Spiritual Infants

“Being from the yoga world I can totally relate to the flavoured vapidity that comes out of the mouths in my circle. I have to say I can’t take it anymore. I know everyone needs to be validated and their trauma seen but is it just me or what happened to “pick yourself up and dust yourself off”? This is what I taught my kids- our phrase was “no biggie” whenever something didn’t turn out as expected. If I see one more article on “being vulnerable” I’m going to puke. Do you think society has swung too far to the snowflake side?”


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This is the million dollar question isn’t it?

Because it points to that widening chasm between the “suck it up” bootstraps culture of the old guard and the “validate me” easy-to-take-offence culture of the millennial generation. In spirituality as well, we have seen a similar arc – where the brutally unforgiving austerities of the ascetic cultures have given way to self-indulgent sentimentality of the new age.

What gives?

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CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

In this, the century of the self, we have been led to believe that everything revolves around our own individual existence. Beginning with the establishment of the democratic system which places the individual front and center in determining who will govern. To the emergence of the fields of marketing and advertising which identify the individual consumer as being the ultimate decider on what will be produced, what will be consumed and what will be invented. To the emergence of financial markets in which individual stock and shareholder unanimously determines how the markets react and how the economy will be impacted.

None of this seems unusual to us until we realize that it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, for most of recorded history it was entirely the opposite. The ordinary individual’s impact on society was almost negligible – restricted to a few personal relationships and one’s standing within the local community. The idea that “one person” has the power to dictate how the nation would be governed, how industries would produce, how the economy would fare would be the equivalent of telling someone that “one person” could dictate how fast the moon could revolve, or how high the waves could swell or what time the sun could rise.

We don’t fully fathom what kind of power we have been endowed with. And with the advent of the internet and the proliferation of social media, an individual’s impact on the whole has magnified exponentially. We’ve arrived at a point when a troll can rile a president and a hacker can influence an election while still in their underwear. All of this only serves to validate repeatedly to us that the world does indeed revolve around us.

And we are not wrong to assume this because human society has been constructed to cater for this very kind of thinking. Because if a person is given the “illusion of control” they become predictable and easily controlled. If a person is allowed to believe that every little idiosyncrasy and petty concern of theirs is of monumental importance then they will likely lose themselves in their own trivialities and surrender the “bigger decisions” that concern the collective to authorities outside themselves.

What we call “culture” is really a power play. It is the strategy that those in power use to control the masses. And culture evolves because the control strategy is always changing. Before people were ruled with an iron fist, now they are ruled with a pat on the back. Before the masses were deprived and heavily censored in order to get them to obey, now they are indulged with every form of pleasure imaginable.

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AN ETERNAL INFANCY

“There are two kinds of suffering. Not getting what you want. And getting everything you want.” Deprivation when taken to an extreme creates poverty which is a terrible brand of suffering. Yet, “decadence” is the other extreme in which everything one wants is provided for with nearly no limitations. And decadence brings a more insidious and almost invisible brand of suffering. A “soul sickness” in which the body is fed and the brain stimulated yet the spirit is impoverished.

And so we see that decadence is the malaise of our first world cultures. And it is precisely in these cultures that we see the widespread phenomenon of the “infantalization” of the adult individual. In other words, in the absence of any real obstacles or challenges growing up, most adults today never really end up growing up at all. They remain stunted, in many ways, in a narcissistic self-centered view of life and the world.

We are all born narcissists. An infant’s only concern is with their own needs and wants. Yet, the process of maturing is one in which the locus of one’s attention gradually shifts beyond the individual’s own personal world to a wider perspective of the collective and of the whole. And what motivates an individual to “step out of themselves” is the experience of deprivation. When what I want is not provided for I am forced to seek it in creative ways. And in that process of seeking, I inevitably encounter obstacles and challenges that allow me to grow in awareness of who I am and what I am capable of. And further through that process I come to understand who others are and what they are capable of. The eventual outcome of all this is the realization that we are all essentially the same and we are all capable of essentially the same things in different measure.

Yet, a person who has hardly been deprived has no motivation to undertake such a journey. They remain stunted in their growth. With no obstacles to overcome or challenges to face they come to believe that who they are is merely the sum of their own wants and needs. And further that the purpose of the world is to satisfy those wants and needs. They remain infants in adult bodies.

