The Limitations of Empathy: A Response to Matthew Remski


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.
For Remski’s theory to be true, it would mean that Republicans and Tea Partiers (anyone with different politics than him) would all have to be cold hearted, disconnected, non-empathetic people. There would simply be too much cognitive dissonance if right wing political people also experienced the same beautiful feelings of love, care, empathy and kindness that Remski does. It couldn’t be possible because these feelings are supposed to lead everyone to Remski’s personal brand of progressive political views. How could people with vastly different political views from around the globe, in thousands of cultures also experience the same degree of love, kindness and empathy as Remski does without embracing his interpretation of things? In Remski’s view it simply can’t be possible.
Since Remski believes that progressive politics (his particular flavor, not Chomsky’s for example) naturally leads from empathy it makes sense that he’d see increasing empathy as a possible solution to the world’s problems. However, he proves himself wrong because there are millions of people who are very empathetic, loving and kind whom are destroying the planet and don’t care about progressive politics. How would more of these warm, fuzzy states of being change anything? It wouldn’t. Again, Remski needs to provide some sort of case study, research or historical example to back up his theory that feelings of empathy support progressive politics (let alone his version). But as of yet, he’s provided nothing.
If one experiences an increase of empathy or love from any form of meditation, yoga or tantric sexual practice it will only be expressed to those whom they believe are worthy of empathy in the first place. Just like psychotherapy won’t turn a Tea Party member into a radical anarchist, any form of meditation won’t turn a KKK member into an anti-racist. It won’t make someone aware of the need to stop deforesting. Now just think of all the cultural diversity in the world and how, despite similar empathetic feelings, there are drastically different ideas about how to act on these feelings. Therapy can certainly help people to solve issues in their relationships, heal from parental distress and become happier, more loving people. I’m sure that some forms of spiritual practices can do this too. Thus, Remski need not convince me that he has a method called “mindfulness meditation” than can actually increase empathy.
Remski counters my claims about psychotherapy:

Therapy changes opinions, beliefs, actions and politics all the time in macro and micro dimensions. Most therapy is specifically geared to help people counter their socio-cultural conditioning. How do you know the effects of therapy on the populations you describe? Are you citing something?

The answer is just common sense. Of course therapy changes people and helps to counteract conditioning in various ways. But it doesn’t teach a white person about white privilege or white supremacy culture. It doesn’t make anyone more knowledgeable about poverty in the U.S. It doesn’t lessen someone’s nationalism. It doesn’t inform people about the severity of deforestation. Again, there is a lot of therapy happening in this country. To suggest that it has made people more progressive is totally unfounded. While therapy can change people, it could just as equally change them from liberal to conservative, as it could from conservative to liberal. There is no direction to it. Perhaps Remski thinks that everyone who goes through therapy will end up with his personal political viewpoint?

Heinrich Himmler

I’ve provided several compelling examples of how yoga and meditation can and have been used to support the evils of surrounding culture. Most recently, I’ve pointed to the widespread prevalence of Buddhist fascism in WWII Japan era. I’ve also illustrated that yoga has been used by the military and found within the highest echelons of corporate America. There are also lots of problematic yoga global service projects. I’ll add one more example to the coffer. Yoga was practiced throughout Nazi Germany. One of it’s famous disciples was Himmler, who carried the Baghavad Gita around with him and was a yoga practitioner.
It appears that Remski is suggesting that if the Nazis had only slightly modified the type of meditation they were doing, history may have turned out much differently. Or if the Buddhist fascists didn’t have the wrong kind of meditation things would have been much brighter for China, whom they ruthlessly invaded. But I think that any form of meditation, even his mindfulness version, wouldn’t have changed anything.
In his critique Remski calls for a scientific study where 1000 yogis are measured for their “empathy gains” in practices that emphasized “mindfulness and ecology over time.” I’m not quite sure what Remski means here. But if he is talking about teaching ecology during yoga class, well that spoils the study. You wouldn’t be able to isolate the variables of “yoga practice” and “being taught about ecology.” My argument is that yoga practice or mindfulness meditation won’t increase ones interest in ecology. My evidence is the millions of people who have been practicing yoga and meditating without abandoning their Republican or conservative views. Maybe these Republicans just need to slightly modify the type of meditation they are doing and then they will become liberals? But of course if you teach people about the importance of ecology that can increase their interest in it.
If you start doing theme based teaching in yoga classes you will be mostly preaching to the choir. Only people who think ecology is a valid and interesting topic will come to an ecology based course. Or if it is progressively social justice themed, the participants will be highly self selected and will already have the belief that social change is a good idea. A KKK member won’t go to a yoga class that mixes anti-racist teachings into it. That’s simply not a valid option for them.
Remski believes that focusing on the attention of the sensations of “breath, pulse, pain, compression, expansiveness” is the foundation for a “reality-based groundwork for empathy, from which new cognitive insights can flow.” This is mindfulness meditation. He goes on to say, “This is a darned good place from which political change can begin and receive ongoing support.”
Of course I’m all for people being more connected to the sensations of life and I support progressives who want to root their efforts here. However, it is a deeply flawed argument to suggest that these life impulses support Remski’s personal political beliefs.
The fundamental problem in Remski’s argument is that there are profoundly different strategies that people use to express those feelings of empathy and love. There are plenty of people who are already connected to that place of “raw perceptual awareness” that Remski speaks of. There are lots of people who experience deep empathy and would be considered psychologically healthy. They have families, are “kind,” go to church and volunteer. To somehow suggest that the problem of industrial civilization and social injustice is due to a lack of empathy, love or kindness is simply misguided. What we need are strategies, methods, techniques, organizations and resistance efforts to stop the absolute havoc that industrial civilization is offering. Therapy, mindfulness meditation, tantric sexuality or yoga won’t provide these methods.
Even if mindfulness meditation did lead to one appreciating the environment more, what strategies would they use to employ this feeling? There are so many debates about what are the most important ways. Let alone the whole problem of many people embracing environmentalism with no awareness of environmental injustice i.e. how pollution affects marginalized peoples for example. If “green” activism is what Remski thinks mindfulness meditation will lead to, this will be very problematic as it leaves out significant elements.
It makes sense that Remski ties his particular political beliefs to his experiences of love and life. We wouldn’t expect him to embrace a political ideology that is counter to his own merely because he had a baby or did mindfulness meditation. Yet, it is here where he unknowingly proves my thesis. No one would abandon their political ideology for someone else’s simply because they had a child or got in touch with the raw feeling of life. I wouldn’t expect a drastic shift in Remski’s beliefs from liberal to conservative. So, why would he expect a conservative to shift to his? His argument sets his political perspectives up as the divine arbiter of truth. For his theory to be accurate, anyone who successfully does mindfulness meditation or experiences the rawness of life will agree with his personal politics. We will all end up with the same. Despite our many agreements on political issues this sounds entirely unappealing to me.

