A friend just took a group of welllll-off college students, most residents of the OC and pre-law majors, to visit a tiny downtown non-profit—a support center for undocumented workers. It was the first time many of these students had talked to an immigrant worker as a real person, even if such people inivisibly do most of their food preparation and house and grounds work at home. (People in the US who eat food, wear clothes, or live ‘neath rooves are every one of us dependent on deeply vulnerable immigrants’ low-paid work to make our own lives comfortable, in case that wasn’t quiiiite apparent.)
Visiting the workers’ center wasn’t revolutionary, but it gave these students a little bit of new data in case they ever want to imagine themselves into workers’ shoes and see them as hypothetical equals. Doesn’t it take some ability to go there emotionally—and some practice doing so—in order to have the heart quiver at the suffering of another? And doesn’t this kind of thing put one’s own social situation in perspective in a crucial way?
It got me thinking: many of these students are second-generation immigrants, with parents who have worked tirelessly to give them every kind of privilege. To live beautiful lives: in which most of the daily struggle to eat and find shelter and safety is edited out or made to appear easy. I always like the people who make things look easy. And many of my energies are, no kidding, dedicated to living a beautiful life. But I wonder if it’s at all beneficial to live with so little interpersonal contact on an (at-least hypothetically) equal level with people of other skin colors, or genders, or class, or national origin. I feel bad for these 20-year-olds, in that they’re just starting to learn how specific is their personal, comfortable experience of the world. They are at a loss to empathize with people who are not like themselves and, perhaps worse, don’t even know themselves enough to see that all the attributes they take to be their identities are quite accidental.
Mircea Eliade writes in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom that yoga is revolutionary because it is a deconditioning project. For centuries (albeit not from the edge of time), practitioners have sought to undo not only their psychological but their social and cultural patterns and presuppositions. In Pantanjali’s straightforward, no-bullshit schema, this is an arduous and “backbreaking” practice of quieting the monkeyness of the monkeymind.
“Now, this problem of the “conditioning” of man (sic) (and its corollary, rather neglected in the West: his “deconditioning”) constitutes the central problem of Indian thought…. With a rigor unknown elsewhere, India has applied itself to analyzing the various conditionings of the human being….. [I]t has done so… in order to learn how far the conditioned zones of the human being extend and to see if anything else exists beyond these conditionings…. [The sages] found that man’s psychological, social, cultural, and religious conditionings were comparatively easy to delimit and hence to master; the great obstacles to the ascetic and contemplative life arose form the activity of the unconscious.
[F]or India, knowledge of the systems of “conditioning” could not be an end in itself: it was not knowing them that mattered, but mastering them; if the contents of the unconscious were worked upon, it was in order to “burn” them…. (p. xvi: it pains me to quote so little of this wonderful book)
As mentioned earlier, yoga is dangerous. Undoing social and cultural conditionings may have been easy for sages, but look around and see how difficult it is for us. We are pickled in culture from the outside in: it’s coercive, it’s loud, it’s ubiquitous because internalized—consumerism, sex, bodyimage, race, status, prestige, power, and more consumerism. What does it take to crack our social identities, especially considering our love for reinforcing them by associating with similar people, in safe spaces, and taking our political-economic, gendered, racialized reality for granted?
In keeping with the Yoga is Dangerous theme, and understanding that Westerners are in a particularly remedial situation, I’d say this takes not less life-in-the-world, but more. The only semi-successful attempts at social deconditioning I’ve ever seen result from loosening up the edges of your own perspective. Culture is rooted in pre-judice and so is our sense of normalcy: beginning to undo it takes a cessation not of mere mental tics, but of consuming, accumulating prestige, victimhood complexes, out-group suspicions, and egomaniacal getting ahead of “the rest,” at least long enough to see past our situated selves and see the world a little bit more as it is.