Thursday, January 10, 2013

Finding my place in the world; Is radical acceptance possible, or a good thing?

"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River

For the past few days, I have been trying, in my own way, to find my place in this little corner of the world in which I have found myself as a result of my, ahem, academic peregrinations, if you would excuse the rather grandiose turn of speech. The few people I know here (mostly my new colleagues and administrative staff) have been very kind and very helpful in helping me get settled; in particular, they have offered a lot of sympathy in the face of the relative slowness of the bureaucratic machinery in getting me processed into the system. I mean, I'm supposed to start teaching on Monday, and I don't even have a campus email account yet! Come to think of it, the whole thing is actually a little bit bizarre: Come Monday, I will have to walk into a classroom and face a bunch of students who know the ins and outs of this place a whole lot better than I do.

But I really can't complain. Despite the abovementioned inconveniences, the fact of the matter is that I am getting to do something that is very engaging and fulfilling (teaching and talking about philosophy) and, well, getting paid for it. I don't usually talk too much about work too much on this blog, but it is what it is. This blog is about my yoga practice, and about my life as it relates to yoga practice, and the fact of the matter is that right now, my work (or rather, getting ready to do my work) is occupying a big place in my life.


But maybe it's a good idea to change the subject a little, anyway. During the last few evenings, I have been reading V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River for my bedtime reading... Actually, I'm not quite sure if this even qualifies as bedtime reading: I have been so tired the last few evenings that I've only been able to read a few pages at a time before falling asleep, often while still holding the book in my hand! As a result, my grasp of what's going on in the book is quite fragmentary; I'm not sure how much of the "big picture" I'm really getting. But Naipaul has this uncanny ability to perceive and then to put into words certain insights and feelings that I have felt at some point or other, but have never been able to express quite so eloquently. But then again, this is why he's a Nobel-prize-winning novelist, right? :-) Anyway, here's a passage that really speaks to me:

"...from an early age I developed the habit of looking, detaching myself from a familiar scene and trying to consider it as from a distance... And that was the beginning of my insecurity. 

I used to think of this feeling of insecurity as a weakness, a failing of my own temperament, and I would have been ashamed if anyone had found out about it. I kept my ideas about the future to myself, and that was easy enough in our house, where, as I have said, there was never anything like a political discussion. My family were not fools. My father and his brothers were traders, businessmen; in their own way they had to keep up with the times. They could assess situations; they took risks and sometimes they could be very bold. But they were buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider the nature of their lives. They did what they had to do. When things went wrong they had the consolations of religion. This wasn't just a readiness to accept Fate; this was a quiet and profound conviction about the vanity of all human endeavour. 

I could never rise so high. My own pessimism, my insecurity, was a more terrestrial affair. I was without the religious sense of my family. The insecurity I felt was due to my lack of true religion, and was like the small change of the exalted pessimism of our faith, the pessimism that can drive men on to do wonders. It was the price for my more materialist attitude, my seeking to occupy the middle ground, between absorption in life and soaring above the cares of the earth."

As I mentioned, this passage speaks to me personally. Like Naipaul, most of my family are also businesspeople, and having what is commonly known as business acumen involves, among other things, having the ability to assess people and situations quickly, and to know when to commit to something and when to pull out of a questionable-looking situation. Sometimes, this ability to see and assess things might be little more than a "gut feeling" on the part of the business-person, a strong feeling that something is just "right" or "not right." What this also means is that detaching oneself from things and considering them from a certain intellectual distance is probably quite foreign to the modus operandi of a businessperson. Which is not to say that the same person cannot be both a businessperson and also possess a detached, intellectual frame of mind. But I suspect that such a person would have to compartmentalize these two parts of his or her mind, so that she is sometimes in businessperson mode, sometime in intellectual mode.

But all this is neither here nor there. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the reason why I'm a philosophy teacher and not a businessperson is because, unlike many other people in my family, I tend to dwell more in a detached state of mind rather than being buried deep in the thick of things in the way that businesspeople have to be in order to survive in the business world.


But I also wonder if this passage from Naipaul might not also speak to what goes on in the lives of many of us who are yoga practitioners in the west. I'm not quite sure how to express what I'm about to say properly. But perhaps we can think about it this way: Even though yoga is not a religion, I get the sense that practicing yoga in India involves subscribing to a certain worldview, a certain sense of how the world works. Perhaps the Indian yoga practitioner who is also a householder is one who does his practice, whatever that might consist in, and is also at the same time buried deep in his householder duties. He does not stand back and consider the nature of his life, because he has the conviction that whatever the ultimate nature of his life might be, all human endeavor is ultimately in vain. Perhaps we can call this mindset "radical acceptance", for lack of a better term.

