Know Your Empire • 3 December 2017

Remains of defunct temple. Cauvery river, Karnataka State.

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Flying is insane. We are over Zabol now, now Mirabad. Karachi, Chaman, Kandahar.

Air France’s flight tracker asks which system I want to use to measure ground speed – Metric or Imperial? Sorry sleek Base-10; this brain runs on Imperial.

My little body and little mind will ache on the other side of the long hauls from Detroit to Paris to Bangalore. As they should, given what this fossil fuel burn does to the planet. James Lovelock, the Emmett Brown of environmentalism, said “enjoy life while you can, in another 20 years global warming will hit the fan.” He said that ten years ago. Ten trips to India ago, in my case. Half of Lovelock’s supposed twenty years are gone.

A few times I’ve fallen in love with a place, but my feelings about Mysore have a particular longing and adoration and sense of impossibility. It is such a big deal to fly all the way around the planet. I’ve wondered since the beginning whether environmental-political change would wall this off some day. As a result, every day here has an immediacy to it. Just as meditating on death intensifies your love of the present moment. This particular moment, here, feels historically weighty. I want to share about what it’s like in the Mysore yoga enclave now, in case it turns out to be significant for where yoga is going.

But first, here it all is, “hitting the fan”: climate change escalates, and fascism spikes around the world, and the crisis of knowledge deepens down high-walled internet silos. This is all one process. You see what is happening, right? It goes like this. Environmental change, fake news, knowledge silos, global fascism, and a new taste for despotic leadership everywhere… lead to loss of middle class cosmopolitanism due to limits on travel, decreased access to diverse world views, and degraded education… and in turn this leads to a staggering loss of global and historical knowledge. In the place of cosmopolitanism, what comes is an era of tribalism, hatred, and self-congratulatory ignorance. This self-destruction is coming for America, and it is coming for yoga. Because an empire is imploding. Long back, they said it would.

That was before ancient knowledge became a modern joke. Kali Yuga, ha ha ha.

I often feel powerless looking straight at 2017. We’ve reached Peak Cognitive Dissonance this year, in all domains. Behind the news is this civilization crash so big it’s hard to take in. But we do have power now. It’s the power of asking our limited minds to perceive this world and our conditioning a little more clearly, and to put it in historical and spatial perspective.

There are information silos where you will be told that yoga is anything you want it to be, and anything is yoga. This is what it looks like when an established knowledge stream dies the death of a thousand qualifications. But if you can get outside the silo, you’ll find that yoga is a coherent, non-violent life path; particularly it is a path of cultivating discernment. My teachers explain this to me in historical and grammatical (Sanskrit) detail, and they correct me when I’m obviously wrong, but still I don’t understand yoga. But I can say that the effort to cultivate discernment includes scrutinizing my conditioned beliefs and unconscious patterns. One of the anchors of my mental conditioning is American Empire, and this is why its collapse is both mentally overwhelming and an opening for massive self-understanding.

Thinking is a tunnel. I burrow in to lines of thought, make homes inside them. No matter how clean and straight a tunnel, it leaves almost everything out. The only thing that gets me a sense of my conditioning is perspective. Sounding out unconscious assumptions and dropping them at the rate of discovery. Perspective comes from sadhana, from teachers who have more knowledge than I do, from dropping habitual roles, from learning history any way I can, from meditation and reading and listening. And for now, perspective comes from travel.

At the start of college I got a scholarship to spend a semester at the University of Costa Rica. I landed there a libertarian, like everyone else I knew in rural Montana. A history class on the history of US military intervention in Latin America destroyed my notion of a noble nation state system and began to eat away at my received libertarianism. Rather than navigating by ideology, I began a life-long project of knowing my empire. At first this happened through the kind of travel that gets you your own FBI file; I needed to see America through the eyes of its “others” from Cuba to Vietnam. From bodily adventures I moved into books, and studied world history. Hard. For a decade. These two external limbs of Empire-study formed a basis for internal practice. Now I study the Empire inside.

