Friday, August 5, 2011

Sartre, self-conceptions, bad faith, and becoming a yoga teacher: A little existentialist analysis

 Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

"One always dies too soon--or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are--your life, and nothing else."

Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

I have been reading Sartre in preparation for my fall classes. In the course of my reading, I vaguely felt that some of the themes that come up in Sartre's writings resonate with some of the things that I have been writing about on this blog the last few days. So I'm going to use this post as a testing ground of sorts, and try to see if I can bring these two things--Sartre and yoga--together.

In my previous post about teaching yoga and yoga teacher trainings, I said a few things about the motivations that led people who are relatively new to yoga to enroll in teacher trainings and become yoga teachers, even if they might not have gone through the amount of personal practice needed in order to be teachers who can teach classes with great depth and skill.

As with many other things in life, the motives that people have for wanting to become famous yoga teachers, yoga rock stars, self-made gurus, etc, are many and varied. They range from well-intentioned and lofty (wanting to share yoga with others, wanting to deepen one's practice) to petty (wanting to make some extra cash) to somewhat misguided (wanting to escape from a boring and unsatisfying day job) to outright megalomaniacal (wanting to feel important and be adored by large groups of people). Indeed, it is quite possible for one person to be motivated to varying degrees by several or even all of these motives at the same time. I am not pointing this out to pass judgment on anybody. I am only saying this because I know that this happens as a matter of fact; I, for one, had all of these motives at the same time during my short tenure as a yoga teaching charlatan :-). But of course, it is also possible that I may be the only person who acts from such base motives in wanting to be a yoga teacher; maybe every other aspiring yoga teacher out there is all noble and such. Fine... I'll live with that.

But I didn't write this post as an exercise in condemnation (least of all self-condemnation). What I'm really interested in is the question of why these aspiring yoga teachers have the motives they do. And I propose to analyze this question from an existentialist angle; specifically, from the perspective of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.

In order to do this, I need to say a few things about Sartre's view of the human condition. If we were to try to deliver the gist of Sartre's view in a punchline, it would be: "Existence comes before essence." What does this mean? To put it very simply, this means that unlike artifacts and other man-made objects, which are explicitly designed and brought into existence with a very specific purpose in mind, human beings do not come into this world with any such purpose; there is no "instruction manual" telling us what we should do or how we should go about leading our lives. In his essay Existentialism as a Humanism, Sartre puts it this way:

"What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world--and defines himself afterwards... there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is... Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism... we mean to say that man primarily exists--that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists..."

What has any of this to do with people doing yoga teacher trainings and becoming yoga teachers? Well, I'm getting there: Bear with me for a little more. Let me just start by talking about what follows from Sartre's words above: Because there is no single thing (or things) that define human beings qua human beings, human beings are perpetually free to redefine and reinvent themselves, whether or not they are always aware of this possibility. I am not fully defined by what I was or have done in the past; nor can I be fully identified with the various roles that I play right now in my personal and professional lives. This is true, even if others around me identify me with what I was or have done, or with the various social and personal roles.that I play at the moment. All these facts about my life do not fully define me, because there is always the possibility that I may do something in the next moment that refutes these things. For instance, I may have been a very timid and introverted person up to this point, and my friends may find themselves thinking of me as a timid person whenever they think or speak of me. But it is always possible that in the next moment, I may do something or undergo a personality change that shatters this conception of myself as a timid person, transcending this conception of myself. Or, as Sartre would say, we cannot be wholly defined by our facticity, or the facts that have been true of us up to this point, because we possess the potential to transcend this facticity.

Perhaps Sartre would say that a new yoga student who had been going to yoga classes for a few weeks, and who decides to enroll in teacher training and become a yoga teacher, is attempting to transcend her facticity. She deeply feels a powerful connection to yoga, and wants very much to share this with others around her (she may, of course, also be motivated by all those less noble motives that I mentioned above). At the same time, she also feels that everything else that has been in her life up to this point, and that has defined her as a person both to herself and in the eyes of her friends and family, are no longer adequate for the new conception of herself that has emerged in her mind's eye, and which she seeks to grow into. Thus, to use a rather tired metaphor, she is shedding the cocoon of her old self-conception, transcending it in order to make way for the new conception that she aspires towards.

