January 3, 2014

Beyond Binary: Undoing the Samskara of ‘ism.’ ~ Nikki Myers

Yoga is movement.

For many, the movement begins with the physical body. However, because mind/body/spirit is a continuum, soon the movement infiltrates every level of the being.

Yoga is also provocative. It has personally taxed and stimulated me in ways I never saw coming when I signed up for my first asana class many years ago. At the time, I was absolutely clueless about a connection between my practice on the mat and my belief system, energy, and character—I simply wanted a little relief from the gnawing pain of sciatica.

As my practice deepened, it ignited many things including my path of activism.

An activist is simply a person who sees a need for large scale change and begins personal action to move toward it.

As my activism deepened, I became aware of how deeply embedded ‘isms’  are in almost every aspect of our culture.

The ‘isms’  (racism, genderism, classism, sexism, ableism, etc.) represent dualistic social constructs designed to ignore and/or remove human complexities. The constructs are set up in a binary, either/or,  good/bad, right/wrong framework many times as a way to justify superiority of one group over another.

What I have seen repeatedly over the years is that for any movement (yes, even the yoga movement) to ultimately survive, the samskara of ‘ism’ must be addressed. Historically, the failure to investigate underlying social attitudes and behaviors has been the root of demise for many well-intentioned movements.

In yoga, samskara is defined as past impressions, conditioning or habit patterns. Samskara can be inborn, acquired or imposed and actually have little to do with intellect. Repeating samskaras reinforces them, creating a groove that is difficult to resist.  And even with resistance, the conditioning never completely goes away, except maybe in the case of total enlightenment. This is one reason why self-awareness practices don’t have an expiration date; they are never complete.

The binary framework generates impressions (samskara) at personal, cultural and institutional levels. A deeper and somewhat personal explanation of how it works follows.

The following quote, attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, has become one of the most valuable tenets in my life journey. Mr. de Chardin said,  ‘I am a spiritual being having a human experience’. As an embodied experience, both are true; I am spirit and I am human. It’s not the binary; ‘either/or’. What I’ve realized is that when/if I deny, ignore, or create pretense around my spirituality or my humanity, I create personal suffering (dukha).

In my humanity, I have an identity. I am an able-bodied, African-American, 60-year old woman born and raised in the Midwest United States. Yoga teaches that identities are constructs; that none of these things have meaning on their own.

As a spirit being, I am well aware that this constructed identity neither defines or determines me. However, because I live and move in the material world, this identity unquestionably informs not only my personal day-to-day experience, but others experience of me.

In the cultural binary framework, value and meaning are attached to each identity fragment. Black is less than white, young is better than old, male is better than female, able has more value than disabled and depending on where you live, the Midwest is either better than or worse other locale.

We can think of these as cultural prejudices.

Prejudices are learned prejudgments. Every human being has them; it’s built into how we are socialized. Prejudices are problematic because they are often normalized, making them difficult to identify. When we act on our prejudices, we discriminate. Wikipedia defines discrimination as; ‘the prejudicial treatment of an individual based on their actual or perceived membership in a certain group or category’. Avoiding, harassing, excluding, ridiculing, slandering, threatening, violence, and jokes are all examples of discriminatory behavior.

In yogic speak, they are also examples of avidya which is ignorance based in false perception.

The binary framework is used culturally and institutionally to delineate power. And, it is power that turns prejudice and discrimination into an ‘ism’. From power comes written and even more insidious, unwritten policy: Prejudice + Discrimination + Power = Oppression.

Oppression literally means to press down. Relative to this discussion, prejudice and discrimination get culturally and institutionally built in and become nearly invisible as they come to be normalized.

The ‘ism’ is now a systemic samskara.

The mass incarceration of African-American males is an example of systemic oppression. An examination of the disparities in drug sentencing reveals that while five times as many Whites use drugs as African Americans, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites (from American Civil Liberties Union).

The normalization of this became apparent to me recently when a friend confronted her adolescent son about drug involvement. In response to her, he argued;  ‘Mom, if you’re concerned that I might get arrested and go to jail for this, you don’t need to worry about it. After all, we’re not Black.”

An individual need do nothing explicitly to oppress another. However,  when we deny or marginalize the samskara’s existence, we participate in its perpetuation.

Here, I’m reminded of a yoga teacher who cued her class to ‘spread their five fingers’ as they were in a posture—what she failed to recognize is that not everyone has five fingers. Unconscious thoughts, action, and speech, whether our own or those of someone else, preserve and reinforce the samskara; deepening its groove.

And, it hurts everyone, even those in the dominant group. Internalized superiority separates and dehumanizes.  Superiority often expresses itself as unfounded and unjust fear that ignores the connectedness among all living things. It keeps people from experiencing the richness and fullness of our humanity, which is experienced through deep communion with others.

Because of the social, political and institutional implications, the cultural conversation about any ‘ism’ often turns into a three-ring circus at best, a horror show at its worst.

It’s my hope that the yoga and contemplative community can catalyze a different conversation. A conversation that brings compassionate inquiry and awareness, the cornerstones of our practice, into the investigation of our socially conditioned life; taking a deep look at what we often buy into as normal.

Undoing the samskara of ‘ism’  is neither simple nor easy. It is perhaps the hardest work many of us will ever do because it is not an intellectual undertaking. It will require us to skillfully use every tool we’ve learned in our practice.

That said, if there has ever been a community that is up for the task, I believe it’s ours.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant archives





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