Oneness, Seva, and the White Savior Complex

“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” – Teju Cole

I recently saw two articles posted on Yoganonymous, and immediately something felt off. What I read was so troublesome that I want to clarify some things about the Western perspective of “oneness” in yoga that not only romanticizes the idea based on orientalism, but also appropriates it to adhere to ideas of individualism popular in the West (neoliberalism, anyone?). Often, these ideas of “oneness” are tied to the idea of seva, or selfless service, a practice that has become increasingly popular in the yoga world during the last decade but that is often inadequately understood, becoming a form of white savior complex for many privileged yogis. Frankly, this is also regularly tied up in some essentializing and problematic gendered expectations of what “service” means; in other words, in the West we often have very gendered ideas of service practices that equate service to caring for others, when these two things are not always the same.

The two articles I saw were “Why Oneness is the Key to Happiness and Ethics in Yoga” and part III of a series titled “Seva: Healing through Giving.” The first article was about the idea of oneness, what the author claimed was an idea of common origin, nature, or being that unites everything (not just people, but all the universe). She claims, “oneness can improve our social, political, and professional environments, helping create a more enlightened society. A society where we recognize that, as human beings, we are all cells of a larger organism.” In a similar vein, the article on seva is about how seva can lead us to love, and therefore connection with those around us: “the more you connect with your sense of love and devotion the more you will see those around you as part of your very Self.” What bothered me most about both these articles is that other than some of these fancy feel-good let’s-connect love-everyone sentiments expressed at the beginning of each article, these were largely written in ways that were, frankly, egoistic, and ultimately about feeling better about your self rather than about connecting with others or with something larger than “you.”

This can be seen by a simple discourse analysis of these articles. Both are meant to be about oneness, connecting with those around us, about becoming part of the “we”, so how many times to they actually use the words “we,” “us,” or refer to something other than “you,” the individual? Turns out, not that much. For the oneness article, “we” appears 10 times, “us” twice, and “you” or “your” a whopping 34 times. For the seva article it’s even more obvious: “we” appears 4 times, “us” never, and “you” or “your” 33 times. And these aren’t long articles, people. Seriously! What the heck is going on here? And it gets even more ridiculous when we look at some of the things these authors are actually saying with all those “you”‘s and “your”‘s. Take this quote from the oneness article: “When you live and act with the awareness of being part of a larger role, of being bigger than your small body-mind-life, than you are really contributing to this whole, and your actions matter tenfold more.” They are talking about connecting with something larger, yet ultimately what they are talking about is the individual, about “you,” the whole time. It’s about you connecting with the bigger force, about your actions, not about others or about what is happening in our world, or what our world needs to survive and improve. The entire matter of “oneness” has become, literally, isolated in one person and their individual quest for feeling something more universal, largely driven by their own individual desires and needs to feel fulfilled rather than developing a deeper connection through empathy that allows us to genuinely care about others, and to desire to build a better world for all of us because we all need it.

Let’s take some points from the seva article to demonstrate this same trend. One quote from the author explains: “When you engage seva it quiets the egoistic part of you. You shift away from the “me focus” to the “we focus.” This “we focus” is the place where you experience, through your thoughts and actions, that we are all interconnected. It is the space where you decide consciously to live in and through this interconnectedness… When you choose to engage it, you choose to stay connected with your heart, the most sacred part of you.  Seva means, you choose to live from the place of awareness of what is real, that we are all interconnected. When you work with seva you get to feel the depth of your own love and compassion by finding a way to serve another. Through seva, you experience the great value of sacrifice and the reality that one can make an enormous difference.” Holy crap! Talk about connectedness–connected to what? A whole bunch of you, apparently. I mean, this author starts out by saying seva should quiet the egoistic part of you, but then what do they do? They go off on an egoistic rant about how seva is good for, well, you. Talk about ego and being disconnected. Sure, seva is driven by our ability to love, or more accurately feel empathy, but it shouldn’t be defined as getting in touch with yourself. Seva is selfless service–key word being selfless. Yet these authors turn oneness and seva into something that is ultimately all about your self, and about feeling good about your self, which is ultimately a practice of ego.

Look, I get that what these authors are writing about is lovely and romantic and sounds great on the surface. It sounds nice to “connect to love,” have “your actions matter tenfold more,” and “find a way to serve another;” but you know what the best way to serve others is? By asking them what they need, and listening to them rather than yourself. Sure, for many people who are privileged I guess this a nice way to ease them into thinking about something other than themselves, since drawing on egoistic, individualistic, and self-centered ideas of seva and oneness (with oneself, apparently) come easier for people who are constantly encouraged to think this way. But seriously, there has to be a better way to discuss oneness and seva rather than directing these ideas back onto the benefit and experience of these practices for, well, you. Connectedness, oneness, whatever you want to call it, is about us. It’s about what we can do, and how we can mobilize to make a difference, together, not as isolated individuals trying to make our own selves feel better or as part of a personal quest to achieve what you think is the best solution. Seva should be about serving others, instead of yourself, and ultimately that requires asking others what they need from us, rather than assuming that we already know what they need. You want to make a difference? Try getting yourself out of the way.

