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Coffee & Wisdom 02.72: Embodied Cognition Part 3

David Breeden is speaking all week about the issues with liberalism.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden. I’m senior minister, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is coffee and Wisdom. And this week we are looking at the idea of embodied cognition. That is the difference between “I think therefore I am” and “I am because we are”. Talking about cultural difference and how we perceive the world and what the implications of that really are. I refer often to a quote from Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, he lived 1926 to 2006. And he said this: “The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.” So you get the idea here from an anthropologist who has been studying the interpretation of cultures and how cultures socially see the world and as the difference between groups and individuals that the Western conception of the individual, which we just discussed last week, is really the basis for the idea of classic liberalism and then democracy that develops out of that idea and then also the Protestant Reformation idea of the individual. Those are very cultural specific, even though they may seem like the way it has to be to individuals who are living in the social constructs that come out of those traditions.

So a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures. Yeah, do your thing. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to a lot of people in our world. Going on with this idea, Charles Taylor is a Roman Catholic philosopher. He lives in Canada. His book, “A Secular Age”, is considered by many to be absolutely central to our understanding of theology in this new era. It came out in 2006 and is usually referred to when we talk anything about secularity, individualism, and in how our social systems are working today. He has this to say. “This frontier of self-exploration has grown, through various spiritual disciplines of self-examination, through Montaigne, the development of the modern novel, the rise of Romanticism, the ethic of authenticity, to the point where we now conceive of ourselves as having inner depths.” His argument is that, guess what? In the Middle Ages, people didn’t see themselves as having inner depths. Again, they saw themselves as much more a part of a social matrix or system, not as individuals. But since the Protestant Reformation, this keeps getting underlined, until we have what he calls an ethic of authenticity that really is pushing people toward feeling authentic, when, what would that even mean? He goes on to say, “The dark side of individualism is a centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society.”

There’s the idea, and as I’ve been talking about, and go back to Monday, this Decartesian dualism, this mind-body split, that’s going on, is a very Western post-Greek philosophy idea that goes directly into the Christian ideas of body and soul and get embedded within Western cultures and seems to have gotten even more extreme here in the United States, in our cultures and in our religions. So the mind body problem: here’s a good New Yorker cartoon that pretty well sums it up. “Get up”, says his brain. “No”, says his body. And that is the mind-body problem. And we see these as separate things. Fazlur Rohman is an Imam and he has this to say about the Koran: “The Quran does not appear to endorse the kind of doctrine of a radical mind-body dualism found in Greek philosophy, Christianity or Hinduism; indeed, there is hardly a passage in the Quran that says that man is composed of two separate, let alone disparate, substances, the body and the soul.” So it’s very much a Christian viewpoint that has grown out of Roman Catholicism in the Western world that permeated Europe and then went out to the many European colonists. He does mention Hinduism there and that is important because, as I set up the idea yesterday, yoga, coming out of Hindu tradition, very much does talk about this mind-body problem, although it talks about it in a very different kind of way. In Hindu philosophy and theology, we have two things in the universe, primordial consciousness and primordial matter. We are then made up, human beings are made up, of both primordial consciousness, a little bit of it, and by more primordial matter. But we can rejoin these back to the primordial level by various kinds of of mental and physical exercises, according to Hinduism. And that is where yoga comes from. So I mentioned yesterday that the yoga industry in the U.S., this is the U.S. alone, was a bit over five billion dollar industry per year in 2005. And by 2020, it had gone over 50 billion dollars a year. So there’s something in yoga that appeals to this idea of the Western mind. Yeah, it does have to do with exercise, but there is also a spiritual component that appears to be appealing to people. Elizabeth De Michelis is a scholar who studies yoga in the U.S. “A History of Modern Yoga” is a book that she just came out with and she defines us yoga as, quote, “the graft of a Western branch onto the Indian tree of yoga.” Yes, India, in the Hindu tradition, does have a yoga tradition, but the one that comes into Western consciousness, and especially American consciousness, is not like that. Henry David Thoreau, we’ve had a lot of fun with him over the months at Coffee and Wisdom because he is often pulled into every conversation of anything having to do with alternative religious ideas or philosophies.

