I am a yogi. I am a man of peace. But I have no doubt that if I were to find myself in a situation where somebody were posing a physical threat to a person I cared about, I would not attempt to save the day by chanting loving mantras in the attacker’s direction. Nope. I would do what I could to remove my loved one from harm’s way—and if necessary my loving fists would fly until they had sufficiently neutralised the threat.
Many might be tempted at this point to argue that responding to violence with violence would simply be as hateful an act as the original attack itself. I would be inclined to disagree; the idea that I could stand by and allow an innocent person to come to harm when it was in my power to prevent that harm seems far more morally equivalent to the instigator’s actions than my physical intervention would be. And I would argue that physically defending somebody I love or somebody more vulnerable than I am is not something that makes me less spiritual or less loving. This does not mean that I endorse the idea that anyone should go out looking to instigate trouble, but I do feel as though there is a point at which even pacifists like myself might be morally justified and even obligated to bust out a Captain Kirk-style karate chop or two.
In the week since the events in Charlottesville began, I have been paying far more attention to and engaging with social media than I normally do. It has always been clear to me that racism in America is far from dead, but some of the responses I have witnessed (and I don’t just mean Donald Trump’s nearly irrevocably horrifying assault on the integrity of the Presidency) have demonstrated the presence of a number of invisible barriers on the road to the country’s freedom from this horrendous plague.
To understand what I mean, let’s imagine last Friday night from the perspective of the parishioners at St Paul’s Memorial Church. This predominantly black congregation was holding a worship service when a mob of angry, torch-bearing marchers came shouting "You will not replace us!" and “blood and soil,” a Ku Klux Klan slogan, down the streets of Charlottesville. Before the service ended, concerned Charlottesville citizens entered the church and informed the congregation—which included young children and older people—that it might not be safe for them to leave. After half an hour, the worshippers finally left, but needed to do so via the back door in order to reduce the possibility that they would encounter trouble.
I doubt that anyone who reads this blog would disagree with the sentiment that such actions—and the very real terror that such actions inspire for very real reasons—constitute an inexcusable form of violence. Nobody who survived the horrors of the KKK’s heyday should be forced to live out those fears again in 21st Century America. In the year 2017, no child should have to experience the kind of fear that their grandparents’ generation fought so hard to render obsolete. Can you imagine the nightmares that the people of Charlottesville, old and young, will be having for the foreseeable future? Nightmares inflicted upon them by their fellow countrymen, no less.
Many of my colleagues in the yoga community have expressed throughout this week that the appropriate way to respond to these hateful events is simply to become more loving. That the most important thing we can do is to connect spiritually with the universe and to find love within ourselves, and that everything else will fall into place. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I recognise the importance of cultivating and spreading love. I know that the people who are sharing these words are trying to come from a good place. I really do. But to me it feels rather difficult not to equate these sentiments with those which other people have directed at me this week as I have attempted to argue for the need for condemnation of what is so clearly the wrong side. After attempting to express to a person I went to school with in Texas that the colour of his skin makes society perceive him differently to how I am perceived, he proceeded to [ex]plain the following to me:
…as long as you hold onto that belief, then you are contributing to the divide which will cause it to exacerbate. I think you may have a very skewed perception of the current state/progression of human rights and the history of race relations in the United States.
I usually choose not to engage in such exchanges on Facebook because I know that they almost always become an exercise in frustration. That being said, I am glad that I had this conversation because it made it even clearer to me that one of the reasons for the continuation of the kind of disgusting behaviour that has descended upon the nation is that people keep themselves wilfully ignorant about the realities of inequality and the need to take action to ameliorate such imbalances in our culture. How might it help me—or how might it help the people in the community of this Charlottesville church—to simply tell ourselves that the only way to overcome the problem of racism is to abandon the belief that skin colour makes any difference? To tell ourselves that we ourselves are to blame for our own disempowerment, and that by convincing ourselves that society does see us as equal members, the problem will disappear on its own?
Sadly, this is the very same logic I have been seeing in my social media feed from some of my fellow yogis and meditators. To be clear, I am certainly not accusing any of my spiritually inclined friends of racism. I do, however, think it is important to question what is behind such sentiments as “choose love,” or “heal yourself and the universe will heal the rest” in the face of attitudes that are so clearly objectionable. If this is your true belief, does this entail that no external action is required? If the key to overcoming hatred in the world is to heal myself and trust the process of the universe, does this mean that the problems with racism I have encountered throughout my life are my own fault, and that those who attack me based on my skin colour are not really to blame?
If this is not what we mean when we say such things, I think it’s important that we make ourselves more explicit. We need to say that the loving kindness we cultivate in our spiritual practices must simply serve as the basis for actions that we need to take. We need to make it crystal clear that we are using yoga to empower ourselves so that we can stand up and fight for the empowerment of those to whom certain segments of society attempt to deny power. Otherwise, just as I discussed in my post about epigenetics, spiritual dogmas quickly and dangerously become a powerful source of victim blaming. Therefore, we need to be absolutely clear about what we mean when we say such things.
Or perhaps, when you share such thoughts, does some part of you doubt that it might actually be true? Are you saying it because it simply sounds more spiritual? Is it that the more you say it, the truer it becomes for you? If that’s the case, are you using this platitude as a way of avoiding taking practical steps and doing actual work that could improve the status quo? And if so, who exactly do you expect will do the work?
I am not asking these questions or bringing up these points in order to attack anyone; I genuinely believe that we all need to be honest with ourselves about the words with which we are choosing to fight the good fight. As such, I am not asking these as rhetorical questions; I really want to know what you think and how you feel. If I am misunderstanding your sentiments, please help me to understand them so we can help each other know what action to take next so that each of us can use our unique forms of privilege in order to help those who may be at some disadvantage. Please use the links in the icons in the upper right hand corner of this page to send me an email, tweet me, message me on Facebook, or reply in the comments section below.
As for myself, here's where I am with it right now: with such clear instances of inequality in America and throughout the world, it strikes me that there is a real danger inherent in the kind of spiritual bypassing that a lot of yogis practise. Many people hook themselves to the calming effects of yoga and meditation—or any spiritual tradition—as a way of being less bothered about some of the world's enduring issues. Many seem to engage with these practices as a way of extracting themselves from the problems of the world rather than as a means of empowering themselves to take practical steps in daily life in order to help make the world a better place. If we were meant to be spirits floating around solving problems with magical puffs of love, these bodies would not be a part of our experience. But as it is, the body is an important aspect of who we are. Through it, we are capable of taking loving, physical steps to make right that which we know is wrong. We are capable of calling out hatred with our voices and helping everyone to understand that, as philosopher Karl Popper famously argued, in order to create a truly tolerant society, there are certain things that we simply cannot tolerate.
While so much of me wishes that this weren’t the case, the sad reality of the situation is that some of us have voices that many people treat as more relevant than others. Just as I feel it would be irresponsible not to protect a smaller person who might come to physical danger without the assistance of my larger body, I agree with the sentiment that people in a position of societal privilege need to step up when it is time to protect the humanity and integrity of people whose opinions simply seem to matter less in the eyes of those who spew hatred. Those of us who have been—due to the accident of the colour of our skin—the direct subjects of such violent words and actions know that simply sitting by and trusting the universe to take care of it all is simply not a real option.
Many people are fond of quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. in times such as these—“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that; hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. It is obvious to me that the people who spread hate do so from a place of deep pain and fear that we need love to heal. But we must also remember that love is not merely a feeling or a state of being; it is also a verb. As such, I think Dr King’s earlier quotation becomes most powerful when paired with the following words, just as relevant in our generation as they were in his. I’ll leave you with them: