Over the last year I’ve written several articles and a book chapter trying to demonstrate the moral ambiguity of spiritual practices like yoga and meditation. In other words, I’ve argued that these practices won’t lead one to be aware of or challenge the injustices in their surrounding culture. They are ethically and politically neutral. Furthermore, the increased presence, clarity and focus gained from these practices can and has been used to support war, killing and racial hierarchies.
In response to my recent article “Why the Dalai Lama is Wrong to Think Meditation Will Eliminate Violence,” my writing colleague Matthew Remski (see the new book 21st Century Yoga) challenged my assertions. One of his central arguments is that there are some practices like “mindfulness meditation” that can and do create states of empathy and lead to progressive politics.
One of the first problems is that Remski is, I think, misunderstanding the central premise of my argument. I’ve always stated that yoga, meditation (of any type), psychotherapy or other practices can increase empathy, intimacy and feelings of love. My argument is that despite these feelings of expansiveness, joy, love, empathy or whatever else – they don’t translate into helpful strategies that address the havoc of industrial civilization, capitalism or white supremacy culture. There is no evidence that they do. Therefore, Remski could point to plenty of examples of people feeling more empathetic, loving or kind and it wouldn’t prove anything. He could even show brain scans of certain parts lighting up, confirming when people are experiencing these warm and fuzzy states. You could measure it through any form of “independent observation” or any other method as well. If a Christian colonizer’s brain lights up indicating empathy when he thought about “saving” the “savages” of North America, does that tell us anything?
My argument is that while there is a lot of emotional scarring in the world, many people are already operating from the place that Remski wishes more of us could get to and yet it has done nothing to save the planet. Nor is there a direct cause/effect relationship between internal states of love or empathy and one’s political views.
This quote by the Dalai Lama is going viral on the internet, “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Marianne Williamson shared this quote via her Facebook account and it received a tremendous reception. Google the quote and you will find tens of thousands of web sites, Facebook pages and twitter feeds where it has appeared. Needless to say, the enthusiasm over the Dalai Lama’s statement is profound. It has struck a cord for sure.
His words reflect the more widespread belief that spiritual practices can provide grounding for more ethical and wise action. One could substitute meditation in the quote with yoga, prayer, chanting or sacred dancing and people would generally agree that these types of things will inspire compassion, kindness and generosity. Through meditation one can hopefully gain a better realization of the interconnectedness of all things. Many believe, or at least hope, like the Dalai Lama, that this renewed sense of awareness will inspire us to take action against injustice in the world.
While for much of my life I’ve also shared this popular sentiment I’ve now come to see it much differently. Based on years of research and writing as well as personal practice of yoga, meditation and Chi Kung I’ve discovered some very strong flaws in the Dalai Lama’s argument. Furthermore, I actually see these types of statements are very irresponsible as they mislead the public about the causes and solutions to violence. The real conversations about these very challenging issues that need to take place could potentially be minimized by these types of statements.
The first and most obvious problem with his statement is the ambiguity of what violence actually constitutes. Takes these few examples: spray painting over a sexist billboard, using violence to defend against rape, eating meat, the prison industrial complex, throwing tear gas canisters back towards the police who fired them, the capitalist system, racial microagressions, stealing food to support oneself…etc. Many would argue that abortion is violent. Would this be eliminated with meditation? There are so many forms of violence and ways that we all participate in systems that are violent that it would be nearly impossible to reach a consensus on who’s criteria of violence gets to be used. How can one eliminate something if we can’t agree on what it is that is being eliminated?
The Yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World recently garnered some heavy criticism (see: It’s All Yoga Baby, The Babarrazi, Nathan Thompson on Elephant Journal & Salon.com) for co-organizing and participating in the Huffington Post’s “Oasis” at the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Receiving a hefty sum of $40,000 from the HuffPo, Seane’s yoga group spent a year organizing and co-curating this “Oasis,” a super plush center in the midst of the “madness” that provides “private and group yoga classes, massages, mini-facials, makeup refreshes, sleep consultations, meditation and healthy snacks.” Why? They “want the politicians who are making decisions on our behalf to be centered and well-rested, not harried and sleep deprived.”
