Monday, December 4, 2017

Once Upon A Time Spinoza Knew Everything, or Maybe Not

You Know One When You See Or Maybe You Don't

There is no argument about what is “real” yoga that is not agenda bound to religion or politics. A word’s meaning is found in its usages. In the 21st century West the meaning of yoga in popular usage is beyond dispute. “Yoga” refers to modern postural practices (do we even need to call that “asana” anymore?) and to the related wellness and fashion industries (“Do you like my new yoga clothes?”) I’m writing here to consider what more and what else the study or practice of yoga might mean, not by reverting to definitions and sources in Sanskrit (and other related languages) but more generally, if that is possible. Let us assume that “yoga” can also mean “deep and serious engagement,” and please leave it at that for now. I’ve written quite a bit about definitions of yoga, this is more about the future.

Yoga historically has always been captive of issues involving class, race, gender, all of which suggest correlative matters of privilege and opportunity. Once that is recognized within this conversation we can move forward with other issues that would be of concern, if only we took them as seriously. What yoga has never been and could be is more my concern.

Yoga’s Requisites: Privilege, Aptitude, Commitment, Time and Teachers, and why PACTT is hard.
Let's start with the idea that there are a lot of people who aren't that smart and try not to confuse that with opportunity or privilege. Thank you, Mr President. Some people don’t want to engage life either seriously or deeply because they just can’t. Such persons can be elected President of the United States, so far be from me to suggest that all persons “should” be yogins . Other folks want other things from life and we need not judge further. Let everyone be happy with whatever they want to spend their time doing. If that’s their “yoga” we still haven’t come to my starting line.

Some people never had a chance, and never will have a chance to create a deep engagement with learning.  That's just plain tragic and we need a world revolution to fix that. I await goodness to prevail. I don't think we should wait to help people who might want a better deal, we need to help them. Don't get me wrong here, it may sound patronizing or condescending but a lot of people can't or won't help themselves, and they need help. Some, just to live.

So let’s just go to people smart and lucky enough to help themselves who have the requisite privilege, no matter how they use their time, assess their aptitude, or go about learning. We’ve established that “yoga” now is mostly just in hot rooms stretching because that's what most people mean when they say the word "yoga."  No need to get too upset or excited about that.  I know many of you like that kind of yoga too. I'm glad you do. I don't personally want to do any of it, I like to exercise in other ways. What's left to do?

What's left to do with life if you have the privilege, time, commitment, aptitude, and teachers? That has always been the honest question in the history of yoga. The Buddha was first a prince, not a person struggling to make a living. Privilege of some sort has always been a prerequisite. Let's take care of the struggling and the needy, and let's ask ourselves what we could do more.

You likely have an A(ptitude) even if you don't have as much of the PTCandT. I want to start there because I actually think that is true. No one likes to talk about aptitude because it’s difficult to measure and immediately becomes politically charged. After all, someone is measuring someone else. Let us assume most people are smart enough to learn more deeply about nature, culture, and their own personal experience. For a lot of complex reasons, some get a pretty raw deal and others just need a chance, and most don't get that chance. We’re back to Marxist Yoga 101 and this is no small issue but it’s still not my point.

Curiosities and Commitments
So you should assume aptitude and privileged opportunity, because would that be you? You can also leave out the excuse that what I’m talking about is for the very few really, really smarty pants. The supersmart often don't get the issue because they are devoted to one thing, like science or piano or something, or because they have other personal issues that come with having a strange gift. I am not one of those great souls, not in any way, and I am happy to admit it. Some people look really smart because they have been lucky enough to be well educated and they continue to educate themselves seriously despite the pressures of capitalism and family. This is pretty rare. Most people do not read serious books after college. (This is a fact we can unfortunately prove.) They give up, don't have the time, or don't have the teachers they need.  They likely never learned to read difficult books, even if they did go to college.  Ouch.  But that is true.  Further, curiosity seems to dwindle and where’s the commitment? Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? The yoga I’m talking about asks a lot of us. It’s not easy and not going to get easier.  What do you want to do?

Most people are smart enough to be educated even if they think they can't do math (humanists) or think they can't write (scientists). I hear both excuses all the time and they are both bullshit because people are not dumb. What they more likely don't have is the socio-historical privilege, the commitment, the time, or the teachers they need if they wanted to learn. Add to this some distinctively American issues that include (but aren't limited to) (1) we are doers and not thinkers and (2) we love money more than anything else (*it’s hard to eat without it), and (3) we are "free" as adults, which means we usually terrible learners because no one likes to be told what to do unless they think they are doing the telling. We wouldn't have issue #3 if we could fix issues #1 & #2, but we can't.

There is a lot to know in life and I try to stack up curiosities the way I do obsessions. I want more and more of them. If every obsession deserves its own room then I’m gonna need a mansion, no, more palaces than the British monarchy. But if only this were the problem. The problem I’m focusing on centers on time, commitment, and teachers. We don't have enough, but we have to make more.

