August 1, 2014

Be yourself and other bulls***.

guy and girl doing yoga / Bim Bom

I’ve been practicing yoga off and on since 1993.

In the last couple of years, I’ve cleared some head space to start thinking hard about the culture of yoga. I want to share some reflections on a few recurring themes that I’ve encountered over the years.

In the off and on again years, sometimes I stopped practicing for a while just through laziness, sometimes in response to changes in my employment situation or work schedule, and sometimes because I could no longer take the light and fluffy bullshit that circulates in yoga circles.

For example, telling someone to “just be yourself.” This has to be among the most vapid and inane bits of advice in circulation. In fact it’s worse than that—it’s also very bad advice.

Some people are just a**holes; they should not be themselves. They should work very hard to become someone else. Advising them to just be themselves is tantamount to giving them permission to continue to be selfish, rude, abrasive, inconsiderate, violent, abusive or whatever their particular type of assholery amounts to.

Some people are narcissists; they should get over themselves. They need to realize that the universe does not revolve around them and their self-serving egos. I suspect that the rapidly growing epidemic of narcissism in the Western world is a direct result of this bit of so-called “wisdom” floating around in the social ether (along with its many variants, such as “be true to yourself”).

It’s not really surprising that this advice is so prevalent in modern consumer culture. But its ubiquity in yoga culture is far more mysterious. All of the ancient yoga literature treats the self as a construct. It has no essence, no core or “true nature” to which one can turn to “be oneself.” The self is an illusion, and the point of practicing yoga is to see through that illusion—to break free from that illusion. In short, yoga is about getting over your “self.”

In a different way, most of contemporary Western philosophy and psychology wisdom also views the self as a construct—which makes the prevalence of this advice in modern culture contradictory (but still not surprising, since self-serving corporate advertising is far more influential than philosophy).

From either an Eastern or a Western perspective, then, one should work on consciously constructing one’s “self.”

Very closely associated with the idea that you should be true to yourself is the idea that you should not listen to what other people say. The first thing I have to say about this, following from where I began this discussion: if other people are saying you’re an asshole, maybe you should listen.

At a deeper level, as I said, there is no core, essential self to be true to. If the self is a construct, we must ask: “What is it constructed from?” The short answer is that we construct it ourselves, from the ideas and values that we encounter in our culture.

At the most fundamental level, you have no choice except to listen to what others tell you. That’s how you learned to speak (and why you speak this language and not another one). It’s how you learned what is edible and what’s not, what’s yummy and what’s not, what’s good and what’s not. And so on. That’s how you became who you are. You are not an island, you know.

But there is an important kernel in the advice to not listen to others: do not be indiscriminate in listening to others. Be very selective about who you listen to. Probably it’s best to not listen to the people who advise you to be normal, safe, selfish or to respect the status quo. Probably this is what “they” mean when they tell you not to listen to other people, but just be yourself.

Buddhists say that we each have an inner “Buddha nature” that we can nourish and make manifest. Freud said that we each have a selfish and uncivilized Id which is unconcerned about anything except satisfying its own base desires. These two ideas can be fitted very nicely together. If there is such a thing as a Buddha nature, it must be consciously chosen and nurtured. The default option for “being true to yourself,” however, is the unconstrained, unconscious, unpleasant Id.

So, for what it’s worth, my advice is: don’t listen to people who tell you to just be yourself. Seek out and learn from those who can help you to become the kind of self that you want to be.

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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Bim Bom/Pixoto

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