Yoga, and the ownership, or non-ownership, of culture

I recently came across an interesting article by a blogger called Satinder. Satinder is an American who, somewhere along the line, chose to convert to Sikhism, (and in so doing change his name), also an experienced practitioner and teacher of ashtanga yoga, and a man who spends as much time as he can living in India. Satinder had also read a thought-provoking article, it seems, on the topic of cultural appropriation. In view of his chosen lifestyle, which includes the daily rituals of his faith, he ponders, in his blog post, whether or not his adopted path and traditions might fall under the category of said appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a relatively new term to me, and going by the contexts in which I have seen it come up, seems to have emerged principally to provide people with another excuse to get indignant about stuff. It is another conveniently coined term to allow those who feel so inclined to judge, condemn, criticize, or troll the behaviour of others on social media. I’m not saying there are no occasions on which this concept provides the basis for valid debate (and indeed Satinder’s reflections on his relationship to India are a case in point), but it seems to me they are generally smothered by the wave of self-righteous defenders of moral high ground, keen to point out just how wrong, or even disrespectful, are those who might feel attracted to cultural traditions that are not those of their birth, or worse, dare to take any of these on board and make them a part of their lives.

I am also a student and practitioner of yoga, and I’d like to look at this whole thing from a somewhat loose yoga perspective. This is an interesting exercise, I feel, since for many of us, for whom yoga asana to begin with, but also other yogic practices, have become a non-negotiable part of our waking hours, integrating aspects of Indian culture into our way of being is a natural extension to our commitment to the practice.

The word yoga, as we would ideally all learn before we’ve ever even unrolled a yoga mat, means union – union with the Divine. Which in our human experience means connecting with the divine within us. The path of yoga leads us to an exploration of Truth, as opposed to falsity. It invites us to learn to distinguish between the Relative and the Absolute. I will leave any further philosophical instruction on the path of the yogi to wiser and more erudite souls than I (of whom Satinder may well be one, which is why I invite you to look at his blog), but suffice it to say that even a non-initiate will easily recognize that branding an act, attitude or behavioral pattern as cultural appropriation, is a relative point of view. As with beauty, in such matters ‘error’ also, is in the eye of the beholder.

Yoga encourages us to turn our gaze within, to quieten the mind, and connect with the ground of our being. It points us gently in the direction of our true identity, the essence of ourselves, that part which simply IS. Being has no attributes, no characteristics. It is timeless and unconditioned. If we pause for a moment and firmly say, “I am!”, that feeling of existing, of being, remains the same, whatever the time of day, whatever our age, and whatever the circumstances.

What is commonly referred to as the ego, or, as Eckhart Tolle would say, the egoic mind, is that part of us which postures as our true self, the ideas, opinions, beliefs and so on that make up an identity. Our own identity, we often conclude.

Why is this relevant here? Simply because the more we connect with the depths of our Being, and the more we cultivate Presence, that constant awareness behind whatever goings-on, or ‘content’, each moment may offer us, the more mind activity appears as a peripheral phenomenon. In the same way, any habit we may form, or ritual we may embrace, however beautiful, profound, or rooted in age-old tradition, concerns the outer layer of our lives. Cultural considerations are therefore, in a way, superficial. Not, however, in the habitual sense of the word, which is somewhat derogatory and suggests a certain shallowness, lack of substance, and perhaps even illegitimacy to something. It simply means that they are present only on the surface of our space of being. There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying culture, feeling particularly fulfilled thanks to one’s own, or being drawn to one we find more exotic, spiritual, or meaningful. But as soon as we identify with it, that is, make it a part of who we feel we are, we are strengthening the relative aspect of ourselves. The personality, preferences, and tendencies of our present incarnation (regardless of whether there be others), exist no doubt for our enjoyment, and the diversity and variety of individuals is what gives its uniqueness to the great mosaic of humanity. It can be very satisfying, for example, to feel more Taoist than Buddhist, or an introspective person rather than an ebullient one. The point is simply not to lose sight of that fact that beyond this, lies the clear space of pure existence.

