In the past sixty years America has become the consumer society par excellence.
During the Battle of France in 1940 Winston Churchill made several speeches in the House of Commons. In the first he said: “I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.” Two generations later, and a week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon masterminded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, President Bush addressed the nation and said: “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” In effect, he was asking Americans to go shopping.
Consumerism is the reigning culture in America, the shop-until-you-drop wonder of the world. It is what we live and swear by, a culture of desire that seems never sated. “From the 1890’s on, American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this,“ writes William Leach in Land of Desire. Consumerism is the equating of happiness with the purchase of possessions. By that standard, Americans should be the happiest people on the planet.
Making up only 5% of the world’s population, they consume 23% of the world’s resources. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” Mahatma Ghandi said more than sixty years ago. “If our nation took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” If it was a word of warning then, how would Ghandi react to the India of today, jumping on the bandwagon and boasting the fourth largest GDP in the world?
The average worldwide income is approximately $7,000.00.
The average American income is approximately $50,000.00. But the gap between the Third World and the First World is closing. According to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone lived the lifestyle of Americans we would need five planets to sustain all of us. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns,” Jimmy Carter warned in a speech to the nation in 1979. He promptly lost the next election, ridiculed for his “despair and pessimism” by Ronald Reagan.
More than 70% of America’s economy is dependent on consumer spending.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the average American is exposed to 3000 advertising messages a day, and globally corporations spend over $620 billion a year to make their products seem desirable. Consumerism is the largest of the many cultures of modern America, and material possessions are its markers of status and success. Consumerism is consumption gone wild. It seems we can never get enough of what we don’t really need to make us happy. Consumerism as a social system conflicts with the core values of yoga, especially asteya and aparigraha, by which moderation and sustainability are observed.
“A large impediment to meaningful personal and systemic transformation in the United States is the overwhelming political and economic power of large corporations and institutions that promote values of consumption,” says Amy Quinn-Suplina of Bend and Bloom Yoga in Brooklyn, NY. “Yoga is one of the many movements challenging socially and environmentally destructive institutions that promote competition and consumerism.”
Since the 1990s the most frequent reason voiced by students for going to college is the making of money.
The pursuit of happiness has come to mean the pursuit of tangible, consumable things. Even though 10 years ago 99% of American homes had a television, and almost 70% of them had three-or-more, 100 million new flat-screens have been sold since then. In a 65-year life the average American will spend 9 years watching television, and will see more than two million commercials. Consumption is not only the imperative; it is the wallpaper to our lives.
The health of America is measured by our consumer confidence, as though patriotism is determined by how much we are willing to spend and consume. It is doubtful the Declaration of Independence had consumerism in mind when it defined America as the land of freedom and liberty. “The highest teaching in yoga is the same: freedom,” notes Cate Stillman, an Anusara Yoga instructor in Tetonia, Idaho.
“You are so free you can choose to bind yourself to the ignorance of your limited, conditioned behavior. But, do yoga long enough and you wake up to yourself as consciousness or awareness itself taking form, unconditioned and completely free.”
Consumerism may not be the miracle it is cracked up to be, especially the model go-getting Americans have squeezed themselves into. “Encouraged by advertisers, friends, and family, many people think more possessions, more recognition, and more power will lead to more happiness, “says Gyandev McCord, Director of Ananda Yoga and a founding board member of Yoga Alliance. “No one ever found lasting happiness that way, for the simple reason that nothing outside us can bring lasting happiness. Happiness is of the mind, not in things or circumstances.”
Consumerism’s premise is uncertain because it reads the economy backwards, mistaking the leaves of the tree for the roots. “The happiness that seems to be coming from your possessions is false, “ says Sri Swami Satchidananda. “It is reflected happiness.” Attending to and living by the ethical precepts of asteya and aparigraha, meaning non-covetousness and non-possessiveness, means being aware and watchful about acquiring and becoming attached to things. There is no yoga gravy train because the basic propositions of the practice are contrary to the cultivation of unbounded desire.
There is more to life than having everything one can never get.
Nationalism was born out of America’s War of Independence and the French Revolution. Since the Great Depression nationalism has spread and intensified worldwide. It is many things: love of country, willingness to sacrifice for it, and the doctrine that one’s national culture and interests are superior to others. The problem with nationalism is not patriotism, which means devotion to a place and a way of life, but its identification with the power of the nation-state.
“Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Notes on Nationalism” in Polemic. “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige.” Patriots love their country for what it does; nationalists love their country no matter what it does. Nationalism makes footstools of morality and ethics because what matters are the perceived interests of the state, regardless of what they are.
Imperialism is nationalism on the move. It is extending ones rule economically, politically, or militarily upon other states. In his Farewell Address of 1796 George Washington warned against foreign entanglements and foreign wars, advice that has fallen on increasingly deaf ears. The Canadian and Mexican wars of the first half of the nineteenth century were land grabs, but with the advent of the Spanish-American War the United States had grown imperialistic, fighting wars whose purposes were conquest and colonization. “The United States has used every available means to dominate other nations,” writes Sidney Lens in The Forging of the American Empire. Some historians believe America’s imperialism is benevolent.
Niall Ferguson agrees America is an empire, but insists it is a good thing, likening America to Rome, building republican institutions and civilizing barbarians. “U. S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century,” Max Boot argues in “American Imperialism”.