While I certainly understand the concerns raised by the numerous bloggers I think the issue is more complex than it has been made out to be.
Eckhart Tolle’s books The Power of Now and A New Earth have not only sold millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages but they’ve earned him the title “the most popular spiritual author in the [United States]” by The New York Times. He’s gained worldwide popularity amongst the masses and widespread admiration from movie stars, celebrities and famous musicians. Annie Lennox of the Eurhythmics said that he “has some kind of special quality that I’ve never seen before.” One student of his work asked in an online forum, “has he appeared in your dreams as well?” Oprah included The Power of Now in her 2000 book club, helping to launch it to the number one spot on the NYT book list a few years later. They also teamed up in 2008 to produce a 10-week webinar on the teachings of A New Earth. Millions of people from around the world tuned in for this first of its kind techno-spiritual phenomenon. Never before was so much wisdom instantly accessible and easily understood.”
Given the central role Tolle plays in modern spiritual thinking his ideas have world-wide implications. He is one of many modern day teachers who emphasizes internal transformation as the central most important part of global transformation. As a result he makes quite exaggerated statements about the relationship between a privatized psychological shift and the larger transformation of the planet. His solutions are simplistic and border on irresponsible, especially when so much is at stake. Understanding the details of his spiritual framework and how his personal experience of transformation influenced it sheds light into Tolle’s thinking.
I’ll be leading a 3-week online course beginning June, 19th that explores the theological and intellectual influences of Dr. King. We’ll look at how he interpreted the Christian doctrines, his experience in seminary and higher education, the role of the African-American Christian religious experience in his life and some of the key ideas and people that shaped his thinking. See www.radicalking.com for more information.
Do you remember the news story in September of 2010 about President Obama and a misquoted phrase on his new Oval office rug? The rug contained a popular line that Dr. King used frequently. It read “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” However, as multiple news sources pointed out, it was the Unitarian minister and social reformer Theodore Parker who stated this, not King. In 1853 Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one. . . . But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” While many Unitarian Universalists already knew the correct source of the quote it was fascinating to see the public get a small lesson in Unitarian history.
As highly noted liberal religious reformers of their day, King and Parker shared some other interesting similarities. They both had originally wanted to be lawyers, but ended up as ministers. Each of them was exceptionally smart from a young age. King memorized Bible passages when he was a child, entered Morehouse college at age 15, graduated from Crozer Seminary as the Valedictorian and completed a PhD from Boston University. By age eight Parker had read Homer, at age ten he began studying Greek and Latin and could memorize 500 to 1000 word poems after one reading. He began teaching at age 16 and he read the entire Harvard college curriculum on his own before later being accepted into the Divinity school. Both men had very supportive and large families and were nurtured by their church community. Each spoke out against war, poverty and the injustices of the day and suffered from public scorn for speaking their truths.
