Georg Feuerstein, Green Yoga, and Spiritual Activism
Dr. Georg Feuerstein has been someone I have admired for a long time. He has been a life-long scholar and practitioner of Eastern spirituality, especially yoga-related matters, and has written many comprehensive books on various related subjects. I am currently wading through his encyclopedic The Yoga Tradition, Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, as I regard it as a valuable resource to deepen and broaden my knowledge of this subject. He was a student of Bubba Free John during the same period in which I was attracted to him. Like me, he eventually became disillusioned and moved on. We also share a long-time affinity for the Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi. He has participated to a limited extent with Yoga Mosaic, an international forum for Jewish yoga teachers. Around 2004, he moved from the U.S. to Canada, and began focusing on Green Yoga, devoting all of his energies to this cause, and now considers himself semi-retired. I came across his Green Yoga site recently on the web, and read with interest several of the articles posted there. You can check them out for yourself at www.traditionalyogastudies.com. (In addition to Green Yoga, Traditional Yoga Studies focuses on the premise that I share and promote that there is much more to yoga than the physical exercises, and bemoans the fact that these other aspects have been widely ignored, while simplified materialistic body-oriented approaches have dominated). A comparable site advocating “spiritual activism” from within a framework of deep mystical Judaism is www.theshalomcenter.org, led by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. I have listed these sites on the “Links” section in this blog.
Feuerstein has become convinced that we are on a collective suicidal collision course due to global warming and related environmental catastrophe. He developed the concept of “Green Yoga” to appeal to yoga practitioners as a loose world-wide community most receptive and sensitive to his message. That is, to do more on personal and collective levels to “talk the talk and walk the walk” concerning reorienting lifestyles and activities to reverse the causes of environmental disaster. Largely due to the influence of his wife Brenda, who has a background in this area, he advocates drastic changes in lifestyle to minimize our “carbon footprint”, such as severely limiting use of motor vehicles, air travel, and utilizing only paper products made of 100% recycled materials. There is a nascent parallel to this approach among various progressive Jewish circles, most notably, Jewish Renewal. “Eco-kashrut” engenders the notion that implicit in the mitzvot of the Torah is a responsibility to be good stewards to the planet earth to which we have been granted dominion. Sound environmental practices are thus inevitable imperatives.
He is adamant, dedicated and extreme in his personal practices, and in his insistence that anyone with a proper moral compass who intelligently considers these matters would have to come to a similar conclusion, and thus should follow suit in their personal lifestyle. He makes it clear that this means much more than mere feel-good home recycling. Things such as air travel and use of paper and print media should be severely minimized, if not totally eliminated. It is clear from some references on his web site that he has experienced some push-back to his proselytizing from folks with the attitude of “don’t tell me how to live my life” and “don’t lay your guilt trips on me.” For someone who believes that life on the planet earth is at stake, his insistence is understandable. He is particularly indignant at the idea that not only are human beings treading a path to their own destruction, but in so doing, they are destroying and imperiling the existence of all other non-human forms of life on earth. He cites the rapidly increasing and ongoing level of species extinction documented by modern science.
Feuerstein acknowledges that if any significant change to our current course is to occur, it is unlikely that there will be sufficient numbers of people who will personally follow the lifestyle he advocates to effectuate such change. He therefore also proposes political involvement through what he has termed “spiritual activism”, an acknowledgement that the pursuit of individual spiritual self-transcendence is not inconsistent with activist engagement in the political process, a notion that he acknowledges he had dismissed for most of his life. He does not offer any concrete avenues for suitable and effective engagement in such activities, leaving that thorny question up to individual determination. He further recognizes that Divine Intervention and assistance from advanced beings in more subtle realms would also be useful, and he appeals to all so inclined to invoke such assistance and guidance through meditative and prayerful avenues.
Whether one agrees with Feuerstein’s conclusions and his call to action is a matter for each of us to decide and determine how to respond. It is certainly not something that should be lightly dismissed without serious thought, however depressing it may be.
Whenever I go to an airport, I often wonder about all of these people scurrying about to catch a plane, or having just gotten off of a plane. Where are they all coming from and where are they all going to, day in and day out? How much of this coming and going is necessary or productive? Is this really efficient? Can there be a better way to conduct our lives?
