I know there are lots of people out there who, like me, never really bought into Buddhism and yoga as wellness products. Though locked into consumerism, we wanted out of buying and selling. We could tell the difference between commodity and nourishment. For whatever reason, from whatever background, we came to this space for transformation, salvation, or whatever peak outcome we could articulate. For us it was never just about self-regulation, or self-care. Whether our jam was immanence or transcendence, we wanted something totalizing, for ourselves and for others and we dove in head-first.
I suspect that we, the head-first divers, are over-represented in the demographic of those who went on to professionalize in these industries. We invested everything, or at least a lot, because we believed the stakes were high. In my case, I couldn’t think of more meaningful work, and I had the privilege to pursue it. Obsessed with meaning, I and many others then became super-invested in anxious questions over the authenticity of practice, the nature of spiritual authority, the scourge of spiritual abuse, the problem of the body in self-perception, and cultural appropriation.
It’s a great tragedy that people who fall into competing camps on these issues often fail to recognize what they share: a steadfast faith that yoga and Buddhism are not merely wellness products, but pathways that (should) matter in ways that address ultimate human concerns. We don’t seem to understand that conflict in these worlds is actually a sign of a shared faith that might be too intimate to disclose: we want reality, we want truth, we want to heal trauma, we want to integrate or purify or even erase the venal parts of ourselves. We see an opportunity in these wisdom traditions to step off the wheel of empty promises and into a fuller expression of being alive. We argue with each other like Talmudic scholars — minus the courtesy — about our future selves.
What of the stakes? I get the feeling that many of us believe that if we don’t work this hard, if we stay asleep, then we miss our lives. We’ll turn over and over in unconscious loops of consumption and dissatisfaction, eating to get hungry again and loving to be lonely again. When the old books describe samsara, it resonates with the drone of consumer capitalism, ever in our ears, and the loathsome veneer of optimism that occludes the heart, the Stepford wife who sticks a dummy in your mouth and tells you everything is fine. No wonder we’re most outraged when we see yoga and Buddhism themselves appropriated by global capitalism, aka the Big Dream, that erases all urgency except for the need to create sleepier and sleepier drugs, because all drugs wear off.
Here’s the thing.
If you’re paying attention to the climate data — the fact that Arctic sea ice is barely forming this year, that correcting a geomapping error now shows Mumbai completely underwater by 2050 (and we know it’ll be sooner), that crops have largely failed across the Midwest, that Australia is roasting, that millions are on the brink of starvation in Africa, and civil unrest is erupted around the globe as fast as brushfires spread in California — samsara is no longer theoretical, psychological, or even descriptive of a pattern.
The suffering of the world is no longer just a turning wheel. It is a turning wheel rolling towards a cliff of annihilation and oblivion. And it’s not about individuals. My first Buddhist teacher’s existential challenge to me — “You’re dying, what are you going to do about it?” — carried a necessary urgency, but is now obsolete. “We’re all dying,” is the appropriate frame now: “What are we going to do about it?”
Part of me is angry and embarrassed at having spent more than two decades engaged in global Buddhism and yoga while so many people, most with way less privilege, have been on the front lines of ecological activism. I remember the moment I literally chose to meditate instead of join a resistance cell, and that moment feels like a stain I cannot clean.
But part of me forgives myself: at least I didn’t go into the oil business, or social media development, or hedge funds, or selling weight loss products or porn. I could have done a lot more damage to the world in those gigs. Most of us could have done way worse.
Yet another part of me realizes that Global Buddhism and yoga were passively used by capitalism to lull huge numbers of us into hyperindividualistic concern and contemplation, and that’s so gross.
But a fourth part of me knows that so many of us carried trauma that self-care seemed to antidote, and that makes sense.
And a fifth part knows that the promises make to the aspirational self are inextricable from the promises made to the neoliberal citizen: that everything can always grow and improve, regardless of structural oppression, that our hope for increased goodness should be audacious or grandiose instead of lateral and humble, that Global Buddhism and yoga became the spirituality of neoliberalism without us knowing it.
There are so many parts speaking! A last one for now says that:
None of it matters, because we had reproduced and baked ourselves into catastrophic climate change decades before Iyengar published Light on Yoga in 1966. So in many ways, we’ve always been practicing in a kind of civilizational afterlife. Yes, it sucks that Boomers just carried on with their business and now rub their savings and equity in our faces, but did they know any better?
We studied and practiced Ayurveda as though there still was a stable and resilient world. We saluted the sun as though we weren’t simultaneously turning it into a dehydrating lamp. Maybe this was a good way to spend what would have otherwise been a hopeless time?
So here’s my thought.
What if Global Buddhism and yoga gave us a model for waking up that we can now apply not to the suffering modern narcissistic self, but to empirical reality?
What if it really did effectively educate us about sleeping and dreaming, illusion and interdependence, but most of all, the urgent need to do something?
What if these pathways really were practice for what has now arrived?
What if they really were boats that brought us into presence, and that we should now step out onto the shore?
These days I find myself saying:
“Thank you Patanjali, not because you were right about the nature of consciousness. You’re just as confused as everyone else. But you took the problem of existence seriously and urgently, and maybe you also saw the ticking time bomb of human reproduction combined with human avarice and wanted to warn us all. I don’t buy into your answer of shrivelling up and disappearing into meditation, but we all have our ways of dealing, and yours is as good as any.”
“Thank you, Gita-writers, not for providing spiritual justifications for war, nor for hazing the hero with divine terror, but for your examination of the need to act in uncertainty at what feels like the end of time.”
“Thank you, Siddhartha, not because the churches inspired by your teaching were any better than the Christian ones in terms of ethics and political grift, but because you modeled a radical rejection of consensus values, and you pursued your goal until there was nothing left to pursue.”
Clearly, the ancients intuited the crisis of life at its root.
But globalization domesticated and commodified their ideas, repurposing them for the glory of the aspirational self.
It did so while riding an enormous burning wave of oil that is now consuming the very ground that Siddhartha touched, saying, “As earth is my witness.”
Globalization brought the world Buddhism, yoga, and the destruction of the living world itself. It’s the paradox that keeps on giving.
At worst, our practices have kept us asleep to the animals and other people, thinking that inner peace was the most worthy goal.
At best, they have sensitized us to what is now scientifically absolute: that there is nothing to depend on but each other, and love.