Let us remember, (or perhaps – deep breath – simply feel), that Being is formless. As advaita vedanta, the school of non-duality, reminds us, before being someone or something, I AM, quite simply.

Excessive attachment to any given culture, equates to identification with form. If I appropriate something, and think it is a part of me, I risk being once more seduced by a pleasant self-image that is nothing more than a projected vision on the screen of my mind. Opinions also, as we well know, are attachments to mind-forms. An opinion differs from a perspective, the latter allowing us to see clearly if things are, say, harmful or beneficial. The main distinction being that we invest no sense of self, and no emotion, in perspectives, whereas opinions are charged with some degree of self-interest and a subtle (or less subtle) sense of feeling we are ‘right’.

The egoic mind, of course, thrives on such feelings, because they make it feel very much alive. Culture and traditional customs, being things people feel strongly about, (and justifiably so given, among other things, the atrocities that have been committed against some of the world’s most beautiful embodiments of it), are good topics to drag us into the arena of the conditioned mind, the troublesome one that argues, debates, asserts, retracts, wavers, and generally behaves inconsistently.

Having an opinion about whether or not something is cultural appropriation, is a good example of attachment to a mind-form. It is active and deliberate involvement with the thought that says, (judgmentally mostly), “This behaviour is cultural appropriation” (and therefore bad.). From a yogic perspective, this is just another one of the infinite opportunies for the egoic mind to feel good about itself. A chance to feel smug. A not-to-be-missed opportunity to look down on those who display such ignorant behaviour. Let us not forget that egoic mind activity feeds to its greatest advantage off strong emotions, such as outrage.

Here, I must acknowledge that it’s true that committing seriously to a regular yoga practice of some kind is no guarantee a person will have enough conscious awareness in their daily lives to avoid indulging in the thrills of judgmental argument. And I choose my words with care. I say ‘indulge’, because which of us has not felt, at some point, the rush, or the high, of feeling ‘right’, in a position of authority, or of having the upper hand?

Though the image has now become almost a cliché, traditionally, when a yogi chooses not to live as a recluse, he aims to be “in the world, but not of the world.” He is unlikely to be preoccupied with concepts that revolve around how we see ourselves or others. In fact, he will not be very interested in seeing himself, but in knowing himself. From this standpoint, ideas like cultural appropriation are just mind-games. The mind longs for entertainment, but yoga suggests we give the entertainment a break (we can always return to it at a later stage) and instead, quieten the mind, thereby saving ourselves the trouble of buying into its newest militant cause or yarn.

The great Indian sage (many saw him as a saint) Nisargadattah Maharaj, often said, “One day you will have to unlearn everything you have learnt.” Someday we will have to abandon all the ideas we think we possess as our own. Few of us would claim we have no ‘baggage’, no familiar clutter up in the mind, without which we would be much better off. And much of this, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, may well feel like a part of us, components of our identity.

The yogi would perhaps do well to be less preoccupied with appropriation of things (his own or anyone else’s), and more with disappropriation. Now and again, a little relinquishing of ownership, of any custom or behavior pattern that makes us feel more ourselves, might not be a bad idea. This includes disowning thoughts that might arise, such as, “That Western girl, with the henna tattoo and the vermilion dot on her forehead, is a prime example of cultural appropriation.” For as anyone who has tried even simply to sit in stillness will have observed, thoughts just arise, we do not create them. As of course do ideas, which is why we speak of “having an idea.” There is no need to get drawn into claiming them as our own. And as Maharaj also pointed out, the gnani (the liberated man, or sage) owns nothing, not even his body.

And yet, there is a beautiful paradox here. The gnani, whose yoga journey is complete, sees no difference between himself and others. He experiences no personal self, or separate identity. He owns nothing, holds no beliefs, and nurtures no thoughts. And yet, “I am all, and all is me,” said Maharaj. And so I return to the Christian culture to which some may see me as belonging, and the word of God as recorded in Luke 15:31: “all that I have is yours.”

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