Rediscovering the Sixties

Central Ohio is pretty dull, but the sixties weren’t supposed to be. The quiet but quite fine little liberal arts university on the hill in the middle of rural nowhere was the problem. Nothing much happened there, and then there was the perfect little Norman Rockwell college town below, with the big white Methodist Church, and the big white Baptist Church, and then endless miles of rolling farmland. Big things were happening elsewhere. The real world was elsewhere – big new ideas and marching in the streets over Vietnam, and race riots tearing the country apart, and communes and the free speech movement. People were looking into other ways of being – but we were all stuck in that collection of Sherwood Anderson stories – which he wrote in Paris, damn it. Gertrude Stein helped him with those. It’s no wonder we all piled into the one car somebody had and drove into Columbus to catch a Ravi Shankar concert – odd droning sitar music for a few hours. It took you elsewhere – but the Beatles and others were using the sitar quite often, and George Harrison and his buddies had been to India to meet with some swami or other, so that was cool. Some of us read Alan Watts on Zen, others decided to get into this version of yoga or that, and everyone decided that meditation was a very good thing, transcendental or not. The locals must have found us puzzling.

We got over it, or most of us did. There are few blatantly open American Buddhists these days, save for Richard Gere – the Hollywood star with the great hair, the guy from American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Pretty Woman. He visits Tibet a lot, even if he is the son of a Philadelphia insurance agent for Nationwide Mutual who originally intended to become a Methodist minister. His parents were both Mayflower descendants too. He strayed. He met the fourteenth Dalai Lama in India and became a practicing Tibetan Buddhist of the Gelugpa School. No one out here in Hollywood knows what to make of him, but it seems the feeling is mutual, and he was one of us – college in the late sixties, a philosophy major. He just followed through.

Now that’s just odd. Southern California is now filled with Rick Warren Contemporary Christian megachurch complexes – Jesus and soft-rock Republican outfits. If you want to spend Sunday morning in an animated second-rate self-help book, by all means go to one of those. Otherwise, you’re out of luck. Only a few of the older oddball places remain, like the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine near Malibu – Elvis liked to visit Gandhi’s ashes – and its sister site down in Encinitas – where you can surf at Swami Beach. Hell, there are still hippies down in Venice Beach – but Paramahansa Yogananda established the Self-Realization Fellowship Ashram Center in Encinitas in 1937, long before there were hippies, long before the sixties.

No one much cared back then – it was the middle of the Great Depression and there were other things to worry about. One more yoga master more or less was no big deal, and California has always been a loose and easy place. It isn’t anymore. The Jesus and soft-rock Republicans are in control of things now, and things came to a head in Encinitas:

A California judge refused on Monday to block the teaching of yoga as part of a public school’s physical fitness program, rejecting parents’ claims that the classes were an unconstitutional promotion of Eastern religions.

Judge John Meyer acknowledged that yoga “at its roots is religious” but added that the modern practice of yoga, despite its origins in Hindu philosophy, is deeply engrained in secular U.S. society and “is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon.”

He also said the Encinitas Unified School District had developed its own version of yoga that was not religious but distinct and separate from Ashtanga yoga.

“A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas School District yoga does advance or promote religion,” he said.

That was his ruling. Yoga is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon – calming your mind through careful body control and slowing down your racing thoughts by concentrating on just one thing isn’t a religion at all. Lots of people do this, even hard-ass Christians who like to argue about who Jesus would want killed next. It was a silly suit, but this isn’t over. There will be an appeal:

“If yoga is a religion and has religious aspects, it doesn’t belong in the public schools,” said Dean Broyles, who represents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, whose two children opted out of yoga for physical education. “There is a consistent anti-Christian bias in these cases and a pro-Eastern or strange religion bias.”

Yeah, everyone is always picking on the poor Christians, under siege these days. There’s no daily mandatory prayer to Jesus in public schools each morning anymore, and here’s their specific case:

The Sedlocks filed suit against the district in February, arguing that yoga is inherently religious and asking teaching of the classes be banned. The parents claimed that children who opted out of the program faced bullying and teasing.

Their suit expressed concern that the school district had implemented the program with a $500,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, which promotes Ashtanga yoga.

