May 01, 2008
Now and then we'll read about how various techniques to tweak, condition or relax our bodies and minds can be helpful in dealing with stress, anxiety and panic. I'm talking about yoga, meditation, Feng shui, accupuncture, diets and similar cultural arifacts. Frequently, we will also see these recommended by various medical authorities as well. What all of these, and others (martial arts, too -a form of dance), have in common is either an actual or imagined connection to "eastern" medicine and sometimes philosophy. I'm not sure WHY being from the east should recommend (or disqualify) anything -but that's the way it is.
Don't get me wrong -if any of these things helps you, by all means keep getting stuck by needles, keep repeating your mantra, keep strecthing yourself around and by all means break up a few cinder blocks with your noggin.
But what I AM trying to do is de-mystify some of these things so they may be understood for what they are. Let's start with the civilization from which they originate, which is to say the cultures and societies ranging roughly from the west coast of India, south and east to Singapore, then north and east to the southern waters of the Bering Sea, then north and west to take in the northern fringes of Mongolia, then south and west back to the west coast of India. I'm talking about the several billion psychiatric cases who lived (and live now) in India, southeast Asia, China, Mongolia and Japan and everything in between. Although we may credit these folks with all kinds of relaxing, calming and spiritual innovations and insights (and indeed, they have their fair share) we also must keep in mind that they became the first civcilized people to come up with high explosives, really nasty torture techniques, deployment of ballistic missles, advanced military machinery and navigational systems, the horse and the elephant as weapons, and mass murder of the folks next door. In other words, they're JUST LIKE US! So there's several dozen centuries in one paragraph. THAT, my friends, is where these methods come from. Kind of makes sense when you think about it: with all that going on, who WOULDN'T need some way to relax?
There are, however, a few important cultural distinctions to be made -and these are "key" to understanding the "fit" of eastern relaxation, meditation and conditioning techniques with the cultures and societies that invented and employed them. Two of the best ways to recognize what makes east and west different -in terms of the way we understand ourselves- are art, and religion. In general, when you look at western fine art, what you see in the foreground are people, or a person, depicted in various scenarios depending on who was writing the check for the picture. But when you look at eastern fine art, what you see is basically ALL background: mountains, streams, forests, etc., and teeny tiny people or NO people whatsoever. You will also see patterns and geometry repeated over and over -a fascination with FORM as opposed to SUBSTANCE. And in all of it, the people -who were not any particular people- were a minor element overshadowed by their surroundings. Are there exceptions? Of COURSE there are exceptions but don't challenge me with these, because then my whole train of logic falls off the track and I lose this argument and will have to delete this whole journal. If you really want to get your head around all this, I suggest you read "Artistic Expression - A Sociological Analysis" by Vytautas Kavolis. Its a thin volume, but very thick material.
OK, now religion: Not surpisingly, the two major expressions (in terms of membership), are Islam and Christianity. And each of these has a central figure, an individual whose life and teaching form the core guidelines of behavior, belief and hope. Just like the art -a person, a particular somebody- is in the foreground. But in the east, there is no such "somebody," but rather a few folks who were regarded as good examples of how to live. Prominent among them are Buddha and Confucius, but there are a few others. Their popularity and acceptance was up and down, depending, again, on who was writing the checks. But either way, neither was attempting to draw people to God, but rather, to offer advice and instruction on how to make the best of the situation as it is. Like the art, these religions (OK, philosophies) were more about the big picture, the context, the patterns, then they were about "following the leader."
Bear with me, I'll bring this all together here directly. Now, WHY would the western and eastern ways of life be different in the ways I've described? One word: scarcity. One thing these folks in the east were really good at over the centuries was having babies, who actually lived to become adults. So, there were lots of people. Organization of those people was key to survival, so agriculture was BIG in the east. It did not take long for the leadership to figure out that everyone was highly dependent of what Mother Nature did. Figure out how to cooperate with her, and you'll do OK. And it was understood that nature, the environment, was much bigger than "mankind" itself. In the fullness of time, adaptation to scarcity among growing populations gave rise to styles of life and an understanding of life that had to do with the "fit" between people -and everything around them. Of course, there were tumultuous wars and conquests in the east whenever it seemed as though doing so would advance the survival agenda. But for the average guy in the street, it was still all about coping with scarcity, whether the result of population, natural disaster or Genghis Khan's latest courtesy call.
But in the west, the whole approach had much to do with the instruction in Genesis to "dominate." And life itself was not understood to be about fitting in with nature but rather, figuring out how to fit in with God's plan. You might think that after the fall of Rome, scarcity was a big deal. And it WAS a big deal, but by then, the "mindset" was already there. And there was some help from nature in the form of climate changes and plagues that wiped out substantial portions of the population. In a sense, the dark ages gave western civilization a clean slate, as it were, only THIS time the game plan was all about economic power projected on the crest of a wave to expand the kingdom of God itself. And in the fullness of time, an economy of acquisition developed and the roots of market economies took shape. The philosophical underpinning, eventually, was that the individual was important. Taken together with market economies, a culture of consumption was -and is now- the social adaptation we see in the west and in which we live.
