Joslyn for a minute, OK?

Joslyn: if I didn’t think you were wicked cool, I wouldn’t be telling you all this; if more people called out the Emperor on his no-clothesitude like you do, the world would be a saner (and funnier) place. And because I am not always the most aware person, it’s very possible that the compassion I missed in your article was a moonwalking bear that I lost track of amidst all the amusing surface hoopla.

Actually, upon reflection, I’m almost certain it was, because back when you and I first started writing for Elephant, you posted a piece that really summoned the trolls and bade the snotty comments fly. And in response to one of the most poisonous, cynical, nasty comments I’ve ever read, you wrote, simply and unguardedly,

I love you.

You know what I thought of when I read that?  The Sacred Heart of Jesus, exposed to the brutal world even while crowned with thorns. Or the Immaculate Heart of Mary, open to view despite being pierced with a sword. Or the “soft spot” in the unarmored heart where bodhichitta is awakened.

It was my memory of that response that led me to write what amounted to an apology for an earlier post that offended a lot of people, even though I believed those people were mistaken. Your response, in the language of my evangelical brothers and sisters, “convicted” me.

So mock those Shanti Shakti Sivanandas on with your bad self! And I, meanwhile, will look a little harder for the compassion that I know is there under the funny surface.

[i] Matthew 12:43-45a

[ii] Isaiah 42:3

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