Natalie Reed, an atheist who is transgender has a new article called “God Does Not Love Trans People” over at Free Thought Blogs. It’s a very long post and raises numerous issues, many of which I simply can’t address for the sake of brevity. However, I do want to spend some time on her main assertion: transgender people should not believe in God or participate in religion because these are both harmful and dangerous and they enable the transphobic oppressive religious institutions. She states, “I honestly believe that religious faith is inherently dangerous and harmful.” For anyone who seeks to redefine God or say that God loves transgender people you are guilty of strengthening and bolstering a harmful and dangerous institution. She claims:
You spur on religious belief which, more often than not, maintains a climate of bigotry towards LGBTQ individuals. You insulate and protect them. You assent to the foundations of their hate, which they claim as justification. Asserting there is a God, and supporting the human tendency towards religious faith (whatever its form), does nothing but bolster the underlying principles on which the Westboro Baptist Church is based. If we wish to fight these organizations, we can’t do so simply pitting our own intuitive, faith-based assumption of God against theirs. We need to attack the foundation: the idea that faith is…good, or at least harmless…
Reed’s analysis is hard to stomach. She’s claiming that transgender people who believe in God are actually enabling a group that protests the funerals of gay soldiers simply because they believe in God. It’s not enough to face the daily oppression that trans people do, now there is the added blame of creating the culture that oppresses them for simply having faith in God. Queer people who go to church “maintain a climate of bigotry towards LGBTQ individuals.” Following this line of reasoning black people were responsible for maintaining a climate of racism and white supremacy because they participated in a religion that had been used to enslave them. African Americans must “assent to the foundations” of the hate and “bolster the underlying principles” of racism since they have enabled, supported and participated in religious organizations which have been predominantly racist. Women who attend Church on Sunday are responsible for the patriarchy that has defined so much of Christianity…etc. Blaming African Americans for racism or blaming queer people for homophobia merely because they believe in God or participate in religion is of course absurd.
One of the central tenets of my work has been to combine “spirituality” with more justice oriented work. Far too often in the new age meme there is a complete lack of acknowledgment of issues of oppression and racism. My newest website Beyond Whiteness is my latest attempt to provide more awareness around these crucial issues. It features dozens of videos, documentaries, articles and resources related to anti-racism and white privilege work. Enjoy!
Frederick Sparks over at Black Skeptics penned a response to my article “Reason and Racism in the New Atheist Movement.” Here are a few of my comments on his analysis. His words are in bold.
Yet if he bothered to read the rest of the book besides the passages criticizing new atheism, he’d see that Hutchinson hardly argues for walling off god belief and African-American religious institutions from criticism.
I’ve never stated or even suggested that African American religion or religion at large should be walled off or shielded from criticism. What I am saying is that religion is incredibly complex and shouldn’t be reduced and dismissed with statements like it “poisons everything” or that it is “child abuse.” In order to resist this totalistic stance I highlighted some ways in which religion has played a positive role in the African American experience. Religion has been used for vast amounts of things – both transformative and destructive and thus we should avoid simplistic dismissals of it (or naive totalistic embraces of it). That’s it. Following Spark’s logic, because I’ve written about the positive role that the Catholic Church and Catholic social teaching has played in Dorothy Day’s life I must believe the Catholic church should be walled off and shielded from being criticized about the child sex abuse scandal. I simply don’t understand this kind of logic.
Perhaps one of the most widespread claims by the New Atheists is that religion is harmful. For Richard Dawkins it is a virus that spreads and infects the mind and is comparable to child abuse. For the late Christopher Hitchens religion “poisons everything” and is a “menace to society.” Greta Christina claims that the belief in supernatural entities makes people “more vulnerable to oppression, fraud and abuse.” Sam Harris likens religion to mental illness. One could go on and on with examples like these.
Given that the New Atheists ground their arguments in science, reason and logic it behooves us to hold these conclusions to very high standards when analyzing them. It goes without saying that truth or knowledge claims should be supported by data, cross-cultural research and empirical evidence whenever possible. This should be measurable and certain principles of reasoning should be employed. Claims of this nature should also be scrutinized amongst a community of experts to try and reach a consensus before drawing conclusions. Unfortunately, the New Atheists fail tremendously in this regard.
Tim Wise has done it again. As America’s leading anti-racist educator and writer he’s identified the next greatest threat to racial justice. It’s a new group of people, that according to Wise, enable a similar world-view as that of the legendary racist and Nazi David Duke. He believes they are “are empowering the reactionary, white supremacist, Social Darwinists of this culture.” For even the most timid members of this group - the ones who utter a few words of support – Wise offers no sympathy. Who, according to Wise, would fit into this group?
You mean the most prominent black intellectual in the country? That Cornel West? Yep. The one who Wise has shared the stage with in the past? Yep.
He must have said something pretty terrible to deserve placement in such a category from Mr. Wise. Right?
Cover your ears.