Too often in dominant yoga culture seva is taken as an excuse to mitigate personal feelings of guilt for those with privilege, as a way of easing our own self-doubt and insecurities, and as a way of healing ourselves rather than a means of truly serving other people. This is largely because yoga, and yoga philosophy, is interpreted by Westerners through our capitalist, individualist, and neoliberal ideologies in ways that appropriate the original meanings out of context of an ethically guided spiritual practice. Since popular culture yoga has become largely devoid of spiritual traditions and disconnected from a deeper understanding of the ethical guidelines of yoga, instead taught in commodified ways that don’t provide a sound historical or, frankly, spiritual background for the practice, Westerners rarely get enough time to study these ideas in depth or to even deeply think about them (especially if they have other jobs outside of yoga). Cover them for a few hours in a teacher training, and hey, you are suddenly qualified to teach these ideas to others as a certified “expert”! (That was sarcasm, by the way.) But what often happens is that, because of the surface level study most people receive on these matters, many yogis, especially those who come from privileged locations (meaning white, middle class individuals, who are over-represented in yoga as a whole) end up using romanticized, orientalist ideas of these concepts as a means to justify their disconnection. This is exacerbated by the fact that teacher trainings often don’t provide any training on diversity awareness.

The adoption of seva and this idea of oneness by Western yogis often takes the form of a white savior complex, part of what’s been called the white savior industrial complex. The white savior complex is a trend where whites increasingly use service work (and charitable giving) as a means to justify and validate their own unwarranted privilege, thereby reinforcing it, rather than actually performing service in the interests and according to the needs of the ones they serve. Thus, the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. As Cole says, “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm [ahimsa!]. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” The white savior complex is all too common in yoga, where privileged yogis often utilize these practices as a means of self-service, rather than selfless service.

In popular culture yoga, oneness and seva become signals for status, a sign of an “authentic” yogi, even if they are practiced in a way that reflects more about Western ideas of individualism and capitalism than a deeper connection to others. Seva becomes commodified, interpreted as “gifting” free yoga classes to at risk populations, often on a limited one-time basis in ways that don’t actually help the community served and ultimately are done as a marketing ploy for new teachers to gain a student “following” and thereby increase their own incomes. Which means most seva in the yoga world isn’t actually selfless, but is often all about the self, about you and not about others. It’s used as a means of personal gain, or personal appeasement (making you feel better), or personal healing, or really anything except a way to remove the egoistic self. Instead of taking our yoga off the mat, we use a few hours of self-motivated volunteering on our mats to justify our status as “authentic” yogis and as “good” people, all while consistently ignoring larger systemic inequalities relating to class, race, gender, sexuality, and so on and our own roles in sustaining these systems. Instead of listening to what the populations we serve actually need, we listen to and serve ourselves. We volunteer in prisons, rather than fighting and advocating for a better system that won’t imprison so many people in the first place. We provide asana classes to poor urban youth (often of color), rather than addressing the issues of poverty, segregation, and crime they have to deal with. We help our own sense of self-worth by alleviating our personal guilt in the short term, rather than using our yogic practice to listen to others, understand their struggles, and fight against, larger inequities, which would ultimately be a better, more selfless, and more yogic service.

A great deal of our ideas on how to serve stem from gendered notions of “service” in the West, where service work has historically been tied to the work of women, especially care work (meaning, caring for others). Sure, this type of service is lovely, but it’s flawed, because the myth of the selfless mother is a social construction and frankly an unhealthy and unequal one. All genders are equally capable of love and empathy. And love and empathy, while these are the root of what allows us to serve, are not always the best way to serve. Can we frame service in a different way? Can we flip this gender script and instead think of service in the sense of serving in, say, the military? While obviously there are some serious problems with this analogy as the military is not an institution reflecting the paragon of virtue, I think it’s important we recognize that service isn’t just about love and caring and holding hands and all these other essentialized and outdated gendered notions. These are great, but they aren’t enough, and they aren’t the whole story. Selfless service is about digging into some uncomfortable truths about our selves so that we can abandon our self-bias and self-orientation and truly listen to others’ needs. Selfless service is about fighting for justice and equity for others in ways driven by empathy and love, but that won’t always take the form of hand holding and care work; sometimes it will be oppositional.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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