Spiritual teacher Adyashanti published the following Post-Election Letter to his Facebook page on November 19th . It was formatted as a caption to the photograph below. Since posting, it has been shared 1.7K times amongst his almost 57K followers.
I don’t know how representative this is of the rest of Adyashanti’s work or writing. I don’t know whether it’s an uncharacteristic foray into politics. It might constitute a conscious shorthanding of complex issues for a social media format. But it’s a public letter on a platform of tens of thousands, addressed therefore to a broad spectrum of folks and experiences, so I’m responding to this (and this alone, being ignorant of his other work) as if it’s an important and influential document.
Also, it’s not unique. Since the election, posts like this have permeating whole sectors of yoga and meditation land. These sermons are built upon on (at least) five dangerous errors:
- Spotlighting emotions like fear and anger as fundamental problems to address, rather than the violence and oppression to which these emotions are responding. This amounts to a kind of spiritualized tone-policing that values civility and respectability over justice.
- Failing to show any awareness of how gendered, racial, and class privilege shapes and determines both the unequal consequences of political oppression and our unequal abilities to respond to it. By suggesting that everyone is responding to the same thing and from the same place, this language mirrors the propagandistic tool of false equivalency. In the campaign this was used to claim no difference between parties, or to focus on emails over admitted sexual assault. In these sermons, false equivalency is used to equalize the emotional responses of people in vastly different situations.
- Pretending that spiritual language is neutral, and that vague appeals made to undefined values like love and wisdom are somehow the first step to addressing violence and injustice, and not the first step to actually ignoring violence and injustice. Vague and supposedly neutral spiritual language is essential for keeping a spiritual teacher’s usually depoliticized base of support intact. For an example of a (white, privileged) spiritual teacher who’s actually challenging this norm, check out what’s happening on Marianne Williamson’s page. She’s willing to lose hundreds of her it’s-all-good hardliners by the minute by taking a pretty basic stand on pretty basic issues. I’ll embed an example below.
- Fostering the notion that charisma is more important than content.
Adyashanti has said that he has “penetrated to the emptiness of all things and realized that the Buddha I had been chasing was what I was.” So I’m sure he won’t take it personally if I use his incredibly anemic letter to illustrate these errors and offer edits and suggestions:
LETTER FROM ADYA: Dealing with Post-Election
Turmoil (would you consider “Trauma”?)
This election has stirred up a lot of emotion in people — mostly fear and anger, as far as I can see.
(Possibly from your vantage point you can’t see terror and clinical depression — consider adding these in? Also stirred up is the violence at rallies and now a surge of hate crimes spilling over the border into Canada. Positioning emotion as the primary problem confuses the response to existential terror with the bodily reality of it. This seems to be a standard move by spiritual teachers who want to reduce complex socio-political issues down to matters of internal attitude that they can minister to with books and retreats. Maybe better to avoid this opening gambit.)
We are in a time of great cultural upheaval in both the United States and Western Europe.
(Maybe add in the Middle East? Climate refugees? Syrians drawing neo-Nazi backlash as soon as they scramble up the beach?)
People on both the left and the right of the political divide feel disenfranchised, ignored, and threatened in so many ways.
(To avoid extending the pernicious false equivalencies and white male working-class myths that propagandized the US and Brexit campaigns and that aren’t borne out by available data, how about adding some nuance here about who has been disenfranchised and how?)
And it all boiled up to the surface during this election. It was bound to happen and in many ways necessary.
(Repressed racism and misogyny also revealed themselves, not as emotions, but as foundational structural realities. Maybe consider adding these? Also, the fatalism here is problematic. Some of your congregation will resonate with the nod at karma and hints at purification, but those who will be deported by Theresa May or killed by the Trump presidency cancelling the ACA may not.)
Cultural turmoil brings change.
(Not sure if you intended this, but this sentence could be read as providing tacit rationalization and forgiveness for your devotees who voted Trump. Returning back to the top: suggest subbing in or adding “trauma”. Also: physical violence brings change too. How should members of your congregations resist it?)
The question is, what kind of change will it bring? This is the great unknown, and wherever people encounter the unknown, the most common instinctual reactions are fear, blame, and anger.
(It’s true that volatility is a primary tactic of autocratic rule. But the motives and tactics of fascism are not unknown. Some people are having instinctual reactions not because of some general flaw in human nature, but because they know exactly how their situation is deepening and worsening in ways worse than white men like us can ever know. Also, now you’ve bookended your opening graf as though emotions — especially responsive anger, last-listed here for emphasis — is the real problem, and not what people are angry about. See above.)
I feel that this is a time when we who seek to be more conscious, loving, and wise get to see exactly how deep our wisdom and love really are. This is where the rubber hits the road — no more abstractions or high-minded ideas; this is where and when it is needed. This is where we come to see if we are still caught in the old ego-minded world of reactivity, anger, and fear, or if we have come upon the consciousness of wisdom and love. It is also a time when we can see if we are hiding out in transcendental ideologies of how unreal it all is as an unconscious defense against engaging with the world as it actually is.
(So this is a really nice graf that actually says nothing and speaks to no one outside of your in-group of devotees. Because you’ve posted it as a public letter I’m assuming you want it to mean something to other people as well, and not just be a calling card pointing to your charisma. To your previous admonitions against reactivity, etc., you now add the aspirations of wisdom and love. But what exactly do you mean, and how do these actually play out? In writing a letter that — so far — offers no real-world substance, how is your critique of transcendental ideology credible? What can you do here to resist the general sense your congregation is supposed to glean that because of your calm voice and beneficent smile everything will be okay if they connect to the inner wisdom you describe for them in your books and retreats? Isn’t that the very embodiment of a transcendental ideology, while pretending to critique it?)