I recall a fellow I knew who was a high-powered business consultant living in Atlanta with a young family. People in this realm of business are “project-based”. They are hired on by a customer for the duration of a particular project, which may be several weeks or several months, and then move on to another one. He would travel all over the country to work on such extended-period projects for specific clients, often staying overnight during the week, and coming home to his family on weekends. I remember in particular, one such project he had in Denver. At the time I thought of the stress it created on his family life, being away from his wife and young children for such extended periods of time, even though he would come home on weekends. But I also thought of how inefficient this model seemed to be, just due to the cost of constantly flying him there and back on a weekly basis, and paying for his hotel during the week. Now add to that the cost of the carbon footprint to all of that air travel. I did not question his expertise or talent, but I couldn’t accept that there wasn’t someone of similar ability available in the Denver area who could have done the job and gone home to his family every night instead of this guy flying in and out from Atlanta. And then I started imagining that there was probably some other company in Atlanta that was likewise flying some other consultant in from Denver! How many times are comparable scenarios repeated throughout the country and the world on a regular basis? And again I wonder about all of those people scurrying about in airports all over the world, every day of the year, year in and year out.
On the other hand, Feuerstein uses as an example a situation in which he and his wife were invited to attend and present at a yoga conference in Australia. Instead of personally attending, they presented via video-conferencing, thus minimizing their carbon footprint in this circumstance. Likewise, there was some criticism along these lines about President Obama’s trip to Denmark in 2009 to personally promote Chicago as the site for the 2016 Olympics. The critics argued that he could have accomplished the same thing via video conferencing at a much lower cost, both financially and environmentally. However, there were other opinions that Chicago’s surprising loss in the first round of voting was due to Obama not staying long enough in Europe and pressing more flesh. Certainly there is probably more room for effective video-conferencing in many circumstances, but in others, there may be no substitute for personal presence, including at such events as a yoga conference, where an atmosphere is created by the physical presence of the attendees and presenters that cannot be otherwise qualitatively duplicated. I doubt that the Camp David accords could have been effectively conducted without in-person exchanges, and a Bruce Springsteen concert attended in person is certainly of a different quality than seeing it on TV. I guess Feuerstein would argue that the time for such luxuries, along with many others, has past.
In one particularly interesting article, in further consideration of his recognition of the need for some form of social or political activism, Feuerstein reviews the thought of anarchists such as Derrick Jensen (who advocates violent militant attacks on existing structures by others, while disavowing any willingness to personally participate) and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber (who personally took it to that next level for several years until finally getting caught). It was curious to me that Feuerstein gave them such serious consideration and expended the time to write about his musings and share it with the rest of the world. Perhaps there were recruitment efforts coming from such quarters by which he felt he needed to make a formal response. Perhaps it is because he sympathizes with their views to the extent that they overlap with his criticism of consumerism, corporate and political power-mongering and greed, and environmental destruction, and a shared sentiment that humanity as a whole seems to be engaged in a collective death wish intent on the inevitable destruction of planet earth. Perhaps he felt a need to address eco-terrorism. Whatever the underlying motivation, he felt a need to address this subject, first analyzing its merits, and then criticizing and rejecting some of its ideology and most of its methods.
As for Jensen and Kaczynski, he concludes that they both likely suffer personally from intellectual and emotional “short circuits” fueling their world views and calls to action, and that the world of anarchism and eco-terrorism is inhabited by many maladjusted sociopaths. He then critiques anarchist ideology generally, even if not fueled by obvious sociopaths. He identifies one strain of anarchism that is intent on rejection and destruction of any form of social order, based upon some libertarian notion of acute individualism. They naively believe that in the aftermath of the nihilistic revolution which they advocate, folks will figure out how to peacefully coexist and take care of themselves. Another strain doesn’t go quite so far, recognizing the necessity for some kind of social structure, but that it can be non-hierarchical instead of existing hierarchical models, which inevitably lead to unconscionable concentrations and abuses of power and wealth by a few.
Feuerstein concludes that no form of anarchism has ever worked or is likely to work. It has not in the past and is not likely to in the future because humanity as a whole remains “mostly arrested at the juvenile stage of emotional development.” He suggests that it could work, but only if we became “fully adult, emotionally, intellectually, and morally”, which is not the case. Because it is not the case, in addition to non-hierarchical anarchist solutions being doomed to fail, it also contributes to the dire problems we are currently encountering. Seems like we’re caught between the proverbial “rock and hard place.”
