Seeking Evidence that Yoga & Meditation Are Not Politically Neutral: a Proposal to Results-Test our Practice for Empathy.

Via on Nov 21, 2012

by Matthew Remski

amygdala registering empathy: imagining self and other in pain. (wikicommons)

It’s been about three weeks since I became “the most dangerous man in yoga”, according to one over-excited commenter, by calling upon yoga culture to endorse Obama for another term. Aside from a lone barking-mad post that actually urged yogis not to vote, and a few pointed criticisms of my position in the comment threads, the call was generally well-received, endorsements happily poured in, and a healthy discussion about the nature of yoga and politics ensued. And: our guy won.

Now, many of us are still holding our noses, in the words of Frank Jude Boccio, as we watch him wade through the Slough of Compromise with the tax-cut junkies while making a virtue of moral flaccidity in foreign policy. But at least we’re holding noses instead of gaping flesh wounds as we work with a guy who doesn’t callously demean the beneficiaries of our shredded safety net while fondling his ducats, and whose religion doesn’t have a theological interest (as opposed to a humanitarian interest) in how Israel/Palestine partitions its bloody dust.

I was heartened to see yoga culture at least begin to consider its political energy, heritage, and future in a way that honours its recent Indian activist past. The most vigorous discussion centered around pragmatism and the third-party consideration, and I hope this continues. No-one likes limited options, and I’m glad to know that many yogis will be continuing to help Jill Stein and other heroes amplify the progressive voice on the national stage. Also valuable was the reminder from Nathan Thompson, amongst others, to engage with the daily grind of local progressive politics in order to earn the right to opine every four years on the presidential shit-show. Blogging about your zafu-revelations on the eve of a national election is a lot easier than unrolling your mat down at city hall on a dreary Thursday morning in February.

But one argument that emerged through the discussion has kept me awake almost as much as my baby boy Jacob over these past weeks. It goes like this:

– Yoga culture is not inherently progressive in its politics, because

– yoga practices are politically/ethically neutral, which is proven by the fact that they are utilized by people of all political persuasions, and

– to insist that yoga is progressive is to risk bullying a large demographic of practitioners who either wish to split their politics off from their practice, or who are in fact right-of-centre in their sentiments, and no amount of mindful embodiment or breath-observance will change them, nor should it, because yoga is “beyond” politics, or anything else that might compromise our sense of one-ness.

(This last point speaks to a conundrum within yoga discourse: the acknowledgement that practice is highly personal, but also should be conceived of in the broadest inclusionary terms, which leaves us in the awkward position of believing that we all share something that is impossible to talk about in an evidenced-based way. Yoga is a mystery we share through a strange hallowed silence that seems to chill any healthy debate that would clarify WTF it is. I’ll leave this problem for another study, but it hovers in the background.)

Aside from a small but vocal yoga-libertarian contingent who I believe are attracted to this argument simply because they prickle at the first whiff of a collectivist vibe, the substantive support for the position comes from some excellent work by my 21st Century Yoga colleague Be Scofield. Scofield has argued forcefully that yoga and meditation practice do not necessarily lead a practitioner to progressive politics. Over several articles and a book chapter, he critiques numerous examples of spiritual practice eliding or even colluding with apathetic-to-oppressive politics, from the tone-deaf-to-postcolonial-issues seva-tourism of Off The Mat to the genocidal fanaticism of WWII Japanese zen cults. I appreciate Scofield’s sobering assessment, his blistering critique of “privatized spirituality”, and especially his argument that blindly assuming practices such as yoga and meditation lead to socio-political progressivism can fool us into ignoring the structural contexts of oppression by somehow hoping they will go away as the bells tinkle to end our cozy morning sit. Chasing the oneness experience often means ignoring what’s going on at City Hall. I know this can be true – I did it myself for years.

But I think Scofield’s argument is strong to the extent that his definitions of “yoga”, “meditation” and “spirituality” are weak. His reasoning is sharp when it comes to political analysis and the deconstruction of the motives and affects of a yoga culture soaking in racial and financial privilege. But he consistently lumps “yoga”, “meditation”, and “spirituality” into amorphous and unexamined heaps. The clearest example of this is in his recent critique of a (purposefully, I think) simplistic statement from the Dalai Lama: “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Scofield takes care to deconstruct the concept of “violence”, but he doesn’t touch “meditation”, which by the Dalai Lama’s own tradition is as vague a term as “exercising”– such is the variance of meditative techniques, from philosophical analysis to tantric fantasy to breath-observance. It’s just not fair to pick on Tenzin Gyatso’s “violence” as an unexamined term, and then assume that everyone knows what he means by “meditation”.

(Also, a more sensitive ear to the rhetorical devices of Indo-Tibetan teaching might be in order. Tenzin Gyatso is probably practicing what the Indians call artha vada – “wealth of speech” — a kind of pedagogical hyperbole arising from the oral tradition intended to land a memorable point with a given crowd at a given time. If this is what he’s doing, it unfortunately doesn’t translate to the new-agers who re-tweet him ad infinitum. Marianne Williamson, under the spell of the Course in Miracles, is an incorrigible literalist, seemingly incapable of irony.)

So what do we actually mean by “yoga”, “meditation”, and “spiritual practice”? I want to continue from where I left off in my post-endorsement-call roundup. By “yoga”, “meditation”, and “spiritual practice”, I argue that we generally mean more than socio-politically neutral techniques of self-regulation and internal harmony that anyone can use to become a more effective sociopath. We’re shy of saying it, for reasons that baffle me, but I believe we know in our bones that a practice that does not lead to empathy, enhanced intimacy and relationship, and the progressive political desires that naturally flow from these, is not the real deal. But to really smoke this out we have to clarify our terms.

