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Beyond Spiritual Activism: Creating a Just and Sustainable Movement for Change

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Crossposted on  Tikkun Daily

By Be Scofield

Editor’s note: this post has generated a very lively discussion on Tikkun Daily and very strong objections from leaders from the main organization that is critiqued here. This organization is preparing a list of what they consider to be factual inaccuracies, and will be given space on Tikkun Daily to respond fully.

It's the latest term being used to describe how the search for the highest self can be bridged with social change: spiritual activism. Now more than ever you can hear yoga instructors, meditation teachers, small groups and personal life coaches speaking about the value of taking spiritual principles into the world for the betterment of the planet. Yoga Kula [formerly Yoga Sangha], a San Francisco studio, hosted a "Spiritual Activation" series in 2007 where inspirational talks by John Robbins, Julia Butterfly Hill and Jack Kornfield were followed by a yoga class. For the yogi or engaged Buddhists seeking to become involved in activism, there are numerous new organizations and opportunities: you can volunteer to teach yoga in prisons or the juvenile justice system, fly to Cambodia or Africa to serve people, create your own local service project for social change, take a yoga class for cancer and HIV awareness, or support yoga teachers in Africa. Transformation is in the air. What was once the domain for an individual's spiritual and physical growth is quickly becoming a useful resource to harness a new force for social justice. And with over 20 million yoga practitioners in America, and as more and more people seek spirituality in non-religious ways, it has the potential to be a powerful movement. This new spirit of transformation is all wonderful, right? Not exactly.

As an activist and yoga instructor I'm all for inspiring people to make a difference in the world. And this new spiritual activism movement has lots of potential. But taking the best of what is taught on the yoga mat off into the world, as one program advertises, isn't enough to create just and sustainable communities for social change. Nor is meditation or a personal spiritual practice. Why not? Because yoga or meditation do not teach about how power functions to maintain oppressive systems such as racism, cultural imperialism, and patriarchy. Without this perspective we stand the risk of reproducing some of the most harmful effects of them. In Acting With Compassion: Buddhism, Feminism and the Environmental Crisis, Stephanie Kaza illustrates the importance of bridging spirituality with an understanding power dynamics, "Political, economic, and personal power can serve the environment, if illuminated by awareness and social consciousness of the logic of domination. Without this awareness, the critical role of power can be overlooked by the Buddhist practitioner focusing on the beauty and miracle of interdependence." Recognizing that our activism -- despite peaceful and loving intentions -- can actually cause harm with or without our being aware of it is a crucial component to a just and sustainable future. In other words the impact of our actions is more important than our intentions. This awareness is a central component of an anti-racist approach to social justice. Let's remember that the intentions of the 18th & 19th century Christian missionaries were mostly good as they sought to help civilize and educate.

Seane Corn - International celebrity yoga teacher and founder of Off the Mat, Into the World.

One of the most prominent leaders of this fast growing spiritual activism movement is the international yoga celebrity Seane Corn. As a pioneer in the field she has successfully combined the art of yoga with motivational leadership designed to empower people to make a difference in the world. Corn got her start teaching yoga to at-risk teenage girls in L.A. and became a YouthAIDS ambassador in 2005 to help raise funds and awareness about the HIV/AIDS crisis. She received both harsh criticism and support in 2001 when she represented Nike and took part in a commercial for them called, "Nike Goddess." She defended her actions by saying that Nike explained to her that they had made progress in their manufacturing efforts in the global south. With her non-profit Off the Mat Into the World (OTM) she is now trying to bridge spirituality and activism and train a new breed of leaders by tapping into the market of 20 million yogis in the United States. One of the central projects are their "Seva Challenge" or "Bare Witness" trips which lead people to Cambodia, Uganda and South Africa for service. As I illustrate below, this well-known spiritual activism group is well-intentioned but it produces problematic issues of paternalism, "feel-good" service, white U.S.-centric privilege and racism. Understanding how this program reproduces some of these forms of oppression can provide some insights for the future of the spiritual activism movement. And for those combining yoga -- still a predominantly white middle class phenomenon -- with service, lessons can be gained about the more complex dimensions of social justice.

