Thinking of Charleston

I’ve spent the last week reading all the news on Charleston, and trying to figure out how to respond. I’m not sure this response is a particularly good one, and in the week since then, happy and terrible things continue to happen in America, France, Tunisia, and Kuwait. It might be beyond human emotion and understanding to grapple with so much at once. The old default is to not bother. But Charleston, and the ongoing debates on race that have come out of it continue to needle me. Responses by prominent black and white writers (see anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rachel Held Evans’ blog this week) have convicted me, and I think, for myself, I want to get some of this down.

When the Newtown shooting happened, I cried. My nephew was the age of the victims, and one of my best friends is a school teacher. This shouldn’t have been happening, but it did, and not a bit of it made sense.

When the Seattle Pacific shooting happened in the summer of 2014, I was furious, because active shooters are now considered a likely threat at universities, even Christian universities in nice liberal neighborhoods in places like Seattle. When it happened at Virginia Tech, it was shocking. Now it’s almost expected, and yet we do nothing, because the loudest voices in this conversation will always be someone shouting on behalf of the Second Amendment.

In all the days since the Charleston shooting, however, I have been sad, in a dull, tearless way, over the continued theft of life and hope from the African-American community. I also keep thinking of the yama of asteya, or nonstealing. Deborah Adele, author of The Yamas and Niyamas, points out that we can “steal from others, we steal from the earth, we steal from the future, and we steal from ourselves. We steal from our own opportunity to grow ourselves into the person who has a right to have the life they want.”  African-Americans have been killed, mistreated, and misjudged in ways I never will, and often fail to receive justice or even sympathy. Wednesday’s shooting was the apex of this theft.  Unless I move to Pakistan or Syria, this kind of intentional, symbolic gunning down of my culture and faith won’t happen to me, but I will continue to see it happen to my fellow citizens and students. If one of my male African American students and I commit the same traffic violation, or buy a gun in Walmart, or show up at a place of public unrest, one of us will not worry about dying in the process.  Both of us might worry about getting shot in church, but I will never worry it is because of my race.

What bothers me so much in these stories is the theft of empathy grief. It happens every time someone talks about Charleston in a way that changes the subject. Whenever I hear a pundit try to argue this was an attack on faith, not race, I think of asteya. When I read of an NRA official blaming the victims for not arming themselves, I think of asteya. When I read a blogger argue as to why the Confederate flag is really essential to understanding his personal history, I think of asteya. When I remember the Rachel Dolezal news cycle, I think, however good her intentions, of asteya. “We need allies, not replacements,” Jessica Williams said on The Daily Show shortly after the Dolezal news erupted. Williams’s words still apply here. The black community, particularly of Charleston, has lost essential members of their community as well as any sense of safety in their churches. They need space to mourn this, and they need mourners who can respect and listen to them. Not radio talk hosts dismissing them. Not people dumping salt in the wound by pointing out black on black crime or what a black person did to them. Not even helpful allies trying to speak over them.

What I keep wanting to say is to quit stealing people’s pain from them. This isn’t a defense of bitterness, but of the grieving and healing process. Grief is personal. No one gets to tell us how to feel about it, or when to stop hurting, or that our emotions are valid or our loss isn’t real. No one gets to tell us how fast the process needs to be. The African Americans of our country were denied grief, and many other aspects of humanity—like marriage, churches, families—for a long time. This isn’t about reparations (that’s for another time) but I am asking those of us who will never understand what this community has been through to practice some empathy, and rather than take something from that community to make ourselves feel better, to offer something loving in return.

Last spring Christena Cleveland spoke at my university, and pointed out that as a highly educated black woman with several books, a popular blog and speaking schedule, and enviable teaching positions, she is a person with privilege. Yet, she says, when she goes into her mostly poor African American neighborhood to do service, she puts aside her privilege and follows the leadership already doing work there. Listen, she says; follow, be respectful. Don’t steal the power that is already there. Be willing to put aside your own privilege to lift up others.

I watched the President’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney yesterday, and finally had tears for Charleston. What was it about the simple leading of “Amazing Grace” that moved me so much? I think it might have been the putting aside of privilege. The most powerful man in the world was willing to risk singing off-key and alone to meet the grieving African-American congregation where they were, and then give them a chance to lift up their voices louder than his.

Stealing is easy, and in the quest for becoming a better human, useless. Working on myself is hard, and learning my own complicity in the taking away from others is harder. However, “where stealing unleashes pain and suffering on our self and others,” Adele says, “building our competency opens up a world of joy and possibility. It is a grand adventure to turn our attention away from stealing and towards the life long task of shaping ourselves into someone of value.”

Let’s Talk About Sex: Yogi Edition Part 1

“Whether we find ourselves overdoing food, work, exercise, or sleep, excess is often a result of forgetting the sacredness of life. The fourth jewel, Brahmacharya, literally means ‘walking with God’ and invites us into an awareness of the sacredness of all life.”  Deborah Adele, The Yamas and Niyamas. 

