It's Not Okay. It Ends Today.
On October 12, 1492, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moon shining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean sea. The first man to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. He got the reward.
So Howard Zinn writes in A People's History of the United States. Here's another passage from that chapter:
When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
“They willingly traded everything they owned….They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features....They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane....They would make fine servants....With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.
Thus begins the relationship between European culture and the indigenous people of the Americas: with the conquest of land, pillaging of resources and the objectification of human bodies. Those of us who are inheritors of this history are still traumatized by these original encounters and by the centuries of violence that have followed. It has sown trauma into the DNA of us all.
As we mark another Columbus Day off the calendar, my greatest hope is that we are participating in a new chapter of American history. One where we relate to the Earth in a mode that is less conquistador and more caretaker. One where humans relate, not as owner vs. owned, but as sisters, brothers, partners.
Columbus didn’t invent cycles of violence and the hierarchical power structures which propagate and sustain them. Rich white men are not the originators of injustice and objectification. These things seem to arise everywhere where the less mature and wise aspects of humanness are allowed to thrive. Yes, even in yoga ashrams.
Earlier this year it was brought to my attention that the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Pattabhi Jois, sexually abused female students for decades. Though I never studied with him directly, I have called many of his devotees teachers. The vinyasa style I am deeply trained in is the direct descendant of his method. I have taught and practiced at countless yoga studios which still feature his photo on the altar.
Accusers against Jois have been coming forward since at least the mid-1990s, but in all the time that I’ve been hanging out in the yoga scene, I didn’t hear a peep about it until the #metoo movement empowered these women’s voices and opened up a space for conversation about it. Before this they were met with disbelief, defamation and ostrasization from their yoga community. One accuser, Karen Rain published a piece today about her own experience.
I used to be surprised when I heard about supposed “gurus” acting like conquistadors--objectifying, manipulating, abusing and dismissing the bodies of their students as they sought pleasure and power. That's because I used to think that conquistadors were born out of European culture. Now I see them as a symptom of any system where the few have privilege and the many are meant to bow down.
Ancient texts and teachings from countless spiritual traditions all over the world speak of respect and peace as the proper way to relate and to lead. They wouldn’t even need to mention such things unless there were people who were attempting to impose the more brutal model. This is from the Tao Te Ching, passage 29, translation by R.L Wing:
Those who would take hold of the world and act on it,
Never, I notice, succeed.
The world is a mysterious instrument,
Not made to be handled.
Those who act on it, spoil it.
Those who seize it, lose it.
The realization that the dominator model of society is inhumane, dangerous and unsustainable is not new, of course. Oppressed and indigenous peoples have been trying to communicate this all along. The people’s history of the United States is the story of its citizens putting their own lives at risk for the sake of greater justice and equality. The Earth herself is sending us strong messages that we need to usher in a new chapter of relating to bodies, managing resources and wielding power.
But now more and more people seem to be listening and lending their voices in defense of the objectified and oppressed. The fact that so many in this country are talking about climate change, the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the #metoo movement, gives me hope that awakening is happening on a large scale.
But with this awakening, deep, widespread trauma is coming to the surface. And deep, widespread healing and reconciliation must arise to meet it.
I believe that we are in the midst of a momentous and inevitable shift. From a dominator model of society--hierarchical, oppressive, war-bent--toward a partnership model--one which is more egalitarian, trusting and collaborative. But to survive this major shift, we must create safe space in our personal lives to heal from the wounds we have received, and to cultivate forgiveness. We need to acknowledge the ways that we have each personally participated in the dominator model--directly and indirectly, knowingly and unknowingly--and to invite in a more honest way of seeing and relating.
As the prevailing power structures go under revision, don’t be surprised when those who are personally invested in them strike out desperately in their defense. They will make themselves hoarse repeating a fairy tale which once only needed to be whispered: I am inheritor to unique status, privilege, power and wealth. I have special place reserved for me, way above the fray.
Never mind that this place at the “top” of the hierarchy has always been precarious at best. Never mind that this narrative brings with it an underlying terror for all who live “above” for fear of falling into the hell they’ve made “below.” Never mind that in its deepest expression, this story leeches all the creativity and the beauty from the world, makes impossible true collaboration and wonder, creates blockages against real esteem and insight and care.
The fairy tale of the just conquistador is enticing and entrenched. We can expect that delusion to get louder and more violent to protect itself, as many hands reach out to pull back the curtain and reveal something more true.
Expect that there will be more conflict, more storms, more challenges to address. But don’t lean into fear. Do your healing. Find your power. Use your voice. And know that you’re in excellent company as you stand with the Earth and the wise folks who have practiced the Tao, the Way of Nature, the Way of Respect, for aeons. Together we will throw a wrench in the cycles of violence which have prevailed for centuries. Together, in respectful collaboration, we can thrive.
Comment below and let me know how you’re faring during this sea change. I have some offerings which may help, including an online meditation course that’s all about thriving through times of transition.