Let’s take “meditation”. As far as I can tell, there are two general divisions of meditation that reflect two types of internal therapeutic dialogue that we can have. The first is within the realm of metacognition – conscious thought interacting with conscious thought – and the second is the conversation we can experience between conscious awareness and our perceptual/autonomic foundation.

The first type of content-oriented meditation – called che-gom in the Tibetan tradition– is a conscious/analytical reorientation of the content of inner experience via prayer, visualization, or attention on a particular object to dialogue with and absorb its qualities. This is akin to cognitive behavioural therapy, really. It can definitely be described as politically neutral, insofar as it can be used to enhance any mental pursuit or psychic quality. In my Buddhist days I used it to memorize the wheel of dependent arising, to convince myself of the immanence of my death, and to memorize the lineage tree of my adopted tradition. Content-based cognitive meditation can be used to enhance concentration, business acumen, martial arts skills, or the powers of seduction. For all we know, Donald Trump is an top-shelf analytical meditator. As was Gandhi, I’m sure. Politically neutral? Absolutely.

The other division of meditation — let’s call it the “mindfulness” category — at least tries to abandon analysis, meaning, cognitive reactivity, and even language itself to focus with open curiosity on the root sensations of being alive. Mindfulness isn’t about cognitive content, but about where attention lies. It is given over to sensations alone: of breath, pulse, pain, compression, expansiveness, etc.

Here’s the rub. Attention to autonomic function generally (and at different rates for different people) leads to an experience of internal and external interdependence through a thinning of the individuation habit – a sama-dhi (holding firmly the sameness or connection between self and other). A clear ethics arises out of simple ecology. The lesson of mindfulness to embodied sensation is “I’m alive, I’m changing, I have pain, I have joy.” Opening your eyes from this, you know you’re not alone. The paradox is: withdrawing from cognition and metacognition into raw perceptual awareness can create a reality-based groundwork for empathy, from which new cognitive insights can flow. This is a darned good place from which political change can begin and receive ongoing support.

I’ll take another example of a naturally-arising ethics from a strong current in today’s yoga pedagogy. I’m willing to bet that at this very moment there are 1000 classes worldwide in which the teacher is making an explicit analogy between breath and wind or breath and sea. Eco-poetics is an essential substrate of all yoga instruction and culture today, and to think that recognizing the indivisibility of the universe and the flesh, as Patanjali expresses in 2.47 (according to Hartranft), would not lead to a green politics is very strange to me. Unless of course we’re so dissociated from our ecology that we contact it through metaphor alone. When I think of the number of carbon-spewing charters leaving NYC this winter flying yogis to Cancun to do lunges on the beach in front of rising seas, I wonder. And then of course there might be Evangelicals who use nature/flesh analogies in their Praise Moves vinyasas on Saturday, and then on Sunday murmur hallelujah as their preachers thump out creationism.  But I hope that these are distortions proving a rule: for the vast majority of urbanized, postmodern practitioners, the eco-awareness of asana language is like rain to the parched, constantly reminding us of our foundation. It must, to one degree or another, influence the earnest student towards an eco-protective politics. In an ideal world, this reads as: more asana classes = more votes for Stein. In the political landscape we have right now, this reads as: more asana classes = more votes against the pathological liar who thinks the earth is a 5-star-layover on the way to Kobol.

So there’s my argument: mindfulness and asana lead to empathy and ecology, which naturally leads to progressive political stances. Does this imply a narrowing of the definitions of yoga, meditation, and spirituality? Yes it does. Am I willing to do that? Yes I am. How? By proposing results-based definitions of practice, using the established metrics for empathy that have been developed by clinical psychology.

The biggest problem with the “what is yoga?” discussion is that we begin and end our dialogue through self-reporting that can never transgress the threshold of the “private”. There are no standards for independent observation of techniques or results. I can say that meditation leads to empathy, and a WWII zen-fascist monk can say that meditation leads to conquest. We’re both self-reporting on internal and private activities, using a highly plastic term. Until we actually ask: “What are we actually doing when we say we’re meditating?”, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. Further than that: until we can test the meditator to assess whether they’re actually doing what they say they’re doing, we know even less. What we’re left with, if we don’t inquire further, is a parade of yogic performances and mindful appearances. But what’s really under that dhoti, that robe?

An elderly Indian sampradaya guy once said something to me that has echoed loudly for years in my heart. “If you want to know how your spiritual practice is going – ask the people.” He told me to find guys I went to high school with, buy them lunch, describe what I’ve been doing, for how long, and why, and then to ask them if they thought I was becoming any less of an asshole for all of my noble efforts. There’s something stunningly elegant about this. I recounted it to my partner who spent years in the food industry, and she suggested a refinement to the old man’s challenge: “If you want to know how your spiritual practice is going, ask the servers at your favourite restaurant whether it’s working or not. They’ll tell you how goddam evolved you are.”

We all have common-sense ways of establishing who’s walking the empathy walk. But we also now have sophisticated tools to measure the actual amount of empathy we’re capable of and demonstrate in our behaviour, and neuropsychology is making deep inroads into assessing the vitality of empathetic social functions, including their pathological or sub-pathological absence. Of particular interest to yoga/mediation/spiritual practitioners would be the measurement of what clinical psychology calls “dispositional empathy” – a kind of base-line attitude towards the well-being of others that could be enhanced by long-term disciplines – as opposed to “situational empathy”, which opens doors at the bank and offers subway seats to the elderly, but can often be blended with superego motivations.