0 thoughts on “The Limitations of Empathy: A Response to Matthew Remski

  1. Be, in college, I worked in a lab that studied mindfulness, and that collaborated with Center for a new American dream and contemplative mind in higher education. I considered at one point working in higher education myself- is this maybe one do the best hopes we have for the time being, within existing institutions? I know of no other institution where an alternative view of capitalism, globalization, etc. is even up for discussion, where the leaders of tomorrows social infrastructure may even have a possibility of considering an alternative. Do you think contemplative practice would help here, dislodge some of our views about what is and is not possible, of who we are underneath it all, in addition to the more cognitive approach employed by today’s university?
    Personally, I have been in a 10 year quest for an alternative education model that combines the truth of the critiques of critical pedagogy with Spirit. Recently I discovered the A.W.E. project-, which I hope to be involved with in some way in the future.
    I think a general problem with the left is that we cannibalize each other, play who’s been the more victimized, etc. What I am interested in doing with my activism is getting people thinking and feeling about real solutions, alternative models, parallel polises, etc, and leading from a place of optimism and hope rather than anger or continual critique (which is the reason I decided against academia BTW).
    What would be a way that you would recommend, going forward, educating people about how best to integrate the contemplative with the prophetic, if you gree that they need to be integrated?

  2. I have been seriously meditating for over 40 years and it’s the one topic I’m comfortable speaking on with any degree of authority. It’s been my life’s focus. So, yes, I agree with Be. Meditation (“M” for short) has taken me out of the political arena. M’s activism has been entirely internal, taking me away from concepts of “left and right” and other apparent conflicts as well as any “religious” ideas. Ok, not completely, of course I’m a liberal democrat, but for me, having an open, loving heart is more important than pressing a political point of view. So, if everyone did as I did, then wouldn’t we have a much more peaceful world? Sure, but it’s not going to happen. Peace of mind is a prize very hard to win and the pursuit of it excludes a lot of worldly business. It may lead to a personal political stance of peace and non-aggression but, generally, at this time, in this world, that’s not what we need. It’s too passive. There’s too much worldly business that needs attending to first. And then, there’s the ones like me for whom, for whatever reasons, nothing but the true and serious pursuit of Peace and Quiet would do. I don’t know what to say about us except I think our numbers are few. Pop yoga and all the other “think and grow rich” secrets to happiness are of no interest. Did Nazi’s really do pop yoga? Was Himmler really a serious meditator? Wish I could have a chat with him.

