The replication of ideas, or memes, has a strikingly viral quality. While we all talk about memes as they relate to social media, perhaps we don’t always consider the implication of ideological memes in our every day lives. These bits of self-replicating information contain cultural ideas that resonate with false authority, and according to philosopher Dan Dennett, the belief that there are ideas worth dying for has become even stronger than the biological imperative in our species.
Learning about this got me thinking about memes in my own life and in the communities I interact with. I came to the conclusion that there are many destructive memes in the spiritual community that keep seekers from living a fully awakened and engaged life, and today I want to explore three of them.
MEME #1 Surrender is the Superhighway to Spiritual Growth
There exists a deeply anti-intellectual current in the yoga tradition and the best way for me to explain this is through my own story. I found myself in yoga teacher training at the bright young age of 16, and as you can probably imagine if you know me at all, I was a total pain in the ass of authority. I was filled with these radical questions like “why?” and “why not?”… and while I wanted a type of discussion and inquiry that I now surprisingly see exists more in a Talmudic schul (hello, Yentl!?) than a yoga school, I was predictably and sometimes subtly put in my place. “Your analytical questioning mind will get in the way of your enlightenment.” That was the meme, and as a meme it wasn’t always something that had to be overtly stated: it was the quiet but deadly rip current that silenced dissent.
Yet it’s not just the fact that discussion wasn’t encouraged, it’s how it is discouraged that I think is vitally important.
While surrendering aspects of our ego and suffering so that we can be liberated from them is a gorgeous and evolutionary inner practice, in relational reality it can become a meme that does violence to our spirit, intuition, and morality. It may be easier to see this when we look to how Islam is currently being interpreted by extremists; this same mechanism is at hand in our everyday spirituality. The word Islam itself means “surrender” or “surrender of self-interest to the will of Allah.” Christians glory in their surrender to God’s word, and many yogic devotees find that surrender to their path, or the Guru, is essential to their spiritual practice.
The most troubling thing about surrender is that it almost glorifies ignorance and it definitely supports an abuse of power. In his book The Purpose-Driven Life, pastor Rick Warren says that “surrendered people obey God’s word, even if it doesn’t make sense.” According to my former yoga teachers, surrender and devotion were the fast track to spiritual progress. Dennett calls this clever meme a move as old as religion itself; it’s “an adaptive wildcard for disarming any reasonable criticism.” This is how a once beautiful spiritual ideal becomes a tool of power.
At the end of the day, a nuanced concept like surrender just doesn’t work within the context of the gross machinations and unbalanced power structures of a spiritual organization or religion that needs to attract and retain followers in order to continue its existence. While the abuses may seem subtle to some, the psychological effect is deep, and includes: trusting oneself less, listening to the individual needs of your body less, and not being present to just how wondrous a thing it is that you experience life differently from other people.
Rx: If you are searching for a genuine experience of surrender consider these advanced spiritual practices: joyfully doing something your partner wants to do that you have zero interest in, calling someone you’ve been avoiding, letting someone have the last word in a heated argument, or speaking up when you would rather stay hidden.
Surrender the comfort zone of your constricting preferences a little bit each day; Surrender to the wise part of you that wants to be more loving and connected. The Guru is within.
MEME #2 Spiritual People Focus on the Positive
As a member of the extended Cafe Gratitude community, it’s no surprise that I think focusing on gratitude can be a transformative practice. But when we start focusing on the positive at the expense of our own voices and values, even a transformational practice can become a delusional one. The world is not all coming up roses, my friends. As powerful and restorative as it is to shift our perceptions to what is nourishing about our lives, doing this at the expense of challenging injustice in the world isn’t a life-sustaining practice.
While a growing number of spiritual programs integrate karma yoga and seva (selfless service) into their offerings, I still have no sense that the yoga community has an interest in making students more daring in their political engagement. In fact I would argue that many of the spiritual reality memes of our time actively discourage taking a critically considered position on the state of the world and speaking out about it. The thing is, spiritual memes are a lot like the oxygen masks that drop from airplane ceilings: it’s important to know that they are there when you need them, but they are best used for existential crises and other mental-health-day emergencies. Acceptance is the heroin of spiritual memes; while I’d argue that there are legitimate medical reasons for taking opiates, recreationally they are bad news. As Karl Marx (in)famously put it, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".
