Yoga Ethics, Capitalism, and the Veils of Illusion
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | October 9, 2020
In 1997 I was giving a talk about the intersection of yoga philosophy and economics. I’m no expert in economics, though I’ve always been interested in how humans organize ourselves and I wanted to talk about how yoga ethics could bring a sense of conscience and morality to the conversation.
At one point in the lecture I said, “Capitalism is not the end of history.”
No one clapped.
Mostly just some frowns and puzzled looks.
One woman got up and left (I imagined her snickering “Commie” or “hippie freak” under her breath on her way out).
The lecture ended to some limp applause.
There certainly was a lesson for me – stick to what you’re good at. Which I pondered for a while, and then decided to ignore. My (many) failures are actually some of the best things that have ever happened to me.
I thought then, and even more so now, that yoga, particularly the ethical principles of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, are a powerful framework from which to consider how we organize ourselves economically.
At that time, I had an American friend who was living in South Korea. He’d email me about the struggles that the Korean people were having during the Asian economic crisis (which reminds me, I recently watched Parasite…a powerful, creepy critique of capitalism). I remember in one email he wrote something like, “Americans are living in La-la land. There are economic crises happening all over the place and America is oblivious. But it’s just a matter of time before it hits you too.”
20+ years later…here we are.
Americans are in the midst of a catastrophic economic collapse with very few social safety nets in place to catch us. Looming evictions, massive unemployment, small businesses fading away.
It’s a free fall.
It’s not surprising that it’s become okay to wonder openly about whether or not capitalism is a good idea.
The basic problem is that the relentless pursuit of profits is directly at odds with operationalizing a moral framework. And when we live in this system, we are often forced to compartmentalize our economic well-being and separate it from our moral and spiritual beliefs.
But right now, as things are falling apart, we are called to be open to the possibilities of new ways of economic organization. And I’m not suggesting socialism is the answer – it’s not the end of history either. We have to unleash all our creative problem-solving skills to dig ourselves out of this mess. I believe that the yamas and niyamas are a powerful starting point.
A common metaphor in the yoga tradition is the “veil of illusion”. We all have our own veils that mask the things we don’t notice, or refuse to notice, about ourselves. But we also have collective veils of cultural illusion. Like for example the American dream – that it’s open to everyone and that anything is possible. This is a trope – individual success never drops in via parachute out of nowhere. A fundamental teaching of yoga is that everyone and everything is interconnected. The myth that everyone can “make it big” in America is patently false and the source of much heart-break and suffering.
COVID-19 has proven to be a great remover of veils like this.
America’s economic disparity is growing. COVID has revealed that like nothing else before. America’s health care system is a hot mess. COVID pulled back the veil on that one too. America is rife with racism and racial injustice – just ask COVID. America’s youth are at risk – homelessness, rampant food insecurity, lack of access to technology – what kind of future can we hope for?
I am not a commie hippie (although I know and love several of them). But I am sure that we can do better than unbridled capitalism. I am sure that deep in the hearts of all but the most hardened (traumatized) sociopathic CEO is the desire for collective well-being and happiness.
If we take a short-term perspective, we can easily succumb to fear and end up in despair. So, a bigger perspective is necessary. My friend, therapist and yogi Ingrid Adelsbach once told me, “If you are struggling with a problem there is only one solution, get bigger. Then you will be able to handle it.”
We are called to develop that bigger perspective right now, because there’s another side to this crisis. We will come out of it very differently and we will think about how we want to organize ourselves differently. A new economic structure is on the horizon. As Arundhati Roy, a scathing critic of capitalism has said:
Recently someone asked me, “In the midst of all the chaos of our lives, my heart yearns for joy, and I wonder if it’s very self-centered?”
According to the ancient teachings, it is your dharma to yearn for joy. The yogis taught that all human beings want it. It’s actually built into our structure. It is what life is all about.
If you feel shame or guilt for having that desire, that is something that was imposed upon you by your family or the culture that somehow felt (probably unconsciously) deprived of that birthright.
When life is chaotic, personally or socially, the veils of illusion are torn asunder and we are forced to look reality squarely in the face. This is perhaps the deepest teaching of the tantrics – use the obstacles before you as fuel for growth. The hard times remove the veils and provide opportunities for focus and clarity. Practice the yamas and niyamas to deepen your resolve, your will, your strength, your power.
So…I’d like to offer some questions.
- What is sacred to you?
- What are you willing to do for it?
- What are you willing to sacrifice?
- Who are you willing to become?
- And how can we better support each other as we birth this new world?