Why shouldn’t we define yoga practice by its results? Imagine somebody claiming to be a microbiologist who couldn’t or wouldn’t produce any data for peer review. They claim: “I’m doing a very important and complex experiment, hidden away in my special room, and I can’t show you what it is, but it involves many beakers and charts, and I’m definitely doing it.” In the absence of their sharable data, most of us would simply say they were bullshitting. But those who’ve given their lives to microbiology might be pissed: dragging the word through the mud of laziness demeans the whole discipline.

What are the problems with defining practice by its results? I can see three sore points that should generate good discussion:

– It puts the service-providers of yoga culture – studio owners –  in the financially risky position of inflecting their programming with a political mood.

– It might infringe upon those practitioners who are at a “social-pratyahara” stage of their yoga career, in which internal focus is the most-needed therapy. One commenter to my previous post explained that she came to yoga after 25 years as a political operative, and found her apolitical studio space to be of great solace. Fair enough. But I would wonder if she’s in a transitional stage in which her political withdrawal is possible only for while, and only because someone else is engaged in the process of running the studio within the political context of city, state, and nation.

– Finally, my proposal might sound divisive in its outline. (It need not be in practice.)

But why risk this declarative re-definition at all? For me, the central tension in the history of yoga is the interplay between the transcendence of the traumatized and the empathetic immanence that rises from embodied presence. The former dominates, unfortunately, but for good reason. The Iron-Age origins of yoga practice looked skywards for release from prakriti, the gunas, the endless cycles of life and death, and the unmanageable ambivalence of our recently-evolved interiority. Patanjali’s manual points to the goal of kaivalya: the “isolation” of consciousness from its material root. From these shadows, contemporary yoga culture has imported a penitential malaise that meshes with our vestigial puritanism, and litters our discourse with a theology of purification and self-perfection, and the fantasy of rising up and above the battlefield of life – as if it were all a dream.

The time for this transcendent impulse is over. We have to stop using spirituality to speculate, isolate, and escape, and start using it to connect to each other with improved tools of trust and non-reactivity. Interpersonally first, socially second, politically third. The world and the species depends upon it. To me at this point in time, yoga practice that avoids its political context is a kind of masturbatory consumerism that conceals the wound of alienation.

It comes down to this: our practice is not just about us anymore. It’s not just about internal states and sensations and resolutions. It’s not about our being, but about our being-in-the-world-with-others, to steal a phrase from Heidegger. We can’t really take people at their word that they are improving themselves with private practices without measuring their self-reporting against the culture they create.

I’m not advocating some impossible wheat-from-the-chaff litmus test for who’s allowed to call themselves a yogi. Perhaps we could just start with some research. We can already claim that MBSR techniques promote good social and learning outcomes in the school environments in which they are implemented. We already know that asana practice reduces stress markers with great efficiency. We’re generally happy with such validation. Why not turn now to matters of the heart? Run an experiment with 1000 yogis to register the empathy gains of yoga practice that emphasized mindfulness and ecology over time. Hypothesize on what would raise scores.

______

Carol Horton is always kindly reminding me that my views are markedly Canadian, (and that I often seem to wish for Patanjali’s ethics to be more intersubjective than they are – a wish so deep I “remixed” them). She’s right: there’s something about an evolutionary practice like yoga that, as a Canadian, I naturally associate with always-improving social welfare. While the U.S. has seemed to kick the advances of the New Deal to the curb of neo-liberalism, we still at least somewhat believe that personal advancement is intrinsic with the enhancement of the common good. So it’s constitutionally difficult for me to conceive of a society in which higher education, refined culture, physical health and emotional well-being do not translate directly into higher quotients of social empathy and progressive politics.

But I am also in the saucer-eyed flush of new parenthood, in which I cannot believe that this overwhelming experience of love and interdependence does not radically and permanently change the politics of everyone who undergoes it towards a progressive arc. Perhaps I’m not really talking about yoga at all in this article, but simply the unstoppable empathy that arises from being present to the emergency of living. I know: oppressors bear children they truly love, and they grow up to oppress others. But I can’t understand this right now. I can’t understand how anything this simple and tender and twitching – whether it’s this baby I gaze at or the breath that I watch – does not immediately inspire the wish to nurture and celebrate all of life, and then to work tirelessly to help others, upon whom we absolutely depend, do the same.

_______

Matthew Remski is an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto, and a new papa. He is a co-contributor to 21st Century Yoga. His new “remix” translation of Patanjali  – threads of yoga – is now available. Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body:The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, says of threads: “I don’t know of any reading of the yoga sutras as wildly creative, as impassioned and as earnest as this. it engages Patanjali and the reader in an urgent, electrified conversation that weaves philosophy, symbolist poetry, psychoanalysis and cultural history. There’s a kind of delight and freshness in this book that is very rare in writing on yoga, and especially rare in writing on the yoga sutras. This is a Patanjali for postmoderns, less a translation than a startlingly relevant report on our current condition, through the prism of this ancient text.” Please check out Matthew’s site for more writings on Ayurveda and Yoga.

About yoga 2.0 lab

Matthew Remski is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Yoga Teacher Trainer in Toronto. His latest book, Threads of Yoga, is gathering international acclaim. He's teaching this online course starting 1/7/14. It's currently full, but there is a reduced-tuition option for auditing. The 12 weekly lessons will be available online for six months following the course. Participants receive a 130-page manual of notes.