I had the pleasure of experiencing a brief study opportunity in my college days with Murray Bookchin, an avowed anarchist at the time. He explicated the view that anarchism is distinct from nihilism, in that anarchism believes in the need for social structure, but that it should be arranged in a non-hierarchical fashion, instead of the dominant hierarchical model. A quick internet search on him reveals an update that later in his life, he distanced himself from any labeled anarchist movements, but until his death, he remained committed to concepts of extreme decentralization. He also tied in his ideology and criticism of the status quo with ecological and environmental advocacy, and apparently had a significant influence on the green movement worldwide.
I have a problem with non-hierarchical ideology, in addition to Feuerstein’s critique that it requires mature adult participation, something that is obviously lacking today. (Anyone who has had the dubious pleasure of participating in a homeowners’ association, which to a large extent mirrors the type of decentralized self-governance envisioned by Bookchin, will probably understand my reticence to agree with the notion that such a model is more favorable than what we currently have. Also, with a divorce rate in the US at around 50%, indicative of a mass inability to maintain even stable family units, it is unlikely that these same people who can’t hold families together would have the capacity to get along in grass roots cohesive communities). It appears that in non-human worlds, both higher and lower, that hierarchy in some form or fashion, is a prevalent natural structure. There is certainly plenty of evidence of hierarchical structure in the animal world, and likewise, in realms discussed in the esoteric literature of both the East and West of Great White Brotherhoods or other comparable schemes of evolutionary beings existing on planes of ever-increasing subtlety (mystical Judaism alludes to angels and archangels and the “hosts” over which YHVH is lord). The point that is missed in our modern structures is that in the higher spiritual realms, in addition to being hierarchies of subtle and gross power, they are also hierarchies of maturity, responsibility and service. A significant characteristic is the lack of or minimized ego. In contrast, our temporal hierarchical leaders, both in business and politics, tend to be ego-driven power-mongerers, leading to unpleasant consequences.
In another article, Feuerstein acknowledges that we are in the middle of what in the Indian tradition is called the “kali yuga”. According to Indian cosmology, creation is subject to repeating vast cycles and ages of time. At some juncture, relative creation is absorbed back into the absolute, and then eventually re-emerges to commence another lengthy cycle in the realm of relativity. Within each cycle of relativity are several rounds of repeating ages, of which there are four, marked by the levels of enlightenment versus levels of darkness. The first age, sat yuga, is almost 100% enlightened; in the second, treta yuga, the light/dark ratio is 75/25; in the third, doaper yuga, it is 50/50, and in the fourth, kali yuga, it is 25/75. According to this Vedic cosmology, we are currently in the middle of one of the 25/75 darkest ages, a kali yuga, but nowhere near a time of the cessation of the relative world.
While Feuerstein acknowledges this, and I would think, based upon his background, would accept this as a valid view, he nevertheless, like many current “End of Timers”, points to peculiar aspects of our time that appear to be like no others before them. The conclusion is then drawn that these times appear to be an apparent exception to this scheme, and thus all bets are off; we are on a road to fairly quick extinction if we do not alter course dramatically very soon. At times, he expresses exasperation, futility, and resignation. It saddens me to encounter these moods being expressed by such a great mind and soul who has contributed so much to the spiritual inspiration and upliftment of so many. By such expressions, he seems to reject and rail against the very stark realities that he at the same time acknowledges, as if he was expecting something better. Besides environmental issues, a great deal of the world’s population is starving, sick, and subjected to violence and brutality, as it has been for thousands of years. In the most “advanced” societies (which are the biggest contributors to environmental waste), we misuse the freedom we have attained, let alone what we would do if we were granted even more. Juvenile, fundamentalist, imperialistic, intolerant, oppressive religions dominate. The definition of “Mature Adult” held by one of the world’s leading societies is that such persons can legally consume pornography.
We had an opportunity to reassess and re-orient after our world was brought to a stand-still by the events of 09/11. We had another such opportunity when our financial world came crashing down in the fall of 2008. Both times, the response was to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and continue with business as usual.