But things are a little more complicated than that. Sartre observes that in attempting to transcend their facticity, people often deliberately choose not to acknowledge things about themselves that are quite obviously true of them at that particular point in time. They see these things as awkward or inconvenient truths to be swept under the rug in order to make room for the new self-conception that they are anxiously trying to usher in; they either deny these things outright, or try to rationalize them away, downplaying their significance. In Sartre's terminology, such individuals are in bad faith. Thus, it may very well be that in trying to convince others and herself that she has it in her to become a great yoga teacher in the very near future (i.e. however long it takes to complete the teacher training), the yoga neophyte/aspiring teacher is aware at some level of her lack of practice experience and perspective; however, she either denies this fact ("experience doesn't really matter; in fact, students will probably be able to relate better to me, who, like them, is also new to the practice, than to some dinosaur who has been practicing for, like, a million years...") or downplays its significance ("there are so many others in the teacher training who either have been practicing as long as I have, or are even newer to the practice...").

Thus, if this picture I have painted of what is going on in a yoga neophyte/aspiring teacher's mind is in any way representative of what is going on with many new yoga students in such a position, it may very well be that many yoga neophytes/aspiring teachers are in Sartrean bad faith. I would like to emphasize that in postulating this, I am not casting any kind of judgment on anybody: Sartre's intention in carrying out such an existentialist analysis (and, humbly following in his footsteps, mine as well) is to gain a better understanding of the human condition by taking a disinterested yet brutally honest look at ourselves as humans who are trying to make sense of this apparently senseless condition into which we find ourselves thrown into. Nor am I saying that any new yoga student who wants to teach yoga must be in bad faith. After all, there are at least a few great teachers in the history of yoga who started teaching after having studied with their gurus for a relatively short time (B.K.S. Iyengar comes to mind). But I do hope that the above analysis would be of some interest to you, and would thus contribute to the ongoing conversation about this topic in some small way.            


  1. dear Nobel
    i would characterize your writing in your own words, "this is noble and such." it's interesting analogy. but reading Sartre's words make me realize why i hated his philosophy so deeply. i avoided it like the plague. the fundamentalism of his philosophy feels like is atheism. i find it jarring when compared to the facets of yoga that are related to spiritualism. and i mean that the spiritualism can be acknowledging Buddha or Patanjali or Jesus or the good witch Glenda. Sartre would have none of that in his philosophy. there are moments that i honor Sartre's contributions to philosphy. i specially do when flying on a plane. as i contemplate the world below, the feeling is totally existential.

    i cannot as of yet accept his philosphy. the quote at the start, i begin to have problems with. my father always said, you are you. yes. you could extend to it that you are your life, no more. uhm, i have a problem with that. your life goes beyond your life. it is left in what you contributed. it is alive in the memory of those after you. why else live a life if it's not to contribute and be a part of making the world better? if we do, we will be remembered, and hence our life will live beyong our short time here.


  2. I'm really glad you wrote this post, Nobel. I got to reading Being and Nothingingness this summer, and it's something that I've been pondering; although, not only about yoga, but about personal growth in general.

    I might just write about this on my blog! Hope I'm not being a topic thief. >_>

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Arturo. You said, "i avoided it like the plague. the fundamentalism of his philosophy feels like is atheism."

    Well, it feels like it is atheism because he is an atheist: He basically assumes Nietzsche's view that God is dead. So, for Sartre, the basic problem is this: Assuming that there is no God or any higher power, what are we to do to make sense of our apparently senseless existence in this world in which we, for better or for worse, find ourselves having to live in? But I guess you probably know all this already ;-)

    When you say "the fundamentalism of his philosophy", do you mean he is a fundamentalist in the sense that he unquestioningly and fundamentally takes the position that there is no God or higher spiritual power? Just trying to clarify.

    You are right that Sartre would accept none of this spiritual stuff in his philosophy. But I don't find this to be jarring. Rather, I see his skepticism in this area as a refreshing reminder to keep things real: No matter how spiritual we are or try to be, we cannot run away from the fact that we are beings that have to confront the messy and ugly things that being human brings up. If we try to run away from this, we are in bad faith: I think we sometimes try so hard to be spiritual or evolved (or whatever) that we ignore or outright deny the ugly aspects of our all-too-human condition. So in this way, I welcome and embrace Sartre's skepticism.