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28 Responses to “Seeking Evidence that Yoga & Meditation Are Not Politically Neutral: a Proposal to Results-Test our Practice for Empathy.”

  1. paul says:

    If interpersonal is first, and social second, there is no need for a political because that is covered by the intent to further engagement, without a required list of policies. If a certain political stance emerges naturally, "like a farmer clearing the field" (as I too think it does, though of course I'm predisposed to think this way), how then is it "yoga" to force an agenda! If anything, this means the various spiritual techniques/tools pf yoga and other traditions are politically null, rather than neutral, progressive etc. Personally I would not want meditation or any activity to mean more votes for a party, but for more peace; platforms and positions can be wrong! And there is no monopoly on giving. People have opinions, and having a safe space to discuss them is necessary for honesty, but in short, political agendas alienate.

    Making the alienation worse is the identity politics that are increasingly endemic to having a political life, with an us vs. them, with us or against us attitude that colors people's engagement, and it's often very emotional (like Israel-Palestine). This is why a "political yoga" is and will always prohibit "yoga" as it adds yet another thing that a person should "be" and is only roundaboutly going help people be stable enough to approach calm, let alone encourage some version of samādhi (that's sam+ā-dhi ;) , something not a part of why I think most people practice (what is being called) yoga; I think it's for "calm").

    Peace first, peace second, peace wins!

    • matthew says:

      Thank you paul. I don't quite understand how votes for peace are not cast through parties, platforms, and positions. The hands get dirty somewhere….

  2. BobMcG says:

    It appears to me that part of the argument in the above article can be summarized as follows:

    If yoga and meditation do not lead to a progressive viewpoint, then they are not being done correctly.

  3. Joe Sparks says:

    It is possible for yoga and meditation to get humans to connect as a group and care about each other. Because no young one gets enough of this, people are left feeling alone and separate. Because of the accumulation of hurts in our societies, our parents were too distressed to offer this close connection to us. Unfortunately, this loss leaves us feeling separate from each other and reluctant to persist like you want us to, in our efforts to be close to each other to change the world for the better.Now that we can, we don't. We need to figure how to heal. Yoga and meditation is a good place to start. We have a long way to go before we can really help each other out. We are afraid of each other.

  4. YES!!! Thank you, Matthew. It is all well and good to theorize about the benefits of practice (and, indeed, this theorizing is an essential step in elucidating the mechanisms through which yoga or meditation or whatever "intervention" or "treatment" a researcher is interested in might operate), but the proof really is in the pudding. Plenty of research is being done on yoga/meditation, but what "yoga" and "meditation" actually mean in these studies is only rarely sufficiently described/defined. This compromises construct validity and reduces the strength of any inferences about the efficacy of these practices.

    So define and test! Yes, it is limiting to define "yoga" or "meditation" and establish one meaning at the expense of others, but we have to start somewhere. And, at least, then we all know what we're talking about and can exchange/argue more meaningfully. I'm on board!

  5. \mb says:

    Well…there's always the hope that politically non-progressive would-be sociopaths who do their lunges in front of rising seas wearing 6% spandex pants will eventually be "subverted" by the truth of an honest and consistent yoga practice. Only financially-independent studio owners would be willing to sacrifice the retail-end of their businesses to demonstrate a high level of right-livelihood integrity.

    I have an American expatriate friend who has been living in Canada since 1985 and on my many visits up there, I have seen first-hand the benefits of national health insurance and provincial (state)-based auto insurance. Not to mention that his family includes two adopted special-needs children whose extensive medical needs have been largely covered by the Canadian medical system. This would not be possible in the U.S.A. unless the adoptive parents were already quite well-off. The main advantage of living in a "progressive" society that has a generous social safety net is that one can relax somewhat from survival needs and let one's attention gravitate toward more human concerns.

    I also have a Norwegian friend who moved to the U.S.A. in the late '70s. Norway is another liberal, expansive social safety-net country that enjoys a high standard of living. Curiously, I've met a lot of rather self-involved Norwegians. I asked my friend why he thought this might be so, and he replied that the social safety net Norwegians grow up with as a matter of course sometimes lends itself to a kind of "aggressive indivdualism" in distinction to a sense of social empathy that can be fostered when survival needs are less attended to and people naturally tend to look out for one another. For example in Norway, there's a proportionally-larger percentage single mothers in the population. Why? Because the government is generous in supporting them. And "deadbeat dads" aren't stigmatized the way they are here simply because the Norwegian single mothers are getting their support from elsewhere.

    So such situations can cut both ways. Generally speaking, I'm way in favor national generosity toward citizens. I haven't been able to afford my health insurance premiums the last 2 years (as a self-employed person who simply doesn't have adequate-enough income or an employer to help pay for them). And I am greatly looking forward to signing up with my state-run Obamacare health insurance exchange which will be starting up in October 2013, so I hope it works!

    I understand the Canadian medical system had tremendous political and social opposition in the early 1950s when it was being debated, but you'd be hard-pressed to find much of that now. And if enough Republicans practice yoga, maybe there will be a return of that dying breed, the "moderate" Republican. You know, fiscally conservative perhaps, but still human.

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    What concerns me is the organized aspects of an individuals (for ex. Tibetan Buddhist) politics which would be categorized into the political group's ideology. If we are practitioners then we are well aware that because the group stands for this or that then this may make our practice less than spontaneous, spacious. We are relegated to ordinary action and ideology. The movement of "engaged buddhism" is a prime example. If we disagree with a group's directive are we less buddhist? No. Of course as individual practitioners our practice may be more esoteric or pure than that of the group's ideology but there will be a point where the group dumbs down the individual's wisdom and in an effort to maintain the ideology of the group a less confident practitioner may practice a less than spacious or spontaneous practice.

