I often hear in yoga classes the idea that, by changing one’s reaction to the current situation, the situation might subjectively change from suffering to something more like curiosity or contentment. Clearly, detachment from the biases and subjectivity of everyday perception and thought is a very healthy thing to cultivate. But it seems to me that an emphasis on awareness, without a subsequent use of that awareness to make changes, leads to a sort of complacency about the actual material problems facing us. I have no objection to modern yoga’s presentation as a practice that is compatible with everyday life, including having a job and participating in consumer capitalism. But the implication that the problems of living today are all subjective ignores the real changes that need to happen.
Anthropologist Marvin Harris has written about the myth that modern life is dominated by a rationalist, objectivist, competitive orientation and that the appropriate response is to subjectively snap out of the dominant ideological narrative. The problem is not that this narrative isn’t wrong; it’s that the narrative isn’t the cause but the effect of the material organization of society. The stories in our heads are more than just a distraction from the current moment: they are also persistent ideological roadblocks to addressing socioeconomic issues. In other words, the powers that be benefit from you being more content with your given material situation.
“Doctrines that prevent people from understanding the causes of their social existence have great social value. In a society dominated by inequitable modes of production and exchange, lifestyle studies that obscure and distort the nature of the social system are far more common and more highly valued than the mythological ‘objective’ studies dreaded by the counter-culture. …
“None of the pathologies of contemporary life can be blamed on an overdose of scientific objectivity concerning the causes of lifestyle phenomena. … And what has scientific objectivity got to do with the infinite itch of consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and conspicuous waste, built-in obsolescence, status hunger, the TV wasteland, and all the other weird driving forces of our competitive capitalist economy? …By struggling to demystify our ordinary consciousness we shall improve the prospects for peace and economic and political justice.” (Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. Random House, 1974: pp.257-266)
Noticing when we are stuck in our heads, living in an idea of reality instead of on actual perceptions of reality, is immensely useful. But the fact is that those ideas are not only a product of neutral laziness or even neurosis, but also serve to explain and justify the status quo. Just “dropping out” of the mainstream way of thinking does not erase the socioeconomic organization that it defends. The way forward is not to trip out on the fact that there is no real justification for modern middle-class lifestyles. (And from there, to find some other, exotic, source of meaning…) By the same token, the way forward in dealing with tight shoulders is not to just bask in observing their tightness. Sticky situations are more difficult precisely because they require vigilant mindfulness to navigate without making things worse. But if we want to change the world, awareness is only the first step.