Sometime early this year, I met a prominent figure in Philippine society who struck me as being brilliant, inspiring, smart, strong, kind, and also somewhat nuts. His nuttiness was the hippie, spiritual sort, and it went beyond quietly rearranging his office spaces into feng-shui – recommended orientations – he was overt and firm in his belief in the rituals. The most amusing instance I personally witnessed was him striding into a conference room where everyone was waiting to hear him pitch an investment opportunity, and ordering everybody out so that he could perform a ritual involving a spray and a bell to “clear the space of negative energies.”
His behavior remained a mystery to me. Then some months ago, I read an article by Jason Pargin:
Probably 99 percent of the people reading this think Scientology is ridiculous bullshit, so let’s use that as our example. You’ve probably all heard the nutty mythology, about how 75 million years ago the evil ruler Xenu froze billions of victims and stashed them in Earth’s volcanoes. So right away this is almost impossible to comprehend: If joining Scientology requires buying that insanity, how in the hell can Scientology have, not just tens of thousands of members, but count among them some very wealthy, successful people with no history of mental illness?
Well, let me show you how Scientology has worked wonders in my own life. This is Scientology’s advice for what to do when work/life gets overwhelming. The advice is not, “Perform the thetan-summoning ritual!” or “Find your nearest psychiatrist and take a shit in his driveway!” Instead it suggests you should lock in on one task and focus on completing it quickly and correctly, to the exclusion of all others. This is great advice; every single successful person I know does this. And none of us knew that we were really doing Scientology all along!
“But wait,” you say. “Scientology didn’t invent that; they probably just pulled it off of some ’10 Tips to Work Better’ email forward. It’s just common sense!”
Right, and so is virtually everything on their course list.
But here’s the key: When a Scientologist (or Muslim, or Christian, or yoga enthusiast) says it works for them, this is what they’re talking about. The mythology isn’t important – if these rituals have saved your life and later on a teacher says, “Yeah, this technique works because of the ancient thetans that live in your asshole,” you’re going to shrug and say, “Sure, sounds good.” If you tell the lady in yoga class that the reason she feels better afterward is because negative spiritual energies tend to pool in the hip joints, you’ll get the same reaction.
Then if you, as a cool, rational person, butt in and say, “Actually, yoga is just engaging the endonomic nervous system and reducing cortisol levels,” all they’re going to hear is you replacing a very easy-to-understand explanation with a very complicated one that sounds like gibberish.
You physically don’t have room in your brain to keep track of how everything in your world works (shit, you don’t even really know how your brain works) so you can feel all superior to a Christian who doesn’t believe in evolution, but somewhere there’s an engineer who feels superior to you for not knowing how your iPhone works (and you know “endonomic nervous system” is just a nonsense phrase I made up, right?). The reality is that you don’t know how your iPhone works because knowing that wouldn’t change your day-to-day use of it at all. Likewise, thinking the Earth is only 6,000 years old doesn’t make it any harder to have, say, a career repairing air conditioners. But believing that self-discipline, patience, and hard work are sacred virtues from God definitely makes it easier.
And if you look hard enough, you’ll see that this flaw – favoring what works to the exclusion of everything else – encompasses everybody. The compulsive liar got to be that way because it works. So did the bully, the racist, and the greedy bastard. And every single cult, hate group, or political party has figured out that you can ensnare people by gluing the weird parts onto a bunch of common sense axioms that nobody can disagree with.
Everyone falls for this.
And, well, I forgot all about it until I wandered into the yoga studio by the lake the other day. I felt great. It’s largely the breathing. Breathing deeply connects a person to their body and feelings. (This is why babies, who haven’t yet learned to divorce mind from body, breathe deeply by default; and also why people and animals who are in physical pain visibly take fast and shallow breaths, because it helps disconnect from the pain). That’s all it is, just breathing and stretching. There’s nothing mystical about it. You’d get all the same benefits if you didn’t buy into the spirituality of it. (See: Malena Morgan) But they believe it because… it’s more fun? It seems harmless but I rather wish they wouldn’t, because the kook factor of it distracts people from the very real and important health benefits. I especially want poor people to start doing lots of yoga because (aside from the health benefits) 1. It costs literally nothing. I started doing it in my underwear, on the floor, watching internet videos. The lessons are fancy and helpful but I could do fine without. 2. it’s something to do other than consume the brain-rotting content of public radio and free TV programs.
I don’t want the rich-westernized-hippie image of yoga to distract people from doing it.