Don’t Deepen Your Practice
(Some rough, opinionated notes.)
I’m realizing that reading the dynamics of high-demand yoga and meditation groups through a cult psychology lens is necessary work and personal to me. I get hate mail for it, but the grateful notes outnumber the missiles by about three to one.
However, using this language doesn’t answer a crucial set of questions:
Why do groups like Michael Roach’s Diamond Mountain, Rajneeshpuram, Rigpa, Shambhala, and Agama exist? Not: where do the ideas and personalities come from? Not: what unmet needs do they pretend to fill?
But: what are the basic political and economic conditions that allowed so many of these groups to mushroom in the post-war era, and so easily construct a pretence of value? What did the culture at large have to first commodify for these groups to then come along and upsell?
Political cults run on the premise of political action. Warlord cults run on the premise of revolutionary struggle. Psychotherapy cults like the Newman Tendency ran on the premise of transforming a therapeutic mode into a social justice tool. In each of these contexts, I sense a product.
But yoga and Dharma cults? What broadly-accepted social discourse and value allows them to be a thing, to project a plausible relationship to positive, pro-social human labour? What do they promise to make?
The tagline for Shambhala International is: “Making Enlightened Society Possible.” The vagueness seems a direct reflection of Chogyam Trungpa’s alcoholic dreams.
I am the son of lower-middle class union activist high school teachers. They were about two years too old to have run into weed or acid in college. I rebelled against their perceived squareness — also a respect for things — in part by thinking it was good idea to drop out and pursue the weed and acid of spiritual self-development full time. And later, to consider it a job.
But did I really feel it was a good idea? Or was the spiritual marketplace simply open to my privilege, and proximal to other closing doors? I can use psychological frames to look at this till the cows come home, and they’re informative, but the larger political economy that pushed my buttons and pulled my strings will remain illusive if I stay there.
The yoga and meditation cults I’ve been in and have studied emerged in tandem with how neoliberalism mobilized post-war wealth towards an internal turn. This internal turn spiritualized consumerism and conflated globalization with universal consciousness.
Michael Roach used to wax poetic about all of the money he made in the New York diamond business. (I never heard a word about blood diamonds.) He was convinced that his understanding of the diamond as symbolic of Middle Way emptiness theory was at the root of his financial success. He talked about how the money seemed to come out of nowhere. Wealth was an external projection of an internal state.
Unsurprisingly, Roach was also an early dotcom fan boy. He would say that it was through the mystical power of people’s ripening karma that the internet suddenly created a trillion-dollar economy out of nothing. Out of emptiness. Get it?
His barely-hidden subtext was that the Buddhism industry could emerge out of nothing as well. The evangelism would sweep painlessly around the world. But this is as untrue as claiming that smartphone factories don’t kill people.
Dharma courses, workshops, trainings, retreat centres all emerged as reinvestments of 1970s-onwards surplus value, the cream at the top of the globalization milk. They grew, like gentrification developments, as other supportive work was outsourced. Many of the first yoga urban studios in North America opened in spaces left vacant by urban manufacturing companies that outsourced their labour. So now we had folks wearing yoga pants imported from Bangladesh to stretch in rooms where the sewing machines, now in Bangladesh, used to hum.
Dharma leaders of the Nineties emerged parallel to the dotcom boom. Accelerating deindustrialization and technologization parented the gig economy, and us humanities folks began to find or create work in “wellness” by professionalizing their own internal journeys.
Those journeys gained social and capital value to the extent they appeared to “deepen”. Doing the next training seemed to give more license to make intrusive eye contact. But often ignored is the fact that the journey usually began from a basic state of privilege and okayness, which means it might have been running on a manufactured rather than existential anxiety.
Analyzing the cultic exhausts me. But its basic lessons in systemic thinking have given me the liberty to really consider the opiate manufactured by the yoga/meditation industries en masse.
