Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad
Yoga and Self Transformation
Joel Kramer Yoga Journal May/June 1980
Epilogue: Where Do We Go From Here?
Behind the masks of authoritarian power is the idea that there is some greater intelligence that knows what is best for others. What this always amounts to is that someone either claims to have that intelligence, or to have a direct line into properly interpreting it. This can occur in any realm and in differing degrees. Its most extreme forms occur when moral superiority is linked to infallibility. The image of the guru represents the epitome of this construction, which is the reason for this book's title. Often included in this is the corollary that the authority cares more about your well-being than you do, and can do so because of being selfless. Whether or not a state of ultimate selflessness or infallibility is achievable by anyone can be debated. Then too, there is the question of how anyone could be certain someone else really is in such a state. What is clear, however, is that obeying others because they claim to be morally superior, or to have an inside track to the truth, not only breeds corruption and lies, but removes people from personal responsibility
We use the development of the individual as a metaphor to help describe our view of humanity's past, where it finds itself to date, and where it needs to go. In this analogy, prehistory is like humanity's infancy where, as with infants, the prime need is survival. During this stage individuals' lives were totally dependent on their immediate small band. With the coming of agriculture, the species moved into its childhood. As with a child, this period was marked by growth and expansion. As the population mushroomed, small group interdependency was replaced by ever larger authoritarian hierarchies. It was here that the still predominant authoritarian forms, including our current moralities, were initiated.
The industrial revolution and tapping into nature's powers through science accelerated development and expansion, moving us into adolescence. Youth is characterized by great self-absorption. Adolescents play with their newly discovered powers without much knowledge or concern for consequences--especially consequences for others. In adolescence there is often rebellion against adult authority, but not against authoritarianism. Teenagers generally look to or construct new gods and idols to follow. Or they develop a misplaced faith in their own point of view, or that of their peers, by ignoring any information that does not fit. This stance of unchallengeability that is directed toward other authorities is itself authoritarian. Adolescence is also marked by feeling and acting as if one were immortal.
A key element of becoming an adult is facing one's mortality. Doing so can bring a shift in the focus of life, which in turn reorganizes basic habits. Upon seeing aging and eventually dying as part of life, the question then becomes how to do so with care and elegance. Adulthood is a time when acting out of longer-term implications becomes necessary instead of insouciant short-term gratifications. The emphasis turns more to care and maintenance, and one must begin to get a handle on excesses that the aging body can no longer ignore. One realizes that although death is inevitable, one can affect not only the length, but also the quality of life by one's actions. Just as the movement from adolescence to adulthood rarely occurs without some struggle, adjusting to the reality of mortality rarely occurs without some denial. We view humanity as a whole as likewise struggling with the necessity of leaving its adolescence behind, because it too is facing its mortality. That the species will someday vanish, as will our sun go nova, is not the issue. Upon facing the possibility of imminent extinction through self-destructiveness, the real issue is can people shift their habits to prolong both the length and quality of life on this planet? Similar to the individual, this would, in the species, include a shift in values and behavior to greater preservation and care. As in infancy, humans are again collectively confronted with the tenuousness of existence. The difference is that now we are the danger; but we also have the necessary self-awareness to realize that our survival or demise is in our own hands. As with the individual, this confrontation with death is part of the developmental process that forces a reexamination of values and priorities, which must include how our actions today impact future viability. This is essential in order to grow up, as a person and as a species.
Another necessary element in becoming an adult is realizing that ultimately others cannot know what's best for you. Authoritarian power, whether political or ideological, has been the major form of control throughout the history of our species' childhood and youth. This includes looking for a savior to make things right. The very idea of a savior contains the assumption that such a person knows what's better for you than you do, thus making whatever the presumed savior says unchallengeable. The savior approach to problem-solving not only keeps people childish, it is the basic mode of the old paradigm. It has also justified the greatest violence and abuses. The old paradigms all have some authority--be it a leader, wise man, guru, avatar, representative of god, or prophet--telling the rest of us what life is about and how to lead it. How to replace this old methodology that we are outgrowing is a major issue facing humanity.
The past by its nature has a strong pull--a weighty authority and an implicit credibility. It is natural for solutions that worked in the past to be given priority. This is the power of custom, habit, and tradition, for existing paths are easier to take. It is also natural to believe the answer still lies in the old solutions, but that they just need to be done better, or implemented with more forcefulness. This is a reasonable course until it becomes clear that trying to utilize old forms better makes things worse. That point has been reached, and so the past no longer holds the key. When old paths lead to a dead end, the solutions that worked before become part of the problem. This is why the need for a paradigm shift is in the air.
