Monday, September 29, 2014

what to do? how to act?

This weekend, at the wedding of one of my oldest and dearest friends, I was able to ask a question of one of the guests that has of late been gnawing at me: does Iggy Azalea put you off, or make you uncomfortable?  Truth be told I was coming a little sideways, and although genuinely curious to know, I was actually also setting up a different but related question.  More on that later.  For those (mercifully) unaware of current pop culture, wondering who Iggy Azalea is, this is her deal: she is a rapper/singer and she is very very big these days.  She is also white, blonde, strikingly lovely, and from, of all places, rural Australia.  When she raps and sings she adopts all the speech patterns and inflections of a young African American. I've read it referred to as a "blaccent."  When she first came on the scene, her normal, non-performative speech was in her Australian accent.  Lately she has tried to incorporate the "blaccent" into her normal speech as well; but she can't really cover the Australian accent so she just sounds strange.  In any event, Iggy Azalea has come under fire for committing the insidious sin of cultural appropriation.  (Is it really a sin?  Yes.  But more on that later also.)  It is argued that she is simultaneously cashing in on a culture not her own while squeezing out other artists who are actually from said culture.  To Iggy Azalea's critics, when she raps: "First things first, I'm the realest," in her break out hit "Fancy," it resonates as an obnoxious fuck you to those unsigned black and brown female rappers who are equally or more skillful, but perhaps not as physically attractive, and, of course, certainly not white.

At this point you may be asking yourself: what does this have to do with yoga?  But see what happens when you refine the question to: what does this have to do with the ancient Indian spiritual/religious technology called yoga which is now practiced far and wide by non-Indian people, mostly of European descent, in a distorted way and bolsters a multi-billion dollar industry?  It's quite clear.  In many cases cultural appropriation, which is a kind of supremely subtle systemic violence, is happening. I want no part of it.  I want no part of eroding Indian culture, of insulting Hinduism, of disrespecting, especially under the auspices of good or best intentions.  This is of course what makes cultural appropriation so subtle and insidious: most people doing it genuinely have affection for the culture they are appropriating.  Further complicating matters is the fact that some people from the cultural under assault, as it were, feel that nobody from outside ought to take part in any way, shape or form and anybody who tries is an asshole.  If you ever read through postings and their comment threads concerning yoga and authenticity you will find that many Indians, both from the sub-continent and the diaspora, hold this view.  It's an extra goopy morass, to be sure.  Because while I am committed to respecting India and Indians, I am also even more committed to practicing yoga in order liberate my soul from suffering and rebirth.  I, for one among many other earnest practitioners, am in it for the kaivalya [ultimate liberation and solitude].  What to do?  How to act?

Back to Gera's wedding.  The guy whom I asked about Iggy Azalea, whose name is Jafari, was also part of Gera's party.  They met as undergraduates at Morehouse College and Jafari is now a professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University.  One would be hard pressed to find more sterling bonafides for discussing cultural appropriation.  To the Iggy Azalea question, he said that her schtick was, in fact, off-putting.  But her perhaps even greater sin was that her music sucks, and that it troubles him that his nieces and nephews perceive it to be good hip hop.  No argument there.  Iggy Azalea's music really does suck shit through a straw.  We both had a chuckle as we recalled John Waters's differentiation between good bad taste and bad bad taste.  Then, I pivoted into the issues from the preceding paragraph.  What to do?  How to act?

Jafari spoke briefly in academese, about among some other things the evils of the illegitimate assumption of sociological critical distance, but my academese is a little rusty so I'm not totally sure I understood everything.  He also told me to be earnest, and to follow my heart and my conscience and never to lose awareness.  My overall takeaway from our conversation is that when participating in the cultural activities of other cultures, e.g. being a white rapper or a Western yoga practitioner, it's important to remember this paraphrase of the old spiritual diktat: we can be in that world, but never of it.  It may not seem fair, but if you can accept there will always be some distance, some differentiation, then appropriate and genuine respect is possible.   At the heart of respect there is an element of unconditional concession.  You must allow differences, even if only intellectually, before yours can be allowed.   When this kind of respect is there, as opposed to mere affection, then it is very hard, I think, if not impossible, for cultural appropriation to happen.   Affection is all well and good, but ultimately it means dick without respect.  It can even be dangerous.  Be earnest, follow your heart, remain respectful, remain curious so you can find out what may constitute disrespect and follow through on your findings.  This is imperative.