Nutshell: in the west, it is all about keeping up with the Joneses; creation of wealth, competition. In the east: BEING the Jonseses; distribution and management of resources; coping. Now of course, cultures and societies and people are incestuous by nature, socially speaking. And so we see a lot of borrowing or theft of social and cultural attributes on both sides; its a jumble these days.
And that brings us back to the "eastern" techniques we started with. Look around the forum long enough, and you'll see the unmistakable evidence of the cultural divide I've been discussing. There are some folks who pray to the Almighty either for direct relief from panic and anxiety, or else for the strength and peace to handle it; and they pray for others as well, and TELL them they are praying for them. By the book -and I mean the "Good Book." And there are also those who have discovered Feng shui, and so line up their furniture to achive "harmony" with the environment. The appeals to God are self-centered (and I don't mean "selfish") while the length of the bed in a north-south axis is an attempt at adaptation, a way to find a "fit."
Now, here's the point, and I'm glad you stayed around for it. The effectiveness of any technique that arose from a culture that is NOT your own may sometimes be limited by the simple fact that your needs and expectations have been conditioned by a culture of consumption and acquisition. That is, you (and I) are accustomed to, and do expect, reasonably immediate results from what we do or what we buy. We are not "about" coping or finding a fit; we are all about "having" and "getting." But the cultures which gave rise to the techniques we borrow portray life itself differently than western culture. Meditation, body movement, relaxation, sticking pins and all the rest of it, are, by their nature, things which will be effective only over time and with repeated application (if they are effective at all). While, or course, both patient and practitioner hope for a "feel good" result, that result is itself a mere by-product of the fundamental goal to achieve harmony, to find the "fit." And the desire to find harmony, to fit in, runs throughout the cuture and the way people think. And therefore, the mere imitation, the mimicry, of those techniques is no guarantee that you'll get the same peace a born and bred zen-master does.
Does that mean these things won't work for you? Of course not. If for no other reason then that they introduce you to a new way of looking at life itself, they are certainly worth your attention. What stimulated me to write this material in the first place was a comment I observed on the forum by a frustrated individual who observed that even though she does yoga -she STILL has problems! You bet; neither yoga, nor meditation, nor Joe Barry's One Move, nor prayer, nor pills nor therapy nor anything at all carries any magical, self-working property. What "works" is what always, everywhere and forever works: the changes you make, to you. The yoga, prayers, zen cones, pills and psychiatrists are among the many ways -the infinite ways, really- available to you in the quest to recover, to be yourself again.
Now, if you've been following along and at least give tentative acceptance to what I've suggested and my very corrupted and distorted analysis of history and culture, you may also have detected another possible conclusion when it comes to understanding more about why people even HAVE panic and anxiety. I hold out to you that for many of us, we were "born in the wrong culture." Many of us would do better if we WERE, in fact, living in societies whose underlying primary philosophical focus was harmony and fit -as opposed to acquistion and competition. And even if we were at one time well-adapted to the pace of western society, that society itself is changing so rapidly that what once worked for us may now work against us or simply be irrelevant. The driving forces to acquire, to consume, to get ahead, are, perhaps oddly, actually the mechanisms by which we hope to achieve harmony and fit. But we often measure our sense of comfort on the reflections of the culture in which we live. If we don't have the latest car, a cell phone that takes pictures, current fashions in the closet, an Ipod, a club membership, the right wine, a stainless steel kitchen, etc., etc, we may begin to feel uncomfortable. The latest music, adherence to the politics of professional entertainers, "green" ideas, awareness of the lives of celebrities and all the things displayed on shirts and bumper stickers and in the media tell us "where we are." Even if you don't care much about these things, you are surrounded by messages of their importance. How odd that people will "shout" their interests and affiliations on their clothing and automobiles, yet be tongue-tied when it comes to talking to a stranger in the check-out line. ITS LIKE EVERYONE HAS THE CAPS-LOCK KEY DOWN. (I, of course, talk to everyone in the checkout line and currently have 16 marriage proposals pending at 8 different Walmarts).
I was struck by 2 TV commercials I recently saw. In one, a sexy woman pulls up to a traffic light in a red "sports model" Cadillac, glances at some guy next to her, and then zooms away when the light changes. What the devil is GM, in the midst of an oil price crunch and concern about carbon emissions, trying to say here?
In the other, a couple in their 30's stands in their kitchen and discusses their desire for stainless steel appliances. In the background, a little curtain climber is happily spreading some kind of goo on the refrigerator door. The camera zooms in on the female spouse, who is very clearly of oriental extraction, and she says, "MATCHING stainless." So here you have an individual whose cultural heritage is all about the harmony and fit -coming out for matching stainless steel appliances. Feng shui that! This is the way of happiness and peace? I don't even remember what company the commercial was for.
What I'm getting at here, friends, is that the real benefit of eastern thought may not be so much in the mind and body methods that it gave us, but rather in the underlying notions of how we understand life and where we set our values and priorities. It certainly makes sense to me that one handicap of western thought is the constantly moving target of acceptance, achievement and well-being. Perhaps, if we could know more about what truly gives us happiness based on knowing more about ourselves, we would pay less attention to what culture would have us believe.
Just a thought.