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A very thoughtful article. Thank you for guiding my thinking toward the bigger view of what is possible in life!
Thanks so much Dorlene.
Thank you once again for your clear thinking and for the hope this way forward brings.
Covid has only exposed what was already there, There is a fundamental change in our modern world. We no longer need the immense amount of labor to produce things we need. A some point we will realize that we have many people we no longer need. In the past, average folks worked in the fields or in the factory. Hard work , and a pleasant attitude could earn you happiness and a decent life. This is changing, without the challenge of work and the comradery of coworkers, what are people supposed to do ( even if we give the some bit of money). You are correct, somehow we need to rethink the order of things so that joy, happiness are the measures of our national success rather than dollars.
Gross National Happiness – Bhutan has done it!
Thanks for your honesty. Living in Canada & having family in US allows me to see USA in a more unbiased non judgmental way.
My hope is that they choose wisely in this election & come together to defeat covid, racism & find more equality.
My son calls me a liberal bleeding heart but I see that as a positive.
Lorraine,Winnipeg, Manitoba, canada
Thanks Lorraine. It’s hard to be unbiased while living here so it’s great to have your perspective.
Keep ‘speaking truth to power,’ Kristine; enlightening minds, opening hearts.
I have really enjoyed reading your true & honest “appraisal” of the catastrophic downfall America is in. As an Australian (and with family living in the US as well as living there for 12 months & many family visits), I can honestly say I have never been a great fan of the US. You are the main manufacturer of weapons & pharmaceuticals – the two things which have helped make it what it is today. “The land of the free & the home of the brave” sounds great in theory but has only helped increase your racism and tolerance of capitalism. You are a country built on immigrants (like Australia, though ours were more prisoner types than yours?), invaded the true native peoples of the land (as we have done) and gone about trying to get everyone to be successful millionaires at the environment & planets expense (as we are also doing). So we’re pretty much the same, except for the racism & major health issues you have. Capitalism feeds human suffering – end of story. To people who read this, please don’t take this personally, but I really do believe you guys are on a big downer. In the future, Australia needs to be looking at countries like India to become buddies with, and let America get on with trying to “heal” itself. Namaste
Thanks Lesley. There are also many truly kind, creative, innovative, brilliant people here – frustrated with neo-liberalism and embarrassed by our politics. There are so many people doing so many great things here. The polarization of this country is in some ways inevitable and I think that is the result of free wheeling free markets and the failure to bring a sophisticated and inclusive, non-sectarian morality front and center.
Yes, sound words about the dying social fabric Kristine, but I am not sure the target is right. One should also consider Bernays’s work (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s) and Paul Mazure’s contribution. Capitalism however is defined as an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. Some consider a philosophical subset of Western society as the culprit – neo-liberalism. However, even if the system changes away from those, not much change may come to the underlying fabric and real issue. I consider industrialism the main issue, regardless of who owns the industry. With Bernay’s and Mazure’s work in the 1920s, we developed industrialism into a total culture of industrial consumerism based on effectiveness, efficiency, competitiveness, and increasing hyper-individualism. This culture divorces us from nature and sells a lie that permanent happiness can be achieved. I personally am a techno-agrarian and prefer contentment to happiness. I recognize the benefits of industrialism but now believe we have to radically adjust our Western culture to survive. My slogans are compassion, effectiveness, nature, and the affiliative community rather than the industrial consumerist culture with its slogans. Its still a nice piece of writing thankyou.
Thanks John. I also think that some kind of agrarian-based, co-operative ETHICS-based system is on the horizon.
Thank Kaoverii. Very well said.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Kristine, and may it be so 🙏🏻
I know, through American friends, how hard the situation is in your country, and how unprepared the social or health system was for coping with the situation, and I’m sending you my most compassionate thoughts 🌸
As a European, I guess I’m more used to a balance of capitalism and socialism – a sort of middle ground, which attenuates the worst of their extreme forms. The current mix certainly helps in such an event as the Covid 19 pandemic.
That being said, I believe both of them stem from the same patriarchal ideology, and both are just its latest avatars, that took us a little bit further down the road of disconnecting us from our true nature, and from the rest of the universe.
May this crisis help us realize we, as a species, were going into a brick wall by consistently destroying ourselves, other living beings and all living life on this planet, and may a more sustainable and kinder approach to all forms of life emerge from the mess we’ve created for centuries 🙏🏻
Ah so true Frederic. Thank you for your comments and your kindness. The indigenous people understand something very profound and unfortunately largely dismissed or overlooked.