    • matthew says:

      Padma — these are excellent thoughts. I appreciate and have benefited from the spontaneity of unstructured, "results-free" practice. But there are many confounders to it to navigate. If it's not group-think, it might be the desire to please authority. I think the quest for spaciousness in practice will always be tension with what we think we want from it, and I can't think of any other way it could or should be.

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    In the west…the practitioners could very well confuse the political directive for a spiritual path as seen in christian/muslim/hindu fundamentalism.

  8. goldenheart555 says:

    The simplest way to deal with this "problem" of disengagement in yoga philosophy and teaching is to allow people to think critically for themselves. Thinking itself is considered the problem. How our culture embraces and defines "oneness" philosophy is, I have no doubt,of great interest to the powers that be. It is in many ways the new religion, with Eckhart Tolle, the Dali Lama, others like them in the spotlight and the burgening yoga movement in the west leading the way. The attitude is always go with the flow, resistance is "ego" and thinking causes suffering. What a wonderful way to control people, not unlike fundamental religions of many kinds. I find it dangerous to promote any kind of political color as a banded yoga movement, as Paul says above "platforms and positions can be wrong". Also as Padma points out about fundamentalism above. It is critical thinking, debate and freedom to question-regardless what our revered teachers say. This is the very issue of our times. Do we think for ourselves or allow others to define what yoga is? It is the individual's rights to free speech and power to vote that are of consequence. These American ideals are what we need to stand for not necessarily a progressive agenda.

    • matthew says:

      I agree, goldenheart. Except the "platforms and positions" I'm most interested can't really be wrong: intersubjective ethics and environmentalism are no-brainer stances for humans who wish to thrive. I believe that critical thinking and mindfulness will both lead to these positions. Also, perhaps as a Canadian, I'm not as wedded to the primacy of individual acumen as a foundational good. Goodness is a hive activity to me as well.

  9. Goldenheart555 says:

    You are lucky in your country to have a well educated "hive". Haha. I am usually very impressed by the intelligence displayed in Canadian politics. Here in the US we have very few real conversations about policy; they are usually sidetracked by name calling. I agree with your position of "intersubjective ethics and environmentalism" generally, but am wary of the co-opting of a progressive yoga movement by powerful interests that rule this country.

  10. matthew says:

    Convo from FB:

    Convo from FB:

    Be Scofield Thanks for the response Matthew. I'll write a reply, but for now I'll leave you with this:

    In 1937, four years after the Nazis attained power, the country's first yoga centre opened up in Berlin and operated until it was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943.

    The teacher who ran it had disciples in 50 German towns and cities. Himmler, obsessed as he was with hocus-pocus race theories and mysticism relating to his S.S. 'supermen,' carried around a German copy of the Bhagavad Gita with him wherever he went.

    He regarded the ancient Sanskrit epic as being a blueprint for cruelty and terror, using it, said Tietke, to ultimately justify the Holocaust.

    He wrote; "He identified himself and the SS with the old Indian Kshatriya caste and its publicised attitude of unscrupulous killing for one's 'higher purpose.'"

    ____________

    Julian Marc Walker holy mole, be! to matthew's point in the article – you can bet these nazis weren't doing *mindfulness* meditation! :)

    glad your voice strives to keep us honest..

    ____________

    Julian Marc Walker we remember too where they got the swastika from, ja?

    ____________

    Be Scofield Julian Marc Walker Yeah, if only the Nazis had slightly modified the type of meditation they were doing that whole Holocaust thing would have turned out so much differently. Likewise, if only the Buddhist fascists had bothered to actually do the "correct" type of mindfulness meditation the Japanese Imperial army would have given up their evil ways.

    ____________

  11. matthew says:

    continued:

    Julian Marc Walker hahahaha! fair comment, be.

    my point is that concentration based meditation techniques are more effectively turned toward a kind of unyielding resolve and disconnection from empathy than mindfulness techniques which tend to bring empathy, open-ness and awareness of what lies beneath the surface of our agendas, beliefs and defenses to the surface.

    though of course we cannot make a puerile link to solving all the world's problems and negating atrocities, i think the underlying beliefs and the kinds of mental training being called "yoga" or "meditation" actually do make a big difference in terms of how they impact people's brains, psyches and actions in the world.

    techniques and beliefs that encourage disconnecting from anything that interrupts your single pointed focus are more easily used to create automatons than techniques and beliefs that encourage the inner work of being present to feelings.

    but i find your critique totally relevant and valid as i said above, and i may of course be revising and idealizing a version of these practices that is perhaps a more recent remix, influenced by liberal values and a psychological temperament.

    ____________

    Be Scofield Julian Marc Walker you said: "i think the underlying beliefs and the kinds of mental training being called "yoga" or "meditation" actually do make a big difference in terms of how they impact people's brains, psyches and actions in the world."

    I'm open to this theory, however the burden of proof is on you and others to illustrate this with evidence and not just state it because it feels good. Many people believe the statement but don't provide any sort of evidence to back it up. Of course yoga and meditation have effects on brains, bodies and psyches – no disagreement there. It's just the "actions in the world" part that is where we'd disagree.

