Ways of Seeing, by Joanna Colwell: New age spirituality can be poisonous!

Let me begin this column by thanking my friend for posting a video called “Ten pieces of Wisdom from Wayne Dyer.” Like much New Age spirituality, these little teachings contain some truth, but I think overall they promote a dangerous worldview. That’s why I left a comment after the video saying “Deeply problematic white people words.” The yoga world is full of these harmful ideas, so I have had many years to ponder why they are so appealing and what might be some stronger, more real medicine for our troubled times. Gentle readers, will you take a journey with me through some of these aphorisms?
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Okay, let’s say I am looking at a pile of garbage. Granted, there are different ways one can look at a pile of garbage. One way would be to say, “Yikes, our household makes a lot of garbage, I wonder what we could do to produce less garbage?” Then we could start composting (which reduces one’s household waste by one third), we could start buying more food in bulk, instead of purchasing heavily packaged items, and, if we really want to become trash reducing super stars, we could start buying less stuff in general. Now these life changes, which I highly recommend, will take some effort and energy, and are sure to reduce subsequent trash piles in your house. But do they change that original pile of garbage we were contemplating? No, they do not.
“You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.” It is really great to learn to like, or better yet, love yourself. But isn’t it possible that some people are lonely because human beings are social animals? Our primate ancestors thrive in groups, and whether we are extroverted or introverted, a certain amount of human contact including conversation, hugs and meal sharing seems to make life more bearable. Instead of asking a lonely person if they could love themselves more, how about we ask ourselves if there are any people we know who might like a visit?
“Conflict cannot survive without your participation.” This is an interesting notion, and as a gold medal conflict avoider, I can see the appeal. But some conflicts are essential. As a female bodied person, I enjoy the right to vote because my ancestors didn’t shy away from conflict. Did you know that in the fight for women’s suffrage in Great Britain, in the early 1900s, many women learned the martial art jiu-jitsu to protect themselves from police violence?
“Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.” Really? It’s ALWAYS my choice? What about all those people in Charleston, S.C., whose family members were murdered while they were at bible study, by white supremacist Dylann Roof? What about the millions of children of migrant families living in fear that our next president will deport their parents? I suspect this definition of misery is a very narrow one. This is a real American “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” version of happiness. Most of us were raised with this idea, in some way. It boils down to this: “If you are miserable, it’s your own damn fault. Get up and make something of yourself.” Is this loving? Is this kind?
“Abundance is not something we acquire. It’s something we tune into.” Oh boy does this one make me mad! Does the person who came up with that idea (I’m looking at you, Wayne Dyer) know that in the United States, white people have 90 percent of the national wealth, and black families hold 2.6 percent? Is this because African American citizens aren’t “tuned into abundance?” Give me a break!
“Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.” Now I will agree that having a hostile attitude is bound to be a terrible way to go through life, and greeting my fellow humans with kindness and good cheer will make each day sweeter. But what about the terrible hostility innocent people experience every day? Was Tamir Rice hostile? (He was not. He was only 12 years old. But that didn’t stop police officers from ending his life.) So it’s a nice idea that if we are loving the world around us will be loving, but it does not take into account the evil in the world. Police brutality, abuse of children, rape. These are hostile actions that cause untold physical and psychic pain to loving people every day.
If we really want to live up to our full potential, as human beings, we are called to be honest with ourselves, and loving with those around us. Honesty means looking at all the ways we have been privileged to enjoy the life and material resources that we have. (Privileged doesn’t mean you have a trust fund, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard. It just means many people are struggling, through no fault of their own.) Loving means not only being kind to those we directly interact with every day, but being brave enough to confront systems of oppression that keep people poor, struggling to survive and afraid. Loving means letting go of the mentality that “you create your own reality,” and replacing it with a sincere desire for all people to be free.
“Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.” I think I like this one. Let’s keep it as it is.
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected].

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