Yoga in times of political imbroglio
Although it remained unpronounced, Jackass! was the insult that surged from inside me, when judging an acquaintance of mine who professed that the world was actually not round; it was flat. He spoke with such absolute certainty that he even held the knot of his tie when he explained that this world-is-round bull was just a myth for the meek.
I had thought it was a joke. I could not believe it when the penny dropped that he was not being facetious. Had he so much as humbly raised the doubt as to whether the world was really round, the mood at the table would have pitched embarrassment in every direction, but he was really one of those folkloric people who had decided to believe that the world is flat. I had heard of them, but I never imagined that would actually witness one in the wild, before my very eyes. And yet frost at the table where were sitting among friends got even colder: the flat-Earther was a lawyer, who was using his art of argumentation in a sermon to try to open the eyes of the meek.
I did not know him well, but he had always seemed to me to be a good and intelligent person. He could not have achieved his personal and professional success in life being an imbecile. I could not understand his need to lobby on a subject that was neither profitable nor his domain. What d’hell? I thought, and that was where the dark process of judging him began in my mind. I found him ridiculous; he could only be wanting attention.
I tried braking from the conclusions racing in my head: I also want attention, we all want it, I thought. But the effort became more and more difficult as his discourse was imbued with untruths and post-facts to prove that the world was indeed flat and we had all been tricked. Since he could supply no proof that the world is flat other than his insistence. I watched my mind as the arguments came bubbling to counter him. I am far from being a physicist, but I quickly picked up the few scientific facts I remembered to form a list of the many things his haughtiness should immediately renounce if he was not to be a hypocrite of his own religion. Before my eyes was a preposterous show of ego seeking to subdue knowledge via an arrogant and skillful preacher who delighted in his own self-assertion of plowing against the tide – and trying to take passengers with him. I then redoubled the initiative of not judging him for his inanity: all individuals have complexity; you are not without your hypocrisy, Ricky…
But my own effort to follow Mark Twain’s rule of never arguing with an idiot because he lowers you to his level and wins by experience was in vain, since we were among others jumping to refute him with better and more detailed arguments. Unfortunately, arguments are the last instruments to be used against those who have none. What happens to facts when conviction reigns is well-known: the more his false knowledge was repudiated – false for having no basis whatsoever, neither theory nor practice that could refute the globe, while neither aggregating nor suggesting another explanation for the physical world around us – the more his stubbornness grew to flatten the world. He clung to his own ego like a huge balloon, carrying him into a blue sky from where he could laugh at the gullibility of others, since he was one of the very few chosen to have enough intelligence with which to actually see truth. Untouchable at such a great height, he shouted that the theory of gravity is just another theory and, like all theories, it is not fact.
How I wanted that balloon to take him high enough to see the curvature he insisted did not exist – or, better yet and since he does not believe in the law of gravity, for that balloon to explode, so that he could experiment firsthand whether he indeed would fall nowhere, or in a straight line in the direction of the center of a great body of mass.
I could not restrain my impulse any longer. I tried to measure the words as best I could, although my tail was already dangerously rattling in warning: “Yes, but that theory proved very – shall we say—useful”. I smirked, “I may be wrong, but I think there is nothing indicating that this your theory has any use – or does it?”
I tried, but I was already savoring the delicious venom in my mouth. I managed to save the rest, but what I really wanted to do was give him a good bite, injecting him with the poisonous truth that his theory did, in fact, have only one utility: for him to be right, without any learning and without adding any knowledge to this world.
“I do not know that Copernicus had any use for his belief,” he replied in conceit.
“Belief?” I spoke in surprise. “Really?”
Witnessing the manipulation of narrative, whereby Ptolemy, Copernicus, Isaac Newton, and others of a legacy of scientific investigation were rendered insignificant ‘believers’ with fallacious calculations that contributed nothing to human knowledge, our inconvenient lecturer got exactly what he invited: my anger.