  3. Be — I don’t have time to respond full and formally to this piece — partially because we’ve been having a vibrant discussion about it on FB, which I’m pasting in here for the benefit of your readers.
    Matthew Remski Good job, Be Scofield. I’ll think about it all, but at first blush methinks you doth protest too much: my argument is a lot subtler than you make out.
    One key problem in our dialogue is this: I start from a personal exploration of the effects of mindfulness, and propose a theory for testing. You make sweeping statements about populations without citing sociological evidence, such as “therapy changes people and helps to counteract conditioning in various ways. But it doesn’t teach a white person about white privilege or white supremacy culture. It doesn’t make anyone more knowledgeable about poverty in the U.S. It doesn’t lessen someone’s nationalism. It doesn’t inform people about the severity of deforestation. Again, there is a lot of therapy happening in this country. To suggest that it has made people more progressive is totally unfounded. While therapy can change people, it could just as equally change them from liberal to conservative, as it could from conservative to liberal. There is no direction to it”.
    Before I respond in full — can you support assertions like these with evidence, beyond the “common sense” you cite? How are you defining “therapy”? — because that’s messier than defining “yoga”. And one of my key criticisms is that you’re not defining such terms, which is why I’m suggesting a “results-based” definition protocol.
    Anyway — much to discuss!
    Be Scofield Thanks Matthew Remski. I would simply clarify and say that “if” someone has a shift in their political ideology via therapy, meditation or yoga that it is not unidirectional. Anything, could, supposedly happen although it’s doubtful that a pro-choice person would switch to pro-life because of therapy, mindfulness meditation or yoga. I’m simply saying there’s no reason to think that one would switch from one way, more often than the other way. That it is a claim that would need evidence to support it.
    As for a definition of therapy I’m not picky. The reason that I’m not specific about defining terms is because it is irrelevant in my analysis. You can choose your weapon – any type of spiritual practice, psychotherapy…etc. and it won’t change my argument. But I’m ok with Wikipedia’s definition of psychotherapy if you want one:
    “Psychotherapy is a general term referring to therapeutic interaction or treatment contracted between a trained professional and a client, patient, family, couple, or group. The problems addressed are psychological in nature and of no specific kind or degree, but rather depend on the specialty of the practitioner.
    Psychotherapy aims to increase the individual’s sense of his/her own well-being. Psychotherapists employ a range of techniques based on experiential relationship building, dialogue, communication and behavior change that are designed to improve the mental health of a client or patient, or to improve group relationships (such as in a family).”
    My Bachelor’s degree is in psychology and I’ve been interested/studying it ever since. The evidence is in the way psychotherapy is practiced. People of every political persuasion go to therapy – including KKK members and Nazis and white moderates. I’ve never seen any evidence, case studies or examples to suggest that psychotherapy makes people abandon their political persuasions or racist ways, or accept radical anarchist persuasions because they’ve healed their mommy/daddy issues. So, my evidence is the lack of evidence for your claim. Again, you are positing the claim that therapy or mindfulness meditation can make one progressive politically. The burden of proof is on you to show some evidence for it. Cheers, Be
    Be Scofield Another way to phrase my argument is to say that empathy, love and kindness are politically neutral. Thus, increasing them doesn’t increase any particular political perspective. Many right wing conservatives are kind, empathetic and very loving.
    Be Scofield And, of course there are many conservative, Christian and right wing psychotherapists across the country as well.
    Matthew Remski Be — I realize the burden is on me to produce evidence. But to be fair, neither of us have it. Has anybody even proposed a results-based definition of practice thusfar? And unlike you, I am picky about the nature of the therapy we’re discussing. Real intersubjectivity and nonviolent communication set a much higher bar than the allegedly monolithic “first 100 years”. Ask Viktor Frankl and existentialists whether therapy should foster a more a progressive politics.
    I understand and concur with the main thrust of your work over the past year — that whitewashing the virtues of meditative practices can distract us from the hard systemic work of politics — and you know from all of my other writing that I am adamant about the need for systemic work within mindfulness communities. I just don’t see the point in blank-washing the whole endeavour, especially when we’re at a crucial point in mindfulness research in which we’re showing good outcomes in MBSR applications in schools, etc. Himmler and Tea Partiers are red herrings, because the real problem, as I’ve said, is that we’re all self-reporting what we do.
    Julian Marc Walker Really!? KKK members and nazis go to therapy? Do you not agree that in general in America right now there is an association between liberal values and practices like yoga and meditation? Do you not agree that more traditionalist, conservative people tend to be more resistant to weird practices from other cultures and to talking to a stranger about your “feelings,” that especially amongst more traditionalist males this would be seen as effete and ridiculous?
    Can we agree that there are general trends that are associated with one another and (in contemporary western terms) the very act of therapeutic or meditative introspection is inherently threatening to power structures and beliefs that are about maintaining unquestioned values and authorities based in familial psychodynamics, religious repressions, national identity, ethnicity etc…?
    I think Matthew is explicitly proposing a study, not claiming one exists. I think he is postulating a hypothesis, and yea sure it is worth looking into to see if it is valid or not.
    For me this goes to the whole question of whether or not we can find defensible reasons for our moral beliefs that add up philosophically and scientifically. There is also the context to consider and I think yoga and meditation in 21 st century North America is a largely liberal-identified activity.
    Just because a nazi says they are compassionate doesn’t mean we are bound to take their word for it and have no way of evaluating their claim.
    But yea sure (and this is part of my schtick) yoga can be used like anything else to bolster whatever beliefs you choose – unless it is actually taking one into a substantive process. As weird as this may sound I think there is a real process to be engaged and it does specific things to how you understand yourself, others and the world. This does not negate socialization, education etc, but it can be a powerful, force.
    will it change someone from socially conservative to socially liberal? hell, that WOULD be an interesting study! i must admit though – to your point, i know several “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” folks in the yoga world, and perhaps this is indicative of privilege more than anything else.
    Julian Marc Walker nonetheless i am appreciating your reasoning here be – this part is quite astute and funny!
    “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?”
    Aghori Babarazzi I’m actually in agreement with Julian here, up to a point. Practices like meditation *seem* to be associated with so-called progressive or liberal values, but the trends can and not only do change, but also if you scratch the surface of many people within the yoga world (for lack of better term) you will quickly see that the progressive-ness of his/her values is really just talk. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but, like most people, are more or less centrists or conservatives when it comes to deep seated racism and classism issues. Of course, I’m not referring to a “study,” but really who the fuck cares? This shit changes with the person quicker than you can say opportunism. It seems so OBVIOUS that these practices can be harnessed by a variety of people steeped in a variety of politics. Look at India. The texts and the practices can and have been used as a means of promoting racist nationalism for years. Nothing is one thing. Now, I think Remski can easily make a case for yoga being infused with progressive politics, but to even infer that that’s the dominant flavor mostly kver-estimates the actual real backed-into-a-a corner politics of relatively affluent white people.
    Be Scofield Julian Marc Walker Yes, Nazi’s and KKK members went to therapy. Don’t you think the architects of the Vietnam War could have gone to therapy? How about the Iraq War? George Bush, Karl Rove, Condoleeza Rice? The everyday culture of Nazi Germany or KKK America was quite commonplace. By that I mean the everyday people of Nazi, Germany weren’t any different than U.S. citizens. They too had families, were educated, went to therapy, worked regular jobs. There were as many as 6 million KKK members in the U.S. in their peak. I’m sure many of them went to therapy just like anyone else does.
    What if the U.S. is not that a whole lot different than Nazi, Germany was. As Dr. King said, “The largest purveyor of violence in the world is my own government.” The U.S. is the largest terrorist operation on the planet, has contributed to more death and destruction than any other country and is one of the primary culprits in the destructive nature of industrial civilization. We’ve invaded, overthrown, assassinated, tortured, dropped nuclear bombs, killed millions in Vietnam….etc. Yet, many ordinary Americans go about their business totally unaffected or uncaring – jut like many ordinary citizens did in Germany. They did in fact engage in many compassionate acts just like Americans do.
    Julian, what is the point of stating that yoga or meditation appear to be associated with “liberal” values in the U.S.? Historically, Buddhism is quite socially and institutionally conservative. You can travel all over the world and find Buddhism and yoga associated with different values.
    I disagree with you on your premise that therapeutic introspection is inherently threatening to power structures. In fact the forces and regimes of power associated with psychology and psychiatry have been some of the worst offenders. They’ve reflected and protected the status quo. Do you know about the field of critical psychology?
    “Critical psychologists have objected to psychotherapy’s most common approach: helping us adapt to an unsatisfying world by internalizing problems and solutions rather than recognizing their societal nature. Psychology’s claim to be a science separate from philosophy accompanied 19th century Social Darwinism, which imagined and demanded a competitive, striving human nature for a dog-eat-dog capitalist world. It assumed rather than challenged hierarchy, patriarchy, and race privilege. Twentieth century psychologists who eventually became therapists encouraged people to fix themselves rather than challenge bosses, political elites, or dominant institutions more broadly. And still, today, mainstream therapy helps us function, boosting our confidence and self-esteem and maintaining our relationships so that we can get through school, get to work on time, keep at it one day after the next, mastering stress reduction techniques and ignoring any inkling that something outside ourselves might be at fault even when millions of us have identical “individual problems.” These culturally disseminated clichés have become part of our everyday psychology, seemingly obvious and natural and right.”
    Julian Marc Walker Actually I don’t think “everyone else” goes to therapy! In the USA It is disproportionately a coastal phenomenon amongst educated, liberal, privileged people. No? In fact a presidential candidate who was discovered to have been in therapy would be laughed out of the race….it is seen as weak and self-absorbed.
    Do you have stats on nazis or kkk members who did psychotherapy? Are you suggesting that they had racist therapists who supported their hatred of Jews and blacks?
    The point of stating the liberal overlap with these practices in the US is just what it is. Sure it is associated with more traditionalist values elsewhere – something I point out about our odd idealization of Indian religion and its link to caste, oppression of women etc…
    Yeah I hear you on the other stuff – and as I have said now in every comment, you have good points!
