This is the twelfth post of The Considered Kula and the one in which I take the blog live. It’s high time. To many of you this will appear as the first post, but for that look here, “Open to Grace: Launching the Considered Kula.” It appears to you as the first because up until now, it has been a private blog, open only to a few friends while I hitched up my britches and screwed up the courage to “go for it.”
Twelve is an auspicious number both in terms of my Catholic Christian roots and my more recent yoga path. For Christians, twelve denotes perfection, and in yoga twelve denotes a full cycle. Respectively, the Gospels feature twelve apostles, and there are twelve months in the year, and twelve constellations in the zodiac.
In writing this post, I thought to the blog post written by John Friend, founder of Anusara yoga, on the occasion of its twelfth anniversary, the first one I was to mark as a student of Anusara yoga. In this post, and in the documentary “Anusara: The Heart of Transformation,” John describes taking two years before bringing this then new style into the light. While I would in no way compare this undertaking to that, it would seem reasonable to take at least a month for this blog to emerge from the darkness. What a month it has been, for us to observe the supermoon, the closest full moon of 2011 (since 2008 and until 2016), to observe the Vernal Equinox shortly thereafter, and for me to be on the verge of my birthday this weekend.
This post is one of those that came when inspiration intruded in the wee hours, like songs sometimes come to the singer-songwriter Bob Franke. When the muse comes calling, dare I turn her away? Specifically, I was puzzling through this problem of “the power of positive thinking.” I direct you to the Elephant Journal post “The Difference Between Manifesting and Gardening” by Joslyn Hamilton for a garden variety critique of this view, and my comments for my take.
As a sociologist, I’m a skeptic, too. We observe human behavior and notice the difference between “ideal culture” and “real culture.” What is it to which we as a society say we aspire, and what actually happens? In my introductory sociology classes, for instance, we are now talking about social stratification, and social class. I talk about the sinking of the Titanic, and who survived. Did the then vaunted chivalry of “women and children first” prevail, or something else? It turns out a sociologist named Holley at Suffolk University took the Titanic passenger manifest, which was published in Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (1955) and subjected it to a little crosstabulation. Women and children were more likely to survive among second and third class passengers, but first class passenger status was a better predictor of who survived. So when it comes to positive thinking, my inclination is to treat it as ideal culture and say “prove it.”
Especially because my minister preached on this very topic, but also because I value and trust her work, I would very much like to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009). I do like how Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist and sociologist, frames the issue. “There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” (2009: 6) How interesting it is that courage seems to be a theme running through this post. Courage, derived from the Old French word corage, and ultimately cor, Latin for “heart” is, as a heart-based notion, a recurrent theme in Anusara yoga classes.
My minister’s homily suggests that the research of psychologists note some mental and physical health benefits of positive thinking. That’s on the level of individual change. What about the level of social change, about which we sociologists are concerned?
I think here most specifically about Charles Kurzman’s work on the Iranian revolution of 1979. In particular, he uses this case study to address some issues raised on the sociological study of social movements. I use excerpts from his work in a class I teach on Social Movements. Social movements occur where political opportunities open, collective actors properly perceive these opportunities and seize them. Some may say “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but that’s clearly not what case studies of social movements typically suggest. “Where a will wants not, a way opens,” is what Tolkein wrote in The Lord of the Rings, and that is more like what Kurzman said happened in Iran. Think of it as the “little engine that could” model of social movement emergence. I also think of the brave leaders of Otpor, the Serbian student movement which helped bring down Slobodan Milosovic in October 2000, as portrayed in the film “Bringing Down a Dictator,” which I show to my classes in the Sociology of War and Peace. In parody of the Socialist Party Congress, which rubberstamps Milosovic’s candidacy, they held a First Otpor Congress. They pretended that their student members were drawn from all over Serbia, and then after the congress, their membership was drawn from all over Serbia. (“Fake it ’till you make it” is probably another variant of positive thinking.) It should be noted, here, however, that those who overthrew the Shah in Iran got a bit more than they bargained for. While the revolution had a broad base of support from across Iranian society, the Islamists were better organized, and were thus poised to assume leadership in the wake of struggle. Whereas other forms of social organization had been suppressed under the Shah, clerical authority had been untouched. They filled a local organizational void left in the wake of the revolution.
I also think of our more recent example of Egypt. While the ultimate outcome of the pro-democracy movement has yet to be seen and a more thorough analysis is some ways away, it is clear that a broad-based coalition overthrew a dictator in a largely bloodless, mostly nonviolent revolution. Incidentally, it should be noted that there are some very important reasons Egypt is not likely to go the way of Iran (another view here). For some time, we will debate the role of social media, or the impact of growing independent trade union and student movements. But it is clear that the face of the Egyptian revolution was nonviolent, playful and positively joyful. Even though this revolution is not quite baked, we may still appreciate the aroma from the kitchen.
All of this is a rather lengthy way to suggest that certain kinds of positivity, and “existential courage, ” if you will, are not incompatible with social change. Along with insight and skill, this kind of positivity could be decisive in bringing about lasting change. Even the most casual but truthful glance at the world yields a desire for lasting change.
I dedicate this post to my main Anusara yoga teacher, whose perpetually sunny disposition and unflagging energy has helped sustain for me a reach deep into the heart of transformation, both on the mat and off, sometimes finding there existential courage, of the sort that allows me to go live with this blog now.