I won’t even give him the honor, I thought, in a rank excuse not to attack him while seizing a minimum of self-control from a not-so-consolidated commitment to truth and non-violence that is part of the practice of yoga — if not only for having understood no one can be taught anything by insult. Moreover, it is clear to me that the most beautiful of the postures of yoga is that of self-criticism, the search to know oneself, the lack of which can turn even the most astute into a lout, opining about everything in the world around oneself – even when truly insightful – but doing so without including oneself into the picture. Even the most intelligent can end up foolishly responding to things that they do not understand.
Silently and for no one to hear, I had called him jackass, except that I had in fact heard myself. There was a need to hurt him even if it was just with thought. I caught myself in the act, exactly where one notices what escapes from self-control despite the best intentions. I was judging him. And I checked to see if that anger was one of the good ones that comes to rescue, delivering a precise limit in the nick of time. No, it wasn’t. It was silly, just as silly as he was.
Still mulling over the argument in my mind on the way home after our encounter, I passed by beggars making shacks beneath old, gray and dilapidated awnings of buildings that stood alongside modern, imposing ones that gleamed with emptiness. Before my eyes was a human portrait of extremes and mistakes that reminded me of other, even worse debates I had had – worse for having occurred among family and close friends, whose political discordance over the cause and form of injustice before my eyes was violent. Perhaps it was a portrait of our divided times: one vehement team prioritizing individual freedom and finding the beauty of competition and self-reliance, blaming the misfortunate for their own defeats; another rapturous team prioritizing community and finding the beauty in collaboration, defending the unfortunate as victims. The two teams exasperated by the same public disregard, ironically for completely different reasons.
And it was precisely on that walk home in soul-searching that I witnessed the flames and embers of anger cross over from one fruitless discussion about the roundness of the world to yet another argument, which should have been unrelated.
Except that they were indeed related.
They were skirmishes in which I was peeved, my teacher ego having scratched abrasively against others of equal proportion that also liked teaching. Despite all vigilance, anger had managed to leak through the small, unnoticed gap left open after clearly seeing through the hole in an argument, the incongruity between the words and deeds of others, but without accounting for my own hypocrisy – naturally – because, of course, I am simply never wrong. After analyzing and concluding that my point of view is right, it is the problem of others who dare contradict me. And it was in several such debates that the world as I had known it had been challenged and my diagnosis and prescription for its ills were rejected by other cheeky doctors who thought they were more competent. They dared to go as far as to infer that I was a sucker, a mule.
It is said that self-learning only happens in such moments when one ego rubs against another, producing the uncomfortable friction needed and described as the logic behind every human relationship. Therefore, it is also said that we are born into families of people not chosen by us. Although family may already be maddening enough for such learning, I had been noticing how other more challenging egos seemed to be jumping in front of my train recently and with greater frequency, often derailing me at the political junctions of our times, in which many things – including facts – are being revised and hand-picked more than ever.
Was it just my impression?
I decided to sail the world outside, first, before catching the ocean within. I read the most varied press and media about the debates that disturbed me very carefully throughout the politically complicated year in my two countries – Brazil and the United States – in order to understand many opinions, including my own. I even decided to play the cuckold, investigating how I might have been cheated on and tricked. During this footwork, I encountered some divergent factoids, some of which were more for effective than others.
For one of these two countries, my investigation even made me change teams – although with one foot out the door and for the time being – which is kind of defection that should be done often in politics, since it not a football game and there is no need to permanently wear a jersey out of blind loyalty. The analysis had brought to my attention the great potential of having concluded political opinion based upon prejudice – my own and that of others – and not necessarily upon knowledge I had acquired.
(Yes, prejudice! You heard me. Don’t think you don’t have your own: you make hundreds of decisions each day, based upon hunches and information you do not necessarily know is right or wrong and without time – or patience – to check).
In the other of the two countries, I also looked for reasoning to change teams, seeking for something among what had been my conclusions to unload and surrender, but I found none. The most I could cede was priority to the opposition over the few agreed upon injustices. However, it was the other team’s plan to correct the inequities of society that remained suspicious, since it was clear that they had removed themselves from the narrative as to the cause of such recriminations and would take no responsibility for the outcome of their fix , which was blatantly advantageous for themselves – that is, if they even had a plan. I often found that other team railing and complaining about a system without a viable plan to implement, much like fretting about how the world is flat. Even more curious was that I found the other team devoid of the same initiative of testing their own opinions and fervidly against any possibility that they might have succumbed to their own prejudice. In fact, I even noticed a contempt for knowledge on their part. Therefore, seeing their unwillingness to investigate their claims made me feel safer about my political choice, having discovered nothing revealing that would make me change political opinion.