He did write this, “To some extent, and at great intervals, even I am a yogi.” Ah, okay, Henry, the yogi too. And what they’re talking about is something that comes out of “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”. Patanjali lived in India somewhere, we’re not really quite sure. Somewhere, in the 100s to 200s before the Common Era. He compiled the “Yoga Sutras” that we have today as a collection of aphorisms on yoga practice. He wasn’t pretending to be writing this book. He was drawing these out of yoga practice and putting them in manuscript form. He has this to say: “Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and indifference toward the wicked.” Hmm. Sounds a lot like stoicism, doesn’t it, as we discussed last week. He also said this, “For those who have an intense urge for Spirit and wisdom, it sits near them, waiting. “All you got to do is sit down and focus and you too, can find spirit and wisdom nearby. Yoga is a word that comes into English in the 1820s. It does come from Hindi yoga and then ultimately from Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. It literally means “yoking” or a union with something, the supreme primordial consciousness or the Supreme Spirit.

In actual fact, Patanjali is idea of yoga is very, very different than what we think of today. There are eight branches of yoga practice, according to Patanjali, with seven different aspects that lead to an eight, which is Samadhi, that would be enlightenment or bliss, nirvana, as the Buddhists call it. So number one is Yama; restraints, moral disciplines and moral vows. You know, you don’t drink alcohol, you don’t drink stimulants. You do those kind of disciplines. Then, two, is Niyama. That’s positive duties or observances, those things that you do in a sacred way. And three is Asana or posture. This is the only mention in Patanjali’s work of yoga postures. This is one of the Great Western misunderstandings of what yoga is. As a matter of fact, if you actually read the book, which I would recommend that you do, it is very enlightening. You’ll only see about half a page in terms of yoga posture. The rest is about all these other things. Four is Pranayama, that is breathing techniques. There are specific Hindu yoga breathing techniques and then Pratyahara, a sense withdrawal. The Hindu idea of this dualism is that we’ve got to get away from the material world, withdraw in some aesthetic sort of way. Dharana, the focus concentration that comes from a specific meditative practices and then Dhyana, or meditative absorption that is long hours of meditation. And that would then lead to Samadhi, bliss or enlightenment.

So you notice that the eight limbs of yoga, only one of them actually has to do with postures that we think of as yoga here in the U.S. Yoga statistics: Why yoga is the fastest growing industry. Yeah, billions and billions of dollars going into it. This is a map of the second religion that people report in the US today. Christianity is still the number one religion reported in all 50 U.S. States. But if you begin to look, you’ll notice something interesting. The purple is Judaism. So the second after Christianity is Judaism. Minnesota does fall within that category. The red, which you see expanding here it is Islam. So we do have a great deal of of new immigrants who practice Islam and Islamic influences growing from that direction. One little outlier, South Carolina, that is the Baha’i faith. It’s one of the few older faiths that’s really going on here, within American tradition anyway. And then, by golly, over here in Arizona, Hinduism is the number one second religion. What’s up with that? Well, it has to do with yoga practice in Arizona. Retiring people going to Arizona and discovering yoga. And then you see the vast blue area of the American West, that is Buddhism. People in that whole area reporting that the Buddhism is the second most populous religion in those areas. And that goes all the way to, yep, Kansas and Oklahoma. So you see, we have a very interesting thing going on in the U.S. today about what’s the number two religion and Buddhism is not coming in, as is Islam, with immigrants, but rather American people who have been here a while, who are saying they are Buddhists, which is a very different kind of thing.

And in Arizona, we’ve got Hinduism. So there you have it. And why is all of this? Well, I would argue it is because of a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures that we are somehow individual and need to, should do, must do, our own thing. More on that tomorrow as we talk about, well, what would other social systems be doing if they’re not talking about individuality? Good question. We’ll get to that tomorrow. Tonight at seven o’clock Central Time, Bibles and Beer, the last Bibles and Beer for this year, anyway. I’m going to take the summer off tonight. “Commie Apostles”. The Book of Acts is very interesting in that it is contemporaneous with the rise of Christianity and reporting on that. But it reports a very interesting and odd Christianity when you begin to look at how Christianity later develops. So, let’s say that we’re going to take a few peeks at that. And our theme this month is becoming we’ll be discussing that in all of our programing at First Unitarian Society. I’ll be back tomorrow or join in with Bibles and Beer tonight. Thank you.

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