I agree with the premise that we cannot continue with business as usual, and that nothing much is going to change in any meaningful way unless there are dramatic institutional changes, from top down, in addition to bottom up grass roots efforts. Another of my college-days studies was of the book, Culture Against Man by anthropologist Jules Henry, which is as telling an indictment of our current system as any, written decades ago. Examining what has led to our current predicament, it is clear to me that the current legal and economic schemes related to corporations and how they conduct business needs careful reevaluation. Former President Bush, rightly or wrongly, concluded that an entity like AIG had to be saved because there would be too many severe economic ramifications on the US and world economy without government intervention. What is particularly alarming about this specifically, and the recent economic crisis generally, is that AIG was a leading participant, at the largest scale, engaged in questionable practices of financial sector companies, operations that don’t directly produce any tangible goods. I’m not sure how or whether their operations directly contribute to the gross national product, as I don’t see exactly what product they are producing, other than shifting a lot of money around in incredibly complicated secondary market financial machinations. They don’t produce food, shelter, clothing, consumer goods, entertainment, art, or anything else that adds to the sustenance and quality of life. Something is terribly wrong with a system that has gotten to the point where the survival of any one such company, or even a sector of such companies, is equated with the survival of a country’s or world’s financial well-being.
Conservative political and economic ideology professing minimal government interference with personal and business life overlooks a critical factor and distinction. Corporations, by their very existence and definitions, are creations of the government. They are not endowed with the inalienable rights referred to in our Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by our Constitution, because they are not natural persons of flesh and blood. A “free” market which is the exclusive domain of these artificial legal entities has little to do with our cherished individual liberties. Advocates of the former have been very successful in pulling the wool over many people’s eyes by intertwining and equating the two. Particularly concerning the raging health care debate, there are many that are endeared with the idea of reserving our rights to be subjected to the inept, unresponsive bureaucracies of profiteering corporations as a lesser evil than being subjected to a government-run non-profit system. This, despite the fact that many other of our essential services are relatively successfully government-run or highly regulated, such as police, fire, EMS, schools, libraries, armed forces, gas, electric.
Our legal system has concocted the charters, state-by-state, that grant corporations the right to exist and to conduct many of the functions of natural citizens. There are no standards, criteria, background checks for applying for a corporate charter. All that is needed is to comply with some rote requirements to submit a little bit of paperwork and a designated fee. And what is the reason for these government-created artificial entities? President Obama has employed a great deal of rhetoric about responsibility, but at least one reason for the existence of corporations is to limit responsibility. One corporate form is actually called an “LLC”, standing for “Limited Liability Company”, but all corporate forms serve the purpose to limit the liability, and thus the responsibility, of the corporations. Business lawyers are quite familiar with “shell corporations”, manipulations of the system that exist for the sole purpose of shirking responsibility.
On a yearly basis, there are probably thousands of circumstances whereby corporations sue and are sued, by each other and by individuals, and are subject to regulatory and government investigations and proceedings, whereby all kinds of wrongs and infractions are alleged, civil, regulatory and criminal. And millions of dollars are paid in settlements, judgments, and penalties by the corporations alleged to have been engaged in such wrong-doing, with the vast majority being resolved on the basis of no liability or wrong-doing being admitted or conceded. The incidents of corporate criminals being sentenced to jail and restitution, such was with Ken Lay (Enron), Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom), or Richard Scrushy (HealthSouth) are few and far between. It is much more common for corporate wrong-doing to be punished with a slap on the wrist, and then it is back to business as usual. The average citizen has no idea of the depth or breadth of corporate malfeasance that occurs and is punished on virtually a daily basis, as there is very little news exposure about these matters. Multi-national corporations, with their extensive bureaucratic corporate structures do not behave as your local business merchant on “Main Street”. There is much lingo about “corporate cultures” and “growing a business”, as if they were social, organic structures. But corporations are synthetic; they do not have hearts or souls.