I don't blame people for not knowing enough about everything or knowing a lot less then they really need to take the serious facts of nature, culture, and individual conscience to heart. We need a lot of resources to be an informed 21st century person. That is what I am calling "yoga," the "informed 21st century person," and as all yoga of yore proposed, you have to have the whole package: privilege, aptitude, commitment, time, and teachers. Such beings are rarer than crow's teeth and, honestly, always have been. It’s a tough alchemy. But if you can decide for yourself what you want to do with your life, then life’s about making the choices you need to make and want to make. Learning is hard, it takes time, and there is so much to learn that it's pretty much impossible to get good at both science and humanities nowadays. I think there is no serious yoga without difficult learning. The commitment part is this: we must try. Spinoza, it is said, once knew everything there was to know but that was 1660, and it's, you know, 2017. Times have changed.  The world is a bigger place, outside and in, than Baruch Spinoza living in Holland.

We've all got more than we can handle and most of us know very little.  We want to reduce complexity to simplicity and want things to be easy, but they aren't. Add to that what life brings, like the roof needs fixing, the kids are sick, the dog needs a walk, keep going, there's always something to stop you from learning. We need the equivalent of at least two complete BA degrees devoted to both humanities and sciences, if we want to stand a chance in the 21st century and that’s just the beginning of yoga. You are going to need more than that and the proverbial PACTT to just keep going.

It has taken me almost a decade to catch up on _some_ of the elementary science education that was either done poorly or that I skipped to do other things. I have a long way to go but I can read and will. I have plenty of privilege, the commitment, and while I am running out of time, I like the work. I can even access some teachers for free. Yeah, that's real privilege in the 21st century, I know. But it all depends on where you are in your life and what you want. There’s no point trying to do Hawking’s physics if you can't do the basics of the math. We need teachers.  More teachers who will help us do difficult things.

Any 21st century version of life in the privileged world that does not take science seriously is seriously stupid. Scientists have not spent much time, nor seem to care must about the implications of their findings. Or they are too busy doing sciences and don’t spend any time with humanist issues. There are exceptions, Dawkins has dealt with what natural selection means to our old ideas, especially religion. Most philosophers and psychologists ignore the relationship between humanist concerns and science too because they are too busy imagining that they are scientists. Humanist concerns start with feelings, ideas that are metaphorical rather than factual, the arts, especially things creative, social relationships and individual experiences of success, failure, abuse, wounds, recognition, and human relationships.

To be Humanist and Scientist Is No Small Potatoes
Humanists generally don't take their _own_ implications seriously enough--- capable as they are with fiction, myth, art, etc.---they rarely consider more than their creations, they don't do the more speculative, harder social and psychological analysis in light of the science, they just move on. Usually they don't know the science ---especially cognitive science, psychology, biology, evolutionary bio, etc. There are exceptions but folks like Robert Bly who have tried to see the poetry, myth, and ritual in depth psychology and basically through the Jungian legacy are few, far between. And those that do are usually deficient in science learning, so there's that too.

And there’s another piece of this that is so bad for business I shouldn’t even mention it. So instead of evincing curiosity in real science we find plenty of modern yoga interested in pseudo-science and charlatanism, like astrology, about 99% of Ayurveda, healing stones, you name it, it's just more magical bullshit. Don’t mistake me, astrology on the comics page as amusement or read mythically would be fine but people take this stuff seriously, even when they say they don’t. Some people really think that Mercury’s retrograde is changing their lives. We can study that as a sociological fact or as a feature of someone's psychology.  We cannot take the subject seriously as a subject.  

No one is calling out “yoga” for advocating superstition and nonsense rather than being interested in serious science and humanism. This problem is not just modern. About 99% of “Tantra” is just more nonsense and a furtherance of the well-oiled con game known as religion. Again, I like magic crystals as much as the next guy. I just know it’s for the same reason I like my lava lamp and other stuff that just amuses me. No excuses, but those tarot cards are bullshit and while I’m mostly okay with saying it’s fun I am more honestly concerned you take it for more than it is. I’m not trying to suck the fun out of life, not at all, I too like to be entertained, but that is not the same as educated.

Sometimes talking about nonsense is a ploy to talk about serious stuff, though likely there’s just more nonsense than we’d like to admit. My Indian uncle was an astrologer and he knew two things about it: first, that it was bad for business to admit it was bullshit and second, that his job was to get people to talk about serious things using astrology as a ploy. If buying magic stones gets you thinking, fine. Can we also think about more serious things, please?

To be a 21st century yogi we need a full throttle science education and we need to be humanists, deeply read and widely read, capable of comparison, and above all else skilled in critical thinking. Critical thinking is what links the humanities and sciences. It's simple enough (and it is truly nothing more than Rajanaka Yoga 101): (1) ask every question, the more disturbing or confounding the better; (2) follow the evidence, the processes of evidence, wherever they lead and be prepared to re-evaluate, revise, and change your mind; (3) look for the subversive fact, the black swan, understand that all knowledge is provisional because it is both incomplete (always) and may be subject to revision (anytime). The rest is data. The data is the world: it is our natural world, our social reality, and our individual experience.

Rajanaka loves myth, analysis, poetry, storytelling and artistry. But it's just as committed to facts, to science. The yoga we call “Rajanaka” is too quixotic and impossible: it is to be a well-informed 21st century person. That is not going to be easy.  That may not even be possible.  I don't care.  We should try. And what we must be committed to is getting serious about the humanist and science concerns we want to have in conversation. That is going to be our 21st century conversation and it is yet to be had seriously enough.