I am yet to purchase a yoga mat, and not just because the acts performed upon it would be very likely to hurt. I am yet to purchase a yoga mat largely thanks to Constance, my ambitious former neighbour.
It was two years ago that Constance moved from our unremarkable street to a much nicer one in the north. She left when her dreams of promotion within the finance industry were realised, and when she did, she took her yoga mat, her meditation bells and, I don’t know, her handmade hemp Mayan Calendar with her.
Constance was one of those Western persons to whom the phrase “cultural appropriation” had never meaningfully occurred. It is not easy to evoke for you the attitude she took to the world’s many customs. Perhaps imagine me, drunk, at an all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast. Which is to say, a white lady busily elbowing everybody out of the way in the effort to pile too many different things on her plate.
My neighbour would often say that she was “nourished” by her feast at the global spiritual buffet. I would often feel a little queasy at this claim. This was, in part, because her overeating of Reiki, dreamcatchers, Vipassana minibreaks etc. continued to recall, quite precisely, how I do behave at all-you-can-eat hotel breakfasts. It was also, of course, due to her lack of interest in those cultures that had produced the practices she so liberally took.
But it was also down to a kind of sadness I felt for Constance. I knew this routine of hers was not “nourishing”. It was a compulsion.
Constance was not gorging on the globe for sustenance; not even for pleasure. She did not explore “Eastern” techniques in thought or Native American weekends of purification to feel better. She did it to excel at work.
This buffet-breakfast habit of cultural theft is not just a problem for Constance. It is an institutional virus spread from some of the world’s most competitive companies. Rupert Murdoch has publicly spoken of his fondness for transcendental meditation. Silicon Valley routinely appoints people to lead exercises in non-Western spiritual practice. There are even reports that Ivy League business schools, those cradles of cruel ambition, guide the capitalists of tomorrow to thoughts of “self-compassion”, a quality I would have supposed to be already present in such a student group.
Not only is a dishonour done to yoga when it becomes, as in the Constance case, a work performance technique. A dishonour is done to the self.
The practices of the powerful are those that tend to become powerfully present in the culture. If billionaires treat Buddhism and Hinduism as a convenience store, then, your well-paid neighbour is quite likely to do so as well. Eventually, the behaviour becomes office standard, and you find yourself defiling entire religions because some guy in upper-management had a weekend at a luxury health retreat where he heard that chakra activation exercises were good for productivity. Anyhow. I don’t work there anymore, and nor do any of my chakras.
We all, however, bumped into a former colleague from that office last week. He asked me how I was doing, and I made some crack about being much calmer without the calming influence of corporate meditations. I asked him how he was doing, and he said that he was great now he’d started combining mindfulness exercises with the techniques of popular neuroscience. “It’s like a self-hack for the spirit,” he said. And I briefly imagined dumping my buffet breakfast eggs on his enlightened head.
There is such deep estrangement in this Western work practice of refining its own efficiency with techniques taken from outside itself. Not only is a dishonour done to yoga when it becomes, as in the Constance case, a work performance technique. A dishonour is done to the self.
Our work drives us to train our minds. But our minds are not driven to change our work. Which is an institution that certainly needs changing. If it did not, it would not be full with people gasping for stolen spiritual air.