    My main point is to say that yes, spiritual practices could help someone be more empathetic….however this would only apply to people whom they view as worthy of receiving empathy. It won't make zionist Jews feel empathy for the plight of the Palestinians, nor would it make the Nazi yogis any more empathetic about Jews during the Holocaust. Psychotherapy wouldn't change someone's political opinions either. There has been lots of therapy happening by conservatives, tea party people, in fascist countries…etc. My main argument has been that *any* form of meditation, yoga or other practice could only make someone as empathetic as therapy could. It might increase care for their immediate families for example or even their town but psychotherapy won't turn someone into some anarchist revolutionary, nor will it make their "actions in the world" counter to what their surrounding culture has conditioned them to do.

    ____________

    • Sheryl says:

      There is evidence, yes. The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin has done myriad studies of the brains of meditators and found that a regular mediation practice strengthens the neural circuitry of the areas of the brain that produce/process empathy. (e.g., "Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise," Antoine Lutz, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, Richard J. Davidson.) Does this mean the end of war? Probably not. But it points us in the direction of actual proven tools that we can use to literally re-wire our brains to make us a more compassionate species. Of course, all brains are different. Is it possible that Hitler's brain entirely lacked the circuitry that produced empathy in the first place or was extremely deficient in that area, so that no amount of meditation could have averted the Holocaust? Of course. But I'm willing to go out on that limb and say that if your brain is within some range of "normal" and you practice regularly and experience no measurable increase in empathic function then you are, in fact, doing it wrong. There, I said it.

      • Sheryl says:

        I should add that these studies also have looked at whether this newly developed empathy actually gets put into practice with encouraging results. For example, when given the opportunity to donate the charitable causes, studies found that meditators gave more money and more frequently than non-meditators. I feel that the takeaway is that while a meditation practice may not have "cured" Hitler, a populace of German meditators might have resisted his rise to power.

        • matthew says:

          Thank you so much, Sheryl. One of the real challenges of writing as a non-academic generalist trying to respond quickly to a current affair is access to hard-to-find data.

      • Louis Lemoynes says:

        I find your comment very interesting and stimulating for my brain (in fact it is perfect and beautiful because it sums up everything I feel cautious about). And, in the spirit of exchanging/sharing ideas, I would like to share with you what I feel cautious about and why. And I’m open to any comments that share a different view…

        The first thing I would like to point out is that recently a systematic analysis has been done on meditation’s researches and the conclusion is that most of these researches are characterized by poor methodological quality. (See reference below)

        http://www.mentalhealthwatch.org/reports/meditation.pdf

        It means that one must be cautious and not jump to conclusion to quickly. It’s possible that actually researchers performing these works are too much wishfully inclined and in their enthusiasm they forgot basic cautions.

        I don’t know if the publication you are citing has this flaw, but let assume it doesn’t. (I take the liberty to share a link bellow that summarize the publication content)

        http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080326204236.htm

        When I read this, I kind of understand and share the enthusiasm of the researchers, but I would be more cautious. One thing that it shows (assuming the methodology is fine – note that they don’t seem to have a group of people that has done no meditation practice at all, not even two weeks, for comparison, which from my point of view is a flaw) is that love and kindness meditation activates some regions in the brain. But maybe having the participants listening to a talk about compassion might lead to the exact same brain activity. Does it imply that the brain circuits of the participants have been rewired for good into the path of compassion and kindness?

        Note also that love and kindness meditation lead to that result, other meditation techniques might lead to different results. And note also that there is a hidden hypothesis: meditation leads to more compassionate people or to “better” people. A more “neutral”/less wishful thinking approach would be: I’m curious to find out what this meditation/yoga practice does in such case…

        As for the fact that meditators give more money than non-practitioner (although there is nothing about this in the link above), I would be curious to know how they have performed this test. For example if meditators know that it’s part of the test, their self image of being a “good” person might also play an important role in their behavior. I mean, they are supposed to represent compassion on two legs, when you think of yourself that way, you also tend to modify your behavior so that it reflects that “vision”. And you do it unconsciously in an attempt to keep a coherent image of who you consider to be yourself. And that’s human nature. That’s who we are really. That’s the substance of who/what we are. And when the old yogi or Siddhartha emphasis the fact that we are an illusion, they might be right on the money, even if in our western selfish centered I-want-to-exist culture it is something very hard to conceive. But that’s another subject… Back to your comment…

        You mention Hitler and the German and you wonder if the practice of love and kindness would have changed how the population reacted. Very complex question and very hard to answer, but I do share the hope with you. I do share the hope that even if we live in a world governed by the mathematical law of chaos (meaning that the evolution of the system is highly sensible to small changes in the starting conditions), if more and more of us share an openness to others, we might come to give a drive to this chaos in the (hopefully) “right” direction. Yet, what is a right direction? Or what is good? We generally define good or right as good for us (us being the human specie, or, these days, us is the human specie and the environment that sustain its existence). But, unless we believe that our existence is the center of the universe (unless we believe in short), the universe doesn’t have such moral concerned and doesn’t think that what we consider right or good is right or wrong. In fact Mother Nature keeps playing her evolution game on us and from time to time creates psychopath, people who are hardwired differently then most of us. If Mother Nature or the universe has a sense of right and good, it wouldn’t play that game with us (unless we believe it is evil and playing with us the wrong way).

