Tag Archives: Capitalism

Compassion, Privilege, and Spiritual Practice

I just finished spending time at the “Ram Dass Spring on Maui Retreat.” An incredible assortment of teachers were present, including Lama Surya Das, Miribai Bush, Saraswati and Raghu Marcus, Nina Rao, Rameshwar Das and Shantala. Of course for me and many others, our reason for being there was Ram Dass.

It’s hard to put into words what the magic of the retreat was like. Ram Dass showered us with love from his own open heart, and we melted into it. Each of us in our own way blossomed and bathed in the light. We practiced meditation, yoga, chi-gong, kirtan, and listened to dharma talks. Spending time with satsang only deepened the love, and much of the magic occurred during the free time between sessions. People openly divulged their insecurities and fears to strangers during lunch. Hugs, sincere well wishing, deep listening and caring all became so commonplace that it was hard to remember any other way even existed. The love was real, and it felt amazing.

Many asked questions about how to bring this magic back into our daily lives, and others expressed their fear that it would slip away. All of us, I’m sure, sincerely hope that our time in love together will help us to be a little softer, a little more caring, and a little more present and loving in our daily lives.

This is my wish also, but that’s not what was on my mind during this retreat. Instead, I have been consumed with What do I do about all of this privilege that I enjoy at the expense of others, and how does spiritual practice relate to this?

“Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

How does this love benefit the poorest and most marginalized of us?

It is important to be in touch with our own inner well of compassion, presence and love.  If all of us did this then there would be much less suffering and poverty in this world, but in reality the inequality is staggering. We normally think of inequality as the income gap between us and the super rich, but there is also a gaping gap between rich countries like the U.S. and much of the rest of the world.

The inequality gap is so wide that I fear that the love, compassion, and kindness gained from spiritual practices by privileged Americans like me might be disproportionately benefiting other privileged people.

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The Co-opting of Spiritual Practice by our Capitalist Culture

Yoga and meditation have gone mainstream, and it seems psychedelics are on their way too. Now all we need is an authentic spirituality.

Yoga and meditation, once considered to be relics of the 60s, are now practiced throughout the country. Google offers classes for its employees. Nike, Yahoo and HBO offer classes. It’s being offered in prisons and schools. Its everywhere. And its no secret why. There are obvious benefits of yoga and meditation. They can help us to de-stress, relax, focus, raise productivity and increase creativity. There is a growing body of evidence that it can help develop emotional intelligence, strengthen empathy, and offers endless  therapeutic benefits.

Even psychedelics are finding a wider audience. Besides the many notable therapeutic uses, micro-dosing is now all the rage in silicon valley, where it is seen as way of improving memory, cognitive function, mood, and creativity.

How could anyone see a problem with any of it? I think it is great that these practices, once delegated to the fringe counter culture, are finding relevance for mainstream society.  It’s for everyone, and no one should be left out. If anyone told me they wanted to take LSD so they could be more creative at their tech job, I might even gift them the great book by James Fadiman, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.

But I am seeing a troubling trend. Not only are these practices benefiting society, but they are being changed by it as well. Some of this is reasonable and expected. We are westerners engaging in practices from the East, and thus we are going to adapt them to fit our needs. This is not the first time this has happened. As Buddhism spread throughout the East, it assimilated with various cultures to produce the wide spectrum of Buddhism we see today. Tibetan Buddhism is very different in form than Zen, and western Buddhism is developing into its own unique way.

Change is natural. And yet, I can’t fathom in any way that the values of our dominant, neoliberal, materialistic culture can actually coincide with the values of compassion for all sentient life, with our inherent interconnectedness, or the sacredness of everyone.

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