Monday, October 15, 2012

In Praise of Nonconformity

I’ve long been wary of idealism in the context of personal growth or spiritual devotion. The intention behind any pursuit may well be pure of heart, but where idealism thrives, fanaticism lurks. It’s easy to spot a convert. They’ve found the key, and they’re singing its praises. Whatever it is they are doing, you should be in on it; otherwise, you become one of them.

My skepticism stems, in part, from a deep discomfort with those set on “transcending” their humanity in order to reach enlightenment. The blissed out “free spirits” I met in Haight-Ashbury in the early 1990s. Meditation junkies without grit. Self avoidance cloaked in positive thinking. New Age groupies hooked on answers. It comes in many forms.

For me, a spiritual life doesn’t hold water without being rooted in nature, in everyday life, and in my body. It doesn’t make sense to separate it from the wounded remnants of the heart. That’s why I was happy to be introduced to Jeff Brown, a self described “grounded spiritualist” who aspires to live in all aspects of reality simultaneously – the emotional, material and subtle realms. Like me, he holds the conviction that the emotional body and spirit are linked. We did an interview together. In his book SoulShaping, his concept “spiritual bypass” speaks of a turning to spirit in order to avoid pain. What defines a bypass? “It’s not easy to identify a bypass from the act itself,” he writes. “What you do to bypass reality, someone else will do to confront it. It’s all a matter of intention, and only you can know your intention.”

I particularly liked his documentary Karmageddon, a personal take on the life and impact of a 1960s counter-culture icon once described by the Rolling Stone Magazine as the Jimi Hendrix of chant. The film dares to pose questions common to those on a spiritual path, such as “What does the abuse of authority mean in the context of spiritual teaching?” – for this alone it had my attention. The centre of his subject, who once spent a month in a cremation venue surrounded by human ashes, believes that the yoni – the Sanskrit name for vagina – is the door to life, and that menstrual blood is sacred.

At first I remember thinking to myself “wow! That’s pretty awesome.” But then you learn of his moniker, “Lord of the Vagina,” his penchant for bedding young students, and the not-so-pretty aspects of how he treats people. I wondered how he got away with it until it dawned on me: it’s intoxicating to be worshipped as divine and ravaged as an object of desire at the same time. The film is a compelling look at the seduction of fame, and the sway that popularity or charisma has on judgment. The most dangerous people in power aren’t necessarily greedy corporate creeps or cult leaders organizing mass suicides. They’re those with a pipe line to the sacred. There’s something real under all that wreckage, so it’s not so easy to dismiss.

Which brings me to what motivated this post. Another one of Jeff’s concepts is a “soulpod” – defined as anything we find a resonance with, be it strangers with a lesson, or someone appearing on our path to inform or catalyze our expansion. Kind of cool, right? Except how do you discern the lesson being offered with a soulpod – be it a person, or a body of teachings? How do you know how deeply to dive into that which you are resonating with?

It’s taken a long time for these questions to form for me. It may sound straightforward but I don’t think it is. Because if you resonate with something strongly, it’s easy to stick around long past the expiry date. To confuse the lesson. Overlook the delivery. Get lost in someone else’s version of things. All in the process of trying to claim something of yourself.  If you’ve been conditioned – like many of us have – that the means to a fulfillment is in someone else’s hands, it’s pretty much a given at some point. So how do you navigate a soulpod? Recognize it for what it is?  And how do you know when it’s time to move on?

The answer, I think, lies in a full-hearted commitment to finding our own way; to discovering the voice that is uniquely ours. This can be a lifetime’s work. For me, learning what questions are mine is a key catalyst in that work. But there’s something else – something I’m still struggling to articulate. And it has to do with resisting conformist impulses, in order to make room for what calls us within.

In her book The Powerof Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain presents some interesting research done by psychologist Solomon Asch, who conducted a series of now-famous experiments on the dangers of group influence and the power of conformity. In 2005, an Emory University neuroscientist named Gregory Berns conducted an updated version of Asch’s experiments. The results corroborated Asch’s findings. His brain scans of research participants showed less activity in the frontal, decision-making regions and more in the areas of the brain associated with perception. “In other words,” Susan concludes, “peer pressure is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.”

I think about all the times, in my personal development, I’ve participated in programs or workshops over the last 30 years, where the pressure to conform – though it was never interpreted that way – was omnipresent. Of all of them, the est training (aka Werner Erhard) was the granddaddy. Now widely considered to have been a cult (or cultish), it peddled follow-up workshops with the spin that anyone not registering was not serious about their self development. And this is the camp into which I was cast. I could never really fully buy into it. I was the defector. I am proud of that now.

One day, I will tell the longer version of that story. Suffice it to say I have learned firsthand how important it is to recognize where the pressure to conform dwells in our lives, and to what extent it is shaping our perception. It was Ivan Illich who said that “personal growth is a growth in disciplined dissidence.” I would be tempted to take it even further. Can we ever really come into our own without granting dissidence reign?

I think not. With age, our greater selves willing, that is a muscle that grows.

None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him alone.  
Ralph Waldo Emerson