And if you look at society today everything in our consumerist culture is designed to promote and maintain that “infantilized” state. What do you want to wear? What do you want to play? What do your friends say about you? What things do you like? What things do you hate? These are the sorts of questions marketing companies are asking of grown adults in order to determine the kinds of products and trends that will dominate our societies. These are the kinds of questions I ask my five year old.

So, it isn’t surprising in the least that we have an entire generation that now believes that every whim and fancy, every opinion and frustration must not only be catered for but taken very, very seriously. After all if marketing companies and now even governments are doing it, then it must be very important indeed.

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JUNGLE LAW

Yet, beyond the dynamics of human society there is this other thing called “life”. And many tend to conflate the two because we are so immersed in the human game we lose sight of the fact that not all of life is “human”. In fact, “human” is a small subset of it. Our morals, our ethics, our wants and desires, our frustrations and our emotional hurts only have context within the boundaries of the scaffolding of society we have rigged up over the last six thousand years. But nature’s laws are different entirely.

In nature, justice, fairness, equality, ethics and such have no relevance whatsoever. Here there are no perpetrators and victims – only predators and prey. And there are no restraining orders or justice one can seek in a court of law. There is only jungle law. And jungle law states that only the fittest survive and the ones that perish are shown not an ounce of mercy. It is a ruthless reality that we have spent the last six millennia trying to find a way out of. And we have succeeded quite well in building an artifice of civilization and sophistication.

Now, we can claim to live in a world where fairness can exist. Where justice can be upheld. Where predators are perpetrators and the prey are indeed victims. And we can offset these behaviours with various punishments and austerities so as to approach an increasingly idyllic existence where the lion does, indeed finally, lay down with the lamb.

Yet, we forget that our bodies are far too ancient. And while the prefrontal cortex has learned to quickly dominate and override the rest of the brain, there are still entire portions to us that only respond to jungle law. No amount of sensitivity training, socialization and indoctrination is ever going to change that. Any efforts to suppress that wildness within us only leads to bizarre and unexpected backlash effects.

The older generation, still has some sense of this. They understand that while society may be designed to be fair, “life” isn’t fair. While society can be designed to care, “life” doesn’t give a shit. While society can be setup to cater to our whims and pleasures, “life” only rewards those who challenge and seek. While society may create an environment where all are provided for, in “life” only to the victor go the spoils.

And precisely because “life” is the foundation and society is only the scaffolding one must first and foremost be equipped to respond to jungle law BEFORE one upholds the laws of man. Yet, when we lose sight of this and begin to align ourselves only to our ideals, neglecting the worldview that our bodies and a large portion of our brains inhabit, then we effectively create an alienation within ourselves.

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PARADOX OF CHAOS

This alienation lies at the heart of the epidemic of anxiety and depression that has swept the world. Having every want and whim granted to us, we have developed practically no survival skills. We have not been encouraged to face our fears or take responsibility for our own suffering. All that is projected outwards and made someone else’s job. We have outsourced our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being to third party agents and thus live in perpetual anxiety that that well-being will not be taken care of. We are like children looking towards our parents for approval, for permission, for validation, for recognition and when we fail to receive it we feel deeply hurt. So, in order to ensure that those terms and conditions are met we create new laws and campaign for new legislation that dictates how people should treat us and what they must or cannot say to us.

There was a time when a man or woman learned to navigate perilous territory and face fearsome predators on a near daily basis in order to find sustenance. Now, we live in morbid fear that someone on the subway train might actually say “hi”. This bizarre turn of events is not the result of some biological overhaul to our brains. The physiology of the human brain has remained mostly identical over thousands of years. What has changed is our self-perception and our expectations of what “should” happen.

And what we call “spirituality” is designed to be the antidote for precisely this sort of phenomenon. The spiritual perspective is one in which we seek to align with life as it is, rather than life as we “want it to be”. We learn to see the “impermanence” in things even as society strives to provide us with certainty and security. We learn to see that the “self is an artifice” even as society seeks to double down on our self-images and pander to our self-indulgences. Yet, there is plenty that goes below the radar because the cognitive dissonance it creates is too much to bear.

We don’t want to accept that the predator and prey dynamic is programmed deep within our psyches and is in alignment with the way the natural world works. That eliminating predatory behaviour altogether from society is not what spurns evolution. In fact, trillions of species on this planet have evolved and proliferated precisely because they have needed to develop creative strategies to avoid these threats. Without the predator-prey dynamic the creative impulse simply dies.