Most of the students I teach at my Christian university grew up in some variation of an abstinence-only culture. They know, both because of the community lifestyle standards and their church’s teachings, that they are not supposed to be having sex. However, my students are also twenty-first century adults with libidos who are trying to figure out everything. “Do you think it’s a sin to have sex before marriage?” some ask, often because they already are. In their competing worlds of no-sex and SEX SEX SEX, sex is both the highest goal and the biggest sin.

I’ve realized yoga has a few things to say about sex too, some restrictive, some liberating. Early monks and yogis renounced sex, and modern yogis believed celibacy, or at least chastity, to be essential. “Too much sex leads the body, sense organs, and mind to become weak,” Sri K. Pattabhi Jois writes in his book Yoga MalaSome schools of yoga, such as Kripalu, used to make students take a vow of celibacy (this backfired in scandal years later).  In reading ancient and modern yogic texts, it is easy to infer that yoga is a practice designed to harness (or yoke, as the word yoga translates) one’s sexuality.

To yoke one’s sexuality, however, is not to kill it. What I have also learned about yoga is that it asks us to balance opposites as we honor the body.  Yoga’s relationship to sex can be distilled down to one principle: take care of your sexual being. Yoga seems to provide two guidelines on how to do it. The first guideline is brahmacharya: celibacy, chastity, or temperance.

Yoga Journal has a wonderful article by Claudia Cummins on the nuances, ancient and modern, of brahmacharya. She points out that in its ancient origins, celibacy was part of life for monks and yogis, mainly because celibacy prevented parenthood, and parenthood prevented total devotion to a spiritual life.  Yogis also believed sexual fluids distilled into spiritual vigor when not wasted in sexual intercourse. (Most current researchers believe that the yogis saw the problem of post-sex lethargy, which is really an issue of neurons firing, and attributed it to loss of essential life fluids). For some modern-day yogis, a practice of celibacy is an important part of their spiritual life. The Yoga Journal article references yogis like Swami Chidananda, a celibate leader of the Divine Life Society in India and Adrian Piper, a yoga student, artist, and philosophy professor who adopted a life of celibacy in her thirties.

Most yogis believe that monogamy within relationships is the best modern-day application of brahmacharya. Monogamy, and moderation, that is; Jois only recommends “union with one’s lawful wife [ . . . ] for the sake of begetting good progeny” so as to not “squander” one’s sexuality. Judith Lasater, author of Living Your Yoga, does not give restrictions on sexual activity, but believes that brahmacharya involves being very aware of one’s sexuality, and careful and wise about how one decides to be sexual.

A third, and looser interpretation of brahmacharya is that of temperance in how we use our energy, including sexual energy. Deborah Adele points out in The Yamas and Niyamas that any time we let something else control us, or anytime we squander our energy, we’re not practicing brahmacharya. She points out enjoyment and pleasure are good, but when pleasure moves to addiction, we are usually trying to cover up something else. “We must also be fearless,” she says, “in facing our sadness, grief, and disappointments without needing to soothe them with food or sex.” Jois writes that it is not good to talk, sleep, or eat too much, or mix with “undesirable or uncultured people.” If he had written Yoga Mala in the internet age, he’d probably add social media and video games to that list. Moderation is essential, especially with activities that produce an addictive hit of dopamine.  While food, sex, sleep, and drugs might make us feel better while we’re doing them, they don’t help make us better people in the long term, and can distract from the important task of honing our spiritual lives. Too much of these things becomes distractions on purpose. In particular, indiscriminate sex leads to focusing on short-term, pleasure-focused goals at the expense of one’s soul, and often, other relationships.

The major world religions include chastity, and often fasting, for a reason, and for adherents, these restraints can be their own gifts. Piper points out that when she stopped having sex, her relationships with men improved because she was no longer trying to get something from them. Many yogis believe celibacy and fasting are good short-term exercises to bring the body back into balance and determine what is pulling it towards excess. Almost all teachers, Cummins says, believe “that brahmacharya requires us to carefully consider the relationship between our lives on the yoga mat and our lives under the sheets.” Lasater states, “I don’t think one needs to be celibate in order to progress in yoga and spiritual practice, but I definitely think one has to be very careful and clear about the sexual choices one makes. You’re not going to be a whole healthy person unless you’re whole and healthy in your sexuality.”

I’m not sure I’ve given my students a straight answer on sex yet; to be fair, I doubt they want one. I find it more beneficial to think about sex as careful choices. Perhaps chastity does not ask us to shut down sexual expression but rather to “walk with God” and find the sacredness in one’s sexual life. “Brahmacharya is not an answer; it’s a question,” Lasater says. “And the question is, How will I use my sexuality in a way that honors my divinity and the divinity of others?”