Spirituality: The New Opiate of the People (Pt. III)


So now Lenovo is in on it too.

Meet “Yoga,” their new laptop/tablet thingy.

Why call it “Yoga?”

Because it can bend in all sorts of directions of course.

So sure, why not, let’s call it Yoga because of course that’s what yoga is about right? Being able to bend?

I saw the commercial last week. Fits quite nice with my original plan regarding this series of posts, for in the commodification of spirituality, eastern religious traditions has become quite the fodder for exploitation. This results, state Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, in “the wisdom of diverse ancient civilizations (becoming) commodified in order to serve the eclectic interest of ‘spiritual consumers’…This fragmentation becomes a key part of the marketing strategy for contemporary forms of ‘spirituality…rich and complex traditions are exploited by a selective re-packaging of the tradition, which is then sold as the ‘real thing'” (87).

In particular, Carrette and King detail such processes in relation to the Western exploitation of Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In previous posts I have traced along the privatization of religion and the spiritual as it relates to the “emergence of the ‘modern’ consciousness of an atomistic and autonomous self” (88). Such a construction of self has “had a profound impact upon the reception of Asian religious traditions and philosophies in the Western world where they have overwhelmingly been translated introspective and otherworldly spirituality concerned primarily with the achievement of individual enlightenment with little in the way of a social conscience or orientation to change the world in which that individual lives” (89).


In introducing their readers to this process, the authors highlight Stephen Russell’s overwhelmingly successful books such as Barefoot Doctor’s Handbook for the Urban Warrior: A Spiritual Survival Guide and his Return of the Urban Warrior. Such are examples of what they call a “pick and mix approach” which not only characterizes typical New Age approaches to eastern traditions, but also “stands in a long tradition of European colonialist attitudes toward Asia” (89) and what “we have here is the commodification of other people’s cultures, available for selective appropriation” (89-90).


The Chinese classic Tao te Ching is but one of the many texts that becomes “reduced to a philosophy of worldly accomodationism, tailored to reduce the stress and strain of modern urban life for relatively affluent westerners” (90). Taoism, as such, has become widely popular in the western New Age spirituality as evidenced by the great many book titles that make use of the word “Tao”. At the time of Selling Spirituality‘s publication (2005), Carrette and King offer a list of such titles. In all, they note 67 various titles (not a comprehensive list at the time) and organize such titles by general topic including, but not limited to, science (i.e. The Tao of Immunology), sports (The Tao of the Jump Shot), parenting (The Tao of Eating), art (The Tao of Design), personal relationships (The Tao of Conversation) , and business (The Tao of Sales). And let’s not forget about The Tao of Elvis! I shudder to think of how many titles have been added to the list in the last nine years.

Taoism is very old, highly complex, and a tradition with great variety and while not the place to go into all of such, suffice it to say that the Western appropriation of such multiplicity white-washes a tradition and flattens them out. Of the great variety, it can be helpful to classify Taoism in two broad categories: philosophical and religious. And while guilty of a little white-washing here, “the basic themes within the early tradition are a return to natural simplicity by giving up social conventions and living a more authentic and spontaneous existence” (91). Perhaps the irony with Western individualism is that while people think they are living authentic lives by priding themselves in their individuality, such is but one more social convention! With everyone being individual, they are just another part of the herd. Furthermore, Taoism has “been overwhelmingly oriented toward the community…rather than the pursuit of individual self-interest, and even in its more philosophical and world-renouncing aspects appear to offer a considerable challenge to modern western ideas of an autonomous and self-serving individual” (95).


Buddhism wisdom too has been appropriated in the Western spiritual market. In particular, it would seem that Zen Buddhism has been the object of such. Like Taoism, Buddhism is a rich and varied tradition and while again this is neither the time nor the place to go into such variety, suffice it to say for the time being that when one gets down to it, Buddhist philosophy is quite contrary to the Western emphasis on the autonomous individual. Buddha taught that the autonomous individual self is in fact a delusion. It is not real. We construct our sense of self through attachments, aversions, and ignorance. As such, the “autonomous self” is precisely the problem to be overcome for attachment to the individual self is that which causes us to suffer.

Moreover, Buddha was, in many respects, a social revolutionary and his movement a social revolution. Again, the western exploitation of a religious tradition overlooks this, for the corporatization of the religious in the name of the “spiritual” is to placate people, further enfold them in the status quo under the guise of an obsessive individual pursuit of well-being. Born and raised within India, Siddhartha Gotama (The Buddha) was a prince, a member of the kshatriya caste, the caste of nobles. What was so revolutionary about the Buddha? Well Indian society was organized by the caste system in which there was no social mobility. There were the upper castes, the brahmins (priests) and kshatriyas. Below them the vaishyas and shudras. Then of course there were the untouchables and much like Jesus taught to the sinners, the prostitutes, the sick–Buddha accepted members from all castes, thus offering a revolutionary alternative to this rigid social organization.

While Carrette and King delve into much more detail regarding Buddhism, before I proceed onward, I end the current discussion with the following:

“The kind of New Age teachings that we commonly find sold to us…reflect a very western cultural obsession with the individual self and a distinct lack of interest in compassion, the disciplining of desire, selfless service to others and questions about social justice” (114)

Compassion, disciplining of desire, selfless service. All fundamental components of Buddhist thought.


Last but not least, I return to where I began: yoga.

Now I should say I have previously written on the American practice of yoga in a post titled Amer-I-Can Upanishad: A Social Commentary and will not take up much more of your time repeating myself in these regards, so I will just summarize briefly here with a few quotes and comments. First, we should remember that Yoga as a practice developed in India.

What both Buddhism and yogic philosophy hold in common “is a comprehensive and radical critique of the conventional ego-driven and particularized self that sees itself as the all-important focus of our lives–as the centers of our universes” (116).

While yoga is meant to challenge “our everyday understanding of the self and its desires,” such is lost “when yoga is transformed in modern western societies into an individualized spirituality of the self, or, as we are increasingly seeing, repackaged as a cultural commodity to be sold to the ‘spiritual consumer'” (116). Being stripped of its religious component is precisely why yoga has become popular in the west. In its context, yoga was a practice and a philosophy to cut through the bullshit that is the ego/individual self in effort to experience Brahman, the true divine reality, the closest Hinduism comes to the Western conception of God.

In essence, yogic philosophy is saying the person you think you are–the person you identify yourself as (the ego/the I/the individual) is not who you truly are. Upanishadic texts, the primary sources for Hindu philosophy as transmitted by those who practiced yoga and sought the truth by renouncing society to live an ascetic life in the forest, state “You are that, You are that.” The “that” is none other than Brahman. No wonder American yoga is a stripped down, simplified, and gross misappropriation of the philosophy for we, prideful as we are in our individuality, don’t want to be told we are not who we think we are–that our individualness is nothing but a load of BS.

Western yoga “has emphasized physical postures and perhaps breath-control techniques, but tends to ignore the ethical and ascetic dimensions of yoga practice. Similarly there is much less emphasis, if any, upon the explicit goal of such yoga systems, which is the realization of a state of heightened and internalized awareness that transforms one’s conception of the self and the universe as a whole…Ancient techniques of introspection an self-control designed to transform one’s orientation away from a false identification with the individual self and leading to a deep confrontation with one’s existential condition, become instead optional methods for relieving daily stress and allowing individuals to cope better with the stresses and strains of the modern capitalist world. An arduous path to enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of rebirths becomes yet again another modern method for pacifying and accommodating individuals to the world in which they find themselves” (118-120; emphasis added).


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