    Julian Marc Walker Psychoanalysis was in the beginning extremely threatening to the establishment. It critiqued religion, encouraged derepression of sexual desire and emotional intensity and suggested that we did not really know who we were and were essentially lying to ourselves to preserve a false self that was acceptable to family and society…… It was an invitation to wake up out of the BS still touted by religious republicans as “family values.”
    Sure, it was never hardcore anarchist or communist, and Freud did see love and work as the goals of psychoanalysis, but being in a healthy society in which we can love and work successfully is it such a bad thing.
    I agree, though, that ANY form of spirituality or psychology that makes us ignore or rationalize sociopolitical realities In The name of inner piece or well adjustment is a travesty.
    Be Scofield Julian Marc Walker There are a lot of white people who are racist currently living in the United States. They may not be members of the KKK but they are racist. In fact there are many people who still hold racist beliefs, although wouldn’t express them explicitly. That’s a lot of white America.
    “In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.”
    I don’t need a study to show that statistically some of these people are going to therapy. Likewise, when you have 6 million KKK members in the country you don’t need any stats to show that they, like other people went to therapy. They were U.S. Judges, they served on Vietnam draft boards, they were in every facet of society – so it’d be strange that they wouldn’t also have done some therapy on par with the other members of society.
    Julian Marc Walker i am confused as to why you find it perfectly acceptable to use “common sense” reasoning to back up your claims in this domain, but demand evidence and speak of the burden of proof with things matthew and to some extent i say about it…
    also – sure there are racists in america. you mentioned the KKK. i highly doubt you will find even a single KKK member who has done even one session of psychotherapy, outside of maybe something required by the police force or military after combat situations.
    find me the data to back up this assertion!
    that said – i get the general thrust of your argument re: the generally value neutral (and thus open to interpretation and political persuasion) nature of yoga and psychotherapy and agree that this can certainly be the case.
    Be Scofield You think out of over 6 million KKK members in the history of the U.S. that not even one has seen a therapist for any reason ranging from family issues to addiction to a death in the family?
    ulian Marc Walker I don’t think you are recognizing the demographics of who goes to therapy and how widespread (not very) and recent (very) this is in the USA. I think KKK members going to therapy is about as likely as civil rights activists going hunting. I am suggesting the overlap is quite tiny if not zero. Attitudes in the racist Deep South about alcoholism, family dysfunction etc do not naturally tend toward “let’s go to therapy and work on this…”
    Linda Steele There are a lot of generalizations going on here all around : )”The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.”
    ― C.G. Jung
    Julian Marc Walker There is a difference between an unfounded generalization and a cultural observation.
    Matthew Remski Aghori, my inference that progressivism (which we’ve still yet to define) is the dominant flavour of the politics emerging from mindfulness is historically contingent, i.e.: I think it’s recent, more phenomenological understandings of embodiment that roll like this. My whole thing is “yoga as an evolutionary practice that changes as it changes practitioners”. We hardly even know what yoga is for people from decade to decade, let alone from culture to culture. But your point about liberal lip-service is well-taken.
    My problem with Be’s argument is that he’s not defining or even describing what his mythical KKK meditators are doing: he’s just taking them at their non-existent word. And statements like “the everyday people of Nazi Germany weren’t any different than U.S. citizens. They too had families, were educated, went to therapy, worked regular jobs. There were as many as 6 million KKK members in the U.S. in their peak. I’m sure many of them went to therapy just like anyone else does” — are just too vague to even really entertain. U.S. citizens now, or in 1936? Educated? How? Family structures? Which ones? Regular jobs? Like what?
    Be — I’m waiting for you to actually engage the substance of my argument. We get nowhere trotting out examples of oppressors who say they like or even do yoga. We get somewhere by looking at their actions, and asking if there is coherence between what they practice and what they present.
    As far as empathy being limited to the clan, I would say there is a difference between empathy as extended narcissism, and empathy as intersubjective understanding. The former hardens class/racial/tribal divisions, and the latter erodes them. So sure, the warmth that a Klan member feels for people who wear white sheets is qualitatively different from the warmth that an empathetic person feels for a stranger of a different class and race on the streetcar. These results do not arise from some “slight change” in technique as you scoff at in your response, but from understanding the potential actually on offer through yoga/meditation.
    Be Scofield Matthew – just take the example that 51% of people show anti-black racism. That’s up from 2008. Do you think that therapy would reduce that? Don’t u think lots of those people are doing therapy now?
    Matthew Remski Substance, Be. You’re not even attempting to engage my substantive position, and yet you cite me in the title of your article! I know that a year’s work is on the line for you here, but here we are: how are you controlling for people’s self-reporting of their practices?
    But okay — is the 51% thing a serious question? Really? Maybe some are doing therapy, but we don’t know with whom or what kind and for how long, and we don’t know anything about what other perspectives their therapies have changed or reinforced.
    This is what you’re doing with evidence:
    Here’s a hard number about racist attitudes derived from sociological research: X.
    Now I’ll add my inferences about issues the research did not control for, and then claim that the research proves my inferences.
    Julian Marc Walker Be I actually agree with your premise that therapy (and originally yoga) do not necessarily make people more progressive. But the way you argue is very disjointed and reactive. In order for your argument to be coherent those in the racism study would at the very least have had to express a positive attitude toward therapy, no?
    I think you have a big point to make – that inner work may at times be a way of avoiding or ignoring sociopolitical awakening and activism. I agree. Ok?
    Matthew Remski Brendon Marotta — thanks for the thought. I appreciate the personal responsibility argument but would say it camps out on the individualistic side of the empathy scale. At the other end is the sort of empathy that recognizes that individualism is interdependent, that no one is self-supporting, and that all “individual right actions” take place within a socio-political context. In other words: “You didn’t build this.” And further, that inequality breeds alienation. Just goes to show that we need to define all our terms — empathy included. But your comment also depicts a strange belief about democracy that the incorrigible individualist holds: that voting for higher taxes “forces” a kind of stealing, rather than slowly working towards a consensus that better wealth distribution is desirable for all. Finally — isn’t that old saw about conservatives donating more to charity confounded by the fact that the charities are tied to religious institutions?
    Be Scofield Matthew Remski Julian Marc Walker The best way for me to describe how I understand your theory (Matthew) is with another example. I say this, not to belittle your idea but just to describe how I view the question you are asking. I see it as the same as saying psychotherapy will make someone who doesn’t know how to play the piano a good piano player. You may say that we need a test to determine if this is true, but it seems so obvious to me that learning to play the piano has nothing to do with personal healing. Thus, it is difficult for me to understand the logic of your argument.
    Thus, if I were to say that people are doing psychotherapy but not becoming better piano players, I hear you saying, “Maybe some are doing therapy, but we don’t know with whom or what kind and for how long, and we don’t know anything about what other perspectives their therapies have changed or reinforced.”
    I appreciate the dialogue and I’m not trying to cheapen your argument by my example. But the example is the best way for me to try and describe how I see your belief that psychotherapy will teach someone to be politically “progressive.” I honestly see as much of a relationship between therapy and learning piano scales as I do between therapy and learning about politics or social justice.
    I’m deeply rooted in anti-racist education (see my website and I’ve simply never ever heard it suggested in years of study, analysis, documentaries and trainings that psychotherapy provides the tools necessary for white people to understand racism, white privilege and white supremacy culture. If you don’t have the historical, intellectual and experiential (through relationships with people who’ve suffered from racism or hearing their stories) understanding of these forces then you cannot begin to overcome the distinctions between races.
    One learns to become a chemist by studying chemistry, a sociologist by studying sociology, a historian by studying history, a chef by going to culinary school…etc. Therapy has no relationship to one’s knowledge about chemistry. Likewise, one becomes a knowledgeable anti-racist anarchist feminist by studying about white privilege, feminism and anarchism. I simply don’t see the connection that *any* form of meditation, therapy, yoga, chi kung or other practice has to this realm of knowledge.
    I don’t mean to be reactive, I’m just trying to illustrate where I’m coming from. We all have a lot to learn from each other.
    Matthew Remski I will agree that psychotherapy in general will not usually teach within the context of private sessions the hard tools of anti-racism/classism/misogyny. But then again, some forms do: feminist therapy and systems therapy as examples. The therapy of NVC gives explicit tools for communication across political/systemic boundaries. Your persistent denigration of therapeutic outcomes as being wholly private/personal is as thin in research as your general reduction of empathy to “warmth” and “fuzziness”. If you “honestly see as much of a relationship between therapy and learning piano scales as I do between therapy and learning about politics or social justice”, then you’re not paying attention, IMO, while also ignoring the fact that the radical politics of anti-oppression is rooted in cultures of self/other transformation and self/other healing, as your beloved MLK shows. And I don’t know who you hang out with, but most of the activist-types I know depend on therapy or yoga/meditation to support the hard work of political empathy and change: understanding and caring for their personal wounds is foundational to understanding and caring for the wounds of social oppression. Of course, most come to this only after their first round of political burnout.
    What I hear in your arguments is a deep and I imagine well-founded frustration with the slowness of political change, the intractability of oppressive attitudes, and how the apparent narcissism of the self-help culture doesn’t seem to be making a dent. But to extend your music analogy: do we really expect the top-40 to advance the aesthetics of music? There’s more to therapy than private consolation. If it’s less visible, it’s because it’s harder to practice and sell.
    But overall, I’m baffled by your fetish for absolutism and generalization, and the partitioning off of streams of learning. I wouldn’t even presume to say that therapy cannot shed light upon chemistry! Both elucidate relationship and reactivity. Come to think of it, I’ve trained myself to look for connections in everything I do. It’s what led me to Ayurveda, in which it does not make sense to speak of psychological, dietary, and political contexts/inputs in isolation from one another when considering health.
    Bad piano lessons won’t help you learn piano, but you can still say you’re taking them. That’s the problem you’re failing to address, and the centrepiece of my article, which offers but one simple critique of your work that with a little more subtlety you can actually work with to avoid the specious claim that the broadest arcs of therapy and spirituality are politically null or neutral: you’re not distinguishing yoga, meditation, or psychotherapy in terms of actual practices and skills. You’ve got to, or you’re arguing about monoliths that don’t exist.