Marx’s statement hints at an even more guileful way that positive thinking works against structural change, by intentionally averting people’s gaze from a more complicated reality. In her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Barbara Ehrenreich explains that “there is no question that religions have historically played the role of making people contented with their lot. Such a doctrine would be very appealing to the ruling classes of a society. Many societies for this reason alone encourage the contentment with your lot that the religious promise of heaven affords.” But your own personal heaven-on-earth is just as good a fantasy, right? There are a million ways that capitalist culture promotes the idea that everything is ok and we should keep calm and keep buying. Whether we are touched by picturesque sunlit credit card commercials or tempted by Lululemon cleavage-enhancing knickers really makes no difference, because we’ve already been sold on what they are selling: a life of (quietly) exploitative and socially unaccountable consumerism.
I would like us to consider the life of Ajhan Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai Buddhist activist concerned with “how we might use the Buddha’s teachings to alleviate poverty, stem environmental devastation, and stop human rights abuses.” (source) Sulak has been known to challenge and educate even the most prominent of Buddhist teachers: the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, who both consider Sulak a friend. At the National Gathering of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Ajahn Sulak addressed his extended Buddhist community thusly, “Some people want to be ‘goody goody Buddhists’ saying nice things all the time and never challenging power. We believe in nonviolence, but that means we cannot ignore the long-term harm caused by structural violence.”
Or as Ehrenreich would remind us, “There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.”
Rx: Let’s not be extremists. Axe-ing ideas of acceptance and oneness in our lives would be antithetical to deepening our connection with people and the world. But we must take these concepts in homeopathic doses and apply them to the areas of our lives that we have little to no power over. We can feel the cool breeze of acceptance while we keep our feet moving on the hot sand of an engaged life. We can become detached from the insignificant or petty aspects of the ego, but not let our aversion to attachment keep us from recognizing when someone (or the planet) needs CPR.
Find the beauty in politics through the works of authors like Joanna Macy, Arundhati Roy, and Darrin Drda.
MEME #3 Focusing on our Personal Evolution is a Planetary Act
From time to time I am sure we all curl up in the existential warmth of this meme: loving yourself is a revolutionary act. It pretty much goes hand in hand with you can’t be in a successful relationship until you learn to love yourself. Which. SEEMS. True. Right? Intuitively, it just feels like…yeah. This is a favorite topic in Social Psychology classes because of its ubiquity in our culture. The truth is perhaps more nuanced: many people learn to love themselves by first being loved by another. Truly loving oneself undoubtedly takes courage (and some de-conditioning) in the world that we live in, yet the shadow side of this meme is that culturally we are all total narcissists. We live primarily for ourselves, which is likely to blame for our astronomical divorce rate. Chasing our personal dreams and passions is the motto of our very individualistic culture. We may not have the kind of tender metta compassion for our inner fissures that would constitute true love, but collectively we are obsessed with treating ourselves like we are the most important person in the world. This is a fraudulent love of the self if ever there was one, and does little to heal us or the world.
To top it off, we have convinced ourselves that the most powerful thing we can do for the planet is to work on ourselves. In fact, I have seen yoga teacher trainings that promote themselves as “human being training”. This evokes the kind of emotion in me that there is simply no english word for: it is saccharine and sour and bitter all at once. Yes, yoga can change lives! At its best it is a profound reorientation to the world that allows us to remove some of the visual layers separating us from seeing ourselves and the world. I get it. But, it is still a religious belief to say that spending three weeks and three grand overkilling your asana, eating organic vegan food, and chanting mantra is doing anything to grow the kind of world that would make this possible for anyone other than privileged elites. The world does not need more yoga teachers, it needs more yoga practitioners who are willing to engage profoundly with their values by stepping “off the mat and into the world”. Teaching yoga is a skill, but living yoga is a radiant blessing.
If yoga is a practice of “turning the light on” I would suggest that the idea isn’t to be perpetually surrounded by other people with turned on lights. We must turn our torches into the shadows and illumine entire worlds of darkness. We must be brave enough to look suffering and despair in the eye, even when it makes us uncomfortable. As we gain insight into the nature of our minds, we have a home court advantage in the world. You don’t have to be perfect or free from anger (and your perceived mastery will only feed your ego anyway) all you need is the tiniest bit of courage. Just a very wee bit of a feeling that you have an absolute right to be here on this planet, and so do a lot of other beings.
Rx: Grab a post it and write this mantra down: “have light, will travel”. (Tweet it) Whisper it to yourself in the shower. Remember the great responsibility of good-fortune. Remember that you exist in unity.