    I don't think Sartre would deny that "your life goes beyond your life", and "is alive in the memory of those after you." He definitely acknowledges that, for better or for worse, people around us will remember us in a certain way; what this will be is something that is often beyond our control, despite our best efforts to leave behind a particular legacy. So I guess he'll probably say, "Sure, live a contributive and productive life, if this is what you really want to do. But try to be honest with what you are and are not, and be aware that people will very often not see your contributions the same way as you see them."

  4. Thanks Chris. I look forward to reading your blog post.

  5. Dear Nobel

    how true; people won't view my contributions in the same way i see them. that is true on a daily basis, not even beyond one's life.

    my aversion for Sartre probably stems from having studied philosophy at Notre Dame, a catholic university, and a time in my life that was deeply spiritual- i was going to be a carthusian monk then and lived in a seminary (without being a seminarian). the university had the openness to dedicate an entire class to existentialism, but i did not take it. Sartre's philosophy was discussed in other classes, since he is an important contributor to the body of work of philosophy. for some reason, i never developed an aversion to Nietsche, more like a sympathy and understanding for his philosophy. The same with Wittgenstein, whose philosophy i was less familiar with, but whose concepts where similar.

    i get into big arguments with people who want to disprove God's existence and end up agreeing to disagree. it's only the atheism part of Satre's philosophy that i don't like. i don't know if he was fundamentalist in his belief that God does not exist. some of my closest friends and some family members have been atheists, yet are very moral and believe there is some higher power and leave it at that. i don't have a problem with that. actually as a buddhist now, i focus on morality in my personal life.

    anyhow, forgive this philopher deeply trained in Aquinas didactic methodology of thinking. i think it's great that you prepare to teach Sartre and that you're trying to make an analogy to what you observe in the world of practicing and teaching yoga.


  6. Thanks for the philosophy lesson Nobel (esp. for someone who has never taken a single philosophy course before)! This transcending facticity with bad faith definitely applies to myself in many cases. Because I don't like certain aspects of myself (culture background, personality, etc.), I try to sweep what I dislike like about myself under the rug and work hard at pursuing a new identity. In this sense I guess we can't blame those who rush to become yoga teachers, because I am just as guilty as they are, and I suspect we all do this from time to time.

  7. Hello Arturo,
    thanks for sharing again. Personally, I find the efforts of both people who are trying to prove God's existence and people who are trying to disprove God's existence to be rather off-putting. I'm not quite sure why I feel this way: Perhaps it's because I feel that one way or the other, one is trying so hard to prove a point that one forgets to live. Sartre strikes me as a good example of somebody who is comfortable enough with his non-belief in God, and who also believes that one does not need a higher power to make good sense of the human condition and live productively.

    It's really interesting that you went to Notre Dame. I taught at Marquette University for a year after grad school, but other than that, I have very limited experience of Catholic institutions: the rest of my academic career has been spent in public institutions. I did not deliberately plan it this way; it just happened.

    Anyhow, my philosophical background seems to be quite different from yours. My training is primarily in Analytic philosophy a.k.a. Anglo-American philosophy, which is supposed to be diametrically opposed to Continental Philosophy (Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and all that good stuff). Despite my analytic background, I have always been interested in Continental philosophy; I actually wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on Heidegger and poetry, and I feel that the Continental perspective has much to offer. It's just that I attended a graduate program (University of Florida) which was staunchly analytic to the point of being vehemently anti-Continental: It was not unusual for many of my professors to openly ridicule Heidegger, Sartre, and other Continentals in seminars; which, as you can probably imagine, makes for a very unpleasant learning environment. Unfortunately, it seems that such unproductive division and feuding is actually the norm rather than the exception in academia in this country. I try in my own teaching to be as open to different approaches and traditions as possible: In this way, I hope to do my own small part to counter what I see as a destructive tendency.

    Hmm... I guess this was a pretty big digression from what we started out discussing, wasn't it? :-)

  8. Thanks Yyogini :-) Yes, I don't think that Sartre is trying to make us feel bad with his analysis; I think he would like us to take it as an exercise in self-awareness of our tendency to be in bad faith. As somebody once said, awareness of something is a big step towards moving away from it.

  9. Thank you for covering two of my favorite topics in one post! French Lit, & yoga. I'd like to shed my past skins and combine these two loves for a new career! Ideas? Just discovered your blog :-) C'est tres tres bien.