  4. What is the true nature of a human being? If we are to assume that an internal practice or a practice that reveals our true nature has the power to affect society perhaps we should know who we are.
    It’s the big question and maybe the only question. Why am I here, what am I doing, what is this!
    I saw a recent study using babies to understand the basis of morality. Is it natural or learned? The study was not conclusive but revealed that un-socialized beings are not all naturally kind or just.
    That makes me consider the tantric model that we are all drops from the sea of bliss or one. All that is the universe exists within us.
    We yoga practioners study ethics, physical posture, meditate to find the mothership so to speak but if the sea of all we came from is more complex than nirvana perhaps as we refine our true natures, further effected by environment it is no surprise to see conflict.
    The basis for self exploration is ethics. In yoga ethics begin with society before the individual. Or does it? Am I violent, a liar, a thief, a hoarder, do I overextend myself with charity that makes you powerless? How do your perceptions affect your choices above? Or do you have correct behavior because you were commanded to and it follows that you will be content and pure and passionate and introspective and accepting? The yamas and niyamas are entwined. There is no one without the other and where to begin?
    Meditate. Go back to the body and breath. Meditate. Consider your ethical habits, your perceptions, the ease of your breath when you make decisions, have conversations. There is so much talk about society and yoga.It is the epistomology, our thinking, that reduces yoga to something reductionist.
    We are not perfect and there may be no perfect. We are becoming more of ourselves. Now what to do with those selves!