There are important political and cultural issues at stake here to be sure, and we all have a stake in the outcome, which is why so many people are so fearful and angry. It’s as if 50 percent of the population cannot possibly understand, or even care to understand, the other 50 percent. And human decency and sanity have gotten lost amid the angst. Sadly, we have stopped truly communicating in the process.
(Who has stopped truly communicating? BLM, trans activists, anti-oppression workers — they have all been communicating pretty clearly for years. So are the Standing Rock Water Protectors. All of them are powerfully motivated by and communicating the righteous fear and anger of the planet itself. Also, is it wise to responsibilize your congregation for communication patterns that are pathologically distorted by fake news, click farms, and propaganda?)
I have watched this growing in our culture over the last 25 years and now it has boiled over. As a populace, we have stopped seeking to understand one another and have sought instead only to be understood; or, in many cases, insisted upon being agreed with. We have failed to take care of one another, to love, cherish, and understand one another.
(This generalization is worthy of Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. But if you want to add real spice to the spiritual/religious landscape, it might be a best practice to always balance the personal-moral appeal with a critique of power. Who has failed to take care? The “we” of this graf is either terribly exclusive, or it is pretending to be inclusive by erasing how structural oppression destroys access to care. Either way, it deepens the hyperindividualism of the neoliberal mode, which says: it’s all on us, where “us” really means “me”.)
There are very important issues at stake here: issues of poverty, inequality, political disenfranchisement, racism, sexism, the list goes on. But as each of us advocates for those issues that are important to us, we too must take responsibility for the breakdown of civility, decency, and unhealthy communication. No one forces our state of consciousness upon us. No one forces us to act out of fear, rage, and unconsciousness. We will either relate out of our conflicted mind states, or from the more evolved aspects of our nature.
(This one is complex, so I’ll number it out:
- The list that begins this graf ends with a rhetorical elipsis that affects boredom and hints at the unreality of the world.
- The second sentence pivots upon the subtle dismissal of material issues to turn the conversation back again to emotions and moods — again — as if the internal states generated by oppression etc. are as important as the oppression itself.
- The third sentence is a metaphysical speculation about the nature of consciousness, presented as if it’s scientifically true. “No one forces our state of consciousness upon us,” is, actually, demonstrably false. There are people responding to the electoral results from a history of PTSD, for example. Or women who have been raped who will now be tweeted at and governed by a confessed but unprosecuted sexual predator. States of consciousness can most definitely be forced by power and propaganda. It’s a mark of privilege to not understand this, or to deny this. Unless you’re going to claim that we are not subject to neurophysiological conditioning, maybe you can consider changing this.
- It’s not okay to imply that people who are angry are unevolved, rather than, say, not dissociative. A rewrite like this might cause less harm: “Depending upon your neurotypicality, it might be possible to observe states of your consciousness with a witnessing mood, in which you could recognize the rise of fear and rage and redirect it or self-regulate more quickly. This could be of help in our relationships. But it won’t work for everyone, and it won’t erase the structural power and pain that make it harder to do.” This is a little clunky and harder to use as a vehicle for certainty, but so is democracy.)
I cannot say exactly how to relate with those who are caught in their own conflict…
(“I cannot say exactly how” sounds like a disclaimer. Maybe it belongs up top? After all, you can’t really say much about anything except your own meditation technique and experience, right? Including this at the top might nail down your scope of practice for those who are confused and think you are offering evidence-based advice, and not simply persuading people that anger/rage etc. are wrong. Secondly, “caught in their own conflict” sounds pretty exclusionary to my ear. I get that your brand rests on the implication that you yourself have no internal conflicts — including the conflict between wanting to be a meditation teacher and wanting to be politically relevant — but who are the “caught” you are referring to here? You don’t want to insult anybody.)
…except to say that if we seek to understand as our first impulse — and to respond from the wisest, most patient, and loving dimension of our being — we will at least be standing on a foundation of sanity and peace. And our actions, whatever they may be, will then be expressions of the highest consciousness that we have attained, and we will have taken responsibility for our own feelings and impulses, and made the wisest choices that we have access to.
(The vagueness here really might only give your congregation a nice feeling that they’ll depend on you to top up. Without defining the “foundation of sanity and peace” arrived at by the “wisest, most patient, and loving dimension of our being”, you’re really only directing people’s affect. You’re also suggesting that the subjective states of feeling wise, patient and loving will mean that ethical actions will naturally follow. This is not true. The Nazis loved yoga. And Zen monks of your very own Sōtō Zen lineage supported the Rape of Nanking. Why not use this space to tell your congregation to get concrete training in anti-oppression work?)
If we are inspired to advocate for certain causes, we will do so out of love for those causes, rather than out of rage against the perceived “other.”
(Here’s one last nod at false equivalency to mop up. This sentence makes it sound like people “other” each other equally. It’s not true, unless you believe in things like “reverse racism”, or that “SJWs” are as guilty as the alt-right for offside language. Also, what do you intend for your congregation to feel about their rage? Shame? That they should repress it?)
Perhaps then we will become agents for sanity, peace, love, and the living of it in this confused world of ours.
With Great Love,
(Finally, I’d suggest not publishing this letter as a caption for a guru headshot. The portrait suggests that you’re floating above the “turmoil” of the election in a sanctified, linen-clad body. Your Nordic, silver-fox gaze is an invitation to paternal transference. Not everybody is ready or willing to surrender to this, and some never should. Think of everyone who surrendered to their transferences onto Trump himself. It’s a dangerous mechanism. Yes, it’s just a photo, but you probably don’t want to subtly gaslight your students into telling themselves that everything really should be alright, because you’re gazing on them with knowing approval. Maybe a picture of you doing something besides meditating or teaching would work better?)
Here’s that Marianne Williamson post: