Monday, November 16, 2020

A Note to the Worlds of Yoga Students About Thinking Critically

I write this morning in support of my dear friend Noah Maze and others who have raised the alarm about conspiracy theories, QAnon-like madness, and a certain lack of seriousness and judgment that we have witnessed in what might be called our "worlds of yoga."

We're not talking about Trumpists per se taking their sycophantic pledges of fealty or those stepping into the madness of denial or alternative facts led by their grievances. Few of those folks I believe I have met in my classes or among my social media friends. We are rather talking to people who we have met in our classes, people who have claimed to be students of yoga, if not our students. Yoga means to make connection; it enjoins us to take to heart our feelings, become aware in body, speech, _and_ mind. We need to know that all human beings are vulnerable to processes of learning that can confuse and even delude anyone.

Yogis like to think of themselves as freedom loving beings making deeper connections--- since yoga does fundamentally claim to further the process of connection whether that be physical, emotional, or cognitive. But there has always been in yoga worlds claims about learning, evidence, and voices of authority that we should be ever-vigilant to understand. Voices of authority can stand for truth but also for that sense of "us" that we all long to make. Yogis usually think they are leading their own way but the need to follow is just as prevalent and can be easily as misleading. How do we keep our hearts in places of concern and character? How do we engage, connect, make yoga with thinking and learning to think?

Certain tendencies of authoritarianism, particularly the foundational feature of following the leader with singleminded loyalty and confidence in whatever "facts" are presented has roots in almost every religious and spiritual tradition. Belief can be an abdication of wits, of evidence and reason, of thinking for oneself but it can also be a part of our most reliable mechanisms of self-correction and revision. We're like to believe _something_ and we need to know _why_ we do.

It's also the case that traditions that formulate authoritarian views may invite us not to follow like sheep but to use our heads and get our hearts on right. Are we really being asked to think or are we being asked to believe? If we can connect these two endeavors we stand a chance at making a more effective connection, a better yoga. That such "reasoning" for oneself might do little more than confirm an authoritarian claim is all too evident. We need to know that we are believing when we do and we need to connect what we believe to what we do, to consider the implications and consequences of our views in the world.

The world is far larger than whatever _your_ beliefs are. And while the world may give up its facts only to we mere humans, we have to know what makes our human knowledge and understanding worth its weight. We may be all we have but we are what we have. Yoga means to teach us how to make connections to ourselves and to more than ourselves and that is no easy task. But thinking is art best learned and practiced with care and skill and time and effort---that too is a connection to yoga itself. We're going to need heart---courage---and we're going to need care and take our time to learn how to learn.
More dangerous than the need to believe is the need to follow.

Our need to belong makes all of this worse because we human beings like to think that as individuals we have a measure of autonomy. Who could disagree that we are able to construct our own worlds? But we are never not social, even when pandemic keeps us apart. We are always being made by nature, history, culture, and the facts of life. It is also our current states of pandemic apartness that are exacerbating the madness that abdicates facts, latches on to conspiracy theories, and fails to do the critical work of accountability. Our circumstances for learning are never easy and now they are harder.

The most important things in life in truth are not hard to learn but they are hard to accept and to address with honestly and moral sobriety. So you got this, right? Life is hard, it's gonna hurt. Leaning about what to do about that first noble truth is no small matter because that too is going to be hard. Sticking with the unfolding of truths that are provisional, unfinished, and human complicates our desire for truths to be more than human. But we are the best we got and using the gods or the buddhas or the sages to tell us what's what is no invitation to be less capable as a critical thinker. So how to do that?

Let me suggest three strategies to help us understand when we are being less than critically adroit. Perhaps these methods can makes us bit more capable of dealing with the information that bombards us. Nothing new here because we don't need new methods: we need to get better at ones that have been proven to help. I've culled these from the basics of modern critical thinking that applies to all subjects in the arts and sciences. Whether we are studying human cultural beliefs or behaviors or the findings of science, we need the processes of thinking. How you learn to think will tell you a great deal about what you think and what others may be thinking.

(1) Are you asking every question, including the ones that are uncomfortable or may cause "trouble"? Are you asking good trouble questions? What do you want from those enquiries? AND what kinds of questions are others asking, _which_ questions? The questions we ask tell about what we want, what we need and fear and hope and believe. Study the questions and you will have a better idea about the answers being given. Are people asking the only the questions they feel permitted to ask? Do they know that they are asking questions because those are the questions they _can_ ask? If it's all answers you are getting there are still agendas, still needs and wants being met and we should ask about what we think those are.

(2) Are you following the evidence? Are you asking if your sources are reputable? What makes your evidence reliable? And are you aware enough to know that the evidence might indeed change your mind, cause you to revise and rethink? You may not be rewarded for your progress and the need to belong to the group may interfere with learning if that learning runs afoul of the group think. Know too that if you're out there all alone you may need to check in with those in groups who have their critical wits switched to the on-position. Ask where the evidence originates and then how it is being used.

(3) Everytime you think you are certain think again. Not to doubt everything---for who would hold an opinion that they don't think is true? But to recognize that clarity is not certainty, it is merely the best you have and that that is all you have. When clarity touches the facts matters are _more_ certain but be careful always with _final_ certainties that prevent the next worthwhile question.

Forgive my prosaic, college professor need to say these things but there is a lot of distressing and admittedly dispiriting discourse in my newsfeed from people I would have never expected to have become so vulnerable to thinking that fails the tests of criticality. Time to get our heads and hearts from merely spinning to moving with greater care.