  5. Is reality inherently social and relational, rooted in an inextricable web of meaning and becoming, or is it a psycho-spiritual essence that constitutes the “real” me- in short, are we bipedal haunted houses?
    The thing that all of the modern emphasis on contemplative practice has in common is its near tone deafness to the relational nature of reality, in my judgment. That is the underlying issue- it is really a metaphysical one, at base. If the Real Me can thrive whatever the circumstance, then connecting with that source of immortality and invulnerability becomes paramount. If, as I believe, Divinity at least in our universe is subject to crucifixion, this cannot be the whole solution. It means facing the very real vulnerability of Love incarnate, and choosing to nourish it and protect it anyways, abandoning, at least temporarily, the quest for immortality and invulnerability, in favor of incarnation.
    The call to incarnation rather than transcendence, or reverse incarnation, is so often unheard because the path of incarnation is and always will be extraordinarily difficult (at least in large-scale civilizations). Which is why I am grateful for these essays that expose the nakedness of contemplation-only approaches.
    What we must do now is place contemplation in the larger context of building a caring society, showing that the road to presence and interior realization of Interbeing is one step along the long road to salvation, which is always a collective and social endeavor in the authentic Western lineages, and not the final step.

  6. Be: judging by the quantity and quality of words, I’d say you are bringing an intriguing and important question to a larger, group awareness to consider. After reading most of these words, though, I have to agree with your critics. First of all, I can agree, in part, to your assertion that spiritual practices doesn’t necessarily translate into a progressive world-view or into social activism that supports this world-view. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence of this. However, one cannot make an absolute statement about this that is universally true. No matter how much I may want to have my individual, subjective experience be absolutely, universally true, it is never going to be. I’m fairly sure you understand that and maybe you imagine that is what spiritual practitioners expect of existence. I don’t actually know that but I can imagine which is what empathy is based on. The result, for me, is more compassion for others. Is this not the foundation for equality? The other problem I see in your premise is that even though you make a compelling argument but it’s all based on your ideas about a particular phenomenon. Your ideas about this are not nor can they ever be the totality of reality. You also can’t prove a negative. There is a Buddhist (I think) teaching that says the only thing we possess is our action. Whether I’m protesting, occupying, petitioning, litigating, meditating, praying or doing yoga these actions have a localized, measurable effect on reality. I’d say it is a positive engagement of existence and I don’t need to know if it’s going to eventually result in social or economic justice.

