Following on the heels of a previous email exchange of views that I fashioned into a blog post, here's another one.
This time I was asked about a relative of a Church of the Churchless reader who surprised this person by embracing a yogic view of chakras that was "woo-woo."
Here's the message that I got, followed by my response.
You might remember, a while back, you were kind enough to send me that lovely killer list of books that I'd requested for a cousin of mine who was working on her thesis.
Well, she finished that course of hers, and ended up starting a Yoga retreat of her own, and then ended up losing her fledgling entrepreneurial venture to the Covid thing.
Which is sad, of course, but the other day I happened to meet her, after ages, and when I asked her why she wanted to start such a woo-woo venture in the first place (it doesn't -- didn't -- just teach you physical exercises and stuff, it claimed to clean your chakras and whatnot), we had a falling-out of sorts.
No doubt we'll get over this, we're generally pretty close, and blood is thicker than water, et cetera, but the reason I thought to write about this to you is because this thought, this idea, it occurred to me, that probably there are people who instinctively shun the dodgy woo, and people who lack that instinct.
My cousin, bless her soul, she's a good enough girl otherwise, probably is of the latter bent. I myself wouldn't dream of touching a woo retreat with a barge pole, ever, no matter how lucrative, but apparently this cousin of mine is open to that kind of deal.
I mean, it's weird.
First, because my cousin isn't the gullible kind that swallows this kind of nonsense. And two, because she isn't the venal kind, the greedy get-rich-at-all-costs kind who is amoral about how she makes her money: exactly the opposite, in fact, she gave up a lucrative corporate career to shift to more "spiritual" vistas (and in general minus the superstition that sometimes comes with this hankering after the "spiritual").
My point is, I find it so weird, someone like my cousin going down this path. The setting up of this woo shop, I mean.
And yet of my kin and my friends, that I discussed this with, not one found her "career decision" odd or unbecoming, not one. On the contrary, it was my criticism that came to be criticized, without exception.
And when I find I'm the only guy who's seemingly thinking straight, in the midst of heaps and heaps of folks who're seemingly deluded, I generally pause and think, hard, whether I haven't somehow hit some blind spot of mine own, if I'm not missing something. And I really don't know whom else to ask! Hence this email.
I'd welcome your views on this, well, on what is after all a non-issue, in the sense that this is nothing to do with me really,but which troubles me, nevertheless, on general principles.
With my good wishes, ________
This was my response.
_______, good to hear from you again. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to say anything wise, or even cogent, about your cousin’s embrace of woo-woo. Meaning, so-called “spiritual” stuff with no grounding in fact or reason.
Well, let’s make that a certain kind of reason — one that is founded on science, demonstrable chains of causes and effects, open to debate and questioning.
Chakra theory is reasonable within its own yoga context.
In my college days I got quite intense about yoga for a while, even teaching it under the auspices of the Greek-Christian yoga instructor who managed to cram together aspects of Christianity and Eastern religions into an approach that appealed to me at first, but later struck me as too damn weird.
Anyway, back then I accepted the notion of chakras, kundalini, all that stuff. Of course, I also accepted a lot of other stuff that now strikes me as, to not coin a term, overly woo-woo.
Bringing things more toward the present, for seventeen years I’ve been practicing Tai Chi with a nice group of people. I enjoy Tai Chi for a number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the Chinese concepts of meridians and subtle energy channels that my instructor embraces, along with some members of my Tai Chi class.
I’ve learned to keep a faint smile on my face when the instructor, or anyone else, talks about how they feel the energy of Chi/Ki coursing through their body. I believe in energy, and I feel the energy of my body. I just don’t look upon that energy in the same fashion that they do.
Yet this has no bearing on my Tai Chi practice, in the same way that not believing in chakras would have no, or very little, bearing on the benefits someone gets from yoga practice. In these cases the extra topping of woo-woo doesn’t really change the character of the main dish of Tai Chi or Yoga.
So I can understand why most of your relatives and friends look upon your criticism of your cousin as being largely unjustified. After all, almost everybody believes in some weird stuff, whether supernatural (God/miracles) or natural (Big Foot/space aliens).
I mean, woo-woo is a continuum, not a dichotomy.
I’m pretty sure that if the most scientific, reasoned, fact-based person in the entire world were pressed to disclose everything they believed in, deep down, and probably hidden from the outside world, would be some beliefs about objective reality that can’t be defended.
Many top-notch scientists, like Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, are deeply religious. By and large they don’t try to justify their religious belief by recourse to rational arguments. It is a matter of faith that offers meaning to them.
The way I see it, and the way I’ve argued it on this blog for seventeen years, is that someone’s religiosity or embrace of the supernatural is no one else’s business unless that someone attempts to force their beliefs onto others, or presents those beliefs on an open forum (like this blog, via comments) that invite a skeptical response.
If your cousin enjoys believing that chakras are true, fine. That isn’t your cup of tea, as the saying goes, but she enjoys sipping from it.
Again, we’re talking about a continuum here. In the grand scheme of religious beliefs, ranging from least dangerous to most dangerous, I view a belief in chakras or meridians/energy channels as being way down on the “barely bad” side of things.
I doubt that anyone has ever gone to war over chakras, burned someone at the stake over chakras, or hurled threats of divine retribution if someone doesn’t believe in chakras.
One thing that I find helpful is to physicalize woo-woo notions. Here’s what I mean by that. Chakras refer to different parts of the body. Those parts definitely exist. For example, we have a head. We have an abdomen. We have genitals.
Our attention can be focused on different parts of our body. When I’m thinking intensely, I feel like I’m in my head. When I’m hungry, I feel like I’m in my abdomen. When I crave sex, I feel like I’m in my genitals.
This isn’t what chakra theory is about, but it is some of what it’s about. Thus there is a bridge from a purely physical view of “chakras” to a yogic spiritual view of them.
In a similar sense, I feel energy within my body when I’m doing Tai Chi.
I don’t know if that is the same feeling other people refer to when they speak of Chi/Ki. I look upon the energy as physical. They look upon it as spiritual or supernatural. Again, though, there’s a bridge between these ways of looking at energy meridians, because we’re speaking of a continuum, not a dichotomy.
And it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that acupuncture, say, one day will be found to have a foundation in solid science. I’m unsure if this will happen, but I’m open to it.
Thus you might find it interesting to speak with your cousin in more depth about her embrace of yoga, including what she finds appealing about chakra theory. There might be common ground between you and her in this regard. Or, maybe not. Regardless, it’s worth exploring.