Since 1945 America has intervened covertly or militarily in 70 countries, including the Philippines, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Grenada, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Some of these conflicts were for the purpose of extending hegemony, some to contain fascism or communism, others to secure resources, and all of them were to make the world safer. The Vietnam War, or Resistance War Against America as the Vietnamese called it, resulted in approximately 4 million Vietnamese deaths on both sides and the loss of almost 60,000 American troops. What good came of the Vietnam War and whether the world is safer today than it was a hundred years ago, after the loss of more than ten percent of the world’s population to warfare, is a moot point.
Conflict is inevitably a consequence of imperialism. Although all states claim to fight defensive or justifiable wars, even invoking pre-emptive strikes as justified, war never ends warfare; otherwise it would have ended with the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, or maybe the defeat of the Nazis. “I just want you to know, when we talk about war, we are really talking about peace,” President George W. Bush said after the start of the Second Gulf War Occupation. Nationalism is the pursuit of power no matter the Orwellian spin states put on it, setting it at loggerheads with yoga. All states claim God is on their side.
Yogis, on the other hand, strive to be on the side of God.
The practices of nationalism and imperialism, projects that have defined the American Century, are practices justifying and furthering state power. They are coercive and violent, ranging from the Pledge of Allegiance we recite as children to the armies we raise as adults.
The practice of yoga is antithetical to the realpolitik of the modern state. Rather than ignore the moral and ethical, yoga’s project is based on those principles and disciplines. All the world’s major religions from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism have had their foundations of non-violence co-opted by states.
“One of history’s greatest lessons is that whenever the state embraces a religion the nature of that religion changes radically. It loses its non-violent component,” writes Mark Kurlansky in Non-Violence: Twenty-Five Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea. Although not a religion, yoga is a spiritual practice at whose core ahimsa is a living, breathing concept. It is an imperative for practicing any or all of the eight limbs or steps of the path. Pranayama is not a tool for steadying trigger fingers. There are no St. Augustines or Ibn Taymayyahs of yoga explaining away the Sixth Commandment. If there were, then satya, defined as truth in word and thought, would have to be thrown out the window.
In a 2005 speech at Spelman College the political activist and historian Howard Zinn characterized nationalism as one of the greatest evils of our time, useful only for those in power. The nationalist argument is built on the assertion that the economic and military supremacy of the nation takes priority over all other interests. It is for good reason the United States maintains the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world and is the only nation that has ever used atomic weapons against an enemy. The practice of yoga, on the other hand, is opposed to the nationalist agenda and the alienation of everyone on America’s enemy’s list.
“Yoga unites us not only to the core of who we are, but truly to every American,” says Michele Risa of Beyond Body Mind Spirit in New York City.
“As defined, we would in fact be embracing every person on the planet.” Yoga is dedicated to the union of the body, mind, and spirit, both within ourselves and to others. “Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individualized beings intimately connected to the unified whole of creation,” writes William Doran in “The Eight Limbs – The Core of Yoga”.
Violence does not resolve disagreements. It only leads to more violence.
The greater evil than nationalism is the endemic violence it begets. “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics,” observed Thomas Edison. “Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” Non-violence is one of the disciplines of yoga, according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, as well as an obligation. It is the undisciplined that believe every problem can be solved with violence. “It almost seems anti-American to do any discipline,” writes Deborah Adele in “The Yamas and Niyamas”.
The abstinences and observances of yoga are fundamentally rooted in ahimsa. Violence and killing are not stepping-stones on the yogic path, as they are on the highways of nationalism and imperialism. Violence is a morally confused idea; a means of getting things done that is neither a lasting solution nor an idea God is on the side of. “One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “who is non-violent to all beings.”
Although our Founding Fathers never practiced yoga, if they had they would have gravitated to styles that suited their personalities.
George Washington would probably have practiced Ashtanga, drawn to its discipline, splitting the mat in the Warrior poses with a steady, forward gaze. John Adams might have practiced Anusara, intellectually engaged by its principles of alignment, his back foot rooted to the earth in side-angle pose and his leading arm reaching to heaven.
Thomas Jefferson would have studied Kundalini, exploring and releasing energy, practicing kriyas and chanting on the portico of Monticello. It is doubtful they would look out on the landscape of America today, over the atomization of its citizens, its celebration of presidential birthdays with sales, sales, sales, and its century-long militarism, with any sense of accomplishment. “That part of America,” says Rita Trieger of Fit Yoga Magazine, “the intolerance, the judgments, the hatred, that’s the real un-American thinking. Our forefathers would be shocked.”
As far as modern America’s values are from its foundational myths, yoga’s values may be as near to them.
Yoga is a transformative practice of old-fashioned virtues opening the yogi to new thought and behavior, much like what the American Revolution accomplished for the New World. “Perhaps the question is, are Americans being Americans?” says Denise Lapides of Divine Light Yoga in West Annapolis, Maryland.
“Yoga to me is not un-American as much as Americans have become un-American. Practicing yoga, or living a yogic lifestyle, seems to me to be more in line with what was originally intended for our nation.”
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, said “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were the essentials of the American Dream. He also warned that competition and commerce often “feel no passion of principle but that of gain,“ we should not bite at the “bait of pleasure’” and condemned war as “the greatest scourge of mankind.”
“Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy might not agree that yogic ideals like compassion, truthfulness, and non-violence are prototypically American, but it is likely Thomas Jefferson would. Our third president valued self-reliance, honesty, and hard work. Any American walking into a yoga studio today and rolling out a mat will discover exactly that, and find that being a yogi is as American as starting the day with sun salutations, and that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be breathed out and breathed in with what is right with America.
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Edward Staskus is from Sudbury, Ontario and lives in Lakewood, Ohio, with his wife Vanessa. He practices yoga (Bikram at a studio and yin at home), and subscribes to Buddhism.
Editor Tanya L. Markul
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