But it was during a more relaxed moment, reading about other miscellaneous international issues I find interesting, where I stumbled upon an elaborate explanation in an article of the New York Times in which Danielle Lupton, professor of political science at Colgate University, defined what is called confirmation bias: “In political psychology there’s this notion of confirmation bias: that you have a predetermined belief about either an outcome or in this case whether a person is good or bad,” The journalists unfolded that it is this bias that directs the subconscious to select information that supports predetermined beliefs and to ignore facts that confront such beliefs. The professor added that “confirmation bias is so powerful that we can ignore information that conflicts, and don’t even notice we’re doing it,”
The concept struck my interest immediately, if not only as chic definition for nothing more than prejudice, coming from a discipline I had not even known about (political psychology). Reflecting upon my own behavior and opinions, I finally turned inward to sail the ocean and verify where I might have fallen victim to confirmation bias. Besides the one previous case for which I managed to revert political opinion, I remembered several other occasions in both my professional and personal life when I had confused liking or preferring someone with trusting them to solve a problem.
Even so, political psychology did not help me much to understand the emotions and everything that was happening inside me during a politically arduous year and I decided to ask others on the slow and winding path of self-knowledge — where at the very least one should be monitoring one’s own thoughts — how they were dealing with adversity.
One of the best opportunities for inquiry arrived when my doorbell rang the very day after the inconvenient lecture on the flat world. My friend and excellent teacher of yoga, Gilberto Schulz, founder of Yoga em Casa, had come to teach. Since my mind was still fighting with people, it was time to clean it before starting class, otherwise the day’s practice would have been lost on me. Entering the yoga room of my house, I decided to ask him.
“Gilberto, have you ever found yourself in a situation where a person with very divergent thinking or opinion of yours created a reaction in you? How does your yoga practice prepare you for that moment? “
He smiled without looking at me, as if confirming something close and obstructive when crouching down to sit on the floor, “Yes, sometimes, it has even happened in a conversation about political matters with someone among yoga practitioners for whom I have a lot of respect and admiration. I think that reacting is natural to the human condition. Dealing with divergent opinions sometimes stirs the foundations of our identity, so we end up taking things personally, and we start advocating for ideas with much attachment. In my experience, I realize that the practice of yoga and meditation helps in the way we deal with these situations that shake us as we discover a deeper identity that is not based upon our likes and dislikes, thoughts, opinions, or on emotional reactions. This gives us room to maneuver— leeway— allowing us to revise our convictions as well as to understand each other’s point of view or even to give up fruitless conversation. I particularly think that it is good to face divergent visions, however difficult it may be. Being willing to listen, to understand, and allowing yourself to change your own opinion – not passively, but rather, giving freedom to discernment and not imprisoning yourself in attachment to concepts and ideas – is a great way to put our convictions to the test. It is also an opportunity to observe and to train the way we express ourselves in defending a point of view; those are the moments in which we verify our balance and maturity. It is so easy to think we are enlightened when dodging the roles and relationships involved. It is too easy to consider oneself enlightened by only dodging the roles and relationships involved in living within society.”
I liked the answer, but I was still a bit thirsty: “So if a commitment to truth is part of life of yoga, how do you behave when faced with a lie?”
Or a liar, I thought, as Gilberto reflected in a brief silence through the window before answering, “I think that the value for truth in the context of yoga and self-knowledge is personal rather than dogmatic. I try to establish this value in my life – that is basically the point. And, although we might have undergone a process of assimilating this value, that doesn’t mean this value is unknown to others who handle the truth as a one-way street, whereby they want others to tell them the truth, but do not care so much if they are true to others – especially when there is some advantage or disadvantage at stake. Considering this, we must be wary that most people have a partial value for the truth, and there is no reason to confuse naivety with innocence. I also think that any person following the path of yoga should never feel superior to others in any way, even if others only have a half-value for the truth. Besides being a waste of time, it only distracts attention from the journey itself. Perhaps the best social and political action of a yogi in this case is to be an example of one who fulfills all one’s roles without ever giving up the truth. That is why I think that, as far as I’m concerned, one’s role as a citizen is as just important as one’s role as a father, mother, son, daughter, employee, or employer – and it is a role that is often neglected by those on a spiritual path who think they are not subject to societal questions, as if it were possible not to act or position oneself politically.”