They smell a rat. Someone is up to something:

The plaintiffs objected to eight-limbed tree posters with Sanskrit characters that they said were derived from Hindu beliefs, as well as to the use of the Namaste greeting in class and several yoga poses said to represent worship of Hindu deities.

But by the start of the 2012-2013 school year the Sanskrit and Namaste had been eliminated from the program, and poses had been renamed with “kid-friendly” descriptions, poses now called gorilla, turtle, peacock, big toe, telephone and other terms, according to testimony. The lotus pose, for example, is called crisscross apple sauce in Encinitas schools.

However, the plaintiffs’ expert, professor of religious studies Candy Gunther Brown, testified that yoga practice indoctrinates Hindu religious practices whether the individual knows it or not.

Brown cited research suggesting yoga practice changes the user’s brain and thoughts, a sort of gateway drug to the occult, Meyer said.

One would guess they don’t like those Harry Potter books either, and the judge was not impressed with the research, and the Los Angeles Times’ Robin Abcarian was simply scornful:

Despite the quasi-spiritual trappings, yoga, as it’s widely practiced by millions of Americans of all faiths, is no instrument of religious indoctrination.

It’s exercise.

In Encinitas, it’s being taught to kids in an effort to reduce bullying, obesity and overcompetitiveness.

Actually, there may be a problem right there. Michigan’s anti-bullying law makes exceptions for religious views – kids can bully those whose actions or appearance or behaviour violate their religious convictions, if kids have those. It’s a matter of freedom of religion, and the Michigan law had been used as a model in many states where Republicans are in control. As for overcompetitiveness, in free-market totally-deregulated capitalism, which is the ideal, there can be no such thing. This is beyond any issue with yoga itself. It’s a matter of what it means to be a Real American.

Abcarian, however, reports that this was more comedy than anything dire:

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I got a kick out of reading the trial transcript, particularly the questions posted by San Diego Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer, who seemed surprisingly unfamiliar with yoga, which is as mainstream as Pinkberry yogurt.

“Namaste” Meyer asked? “And the kids were doing this? And they put their hands together like they were in prayer?”

Oh yes, Broyles said, and not only that, they got extra credit for touching their middle fingers to their thumbs, the familiar hand gesture known as a mudra.

Further, said Broyles, “The final state and ultimate goal of Ashtanga yoga is samadhi. By ‘samadhi,’ they mean absorption into the universal or union with the divine, your honor. If that’s not an explicitly religious goal, I don’t know what is.”

“What’s the divine?” wondered the judge.

Good question, but as it turned out, beside the point.

Why these good Christian folks were objecting to union with the divine is a puzzle, as is defining any of this. The judge decided not to rule on the nature of the divine, and thus on just who has the right concept of it, and also on who has the only proper steps to unite with the divine, whatever it is. That’s not the court’s job. This is just a physical education class, really – and it’s probably a lot better for the kids than dodge-ball. No one gets hurt.

Of course the Jesus folks are still seething – perhaps someone should get humiliated and hurt, just like in the physical education classes they remember fondly from long ago, when those classes taught kids about real life. It’s just that some things from the sixties didn’t really disappear:

The uninformed visitor at Googleplex may find himself perplexed when he sees the presentation room filled with techies perched in half-lotus position, meditating. His confusion is justified since it is hard to imagine that the corporation that prides itself in thinking ahead of tomorrow is now looking back at centuries-old traditions to bring out the best in its employees.

Google is embracing Buddhist meditative practices in a big way. Zen masters and monks routinely tour the campus, the company has instituted self-awareness courses like Search Inside Yourself, Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy, designed to teach people to manage their emotions through meditation, and Googlers are signing up for these classes in droves.

Richard Gere must be smiling:

No, Google isn’t renouncing its worldly searches. Quiet contemplation is the new buzzword in Silicon Valley, with the region’s heavyweights like Twitter and Facebook jumping aboard the neo-spiritual bandwagon.

Contemplative practices and meditation sessions has become key features of employee training in most firms. As in all things in the Valley, the centuries-old practices have been innovated to suit the Valley’s goal-oriented culture. Forget Nirvana, the not-so-lofty aim of these endeavors is all about training the brain to unleash productivity.