We don’t want to accept that deprivation is just as necessary as fulfilment if we are to evolve. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and if there is no necessity then there can be no invention. Or rather if the necessities become focused on trivialities so do the inventions.

We don’t want to accept that without fear, learning courage is impossible; without hate learning love is impossible; without ignorance developing understanding is impossible; without aggression, peace is impossible. And a “progress” which is based upon the elimination of the agents of chaos altogether is not progress at all. It is the process of anesthetizing the human spirit. It is a form of palliative care for the vanquishing soul.

Society today is entirely preoccupied with maximizing the individual’s pleasure while minimizing their discomforts. Our laws, our products, our lifestyles are all geared in this way. Yet, this leads to a spiritual impoverishment because the spirit thrives on experience, challenge and adversity. What seems like an increasing order on the outside leads to greater chaos on the inside.

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THE QUESTION

Now, to address the original question.

I’m sorry to say but this “yoga world” you are from has nothing to do with yoga. The performing of asanas no more makes one a “yogi” than the ability to speak the Chinese language makes one Chinese. Yoga is infinitely more than the “culture” that surrounds it.

There is something to be said for the willingness to be “vulnerable”. However, almost no one seems to understand exactly how powerful a stance this is. So let’s talk about that for a second.

To be vulnerable doesn’t mean being “weak”.

It means to open oneself up to the vicissitudes of fate. To lay down one’s armor and defenses and stand in the open battlefield unprotected. There are two kinds of people who would do this – the insane and the fearless.

To be vulnerable means to stand and face one’s own fears in a no-holds-barred kind of way. It’s like the free soloist climbing the rock without ropes. Being vulnerable has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO with changing how others should be treating us or creating external safety nets that prevent us from getting hurt. And if one isn’t prepared for absolutely any outcome to happen then being intentionally vulnerable is the most foolish thing one can do.

Yet, this refrain of “being vulnerable” has been taken up as some standard of evoking understanding and sympathy from others. It has been misunderstood as some moral imperative to forcibly order society into a more compassionate orientation. “Look! I’ve taken off my armor so now you can’t attack me! How dare someone attack another who has laid down their weapons?”

What we fail to recognize is that this brand of “vulnerability” is not vulnerability at all. It’s just another kind of DEFENSIVENESS. Rather than taking the responsibility of defending ourselves, we have now outsourced it to society. Now, we are incapable of even defending ourselves against the words and verbal barbs of others and so we develop legislation that restricts and remands those words from ever reaching us.

None of this has anything to do with vulnerability. Vulnerability simply means to maintain an open stance as opposed to a defensive or offensive one. It doesn’t imply becoming incapable of defending oneself if the need arises. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean becoming infant-like. It means becoming a warrior who no longer has the need to brandish their weapon.

While previous generations heavily armored themselves they also suffered inner wounds in silence. Wounds that would have healed had they been allowed to be exposed to the air. We understand that now and so we have tried to create an environment in which it may be safe to lay down that armor from time to time. To expose one’s hurts and allow those scars to heal.

Yet, that sentiment has been taken to the other extreme. One in which we have forgotten how to fight, how to stand up for ourselves, how to wrestle with fate and circumstance with our own two hands and standing on our own two feet. Imagine a battlefield on which a warrior when struck were to respond, “how dare you strike me?”

Yet, in life, being struck is inevitable. And if we don’t have the skills to defend, to strike back or bounce back when knocked down, we have become severely impaired. Creating an environment where no one will ever strike us is not the solution, as far as I’m concerned.

One final thought on vulnerability. What I do on this page is an example of vulnerability. I am an open book here. I share myself, my thoughts, my life, personal events and history in a transparent manner. And I do this knowing full well that I am opening myself to criticism, to judgment and even to attack. But I’m not afraid of it. This is a conscious decision I have made BECAUSE I know I can deal with it. I can deal with the criticism, the judgment and the personal attacks. If I couldn’t deal with it I have no business being vulnerable. Because then, I would be paranoid about making sure no one said anything critical or judgmental of me.

When an infant ventures out into the world it needs all forms of barriers and buffers to protect it. Society has grown deeply infantilized. Spiritual culture today is just an extension of that. It comes as no surprise then to me, that safety rather than truth has emerged as our guiding principle.

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