Culturally Specific Spiritual Work?

So, first, there is this post that seems to be making the rounds, especially the specifics of “David’s” experience. The there is having David Gordon White’s bits about sinister yogis going through my head (he makes the point in miniature in his book on Patanjali). There is the recent post over at about therapy and mindfulness. The story of David, the experiences with mindfulness as part of disruptive reform program, and the history of revolutionary yogis, opens onto a broader discussion of adopting practices from other cultures. There is a common narrative about these that I think we ought to undercut.

That narrative kicks up around the occult scenes in the face of stories like that of David. There is more than a little ethnic Romanticism at the foundations of  self-identified ‘Western’ occultism (both among ‘magical’ and ‘religious’ strands). When confronted by these stories about the dangers of spiritual work, it manifests as otherwise sensible people muttering gnomic warnings or patting themselves on the back about how careful they are engaging with ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ cultural practices to which ‘Westerners’ aren’t well-suited.

The attitude seems to be that these people struggling either deserved what they got for not taking a more ‘culturally’ appropriate avenue for their spiritual work or would have necessarily been better off following a properly ‘Western’ path. It’s passing colonialist, petty, and bollocks.

(Maybe not as colonialist and bollocks as Joseph Campbell claiming Yoga was meant for Asians whose culture produced weaker egos, but definitely in the same family of thought.)

Colonialist, of course, because these criticisms presume a kind of racial and ethnic ordering of humanity that developed precisely to facilitate Europe’s (and later the United States’s) colonial agenda. Petty because most of these criticisms often carry a whiff of jealousy and sour grapes at supposed ‘fellow’ Westerners abandoning ‘their’ culture.

The bollocks is more complicated. For one, it is bollocks because a lot of the so-called ‘Western’ practices rest on co-options and borrowings that have just been sufficiently forgotten or deliberately suppressed to appear ‘Western.’ In the process of forgetting and concealing this, a significant amount of practical understanding tends to get lost, too, making these practices less effective. For two, and more importantly, this sort of self-gratifying moralizing ignores the similar failures and struggles that go on within their own communities. Much like the stories of David, when these people hit a wall, they, too, are often instructed or advised to double-down on the practices in ways that don’t seem at all helpful.

That failure to recognize their own practice’s failings probably sits atop some fear, too. It serves to ward off the thought that they, competent whatever they are, might fall prey to these sorts of spiritual disasters. Still, the channels through which that fear manifests reveal some unattractive things about the western occult community.

These two bollocksing up can intersect easily enough, as when a person within a Western practice is given a technique from a non-Western culture without a historical appreciation for its many results. The technique is more likely to cause them problems they don’t know how to handle while the culture of Romanticism around it makes it harder for them to see avenues of assistance available outside of their ‘Western’ bubble.

There are two big takeaways for me, though, when I read these sorts of things closely:

  1. We can’t reduce these experiences simply to ‘bad’ or ‘inexperienced’ teachers. There are definitely cases where an inexperienced teacher fails to recognize danger signs and lets a student get in over their head. Still, as David’s story is related, he sought widely within the meditative community for a solution to his problem.
  2. We can’t reduce these experiences simply to cultural difference, to the use of a technique ‘suited’ to those raised in a different cultural milieu. While there probably are cases where problems arise based on cultural mismatch, what I am seeing in both White’s and Steve D.’s discussions is evidence of the inherently disruptive nature of these sorts of techniques. While they are often productively disruptive, it is clear they can also just be disruptive.

While there do seem to be some techniques that presume blood ties and cultural commonalities, these are not as widespread or frequent as ethno-Romanticism implies. Focusing overmuch on that prevents us from addressing the more fundamental issue of technique. These practices are not vague cultural performances, but tools to produce and develop certain ways of being. As in medicines and exercise, therapy and self-discipline, there are a lot of variable at play here.

The question of technique puts at the center of things the interaction of substance and intent, highlighting the dense locus where the two co-determine each other, resisting and yielding, collapsing and stabilizing. Where are the problems rooted? In temperament? In the use of a seemingly unrelated technique elsewhere? In some spiritual injury? In a misconception and misapplication of the technique? The need for supplementary practices to stabilize or modulate the work? These sorts of questions provide us with traction for providing people in trouble with support and aid, spiritual or otherwise. Or, at the very least, not undercutting them while they are in the process of doing that for themselves.

Most of the advantages that someone has in regards to exploring this material inside their own culture are entirely practical ones. If the tradition is established, if it is widespread, they have a body of literature and practitioners whose experience of problems and solutions they can draw upon more easily by virtue of common language and social familiarity. Obviously, these can be ameliorated by all sorts of cultural exchange (traveling teachers and students, translations, etc.).

Those can be significant and immense advantages, but I think they are significantly less so when the culture is European or ‘Western.’ The frequency with which a Western occultist cites a text, often a scholarly one, rather than provide clear counsel rooted in experience of teachers and workers is to me a flagrant sign of the failure of occultism as a tradition. Also, sometimes what someone needs really lies outside their immediate cultural horizon. Concealing that possibility with talk of sticking with one’s culture is a kind of harm.

This goes both ways, of course. There are people chugging along in Asia, practicing their yoga, who might be better served with a round of cognitive-behavioral therapy or a visit to the medical doctor. The fantasy that all mental illness among ‘indigenous’ people is just spiritual distress that they should take to their ‘culturally appropriate’ spiritual experts is toxic, too.

And then, finally, we need to keep in mind that sometimes what is needed is a new fusion of practices that unites their strengths while eliminating their weaknesses. This is part of what the life of a culture is about–the interaction with other cultures to produce practices that transcend the cultures that gave birth to them. It is easy to jump the gun on that, but it is worth keeping that possibility on the table. To do that, everyone involved needs to be better about both respecting each other and talking to each other. Whew, I know, tall order.

Respect, right? That ought not be an empty gesture acknowledging ‘the good in all traditions,’ but a willingness to appreciate their common basis in striving toward a goal, falling short, and working to strive again. And to take that appreciation as a possible point of communication with each other. It is not having the same goal that matters but of being able to support the striving.

5 thoughts on “Culturally Specific Spiritual Work?

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