Where to go from here must come from the interacting perspectives of living people exercising their will not only to survive, but to create a world where there is a future. Hope lies in the possibility that our self-destructiveness is not our true nature, but rather that we have the intelligence and courage to change even the deepest patterns, should this be necessary. It is now necessary; and fortunately change is propelled by confronting a dead end. The old systems of belief, morality, and also of the way power has been constructed, protected, and used have served humanity to bring it where it is today, but are no longer serving. They have become self-destructive. If humanity is to grow up and develop its enormous potential for creativity, it must also face the realities of its destructiveness.
In these papers we have painted only a partial picture of how authoritarianism runs deep in the psyches and structures of humanity. The larger work Control, of which this book is a part, will examine a greater range of institutions, issues, and beliefs, showing their authoritarian basis. We do so because what precedes and accelerates change is an awareness not only that change is needed, but also why it is needed. This book does not offer programmatic solutions in the form of specific content. It does offer a different way of conceptualizing both problems and solutions. First and foremost, it aims to show that if the process of change is authoritarian, it is not change at all.
What is basically putting humanity at risk is its technologically leveraged capacity for violence toward itself and Earth's ecosystems. This combined with authoritarian hierarchies structurally produces not only corruption, but the likelihood of those on top using those below uncaringly. During humanity's infancy when the group's well-being was linked with caring for every individual, all children were protected and cared for by the group. Now children, the future of the species, get lost in the shuffle, especially if their parents are incapable or unwilling to care for them. This points to one final example of the dead end of our present course.
One of the greatest sources of violence on the planet is unwanted, uncared for, unloved children. Such children as they grow older are not only typically angry and prone to violence, but are potential time-bombs that can capriciously explode and destroy whatever is around them. A world is being created that is full of people without hope, often driven by hatred and envy, who do not care about their own lives, let alone yours. How can such people really care if life on this planet continues or not! The worldwide increase in population coupled with an increasing discrepancy between haves and have-nots creates more and more people without hope. When a large segment of the population lives without hope, it is dangerous for everyone. If we are to survive, what is needed are people who have realistic hope for a better future and who value themselves enough to care about others and the world at large. This would involve forging a viable morality that makes the self-worth and well-being of all children primary. Thus society as a whole must consider itself the parents of all its children, not leaving the responsibility for their care only with legal parents.
The construction of such a morality is the job of all of us. But if its basis is authoritarian, it will necessarily breed the same old self-mistrust and callous use of people in the name of some unchallengeable "higher" principle. It could be argued that it's too utopian to expect ordinary people to look to themselves as the bottom line of what's right, and also to care sufficiently about the state of the world. It is true that this has never occurred in history--but then it never had to. It is not that people need to move toward personal responsibility, mutual respect, and care in order to become or feel morally better. It is rather that we need to do so simply to survive.
Our hypothesis, which this book develops, is that the powerful and pervasive nature of authoritarian programming can explain the mystery of humanity's seeming dual nature, including the capacity to compartmentalize expressions of violence and care. If our perspective is accurate, it is good news in that we are not biologically stuck, and thus at an evolutionary dead end. On the contrary, we are stuck in outmoded beliefs and methods that give us no idea of our potential.
Democracy, which is an idea, has spread throughout the world in a historically short period of time because it ignites people's aspirations to have more control over their own lives. The ideal of democracy has moved much of the world to where it is today. Democracy in itself, however, cannot cope with the extraordinary challenges the world now faces, because at best a democracy can only reflect the values of its members. If, within democracies, authoritarian values and beliefs are conditioned (to varying degrees) in much of the population, this imposes serious limitations on how democratic the democracy can actually be. Yet democracy is an example of the power of an idea. If, as we assert, current problems are a function of outmoded authoritarian beliefs, this is truly a source of hope: Self-perpetuating structures depend totally on beliefs that live in people's minds. Although beliefs tenaciously resist reorganization, should they change, the changes can come swiftly, with extraordinary repercussions. Seeing more clearly the hidden nature and pervasiveness of authoritarian beliefs can itself undermine their power.
For us, hope lies in the possibility of moving beyond our authoritarian past in order to build together a future that values keeping this planet habitable for its interwoven and interdependent forms of life. If the challenge is met, the world will have to be a better place for those living in it, because for the first time since the early small bands of humanity's infancy, everyone's well-being is once again linked with survival.