Recently, in discussions in my sangha and online with yoga practitioners, the question of the benefits of a diluted practice in the West has arisen again. Concerns were raised over the castration of yoga and zen that twists these transformative practices that were meant to foster the development of a profoundly felt ethical comportment toward the world into mere stress management. And the same retort is trotted out time and time again: it’s better than nothing, it’s a start.

I have quoted the following passage by Rollo May before, but I present it here again because I think it highlights the dangers inherent in healing practices in modernity. May was referring to psychoanalysis, but I find his warning to be spot on and completely applicable when considering how modernity can leach the true power out of zen and yoga:

There is considerable danger that psychoanalysis, as well as other forms of psychotherapy and adjustment psychology, will become new representations of the fragmentation of man, that they will exemplify the loss of the individual’s vitality and significance, rather than the reverse, that the new techniques will assist in standardizing and giving cultural sanction to man’s alienation from himself rather than solving it, that they will become expressions of the new mechanization of man, now calculated and controlled with greater psychological precision and on the vaster scale of unconscious and depth dimensions – that psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general will become part of the neurosis of our day rather than part of the cure.

Make no mistake, the attitudes that “it’s better than nothing” or “it’s a small step that can be an opening to something greater” are not benign ones. While in some cases this may be true, in the majority of cases, we can see that yoga and meditation are being used to reinforce the sicknesses of modernity through the commercialization of yoga and the medicalization of meditation. Questions of accessibility, while valid, are superficial in relation to this danger.

Rather than being a part of the cure, these practices are being used to help us to better function within a system and support ways of being that bring us away from union while giving us the impression we are working toward the opposite. This dangerous delusion embeds existing structures of modernity more deeply  into our hearts and minds rather than liberating us or assisting us in forming any real resistance toward the logic that alienates us from ourselves. What I see is how zen and yoga are being used to help us become calmer, more productive workers and better, more prolific consumers. What I see is people largely focused on their individual gains in mindfulness and wellbeing and not much else. And for every person who is brought to a deep existential questioning and radical changes in their ethical character by passing through a castrated practice, thousands more will turn in the opposite direction. Yes, they may be fitter, calmer, nicer, but to what end?

I am not speaking of any specific events, schools, persons or what have you. I am speaking to an overall trend, and a dominant direction, in which zen and yoga are headed, that has nothing to do with deepening contact with reality, developing the discipline required to build ethical fortitude and compassion, or addressing the sufferings endemic to modernity. I am not sure what to call this, but I am certain it is not simply “better than nothing.”

Hester: The boy’s in pain, Martin.

Dr. Dysart: Yes.

Hester: And you can take it away.

Dysart. Yes.

Hester: Then that has to be enough for you, surely?… In the end!

Dysart [crying out]: All right! I’ll take it away! He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? […] Do you think feelings like his can be simply re-attached, like plasters? […] My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband – a caring citizen – a worshiper of abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost!

– Peter Shaffer, Equus