Sensitive New Age Guys Never Ruled: Yoga, Existentialism & Staying Engaged in the World. ~ Eric Shaw

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(Wikimedia Commons)

In my early 30s, I was doing something goofy in public that I thought was really cool, and someone called me a Sensitive New Age Guy.

The comment cut and caused soul-searching.

I manned-up more in the following years.

I haven’t heard the term SNAG in awhile, but an allied concept, the “spiritual bypasser” now makes the rounds. It means you’re avoiding life responsibilities of work and relationship by falsely “giving it all up to God.”

Anyone—Sensitive or Insensitive, New Age, or Old Age—can avoid heroic engagement in the world.

That said, this morning—while immersed in the heroism of the long-avoided mopping of my apartment—all the while delaying my morning yoga practice—I felt I was doing the opposite.  I felt I was “worldly bypassing.”

The most heroic non-avoider of our new Yoga Nation is Gandhi. (I think we overlook America’s Martin Luther King because he wasn’t Hindu and he didn’t do the whole gamut of yogi things that Gandhi did on his way to changing the world—avoid meat, live in an Ashram, consistently cite the Bhagavad Gita, etc.). Andrew Harvey’s concept of “Sacred Activism”—mostly championed by women in the yoga universe—e.g. Seane Corn, Shiva Rea, Sharon Gannon—is an expression of this Gandhian ideal. Harvey says,

Mahatma Ghandi

When the deepest and most grounded spiritual vision is married to a practical and pragmatic drive to transform all existing political, economic, and social institutions, a holy force—the power of wisdom, and love in action—is born.

This force I define as Sacred Activism.

Harvey’s ideal wasn’t yet articulated when I was a boy, but concepts like it colored my youth.

As I’ve said in other posts, my mother & father were both minsters, and the values of M. L. King (more than Gandhi) were very alive in my childhood home. I turned seven the year he was killed. King and other Christian Religious radicals were my boyhood heroes: The anti-war Catholic priests, Philip and Daniel Berrigan—who poured blood on nuclear warheads; the Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin who fought for gay rights; and the leftist theologians Richard and Rheinhold Niebuhr, who argued for a socially responsible nation.

Martin Luther King (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite my family history, when I “got Buddhism” at the age of 25, meditation became more important than any worldly activity.

That year, I took up a long period of “spiritual bypassing.”

Spiritual bypassing is a valid career option in India, so I had good company. The parivrajaka, the wandering yogi, has doubled down on the possibility that Realization results from dodging worldly action.

The philosophy of the Yoga Sutra can give us some guidance as to how to more intelligently orient our activity in the world.  It divides Reality into spiritual and worldly realms—called Purusha and Prakriti. The realization of Purusha is the goal of the sramana, the yogi striver—a total spiritual bypasser—who seeks Enlightenment and has “tuned in, turned on and dropped out.”  On the other hand, the brahmana–the good everyday citizen who is still caught in the world’s whirring wheels—keeps his floors mopped.  If he’s got a “bypass,” it is of the worldly kind.

I was tempted to completely embrace a sramana path, but didn’t do it. But the pull persists.  For most of us, the pulls toward worldly action and spiritual practice stay in conflict.

In the Samkhya philosophy of the Yoga Sutras, Purusha, the realm of pure awareness, and Prakriti, the realm of action, remain eternally unresolved.  The spiritual and worldly interact, but there is no holy One.

The Material and the Spiritual won’t be reconciled by a collapsing universe or three Bethlehem wise men galloping to a cineplex to watch Apocalypse Now.

We will feel the pull toward life’s contrary possibilities eternally.

The good news is this contrariness is dynamic.

It keeps us restless, provoked and alive.

I think I’m a queer duck in this equation, to use an old term. Even before my epiphany when I was 25, my boyhood saw me rolling my eyes up into my head for hours or resting at the bottom of swimming pools as long as I could, watching my mind get quiet while holding my breath.

I tend toward spiritual not worldly bypass, but I think most folks bypass the spiritual more than the worldly. America ain’t no Nepal. Our ascetic ideal is expressed through the work ethic and—unlike India—a train ride to realization won’t easily be bankrolled by street side begging.  Society feels no obligation to the freelancer sramana.