Why study empire? For discernment. For self awareness. For predictive power. And for the sheer horrifying thrill this lens opens up on the epic arc of history. Holy god. This is the thriller we are all living. Get curious and do not miss it. Star Wars means the world to us because it is the world, condensed into myth. Your life will be richer and more epic if you learn to feel the textures of Empire, not just hum the tune.

Empire is a hyper-object (FN1). It is cultural yet also personal, something we enact yet also part of received physical infrastructure. Abby Martin articulates brilliantly a dharma of Empire study(FN2). Her work is heroically discerning, with a clarity that may even be strengthened by the insanity that surrounds her.

Again, one aspect of Empire is inside. It is relational. It is the preference for a base-12 measuring system and the particular way this orders and re-orders the world. It is unconscious racism and phobia of otherness. It western white people claiming to be the inventors of yoga.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I’m really sorry. This is just how Empire works. It’s in the script. Study history on this one. In the west, the empire (America) before empire (Britain) before empire (France) before empire was Spain. What an epoch. It’s fascinating and horrible, and it puts light on so much. To begin, you probably know that where the Spanish Empire didn’t conduct all out genocide, they focused on erasing religion. Empire has an ideological/collective memory bent, where minds are reconditioned. And it has an infrastructural bent, in which physical symbols are annihilated. The Spaniards found the holy structures and destroyed them. No other site for their churches would do. The previous sacred structures had to be erased. Replaced. Those gorgeous cathedrals of southern Spain are built on the ruins of Moorish mosques.

“This is ours. We made it. Whatever was here before is dust.” This is the perennial line of Empire. In Michigan, it is unstructured sitting practice that leads me to suspect my home is built on an erased sacred ground. And it is historical documents about land grants from the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi that suggests my intuition could be right.

When I first came to Mysore I was checking this place off a list. (Bucket list = Imperial mind.) Peter had died and I desired perspective. Silent morning asana practice had long been my daily ground for self-study and care and inquiry, so I figured I’d check the pilgrimage box. I arrived very knowing. And particularly angry about the so-called history of this practice, something about knowledge left on banana leaves that got eaten by ants. There was a dissertation there, exposing the ruse of the banana leaf story. My adviser and my partner both told me not to write it, because I couldn’t write credibly about yoga history without going back for another degree in Sanskrit first. So with my self-certainty challenged, I just started trying to listen. With… curiosity. This was how I got a first glimpse of the Imperial nature of my rationalist anger. The colonial mind is so obsessed with “artifacts” as what authenticates history that it plunders them, Indiana Jones style, and enshrines these collections of loot in “museums.” See the India collection at the British Museum of London. See the original Birth of a Nation, apotheosis of Empire, for illustration of domineering force of the “historical facsimilie.” This is all a long way from the pre-textual, person-to-person, knowledge streams of the oral tradition.

The mind of my Indian teachers had different relationship to authenticity and historical credibility. They placed more value on diffuse, old knowledge from oral tradition, than on the individual intellectual property which is the touchstone of Capitalist truth. They had an ability to hold surface contradictions in historical accounts without forcing one into rational dominance over another. In addition to having the best debate and discussion and transmission skills I’d ever encountered, hey held entire books in their minds verbatim. They were so much smarter than me.

I first came to Mysore to stake out an experience, and demonstrate my knowledge. That lack of curiosity was shameful, but it wasn’t just me. It was the Empire inside. When that started to crumble… that is when I started to fall in love with all this.


The Unlearner

Whatever yoga may be, self study is a big part of it. Study by yourself; and not just the book of yourself, but also the books with good historical knowledge. And the book of the world. And the book of the cosmos.

There is this gorgeous passage in Dewey’s Art as Experience, which I read last week. He’s applying James’s doctrine of radical empiricism to the notion of passionate aesthetic experience. Radical empiricism is a pragmatist doctrine that feels like it was conceived between hits of nitrous oxide and Advaita Vedanta, two of James’s favorites. It says that the relations between things are as real as the things themselves.

What? Dewey puts this in to practice. He writes about a short story he’s read, The Unlearner, in which an interminable afterlife is spent living and reliving the events of the life before, until a person comes to fully understand the hidden relationships among all the apparently random and discrete events. Very Groundhog Day.