I cannot really say with any certainty that this mindset of radical acceptance accurately captures the worldview of "true" yoga practitioners in India, since I have never actually been to India or practiced there (although I do hope this state of affairs will change soon...). But let's suppose I am correct in my speculation about the mindsets of Indian yoga practitioners. If I am correct, then I would also say that there is an unbridgeable gap between this mindset and what I might call the "western yoga mindset". This is true even if, like me, you are somebody who practices mostly at home and eschews what we think of as "popular yoga studio culture." Even if, like me, you believe that what is most important in your practice is not the brand of your yoga pants or the shape of your Manduka mat or how many advanced asanas you can or cannot do, but that the most important thing is to immerse yourself and give yourself fully to the practice and let it transform you--even if you believe all this, there is probably still an unbridgeable gap between your mindset and the mindset of radical acceptance. Why? Well, for one thing, I can tell you quite honestly that I am not prepared to believe that all human endeavor is vanity. I still believe that something in this world (even though I'm not quite sure what exactly it is) really, really, really matters, and that it would be in bad faith to just believe that nothing matters at all. Or, to put it another way: At the end of the day, I am not prepared to surrender everything to whoever's really running the show, to adopt that sort of exalted pessimism that might allow some men to do wonders. Because I'm not sure I want to. I am me, and you are you. Why should I pretend that what I am as opposed to what you are is ultimately a matter of indifference?

But thus far, all I have done is talk about my own reactions and feelings to this whole thing. Maybe you feel differently. Maybe unlike me, you are totally, totally comfortable with radical acceptance. If so, well, more power to you! I'm just not sure I can say the same thing about myself.     

Anyway, speaking of getting buried in life, I need to get back into the thick of finding my place in my new corner of the world right now. So I guess I'll spare you from having to read more of my random ramblings for now. More later.            


  1. I don't see radical acceptance in the same way that you are framing it, and Naipaul seems to understand it. In my view, which is influenced more by Zen and Buddhist thought, is that radical acceptance is two fold. First off, there's a willingness to accept everything as it is in this moment. Secondly, contained within that acceptance is whatever activity or non-activity "I" am called to do. In other words, I let go of the outcome, since I really don't have much power over that. But I'm not reduced to some passive element, resigned to fate, or mushy sense of faith. In fact, I do believe that you can occupy the "middle ground" as Naipaul calls it, both caring deeply about the world and also soaring above the cares. Can't say this is something I experience often, but I'm pretty sure I have experienced it.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Nathan. First, I would like to admit that I did not start out with any particular notion of what "radical acceptance" means, although I do know that it is a term that is thrown around quite a bit in spirituality circles. I'm basically just throwing ideas around here, and using "radical acceptance" as a label to express what I am trying to say.

      But coming back to Naipaul, I think his challenge to us is this: What reason do we have to let go of the outcome if we are occupying the middle ground? If you do not believe there is something greater than yourself (which is why you are occupying the middle ground, in the first place), why let go of the only things that you might possibly have any control over, which are also the only things that may possibly give some meaning to your life as it is? If you let go of these, don't you become... nothing?

      Actually, I understand that many Buddhists have no problem with becoming nothing. But I do not share their conviction in this.

    2. I think the sense of control is ultimately an illusion. What we do, or do not do, in the world is always just a small piece of the whole works.

      The idea that Buddhists are ok with, or interested in becoming nothing is mostly a Western mistranslation of the teachings. The emptiness teachings aren't about wiping away a person, but are about understanding that there's no fixed, enduring person. That who "I" am shifts moment by moment, if only in just the slightest way. And the same is true of everything else as well. Many Western translators, from the 19th century up to even today in some cases, read these teachings as saying that we become nothing. They likened Buddhism to nihilism, but that's just not accurate.

      If, like Naipaul, you don't believe there's something greater than yourself, then I suppose that sense of control is quite important. That sense of a clear identity also quite important. But I guess I tend to go back to the question: What do you have control over anyway? As I've investigated this, it seems a very small field in a lot of ways. Much of what I have thought I had control over I really didn't. Which doesn't mean giving up and having a fatalistic attitude.

  2. Hmm. I find your assumption (that radical acceptance requires the worldview that all human endeavors are vanity) problematic. Is it really exclusive? Is there no possibility that one can cultivate radical acceptance while still operating within the "western yoga mindset", keeping the faith about the fruits of one's efforts?

    The unbridgeable gap you speak of sounds like trying to navigate the seemingly contradictory concepts of "abhyasa" and "vairagya" (effort and non-attachment). It is bridgeable, I feel, just that it's a very fine, tricky bridge to walk.

    1. Well... you may be right that it is bridgeable in the end. I don't really know for sure, one way or the other.

      But I find something you say very interesting:

      "Is there no possibility that one can cultivate radical acceptance while still operating within the "western yoga mindset", keeping the faith about the fruits of one's efforts?"

      What do you mean by "keeping the faith about the fruits of one's efforts"? Care to explain further? ;-)

    2. I guess I was referring to the goal-oriented Western mindset, and contrasting it with your definition of "radical acceptance" in this post, which implies a certain degree of goal-lessness and surrender (to me at least).