In American Democracy, the obligation to be active in politics is more universal than any pull to meditate.  But if you’re in the yoga game, you are called to marry the aims of meditation and action. Activism is part of the work of self-transformation—even if you think meditation is enough.

It can be painful to intertwine action and self transformation, but—like childbirth or chaturangas, or getting out of bed in the morning—it’s a pain we’re made to endure, and it makes our inner and outer action potent.  “Spiritual Bypassing” should be criticized because it is not whole.

Like Camus, we say the infinity of pushing our own personal rock uphill is a happy dilemma.

We feel pain on both sides of the equation—pushing into the world, or pushing toward the self.  We are both angel and animal, and we ride the life’s train in opposite directions.

“Spiritual Bypass” dodges transformation of the worldly “I.”

“Worldly bypass” dodges realization of the Spiritual “I.”

Sacred Activism tries to dodge these dodges.

About the time the Sutras were composed (200 CE),the Bhagavad Gita was, too. And here we get a nice formula—one championed by Gandhi (who read the Gita constantly). It allows us to be “worldly,” but get spiritual goods, too.

The BG’s description of Karma Yoga—acting in the world but giving the benefits to God—foreshadows “Sacred Activism.” Karma Yoga accommodates our divided nature.

Meditation is usually called an otherworldly occupation, but when “the most grounded spiritual vision is married to a pragmatic drive”— to use Harvey’s formulation—meditative goals come to worldly action.

Karma yoga and Sacred Activism are methods to change ourselves as we change the real world.

Kierkegaard said, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” In Sacred Activism, even as we fight for variegated goals, we fight for the singular transformation of the spirit.

The Gita says, “Whoever works selflessly combines renunciation and activity. Right action is really renunciation.” (6:1-2) .

This tack avoids either bypass. It swims consciously with Purusha and Prakriti.

Sacred Activism and Karma Yoga are methods for pushing the rock of the world forward and staying whole. Devoted to this game plan, life’s pain is re-purposed and we, the human “animal-angel ,“  ride one bus toward divergent destinations.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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anonymous Oct 1, 2012 11:45am

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anonymous Jun 1, 2012 2:32pm

Hey Thaddeus, point well taken. Bob, thanks for the props! BTW: I edited it since you read it, and I think it's much improved. Carol! Always great to hear from you. I contributed to your book project and look forward to reading your material there.

anonymous May 31, 2012 8:41am

This is a very well written and thoughtful piece. I appreciate its take on a very complex subject. I recently wrote about this dynamic myself in "So You Say You Want a Revolution? Well…".

For me though, your analysis perhaps misses the most subtle and important facet of this dilemma. And that is to point out that dedicating one's life wholly and completely to a spiritual pursuit (and I don't think it matters whether this be as a wandering ascetic or a householder) is not in the least a way of "dodging" the world, but of actually changing and addressing the world in the most authentic way possible.

In this sense, practicing yoga, or buddhism, or what have you IS the most revolutionary act possible. Just as Foucault often pointed out when people criticized him for not "doing" anything; thinking is doing and it is only our limited concept of what counts as "doing" which prevents of us from realizing this. So too with our spiritual lives.

Thank you for this wonderful piece.

anonymous May 31, 2012 8:03am

Really enjoyed this, Eric. Great reflections on an incredibly important topic, and beautifully written. Thanks!

Bob Weisenberg May 30, 2012 11:30pm

Love, love, love this article, Eric.

(Did I mention that I love this article?)

And it's great to see additional strong voices adding to the already strong Gita coverage on elephant, which I should probably pull together in a blog of its own.

As for Karma Yoga, I'm sure our readers will appreciate this collection of the best Karma Yoga passages from Gita in a Nutshell: Yoga of Action (Karma Yoga)

Thanks for this article. Looking forward to more.

Bob W. Associate Publisher
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Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

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Eric Shaw

Eric Shaw, MA.SE, MA.RS, MA.AS, has studied yoga and meditation for 30 years and taught both since 2001. He maintains a lively international teaching schedule and is the creator of both Prasana Yoga—a form that reveals alignment in movement—and Yoga Education through Imagery—lecture programing that teaches yoga’s traditions through archival imagery and new scholarship. He is an E-RYT 500 with two degrees in Art, and Masters Degrees in Education, Religious Studies and Asian Studies. His essays appear in Yoga Journal, Common Ground, Mantra Yoga + Health, and other publications. To find out more, please see: