Yoga philosophy, race, and 'colorblindness'

As you probably know, in general this blog is not political or ‘topical’, focusing as it does on timeless wisdom and universal truths. Sometimes, however, I write in response to a heartfelt request—hence the current post.

As more and more people are realizing, spiritual awakening does not necessarily guarantee automatic clarity of view on one’s socio-cultural programming. Each bit of programming installed in the ‘hard drive’ of the brain must be re-examined and recalibrated in light of the energy of awakening in order to become fully integrated with that Light. In my own case, the last several years have included a sobering process of realizing how sensitivity to issues of racism and other forms of systemic oppression fit into spiritual awakening. 

I am not interested in a transcendentalist style awakening that simply leaves behind the painful social issues of the day or the fractured character of our nation (whether the US or UK or India, the same words apply). Only an awakening that embraces the totality of reality appeals to me. It accesses and draws strength from the transcendent, to be sure, but does so in order to more fully embrace the immanent. The unique power that derives from the very core of our being is what allows us to show up for and empathize with the immense suffering of humanity without being crushed by it. (It also allows us to feel the immense joy of humanity, but that’s not what this particular post is about.)

Some years ago, I had a painful conversation with a friend, a person of color, in which I described myself as ‘colorblind’ in the sense that when meeting someone, I saw a unique human being, a unique pattern of energy, not a ‘black person’ or ‘white person’ or ‘Asian person’. I further declared that colorblindness was an integral piece of yoga philosophy, since that philosophy teaches that each of us is the one divine Consciousness playing different roles, and that none of us is really ‘black’ or ‘white’ or whatever. She was upset, angry, and hurt by these statements. Back then, I didn’t really understand why. Now I do. Tears spring to my eyes at my inability to fully empathize with her then. This post is both a reparation to her and others like her, and explanation of what many white American yogis still don’t understand about race and ‘colorblindness’. 

The answer was right there all the time in the Tantrik philosophy I love so much. I just didn’t see it yet. You see, the tradition teaches that for any aspect of manifest reality to become experientially integrated with the divine Consciousness which is its true source and ground, it must be seen with the light of loving awareness—that is, with a nonjudgmental willingness to be intimate with what is apart from one’s stories about it. There are two relevant implications of this: first of all, though the reasons we might give for systemic racism are of course mental constructs that we can argue about, the pain suffered by people of color in connection with systemic racism is real, not a story, and it needs to be compassionately witnessed before it can be transcended. 

Secondly, the yogic process of becoming free of identification with the impermanent elements of embodiment is contingent on self-acceptance. Any attempt at disidentifying with the body, mind, etc. without first attaining self-acceptance is actually spiritual bypassing—a kind of escapism. Therefore, before I try to give anyone a teaching about their innermost Spirit—that within them which is unborn and undying—I had better be ready to see and accept and love the pain of their embodiment.  I now realize that to say to a person of color “I don’t see your race” is really to say “I’m too scared of empathizing with the pain of the institutionalized oppression that you suffer.” For a white person to say “I’m colorblind” is to say “I’d rather just overlook all the pain of your community up to the present day. Do I really have to engage with that to be friends with you?” Yes. Yes, you do. In the same way that you wouldn’t be able to befriend an Iraqi or Palestinian without empathizing with their pain. 

So you see, since healthy disidentification with the body etc. depends on a degree of self-acceptance, it’s much, much easier for privileged folk—like white middle- and upper-class Americans—to get on board with yoga philosophy’s statements “I am not my body; I am not my past; I am not what others think of me.” Still not easy, because people of any class or ethnicity can be burdened by self-hatred, but easier.  And if you don’t think so, you don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color in America (or the UK, or anywhere else with institutionalized white privilege). 

Why don’t people of color say “I’m colorblind?” Because to be white in America is to be the unmarked race. The default ethnicity. We already are colorless. We already are what this society declares—in a thousand subtle nonverbal ways—is the best thing to be. Can you imagine the pervasive pain of being a second- or third-class citizen all your life? No, you can’t, if you’re white. This is what white people don’t get without training. Your privilege is invisible to you, and painfully visible to people of color. Whether they bother to reflect on it or not, they see what you don’t—how the system (especially in educational, legal, and political spheres) systematically privileges the dominant race/ethnicity over and against everyone else. How it systematically enforces inequality, without needing to encode it in law. 

It’s easier for me to become free of identification with a body that my culture privileges more than any other, that of a white male. Before a person of color (or anyone, for that matter) can healthily disidentify with their body and their story (should they wish to—and of course it would be oppressive to say they ought to), they must heal some of the pain of having that body, otherwise such disidentification is denial and disassociation. It’s a little-understood but crucial yogic principle (in the Tantrik tradition, anyway) that one must first develop a healthy ego before dissolving the ego into pure Spirit. (Where ‘healthy ego’ mainly connotes self-acceptance and psychic wholeness.) And our society still systematically undermines the development of healthy egos in persons of color. 

Some of you reading this are probably already angry at me. “You’re a Sanskrit scholar, a philosophy teacher. What business do you have commenting on racial and political issues?”  I believe that no one who values equality—the intrinsically equal dignity and worth of all human beings without exception—can afford to not speak up about this. As Krishna teaches in the Gītā, to choose inaction is itself an action, an action with consequences. No one can exempt himself. No one can choose not to be involved, because to choose that is to actively reinforce the status quo. On this issue, everyone casts a vote. Will you do so consciously or unconsciously?  

Some white people say, as I used to say, “It’s not my fault I was born white. I’m not responsible for what my ancestors did. And anyway, I don’t ‘feel’ white because I identify more with ______.” (Fill in the blank: Native American culture, Indian culture, Daoism, or whatever.) Look, I get you. I don’t like referring to myself as ‘white’ because I don’t identify with the cultural paradigm determined and perpetuated by the white majority, and because I know that my awareness is not defined or limited by its vessel, but it would be ignorant and foolish of me to not acknowledge that others see me as white, and that therefore I have a responsibility. I am white in the sense that the body my awareness sees through is of European descent, and the direct ancestors of this body have systematically oppressed, marginalized, and even massacred people of color worldwide all the way up to the present day, simply because they could and there was economic advantage in doing so. That needs to be acknowledged and grieved until there is healing, however long that takes. 

I’m not ashamed of the ethnicity and gender of my body, and like any awake person I know that ethnicity and gender are cultural constructs, not objective facts.  But I am ashamed, or rather embarrassed, that the only American spiritual teachers I see saying “You’re not your body, you’re not your emotions, you’re not your story, and your suffering is only mind-created” are white, and nearly all of them male. Though yoga philosophy says that samskāras—the impressions of unresolved or undigested past experiences that reside in the psyche and the body—cannot prevent one from awakening to one’s undamaged and undamageable divine essence, it is also the case that a critical mass of samskāras can make it very difficult indeed to abide in that essence. Because there is still so much in the body-mind that demands attention, that calls for loving awareness, for understanding, for healing. And that goes for an individual’s body and the body of a community. 

One of the original sources of Tantrik Yoga, a 1300-year-old Sanskrit scripture still untranslated, says something absolutely astonishing for its time:

There is only one 'caste', that of human beings. No caste was ordained for them [from on high], nor color such as white. All arise from the union of a linga and a yoni, and thus all souls are one and the same. One who has the eye of wisdom sees God in all of them. ~ Pauṣkara-pārameśvara

I believe and feel this teaching with all my heart, and I also believe that seeing God in others must include honoring (and/or grieving) the specific conditions of their embodiment, not overlooking those conditions. Because in the Tantrik view, unlike some other Indian philosophies, diversity is real, not an illusion. Therefore to see God in everyone is not to overlook difference but to celebrate it. 

People who are hurt need healing first of all. People whose story has been discounted need to be heard first of all. If any white person (person perceived as white) or any privileged person wants to counteract the debilitating effect of the system that they unwittingly participate in and support, this is how:

  1.  Educate yourself (this is a brilliant metaphor that will stay with you; here is the most thorough explanation and proof of this issue available; and here is the proven Harvard test for subconscious racism or 'implicit bias'--know thyself!).
  2. Listen. Give people of color a voice. (The same goes for other marginalized people, like LGBTQs.) Show up with willingness to hear others’ pain, without discounting it or declaiming responsibility or making it about you in any way.
  3. Ask, if the opportunity arises, “how can I help? how can I support you? how can I make a difference?” and listen with an open heart to what you hear, even if it’s expressed in language that is not free of anger and frustration. Learn to listen with what the truly awakened being Marshall Rosenberg called “giraffe ears” (because giraffes have the biggest hearts of any land animal)—where even if that anger seems to target you, you don’t take it personally, and you keep empathizing, with a willingness to feel that person’s pain and grieve with them. You can’t fake that, and it’s harmful to do so, and that’s why step one is to educate yourself

In Tantrik Yoga, there is a key purpose of the practice other than awakening to your essence-nature, and that is to strengthen your energy-body (= your mental-emotional body) until it is strong enough to embrace the whole of reality, including the pain of humanity. My living teachers taught me that the ideal of Tantrik Yoga is to birth an energy-body strong enough to be of service, to show up fully, to witness deep pain and not lose heart, not lose the capacity for joy, and not generate mental constructs about the ‘darkness’ in the world (or other reductive and disempowering generalizations). May we all birth a strong energy-body! May we become free of self-referencing and able to show up for what is, for the benefit of all beings.

~ I want to thank Kris Ex for helping me wake up to these truths; I want to apologize in advance to any PoCs who feel I misrepresented their needs in this post (please feel free to correct me); and I want to dedicate this post to J., the beautiful woman of color whose friendship I lost years ago through my inability to understand and empathize. ~

Postscript #1:
In its original context, Yoga (meaning the path of self-realization and self-actualization) was not the domain only of the privileged class or the economic elite; it was available to anyone who demonstrated the sincerity of their desire to learn it. What a pity, then, that in America it is still a luxury commodity. What a pity that, being primarily a commodity (whether it takes the form of physical yoga, meditation, or mindfulness), it is marketed to the privileged class, and that therefore many people of color don’t see yoga as theirs and don’t feel they belong in those environments. There are organizations, like Niroga in the Bay Area, that are working to counteract this unfortunate effect of capitalism. Please get in touch with them and offer to help.

Postscript #2:
If you’re white, here’s a way to quickly tell if you’re not yet awake to your privilege: do you think that the correct slogan for the Black Lives Matter social justice movement should really be “All Lives Matter”?  If so, you don’t get it yet. Since our society already acknowledges that white lives matter, it’s important to say that black lives do too. Its empowering for people of color, and thus supportive of a more egalitarian society, that we all stand up and say so.  As an anonymous law professor recently said, 

“Here is something that matters: context. The Black Lives Matter movement arose in a context of evidence that they don’t. When people are receiving messages from a culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough.”


If you want to know more about the Tantrik value of true intimacy with reality, you can download my talk  "Being intimate with what is" .