    • Your comments remind me of one of Atisha’s slogans: abandon all hope of fruition. This again illustrates one of the basic differences between Eastern and Western spirituality. In Western spirituality, as in Western medicine, we absolutely have the responsibility of “moving the Spirit” ala Heschel when we cannot feel Her move, something the East would regard as invasive. As a partner with the Divine in birthing the New Creation, as midwives, we absolutely have to be sensitive to the fruits that our work is bearing in practical terms- Jesus almost goes nuts over this position. This is because we do not live in a deterministic cosmos the way the East does, which Gandhi recognized, and important Buddhist teachers like HHDL and TNH have recognized as an inadequacy in their own lineage when they applaud the West’s democratic polity and religious engagement with societal transformation, birthed in Avraham’s forge.
      What family, school, or workplace would function if every individual went and did their own thing without regard to efficacy? Spirituality is not an individual thing to me. I as an individual participate it in, there are things that I can Do within my own being that no one can do for me, but the larger context is ALWAYS New Creation, the marriage of heaven and earth, Trinitarian love, the messianic age, where together, divine, human, and nonhuman nature participate as a belovedcommunity of diversity-within unity. This metaphysical vision that animates everything that is good and whole and healing bout the West cannot and will not be realized operating on only one cylinder- the individual, psychological, and largely acosmological and asocial vision of salvation or well being on offer in today’s New Age circuit, as important and true as there insights are, they are not enough. We cannot save ourselves, and that is difficult news to hear. We sink or swim together, all of us.

      • I thought Gandhi was fond of quoting the Bagavad Gita, “We have a right to our action but not the fruit thereof.” A “deterministic universe”? Could this perhaps be your interpretation of what you think you understand about “Eastern” spirituality? In my view, that’s a very broad assertion to make. I do agree with some of your assertions: “We cannot save ourselves.” Jesus said, “He who seeks to save himself will lose himself.” Maybe because there is no “self” to save. Yes, “we” are all in this together but there is no “we”. If the eye be single the body will be full of light. Judge not. A mind that divides up reality into separate “pieces” and believes these pieces have an independent, objective existence apart from the mind that divided reality into parts in the first place is delusional in my opinion. I try not to mistake my concepts about reality for actual reality but I do sometimes.

        • All of your critiques are psychological in nature, having to do to with what an individual does or does not believe or know about his mind or supposed true self. Gnosticism in any of its forms, Eastern or Western, even if its metaphysical assertions are true, is not the way forward right now… it is actually part of the problem.

          • You kind of lost me there. It’s okay with me if we don’t understand each other. I don’t get how you discerned anything about Gnosticism from what I said. Please don’t presume to lecture me on what “the problem” is. I try not to see problems and personally I don’t see a problem with anything that’s been discussed here. Can we at least agree that the world is the way it is because of the way humans think? Maybe it would be more precise to say it’s because of how most people don’t think or realize anywhere near the full potential of their mind. Let’s suppose we exist in a quantum matrix of consciousness. In our minds resides a psychological interface consisting of thought, emotions, intuition, attitudes, beliefs and ontology. This interface is programmed by genetics, nurturing, cultural and self conditioning, learning and experience. Out of this system emerges our thoughts that orders our world, connects us to it and derives meaning. So it should be easy to understand that our thoughts endeavor to create the appearance of a safe world. Much mental energy goes into trying to analyze the past and predict the future in order maintain an appearance of order. It should also be easy to see how most thoughts then move along a well traveled and familiar route. Why does anyone think what they think? How do they choose their thoughts? Perhaps their thoughts choose them. When I said I believe we can only truly possess our actions and nothing else it’s because I cannot find any “me” inside that is able to possess anything. There is only that which is and whatever this “isness”, what this witnessing can be said to be is indivisible from the whole. You can also call it “interconnected”. Yet there is intentionality present. Sometimes it appears to be localized within me and other times it is non-local. Where is the real “me” in this? Where do “I” begin and end? The real point of my statement is this: how much free will actually exists within our thought processes? Who has not experienced being in the grip of a persistently compelling thought or emotion and felt powerless to change course? How much of our thinking is imprisoned by the cage of an safe and ordered but illusory world? Could it be that the degree to which we master our thought processes to extend intentionality is the degree to which we are the conscious causal agents of our experience of life and not at the apparent effect of a deterministic universe? I do wonder about that.