        My point here is just that moral, right/wrong, good or bad are just HUMAN definitions for HUMAN. And there is nothing wrong with that. That’s who we are, that’s what we are (and maybe the old yogi were, to some extent, more aware of this than we are today). But once we accept this than, I believe, we can really start to define what is moral and eventually why even yogi should vote and be politically actives. Because, when we accept this, we can connect to our true nature. We are human beings. We are mostly governed by our basic instincts (like it or not). And one of the most basic instincts is reproduction and protection of our children. And this is the base for a grounded sense of moral. A very simple example: your kids play in the sand. You see a container with toxic products nearby that could at any moment fall in the sand. Will you or will you not do something to prevent it? Yes you will. I mean, think carefully, you are a yogi, you embrace everything with compassion and this container has a right to be there just like your kids…

        But if you have kid, you know that your instinct to protect will make you act immediately. You can feel it building inside and you know that it is the right thing to do. You know it in your guts (in fact, you don’t think as good or bad, you just act). And it is, because that’s who you are really: a machine programmed to survive and procreate (like it or not). And one thing that makes you feel good is to respond to such calls. Now, let’s generalize the situation. You learn that some rich people that want to be even richer have a plan to build something in your country. You also know that this thing will impact your children or your grand children life quality (directly or indirectly). Do you or don’t you do something to at least try to block this project? Remember you are a yogi. Well if you are connected to reality, you know you have to act, whether or not you have children. It is not optional. It is mandatory. Because that’s what “grounded moral” dictates you to do (where grounded moral here is the survival and children protection game).

        So where am I going with this? Follow me; hopefully I’ll fall back on my four. I know that for most people that may not seem spiritual. That may even seem normal, common and low-lying behavior. I think it’s the most grounded spiritual behavior one can have. I mean the universe, Mother Nature or god (if you want) has created us just the way we are: human beings with core hardwired powerful instincts for survival. Now some people that like to think too much hypothesis that we are more than that and start to fantasies about soul, a subtle body and that kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong. Their insight is not so wrong. We are more than what we are, though not necessarily in the way these people fantasies it. But the assumption that is probably wrong is the one that says we have to transcend who we are (our human condition). We have to connect back with our “divine” nature to become who/what we really are. Let’s pause here for a while and think (or feel) about this. It’s important.

        Un-pause. Do you feel it? I feel this call inside me. I’ve always felt it. I still feel it right now. But I also feel that if I step out of who I am really, of my low lying common and normal human condition, I’m not in touch with that feeling anymore. I’m in touch with fantasyland. I’m in touch with abstraction that has nothing to do anymore with reality. I am a human being and it’s only by embracing my condition has a human being completely that I can really be spiritual (from my point of view). Otherwise I feel I’m just jerking myself off on abstract concepts. Pause again.

        Un-pause. Being human means being mostly driven by my survival instincts (and being mostly unaware of that). But we can let this be in an intelligent way. Because being human also means to have a big brain that let us predict to some extent the impact of our actions as individuals and as a group. Hence being human also means being politically active as an individual in response to our survival instinct and to our ability to grossly estimate the impact of our actions. And maybe, within this scope, the tools created by the old yogi might come useful. Not to try to transcend our nature (and it’s in that sense that I think they have failed and logically should) but to rather get more in contact with our true low lying human condition and be humble with that and accept it and respond from that perspective as much as we can. So this is my personal hope. That the practice of yoga and meditation will help us to realize that: we are driven by our instincts. We are not who we think we are and certainly not the image that we project. And from this knowledge we might be able to naturally (without forcing any kind of agenda) become more compassionate.

        I would like to finish with this interview of Alexandre Jardin, a French author that recently published a book about the history of his family during the Nazi occupation. His argument is mainly that horrible events, like what happened during the occupation in France, are carried on by “good” people: i.e. people with good intention but mostly with high (abstract rather than grounded) moral values. Because, in the name of these abstract moral values, they engage themselves into path of destruction. And this is also part of our human nature. We must not ignore this and pretend that yogi’s practices protect us from such things. It doesn’t. And the whole human history shows us again and again the failure of good intentioned moral concepts. Because moral concepts have a tendency to ignore our true human nature creating thus a separation between who/what we are really and who/what we should be. Note that, has he points it out, it’s not only German people that where anti-Semites in that time, it was everywhere in the world, USA included. It took a dramatic proportion in Germany most probably because of Hitler and his friends. (Note also that the video is in French, sorry about that!)

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=1r2_W4lJd4M

        In short, I don’t think that meditation will change our human nature, but it could help us to get in contact with it and to learn to accept it and respond in a more grounded (to reality) way. Finally, this is not directed to you, it’s just that your post inspired me all this.

        • It's true that a lot of the studies show poor methodological quality and lack of rigor (e.g., small sample sizes leading to insufficient statistical power, poor construct validity, etc.), but I think it is important to remember that research is undertaken in the context of particular institutional structures (e.g., NIH or NCCAM-the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, in the U.S.). These institutions are largely responsible for providing the means to do research in the form of grants and for defining which research methods are privileged to produce "evidence." Nascent areas of research often receive limited funding, which leads researchers to have to make trade-offs. Larger samples require more money. Furthermore, there is some question whether methods like the randomized controlled trial are sufficient to capture more esoteric interventions and outcomes. These methods were developed to study rather discrete and more easily measurable phenomena (such as dosage of pharmaceutical and change in blood pressure). I personally think they can still be adapted to studying yoga and meditation, but, as with everything, there are limitations that must be recognized (especially in publication). In the context of all this, I think we have to be more critical in our assessment of what the "evidence" really means.