When key aspects of the Shambhala project become indistinguishable from an intergenerational trauma pyramid, I’m no longer thinking in terms of:
If only those people had had access to ‘authentic’ teachings and ‘pure teachers’, their lives would have been better,
What if neoliberalism hadn’t ordained yoga and Buddhism as its religious instruments, and made pseudo-professions out of teaching them? What if neoliberalism hadn’t conflated seeking with consuming, while ignoring the trauma in its wake? Why did seeking become a not only a thing, but a big thing, instead of staying put and repairing shit? How much deepening do we need when the surface of things is so broken?
I’m wondering now, at the starting line of what’s sure to be a long study: what would that slice of the Boomers who went to Pune or Mysore or Naropa or Oregon or Dharamsala have otherwise done?
How many of them relaxed their attachments and activism through meditation and self-work to eventually help degrade today’s resistance to fascism? I know a lot of people 10-30 years older than me who seem trapped in the radiant neuroticism of self-improvement. They continue with it to the extent they can monetize it. What else can they do? What other options do they have?
Make fun of hipsters and maker culture all you want, but if someone is out there learning to grow corn and knit sweaters, thank them.
I think of all those meditators and yoga people who went beyond the self-care of “This is something nice I do for 30 minutes every morning to help me self-regulate” to “I’m seeking enlightenment through 6 hours of practice a day”. What became of all that labour? I’ve spent over ten thousand hours in meditation, trance, and yoga. What if only 5% of that was materially useful — life-skills useful — and the rest was indoctrination?
When the dharma industry presents itself as more than offering help in self-regulation, how is it not parasitic? Shambhala International is quite obviously NOT “Making Enlightened Society Possible.” It is, however, Making a Pile of Money to Service Overextended Properties.
Nobody is born with the ideology that they must personally become enlightened, or that they should join a utopian movement, or that they should approach the problems of the world through obsessive self-work, while mostly ignoring the sleeping conditions of the migrant workers who harvest their vegan lunch. People have to be taught, implicitly, that their self work will raise the vibrations of migrant workers. It’s not their fault.
I was in two cults, but the cults existed within and because of neoliberal transnational flows. They lived and breathed on the cheapness of international air travel and easy credit cards. I believe this is the functional truth of Every. Single. Post-Sixties. Dharma. Cult.
It’s like the economy did this thing that freed only those people who benefited from not having to think about or account for how economies actually work.
Years ago I had an Iranian friend who expressed puzzlement at the ennui of her Canadian mates. Her family had escaped the revolution. Before the Shah was overthrown, she was out in the streets as a child handing out leaflets to help organize workers. In Toronto she hung out with artists and writers.
“You all blame yourselves,” she said, “for being marginally employed, poor and depressed. Why haven’t you read Marx?”
Stealth neoliberal ideology playing out in my own life has fostered a primary focus on psychological issues. I’ve spent an awful lot of time considering the trees of my childhood and my family constellation, to the neglect of the forest of my political reality and privilege. It’s not just Catholicism that gave me a guilt reflex driving me towards self-work, but an entire culture that told me I was solely responsible for my relationships and feelings. The whole culture taught me to centre myself, and while also investing me with the powers of gendered whiteness to make that centring almost impenetrable to other forms of analysis. I was stunted by that.
It’s so difficult for young people in this world to find meaning and structure. I didn’t just drop out of material reality because I met a partner and was recruited by a cult. I dropped out because I couldn’t see what value my labour would have in a world that was dematerializing before my eyes.
Increased digitization, AI, and automation will make all of this worse. This is why Jordan Peterson is both so attractive and so disastrously wrong. He thinks more self-focus is the answer. He thinks the social-material view is both irrelevant and poisonous. Of course all his followers will jump at the opportunity to have the narcissism their political culture has immersed them in from birth sanctified by a preacher who intones Jung. For someone so apparently square, he seems to have nothing to say about real things.
Do your practice, and a little bit is coming, maybe. Learn the basics, share them around. Ask for a reasonable amount of money when you do.
What’s really worth deepening in any substantial way isn’t your breath, flexibility, understanding of Sanskrit, or hours on the meditation cushion. What can deepen is a general awareness of modern global yoga’s unconscious spiritualization of neoliberalism. Then, we can desecrate that spiritual with all the things it wanted to tell us it could replace: accessibility training, trauma awareness, consent eduction, and anti-oppression work. How much deeper could you get?