Friday, July 29, 2016
For whom is dis-ease, disease?
The last couple of weeks have been quite a whirlwind, at least in the world of American politics. The storm showed itself first in Cleveland, with the Republican National Convention. Delegations walking out. Shouting on the floor. Apparent plagiarism from the podium. Dark, fear-filled speeches. All amid complaints that the party's nominee wasn't really representative of the party! The winds then blew east to Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention, beginning with a squall raised by leaked emails and the resignation of a party official, leading into another set of walk-outs, "boo's" aimed at venerable speakers, and complaints (1) that the system was "rigged", but also (2) one of the candidates wasn't really representative of the party. The end result of both conventions was that many who had identified with each party, come November, were going to cast their votes for a third-party candidate. They claim that the institutions that had held their voting loyalty were broken and corrupt.
Then, last week, I received in my email inbox a pointer to an article entitled "Sit Down and Shut Up: Pulling Mindfulness Up By Its (Buddhist) Roots" by Max Zahn. While the first part of the title may have been something many of the above-mentioned conventioneers might have been shouting, the article itself points in an entirely different direction. It relays a critique of the current "fad" of corporations encouraging their employees to engage in "mindfulness training", ostensibly to help them deal with workplace stress. Cynics (both in the article and elsewhere) point out that the employers might be less concerned about the employees' stress, than in investing in helping them be more productive. i.e., keeps the cogs in the machine well-oiled. Regardless, there are many who take the training and testify to its overall benefits, benefits beyond the workplace. But the article also raises concerns among some Buddhists that detaching mindfulness from its Buddhist roots is detrimental to both mindfulness itself AND Buddhism. I've heard this same complaint leveled by Hindus (and some Buddhists) about the detachment of yoga from its religious roots.* Several years ago, there was a "fad" among many celebrities adopting forms of mystical Judaism, without (according to their critics) being truly engaged with Judaism at all.
I am not interested in claiming that one political party is less "rigged" or "corrupt" than the other. I am also not interested, really, in whether or not removing a practice from its religious roots is "cultural appropriation". What I do see, in both instances, is a dis-ease with institutional affiliation, or an assertion that the institutions are diseased. That dis-ease is apparent, too, in the flight of many younger people from traditional religions; the numbers of "spiritual but not religious", or "Nones" is rapidly rising. Most of these folks are NOT rejecting things spiritual. They ARE rejecting institutions that seem self-absorbed and/or out-of-touch with current realities.**
The institutional response is often a sort of hand-wringing: "How do we get those disaffected voters back among the party faithful?" "Yoga isn't really yoga unless it retains its ties to our cosmology!" "Grazing at a religious smorgasbord is no substitute for genuine faith!" Yet the wise ones in all of these arenas are beginning to recognize that the critiques they are facing might, indeed, point to areas that need attention. They recognize that institutions, as sociologists assert, inevitably serve to dull passion -- the term of art is "routinization of charisma". Those who flee the institution, or disassociate the institution's "beneficial" practices from the institution's constraints, are, it seems to me, raising a challenge to reform.
The one who expresses dis-ease simply may be pointing to another's disease. Paraphrasing Jesus, let's hope that those who have eyes to see may be able to see that and respond appropriately--bravely and without fear!
* Oddly enough, at the same time,there are places in the US where yoga is being offered in public schools. It is ostensibly separated from its religious roots, yet is criticized by some parents as being "creeping Hinduism".
** Polling data indicates that many millennial, for example, have fled organized Christianity because of a perceived entanglement with conservative political agendae.