  12. matthew says:

    continued:

    Julian Marc Walker fair enough. as i have said twice now your critique is a vital one and demands that we be honest with ourselves!

    i am speculating based on experience that certain practices increase empathy while others dull it. am i claiming to have scientific studies that demonstrate this? no. even though i value and celebrate science, i don't think everything anyone ever says has to have empirical evidence behind it!

    i wonder if the non-violent tibetan response to chinese occupation, or ghandi's passive resistance movements in south africa as well as india, as well as even MLK's work might point to how beliefs and practices relate to action in the world?

    this is not to say that political consciousness raising and intellectual education is not still necessary to continue expanding the circle of care and encourage people to deconstruct group think and social conditioning.

    for me the two have always gone hand in hand, and i am actually appreciating your critique here – not refuting it!

    we seem to often bump up against this issue as to whether or not what we believe has consequences in the world. i do take your point about how yoga/meditation can be compartmentalized, and this is perhaps a naturally self-deceiving psychological/political tendency – but i also think that one of their great gifts is that they can be used to break down that type of compartmentalization.

    i agree with you that unless the connection is made explicit, all spiritual practices can become immune to questioning authority and extending compassion beyond limited familial/nationalist circles. for me this has always been apparent and the central questions of inner work are something i see as much more difficult life long struggles than vague platitudes.
    —————

    Matthew Remski I look forward to your full reply, Be. And I hope it goes farther than "look at all the assholes in the yoga parade". Himmler's complete distortion of the Gita does not support your neutrality thesis anymore than a creationist's dating of a fossil changes its age. And it doesn't answer my argument about the problem of self-reporting practice versus independent observation of the results of practice.

    I'm a little more intrigued by your broad-brush against psychotherapy however. You say:

    "Psychotherapy wouldn't change someone's political opinions either. There has been lots of therapy happening by conservatives, tea party people, in fascist countries…etc. My main argument has been that *any* form of meditation, yoga or other practice could only make someone as empathetic as therapy could. It might increase care for their immediate families for example or even their town but psychotherapy won't turn someone into some anarchist revolutionary, nor will it make their "actions in the world" counter to what their surrounding culture has conditioned them to do."

    What are you talking about? And where are you getting this from? Therapy changes opinions, beliefs, actions and politics all the time in macro and micro dimensions. Most therapy is specifically geared to help people counter their socio-cultural conditioning. How do you know the effects of therapy on the populations you describe? Are you citing something?

  13. Louis Lemoynes says:

    Not sure about all this…

    I mean, on one side you are emphasizing the fact that people are rather being selfish in their practice, using it sometimes to enhance their spiritual self-image but sometimes to truly improve their selves (or so they claim)…

    I totally agree with you that it would be nice to have a metric to measure such claimed improvements (which ever claim it is). 100% OK with that!

    But then, it gets a bit confused with political stuff… Yes I agree that people should be encouraged to think by their own and stop to rely on so called wise men and women. (Like me for example. Stop that! It’s annoying!) But like most other posters, I’m rather against forcing the political agenda on the mat. If one need to do so then it’s because yoga/meditation (or whatever) have failed (not surprisingly, see below). My point is that if it doesn’t come “naturally”, then it has failed. Forcing it is only a way to hide this fact to our selves and could only lead to more deceptions.

    There seems to be one variable left out of the equation: the human nature. I don’t know on which planet you live, but on my planet, no matters how many meditation’s hours one has on his CV, his human nature will mostly always has its way. It’s a basic fact of life. Unless you believe that your practice will really make you a better person (proof please), I can’t see how you can escape that fact.

    We can rely on the old yogi. Their were wiser then us. They new that for most people the practice doesn’t work, so they would say that it’s karma and you are not ready yet and you have to try again the next time. Today we are laughing at them loudly: “What a bunch of looser, they believe in reincarnation. Thanks g… the universe we live in the 21st century!” But we missing the point. The point is that their practice did not work so they had to find an excuse for it: reincarnation.

    Back to our very human nature. Read the two following books (in the proposed order), it may change your perspective on things… “Incognito – The secret lives of the brain” by David Eagleman. “The Self Illusion – How the social brain creates identity” by Bruce Hood.

    And finally congratulation for your newborn!!! Parenthood is, I believe, the most fulfilling life experience!

  14. elenaray says:

    I thought Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series illustrated how elevated awareness and mind powers don’t necessarily lead to peaceful or ecological political policies.

  15. Truth says:

    He's back! The most dangerous man in yoga rears his egg head. I should of had that trademarked. You're wrong about the libertarian contingent, I'd be the first to drink the collectivist koolaid if it was served at a YogaVotes supported Ron Paul rally to End the Fed!

    Some good thoughts in this post, so I'll go easy on you. Measuring practice by its results is a novel idea, kind of like the latest barbie yogi epiphany that to be a good teacher you should actually practice yoga. It has got to bug you that this years greatest yoga success story comes from a guy whose teacher is Diamond Dallas Page.

    If yoga was really progressive, you would think Jill Stein would've got a larger percentage of the vote. Gary Johnson for the win. I think you remixed progressivism like you remixed the sutras. If I buy the book, it better come with a glossary.

    • matthew says:

      Dear Truth —

      My head is much more spherical than ovular, but yes, quite large.

      No glossary to the book, I'm afraid. But for your trouble I'd be happy to send you a gratis copy if you email me directly with a mailing address. I promise to not compromise your anonymity. :)

      threadsofyoga@gmail.com

  16. [...] Seeking Evidence that Yoga and Meditation Are Not Politically Neutral: a Proposal to Results-Test ou… [...]

  17. search says:

    There is definately a great deal to know about this topic.

    I like all the points you’ve made.

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