Corporate influence on government, either directly or indirectly, should be eliminated or minimized. Our current system, whereby the same corporation or special interest group will provide support for opposing candidates in political races, whereby their influence and access is assured regardless of the outcome, is an abomination to the principles of a properly functioning democracy and should not be tolerated. Only natural persons who would be eligible to vote should be able to support political campaigns or have any sort of access to our elected representatives. The government has every right to intervene in corporate affairs, not only because the government has bailed out so many companies, but because the companies, unlike natural citizens, are creations of the government. There is no question that irresponsible corporate behavior has brought us to dire economic and environmental straits. There needs to be a heightened assertion of the rights of natural persons as paramount over the rights of corporations, which need a great deal of reigning in. And now back to the stark reality of life in the kali yuga.
Perhaps the misguided ideological anarchists who are not sociopaths have some faint memory of a past lifetime long ago in a period of sat yuga, for which they subconsciously long to return. Don’t we all! But the reality is that we are in the middle of a kali yuga. We are quite dumb and half-blind. There is no Utopia lurking around the corner, as many believe, whether it be man-made by reform or revolution, or ushered in by one of the many versions of a Messiah floating around. What is the basis for such an expectation? Let’s get real here. This does not mean that I am saying we should not “rage against the dying of the light”, only to do it by retaining a broader, more realistic perspective, and thus, equanimity. It remains our obligation to responsibly, maturely participate in this dance of life to the best of our abilities.
In Sy Safranky’s Notebook in the October 2009 issue of The Sun magazine, he discusses similar themes as Feuerstein, focusing on the pessimistic conclusion of British scientist and inventor James Lovelock that it is basically too late to avoid global environmental catastrophe. There is no question that history includes times of tremendous upheaval, both man-made, nature-made, and maybe a combination of the two. I do not doubt that we may be approaching such a time, and that we may be in for a very rude awakening and total reorientation to our physical existence imposed upon us. And as with Mr. Safransky, I wouldn’t even attempt to question what is probably very convincing science, but I nevertheless conclude, as he has, that “my intuition tells me that it’s premature to throw in the towel.” I would add that I don’t think the Vedic cosmology has gotten it wrong. It posits our survival, not our demise, despite times of intense darkness and ignorance and against all seeming odds.
The fall 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath has deeply shaken the consciousness of many average people, and even elitist pundits and experts in America and throughout the world. Consider, for example, Alan Greenspan’s remarkable confession that core beliefs upon which he had been operating for years have been proven to be incorrect. Confidence in the status quo has been placed in doubt, as perhaps never before. Although I have decried that it appears that we are again on a course of back to business as usual, perhaps there is still hope for a significant quantum shift for the better, both from the top down, and the ground up. Despite the knee-jerk shrillness of reactionaries screaming at town hall meetings, there may be among many others an uneasy acknowledgement that “business as usual” is wearing pretty thin, opening up the possibility for receptivity to significant change.
So is any of this much consolation? Am I mindlessly spouting the platitude that “hope springs eternal” while standing on a sinking ship, trying to bail out the rising gush of water with a teacup? We need to work, to continue, to endure, to carry on, no matter how Sisyphean it may appear. We’re stuck with what we’ve got. We’re in the middle of a dark age, and as a consequence, we are collectively, of course, juvenile and immature. Those of us who possess this recognition need to carry on in the most genuinely mature, adult, and responsible fashion we know how, and not “go gentle into that dark night”.
I realize this is quite a departure, and a lengthy one at that, from my basic focus on spiritual awakening, nurturance and expression. I felt moved to respond to Georg Feuerstein and add to the conversation. I remain committed to my belief that the enduring cure lies at the most subtle levels of consciousness, and I remain resolved to carry on the best I can, whether it be groping in the dark or navigating through the light. In that regard, as Dr. Feuerstein, I urge everyone to consider implementing some form of meditative spiritual practice focusing on healing of the whole of humanity and the planet earth as at least one simple avenue for spiritual activism, if nothing else. The practice of Ruach El Shaddai/Breath of Balance healing meditation procedures described on this blog and in Yoga and Judaism, Second Edition, provides one such method, wherein I suggest that each session ends with the planet earth as a whole as the subject. In my conducting of meditation classes, as many other meditation teachers, I know that one of my challenges is to persuade the students of the efficacy and benefit of incorporating a regular meditation practice into their lives. With the advent of this healing meditative practice, I have a new selling point: If you don’t want to meditate for yourself, then for heaven’s sake, at least meditate for the benefit of others!