The idea is, for the most part, we experience experience piecemeal. It seems like bits of data, disconnected in time and space, because our minds are not capacious enough to grasp the inner connections between everything we think, and everything we experience.

So this afterlife of the unlearner: it is self study. It is suspending the notion that one understands, in order to more fully understand. And the ground of that understanding is not discrete things and events; it is the hidden inner relationships between everything that is and everything that happens.

Increasingly I feel that I have no clue what yoga is. I’ll never be in a place to explain it, define it, boil it down, or argue for it. I wonder if this is a feeling that results from wanting so much to understand my conditioned mind, wanting that understanding enough that I’m quick to suspend feelings of certainty around yoga.

Radical Empiricism is a kind of epistemology – a theory of knowledge. But what The Unlearner points to is a sort of reverse-epistemology. Ways of not knowing.

There are a lot of theories of knowledge out there, and potentially just as many theories of ignorance. Here is a form of not knowing that vibes like Imperialism. It’s the not-knowing that says “here is something that is not known on my terms (e.g. historical artifact and text), so I am going to re-define it as mine.” Exhibit A: Yoga. We don’t know what yoga is, so let’s say it’s anything you want it to be. Let’s say yoga is whatever it is I’m teaching today. Let’s say my house-cleaning is my yoga, my weight lifting is my yoga. Because nobody knows.”

This is aggressive not-knowing. Imperial not-knowing. It is different from spacious not-knowing and from mystical not-knowing, because its objective is to claim territory for itself.

There is more to say about unlearning, reverse epistemology, and the flavors of not-knowing. For now a big question for me is, can I open up space for some sense of mystery and indeterminacy in the future history of the world, without pretending to know how this all is going to play out?


Yoga in Mysore is amazing right now.

There is a coming-together of practitioners from Korea, China, Russia, Australia, South Africa, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, Spain, Dubai, Egypt, Montenegro, Venezuela, Mexico, Austria, Singapore, Taiwan and, oh yeah, North America.

The international system may be collapsing, but what we have here is comraderie across geography, language and culture.

What is shared is that people here are strongly self-reliant, concentrated, dedicated. They share a sense that they are on some sort of path – one of self-study and self-care. They also do hard things, usually alone without cheerleading. Specifically, everyone I’m close with here has some sort of mentally and physically challenging yoga sadhana that she practices consistently. Most teach. Mysore is their chance to be supported by community, a knowledge base, and teacher-student relationships.

We don’t speak the same grammatical languages, but the rubbing of shoulders is part of a language of the body that – to a degree – is shared. The level of body-intelligence here, especially among the older practitioners, is like nothing I’ve found anywhere. The long-term practitioners exemplify intelligent movement and intelligent rest. I sat in a room of 350 of them yesterday, sensing the collective stability of their spines, admiring the fluidity in the way they moved past each other. In the way they moved together.

There are very few North Americans here. Ashtanga is a global phenomenon, whereas in North America it hasn’t been so easy to sell because of the emphasis on autonomous practice, self-study, and practicing early in the morning to set the tone for the day, instead of in the evening as a way to recover from the day. Ashtanga falls outside the 90-minute units of experience that North American yoga studios sell. I’m not sure that these constraints are so important in other places.

American Empire is still present for us here, no doubt. I find myself assuming that the language of discursive instruction will be English. Three hundred years ago, that would have been French, a hundred years hence, it’ll be Chinese. For the moment, English reigns and those who speak it fluently have tremendous advantage over the many who don’t understand it at all.

My mind falsely assumes that North Americans number in a majority here, because we are the ones who take up the most psychic space. We are the ones with the well-publicized instructional books and videos that make a name for us; we are the ones with the workshop circuits. (How interesting it will be when people from everywhere else lead the teaching junkets to North America.) Because this is what we do. We put our stamp on things; we accomplish things. This is one of the ways that Empire expresses itself inside and out.

For the moment.

(1) Hyperobject is a term coined by Tim Morton. Here’s a short overview.
(2) Abby Martin.
(3) There is a post here each month, and a subscription to it.

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