Satisfied, I quietly began the practice of clearing the mind by coordinating breath and movement, although reflecting on how I would like to be one of those people who feels beyond political issues. (Un)fortunately, there are debates that distract me from my peace. Perhaps it is for the best to be so challenged, at just the right level of discomfort, to learn how and when to take action – and when not to do so.
At the beginning of the first yoga classes many years ago, I tried to use the apparent symmetry of the body, only to rudely discover its asymmetrical reality: the right side seemed shorter than the left; the left side seemed tighter; one leg was shorter than the other; I discovered that the spine was not straight, there was curvature disrupting movement; I was able to bend to one side but not to the other; I had a pain in one joint but not the other. Then I looked around and noticed the other students: one did something so easily, but I did not; I am stronger than so-and-so, but that one seems made of rubber she’s so flexible; the other is balanced, I am not; why couldn’t he do that? It is so simple! I think the teacher screwed up the sequence, I could have taught it better; I’d rather have a beer: what the hell was I doing there? Why did I not prepare myself better for class? Better I quit.
That is where I first noticed a multitude both inside and outside myself that would have to be accepted.
The recipe is none other than patience and tolerance with your own mind and that of others. In this new year, I will try to contemplate better this multitude when receiving – whether in person or in mind – this crowd: be them those business friends who I consider heroes because they could have easily put their money in the bank and gone to the beach instead of dealing with a corrupt State milking them all the time; those other businessmen, who are vile, preferring to pay our rulers in order not to do their job; relatives of loved ones who died in the hospital queue or because they could not afford medicines; others killed by the not-so-stray bullets of criminals; the me with my expensive wines and cheeses when there are have places in this world that no longer have water; those very correct people who follow all the rules and hurt no one, but refuse to acknowledge how they had already benefited from so much; academics with brilliant ideas but who have never implemented anything; other teachers who have not even been paid for their work; those people hindered by life despite all sincere and honest effort; those people convinced they have the right to be paid a lot for nothing much, or even for lies and deceit; that other me again, traveling to the other side of the planet when there are people without a bus fare to work in the city where I live; those citizens for whom history is only valid as of a date of their choice, categorically refusing all previous bills to be paid; others who are not even worried about history, since they simply write the narrative however they choose; those people who are completely fed up with diversity and want to impose order in society at any cost; their opposites, who insist on accommodating everyone in any way and at any cost, regardless of whether or not it is the best way to do so; those that cannot deal with the heat and wish to shirk their responsibility in the kitchen at any cost; those who cannot stand the hunger and want the food from that kitchen, even if poisonous; those people who refuse medicine but insist on a cure; everyone a lender and no one a debtor; everyone having rights and no one with privileges; nobody prepared to give up anything.
I do not know that I am, although logic tells me that such a scenario of political, economic, and socio-environmental – and personal – problems in which we are currently ensnared can only begin to be resolved if everyone is prepared to reexamine their grievances in order to give something up, which is the only way to loosen up enough for the dialogue needed to understand that one’s point-of-view will never include that of everyone. Reasoning also tells me that my preferred medicine for the evils of this world cannot serve in every case and at all times. But who said that logic will reign when there is emotion? That fear of being wrong, of being inadequate, insufficient, of losing, of not being, and all the anger and sadness it provokes as it hinders us, providing the emotional challenges necessary for growth.
This is the challenge I will remember as I face another politically strenuous year that might require my action and not just my own initiative to accept that others will not think and act the way I want them to — and that my peace does depend on them dong so. Tracking my own thoughts and emotions, I will have the leeway, as Gilberto said, to better select the moments and efforts to stretch what one can from the tight Right and that hard Left, or working with those annoying deviations of the body that will not change — not only in me, but in others.
Even the jackasses.