Research suggests that meditation can rewire the brain’s response to stress and helps improve memory and executive functions. Exercises in ‘ mindfulness’ – paying close, nonjudgmental attention – help understand a coworker’s motivations and cultivate emotional intelligence. In the hyper-kinetic Silicon Valley these self-regulation practices strengthen emotional resilience, and are a better coping mechanism than fast-food therapy.

In short, this stuff is good for business, and the business of America is business after all:

Frustrated by his divorce, work stress and twitter addiction, Soren Gordhamer wrote a book – Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected. The book was no bestseller, but its message of living mindfully, wisely and compassionately in the digital age set off ripples of introspection in the tech community that culminated in the launch of the annual conference Wisdom 2.0.

The event serves as a connector of the technology and contemplative communities. The vision behind wisdom being, tapping our inner wisdom even as we integrate more and more technology into our lives, and keep them from taking over.

Wisdom 2013 drew huge crowds and the attendees included headliners like Jeff Weiner, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, and, Arianna Huffington, who describes the event as her version of Disneyland.

The Silicon Valley isn’t Encinitas. They’re strange up there, and successful and rich. Encinitas is a backwater beach town, twenty miles north of San Diego, where nothing much happens, just like back in rural central Ohio in the sixties. The same dynamic is at play.

What’s the problem? Yoga practice may subtlety change the user’s brain and thoughts, but it hardly seems a gateway drug to the occult. It seems kind of useful. In court, Candy Gunther Brown cited research about religious indoctrination, but there’s other research. David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern, has done real research on meditation:

With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.

This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.

But does meditation work as promised?

That’s a good question. Compassion and morality were the original aim of all this, not making big bucks at Google, even if that’s a side effect. Does it work? It seems some of this is empirically demonstrable:

To put the question to the test, my lab, led in this work by the psychologist Paul Condon, joined with the neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and the Buddhist lama Willa Miller to conduct an experiment whose publication is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. We recruited 39 people from the Boston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them to practice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19 were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.

After the eight-week period of instruction, we invited the participants to the lab for an experiment that purported to examine their memory, attention and related cognitive abilities. But as you might anticipate, what actually interested us was whether those who had been meditating would exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering. To find out, we staged a situation designed to test the participants’ behavior before they were aware that the experiment had begun.

When a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room – who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us – ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?

The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the non-meditators gave up their seats – an admittedly disheartening fact – the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in distress – what psychologists call the bystander effect – reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.

If you believe in tough love and personal responsibility, if you’re one of those Jesus and soft-rock Republicans who want to end all social services and make life hard for everyone, so the constantly whining forty-seven percent are forced to grow into better people, then this is disheartening. Compassion weakens the nation. Forbid yoga, Forbid meditation. Don’t use Google – you’ll only encourage these people. Otherwise this is pretty cool, and DeSteno sees two things that could be going on here:

The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions – ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like – that divide us.

Supporting this view, recent findings by the neuroscientists Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress – areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person’s degree of felt associations with others.

Is there something wrong with that? If you believe in tough love and personal responsibility, perhaps there is. If you think there’s no such thing as overcompetitiveness, and bullying can be justified, because those two things are what made our nation great, perhaps there is. If you think enhanced attention to others around you – to everything around you – will distract you from your laser-like focus on success, you do see a problem here. Otherwise you don’t.

All this tends to argue that the sixties actually worked. That peace and love stuff, and the yoga and meditation, wasn’t all foolishness. We walked away from it, but then we discovered all that was good for us, and it’s good for business too – even if all the Jesus folks fume and fuss. They did back then and they do now, but Jesus hasn’t come back to intervene. He was big on compassion and paying attention after all. Those aren’t bad things, really. It’s just that, after all this time, we can all finally admit that sitar music kind of sucks.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Rediscovering the Sixties

  1. Bonnie Bishop says:

    I love this piece, Alan. As a graduate of that same ‘quite fine little liberal arts university,’ a practicing Christian (emphasis on practicing), and a practitioner of yoga and mediation for over 4o years (on and off), I think you get to the heart of the cultural divide in our national idenity. Personal responsibility v. collective reponsibility. Interconnectedness v. individuality. Compassion v. competion. But really, only 50% gave up a seat to the hobbled patient, even among the ‘meditators’!?!

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