There is a long legacy of activists and movements (some of the best our country has produced) that have struggled to understand both the subtle and overt dimensions of oppression. The failure to understand this crucial component has diminished our collective human potential for transformation. Those voices that have been historically marginalized -- women, people of color, queer, poor, disabled...etc -- have all been central to the evolution and advancement of the best of our American democratic ideals; freedom, liberty and human rights. Failing to recognize, listen to or understand these voices has meant and continues to mean that our efforts for social transformation are negatively impacted by their exclusion. Certainly the civil rights, women's and queer liberation movements have advanced the struggle to end racism, sexism, and homophobia. However, oppressive systems didn't just disappear after the 1960's, rather they morphed into more elusive forms which continue to affect us all. Knowing how these systems operate is important for the emerging spiritual activism movement to understand.

You might be saying, "But, wait, none of this applies to me because I'm not a racist, I don't oppress people." I'm not talking about believing in a hierarchy of the races or advocating racism. Rather, I'm referring to a perspective that views power and oppression not just as an apartheid type situation or an individual act of racism but rather as a complex system of institutionalized policies, beliefs, and practices that shape and influence all of us. To different degrees everyone is implicated because the way we think, act, and relate is deeply affected by the long held prejudices and biases that define U.S. culture. And individual instances of oppression -- whether they are racist, sexist or homophobic statements, acts, or thoughts -- are to be expected even amongst the most passionate advocates for social justice. Why? Again because in the U.S. we live in a racist, sexist, classist and homophobic culture. As a white middle class male I am not immune from reproducing these forms of oppression. In fact no one in our culture is. When I walk onto a plane and I see two black pilots, I may have an unwanted reaction of doubting their credibility. Likewise, if my doctor is a woman I may perceive her as less qualified. And I may say something to a group of friends or act in a certain way that is offensive to a certain population. It is easier for me to make oppressive statements because I'm used to living in a world that privileges my social location and identity. In other words, there have been hundreds of years of affirmative action for white people, heterosexuals, men, the able-bodied, and the middle and upper classes. Thus anything that I do as a white middle class male, including activism, is tainted by the dominant narratives, privileges and beliefs that have shaped American and Western cultures. And it isn't just about being white. Gay people can oppress transgender people, men of color can be sexist, poor people can be racist, citizens of the U.S. can be imperialistic, and any number of combinations of these. See the article "Who Me?" by Allan Johnson for a further understanding of institutional oppression. And I've compiled a starter list of white privilege and anti-racism resources on my website here.

That pop-American spirituality and those who teach it, whether it is yoga or The Secret (see my article " When Positive Thinking Becomes Religion"), lack an awareness of how oppression operates is not surprising because these are subsets of our culture at large which is mostly ignorant of white privilege and the varieties of oppression. Many experts in Hinduism, yoga, and eastern philosophy are critical of the appropriation and often superficial understandings of these traditions in the West. In the same way, experts in social change, about which a great deal has been understood in the last century or so, are critical when superficial understandings of social change are exhibited by the new spiritual activists. As there are gross misunderstandings of the true nature of yoga in its deeper philosophical and practical dimensions there are more complex, thorough, and responsible (i.e., anti-racist, feminist, grassroots and participatory) approaches to activism. Just as the deeper and more nuanced elements of yoga are often ignored by yoga teachers, the leaders of this growing spiritual activism movement don't discuss privilege, race or institutional oppression.

Of course there are those well known people, both past and present who have worked to combine spirituality with issues of justice and oppression: Cornel West, bell hooks, Michael Lerner, Starhawk, Dr. King, Gandhi, Joanna Macy, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, James Baldwin, Simone Weil, Caesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela and Thich Nhat Hanh among others. Anti-racist and counter oppressive leaders across the country are doing extraordinary work to challenge the systems of domination that continue to diminish our lives. When I speak of the contemporary spiritual activism movement I am speaking specifically of a fast growing phenomenon that is attempting to bridge service with spirituality in the yoga, Buddhist, meditation and personal transformation communities. It is a movement that, like much of U.S. culture, hasn't developed consciousness regarding issues of race, privilege and oppression. The spiritual activism movement can develop this level of awareness and I would like to briefly explain how two other prominent activist movements have successfully done so.

The Feminist Movement and Environmental Justice

In "Feminism Without Borders" Chandra Mohanty shows the problems of an assumed "global sisterhood" or "planetary feminism" framed by white, euro-centric feminists.