        • By the by, the much dreaded “conceptual” mind, or even worse, the “dualistic” one- is the one most of us live in most of the time, and will continue to do so. Our ability to cocreate reality (or “project” it) is original blessing, part of the divine image, in Western and indigenous spirituality. One Jewish story says that the reason God created the universe was that She loved to hear stories. Another, that the fragility of say, a sparrow dying, or the pleasure of making love on the sabbath, both fleshly gifts that do not last, is part of what makes our world Holy, the fact that we are individuated. We live as community rather than unity that has forgotten its true identity. Unity became or always was community. Shabbat takes place within the middle of the ordinary week. The kind of God image we work with is the divinity that chooses to be born in a trough, and frees slaves, not the god who encourages us to get on the highway to heaven. Jacobs ladder links heaven and earth- the blessed union of that which is different from yet similar to us, is where the energy in the west comes from. I am aware of modern attempts to turn Jesus into the Western Buddha and the gospels into a Neoplatonic treatise in disguise, but that is not what they are.
          The reason this matters is we cannot simply appropriate the parts of Eastern wisdom that appeal to us, and forget that it is the West’s shadow that is primarily terrorizing the world right now. The prophetic is absolutely integral to the West’s salvation, and there is no prophetic in a deterministic, monistic idealist setting, that relies primarily on psychological exercises to bring inner peace. I’m interested in outer peace. If our children are raised in a world that has outer,mor interpersonal/communal wholeness, inner peace will follow because of our human nature that orients towards the good. I recognize that this is the converse of the New Age paradigm.

          • I don’t see any problem if I appropriate what I perceive as the essence of Eastern wisdom. I don’t know about what “we” can or cannot do. I can support your statement that it is the West’s shadow (the incoherence of divided mind) that is terrorizing the world right now (great phrase) and that human nature orients toward the good (heart/mind coherence) but I don’t need religious propaganda as my ontological basis for that awareness.

          • There is no problem with people learning from the East, but the reality is that most people in the West are not going to go East, and there are resources within Western religion that can directly speak to the West’s shadow that we ignore at ur own peril. Furthermore, there are fundamental worldview and cultural differences that are not directly reconcilable in a Western context- and one problem among many others is adopting, say, Buddhist psychology without Buddhist religion and its sociopolitical systems, leaves justice nearly completely out of the loop, as Be is constantly reminding us. I simply think that this is because the East and West have fundamentally different and irreconcilable views on social justice, as they do in any number of other areas. This is not to deny out fundamental unity, only to say that the unity has expressed as diversity in our spiritual evolution, and any solution to the West’s spiritual crisis that leaves out this wisdom will be inadequate to the task.
            I reject karma, for instance, for the same reason I reject original sin- they are both inaccurate and extremely dangerous views of human nature that have been used to justify the worst social evils imaginable. Do we not have a right to know, for instance, that Jesus knew nothing about original sin, and it is alien to the Bible, instead deriving from Augustine’s sexual neurosis?

          • The west must undergo a difficult process of soul retrieval, before we can even really begin to be the spiritual warriors Being needs us to be in the context of a global community.

  7. Clearly, meditation isn’t enough, it is no substitute for not doing to others that which is hateful to you. It is no substitute for viewing people and other living beings as having inherent rights which you are morally obligated to honor. I’d think that Metta meditation is probably more effective as an aid to living a moral life than some other forms of meditation but it’s no guarantee anymore than any kind of prayer. There is no substitute for living the life and acting for the good.
    Those pretty pictures of fMRI are dodgy science, at the best, a useless cul de sac, sometimes. I don’t think cog-sci has anything to tell us about living a moral life that is far more available to us in personal examples of good behavior and serious attempts to live according to Hillel’s exposition of the law and the variation on it Jesus gave.

    • One problem with Be’s response to my article is that it makes it sound as though I claimed meditation would be “enough”. I didn’t. I suggested that certain forms of it might naturally enhance the progressive drive, and if they can be proven to, they should become the benchmark for practice. That’s all.
      The fMRIs are not dodgy science, if you’re referring to the image I posted with the original piece Be is responding to. They’re showing us what is more or less functional in the mirror neurology of test subjects informed of each other’s pain. They’re not meant to replace moral instruction, but to try to understand how moral instruction works, and why it fails, what exercises or behaviours if any, improve its functioning — but most importantly, what traumas or deficiencies impede it. Given the general arc of Abrahamic cultures worldwide, I think Hillel and Jesus need all the help we can give them.

      • Here is the lab I worked in in college, highly rigorous and empirical, within the reference frame of social psychology, and directly relevant to some of the issues this board has been talking about.
        I am convinced that mindfulness is and will be an important part of human flourishing going forward. I am also convinced that it is not a panacea. Mindfulness is one component of our consciousness. I see it as representing something akin to the element of air on the medicine wheel, no more or less important than the other aspects of our mind. To me, even our minds are communal in nature. To everything there is a season.

  8. Be Scofield & Matthew Remski
    wanted to see if you guys would like to discuss this on google hangouts with me?
    Invitation to be interviewed by Edwin Rutsch
    One on one Skype Video Interviews
    Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion
    Edwin Rutsch
    Director: Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    A portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion.

  9. Meditation practices may increase empathy. But do they lead a person to see all humans — no matter their condition, wealth, behavior, criminality, good looks, age or gender — as inviolably sacred? If not, some portion of humanity, and thus all humanity, is always endangered.

  10. I agree with Be and I think this would also be supported by Buddhism, at least by those Buddhist teachers that I’ve learnt from (Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Vayama and Ayya Khema of the Theravada tradition). They make a big deal that what’s really beneficial is a combination of wisdom and compassion.
    There’s even the story of Devadatta, who was so skilled at meditation that he attained some supernatural psychic powers, and then tried several times to kill the Buddha.

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