Monday, September 8, 2014

de officium et felicitas

Yesterday I finished reading a collection of essays called Medium Raw, written by food and travel authority Anthony Bourdain.  There is a passage at the end of his chapter on a chef named David Chang which elicited an insight.   A little context for those readers who are non-foodies: Mr. Chang is an enormously influential chef who has several restaurants in New York City.  He is relatively quite young and exhibits many of the tropes commonly associated with great artists-- self-doubt, mercurial temperament, drive, and, of course, rare talent.  So, here's the passage:

...a few days later I ask [his friend] Peter Meehan what he thinks makes David Chang really and truly happy--- if the wheels can ever stop turning, he relaxes, takes a deep breath of free air, nothing on his mind.   "I've seen it," Meehan says.  "It's there.  But he doesn't pursue it.  His happiness is not a priority in his life.  It's an incidental benefit, but he's not dead to it.  Maybe, if someday he realizes that happiness can help him achieve his goals, he'll give a shit about it."

Is this sad?  Pathetic, even?  Here's a young man sitting at the peak of his profession and yet he can't, or won't, enjoy it because he's only focused on greatness, as it were.  Why put it in all that work, endure all that suffering for something that can never be enjoyed?  I, for one, however, find this to be not sad but instead a source of great inspiration.  It boils down to a single word: dharma.  Unfortunately, it is a tricky word to translate.  In the Hindu sense (for Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, respectively, it has slightly different meanings and connotations) dharma can mean many things, including law, order, duty, custom, model, "path of righteousness."  My understanding of the term includes all of these, and also purpose and a little dash of destiny or fate.

Dharma is the supreme directive.  It overrides love, happiness, and even morality when necessary.  There is a fine illustration from the Old Testament of dharma trumping morality in the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Abraham accepts that his dharma is to obey God, even if it means being willing to commit the shockingly immoral act of killing his own son.  Fortunately for Isaac, the mere acceptance of the dharma satisfies God and Abraham is not obliged to follow through.  And, of course, in the Bhagavad Gita Krsna reminds Arjuna that he is a warrior first, and a brother/cousin/nephew/disciple second.  Mr. Chang, it would appear, has realized that he is a chef first, and all other considerations, including happiness, must come second.  He is acting according to his dharma.

We, in the United States, at least, live in a culture obsessed with happiness-- a Prozac culture replete with bonafide happiness shaming.  I, for one, have been led to believe that there was something wrong with me for not feeling happy at all times.  For example, I frequently see Facebook memes and posters featuring figures like Osho (whose image, I must confess, makes my skin crawl every time I see it, may he rest in peace) saying something to the effect of:  happiness is our natural condition.  Or that happiness is our birthright.  Fuck that.  It sounds more and more like bullshit to me, I'm afraid.  At least it runs counter to my understanding of Krsna's message in the Bhagavad Gita.  We are entitled to our dharma, not our happiness.  Happiness may or may not come if we act according to our dharma.  It doesn't matter.  This is why Mr. Chang's story resonated with me.  While I accept that many may find this to be textbook slave morality, or profoundly pessimistic at best, I must say that I find it supremely comforting to accept that there is a purpose beyond ourselves.

This begs a serious question; how do you know what your dharma is?  This is why so many faith systems have the directive of "know thyself."  It is my earnest hope that anyone who engages in serious self inquiry will discover what his or her dharma is.  Once discovered it leads to a profound sense of peace and security, one that I hope all will have the good fortune to feel.