Brother, Can You Spare Some Time?

Our focus on personal wellbeing can be dangerous for the health of our relationships – and our souls.

If you’re around 30 or if you have a child who is that age, you probably remember the elementary school experience with D.A.R.E. or a similar drug awareness program. We were all told that if we wanted to talk about someone, but didn’t want to reveal confidences, we should say “I know someone who.” Since that practice has fallen out of favor, and using “I know someone who” doesn’t exactly flow across the page, I’m going to talk about an experience a friend had by calling the friend Bud. The antagonists in this tale are Joe Yoga and Mindful Mary, but you can call them Joe and Mary for short.

Bud recently went through an appallingly bad time. A bad breakup, slander in the community, and repeated emotional abuse as the breaker-upper isolated Bud and spread rumors. Bud did as many healthy people do: Bud reached out to friends. But Bud’s problems were not a one-beer, cry-it-out-and-move-on phenomenon. Instead, Bud needed some support, and sought out professional help, too. What happened next is truly shocking, and all too illustrative of a wider problem in our society.

Bud’s friends, Joe Yoga and Mindful Mary were there for the first beer. But, they grew tired of being supportive of Bud when a beer and some platitudes weren’t enough. It was taking away from Joe’s yoga and Mary’s mindfulness practices, you understand. An older, similar generation would have called it “harshing my vibe,” I think.

Bud was sad, and figured a different approach with Joe and Mary was all that was needed. Bud got real and reached out for help. Joe and Mary (who aren’t married, by the way, they’re just following their bliss) were frustrated and lashed out.

“You’re just projecting” Joe said. “Why don’t you try to be grateful for the experience?” suggested Mary.

“You’re just projecting” Joe said. “Why don’t you try to be grateful for the experience?” suggested Mary.

Mary is a champion gratitude-journaler. No one – and I mean no one – is more grateful than Mary, and she is grateful for that, too.

This advice, which seemed more like a brush-off, disturbed Bud. Bud probed, but Mary suggested that the fault laid squarely at Bud’s feet: “you just need to center yourself, count your breath and be present.” Joe, who may have otherwise noticed the irony in that statement, was too busy strumming a guitar on his stability ball to pay attention. “Why don’t you try some yoga?” he said.

Bud, exasperated, said goodbye to Joe and Mary. Joe and Mary gave each other a satisfied look. “I’m so grateful we could help. Bud’s chakras are totally out of alignment,” Mary said, as she caressed her gratitude journal.

But Bud isn’t okay, no matter how good we make ourselves feel about it. We’re living in an age of glib advice and the proliferation of sanitized wellness tips you find everywhere from television to the ‘net.

We’re living in an age of glib advice and the proliferation of sanitized wellness tips you find everywhere from television to the ‘net.

It’s true, I’m sure, that there is much to be gained for some people from yoga, mindfulness and general wellbeing advice. But, the broader meaning of those practices is frequently minimized and shoved aside to make room for how buff you can get or how mentally hygienic you can be. It’s been packaged and marketed to death; co-opted by the same cliquey folks who didn’t have time for real depth even before they discovered Eastern traditions (patent pending).

And is it any wonder? We talk of meditation as a memory-boosting, focus-honing, genteel replacement for aderol. It’s been warped into a competitive, profit-driven and performance-enhancing practice. Even among many who claim to be looking for a state of Zen, what they actually mean is that they want to be “Zennier than Thou.”

Take Joe and Mary. How often have you seen someone give a piece of meaningless advice, only to watch the self-satisfied, placid look turn to anger when it’s challenged?

Zennier than Thou isn’t even just a throwaway notion. While much has been made of the decline of religion in the United States, that doesn’t mean we’re at a loss for the same social dynamics that make up the stereotypical church hall.

There are the true saints, who keep their heads down and run the soup kitchens and such, and then there are those, often sitting in the front, who say the words, and go through the motions, but who don’t internalize what it means to be faithful. They want to have the trappings of faith, but they gossip, prod, and keep in the back of their minds how “Christ-like” or spiritual they are. It’s age-old status-seeking, whether it’s religion, health and wellbeing, or anything else where someone smells a potential pecking order.

Give me the priest who is rumpled and imperfect, but who tells the domestic violence victim its okay to leave an abusive relationship, any day. Or the trauma-centered yoga teacher, who has a special class for victims of abuse. Or the overweight, scatterbrained atheist who’s there at a moment’s notice when you need a hand moving, even if he does sweat like a pig. These are the people who know true wellness is built on the strength of relationships and on character. You can keep the dogmatically pure: the minister who pedals cheap grace and rocks on the guitar, but doesn’t visit the sick. The yoga expert who can’t internalize his own principles and gets arrested for sexual harassment and abuse, or any number of Yoga Joe’s and Mindful Mary’s who fail their friends – for they’re cut from the same cloth.

Of course, none of this means that yoga or meditation (or religion!) in and of itself is to be abhorred. It simply means that we shouldn’t crowd out what is most important in life just for the sake of being as “well” as we can. It means when you practice yoga, don’t just think about its strength-enhancing, stress-reducing properties, do it in part for its focus on compassion. Do the same with meditation. Read the Dalai Llama in addition to using your Happify app. It means jump at the opportunity to help someone in need – that’s the universal message underlying most religions, yoga, and meditation.

Most of all, don’t fail to include kindness, friendship, and a strong character in your definition of wellness. At the end of the day, if we’re too busy saving our bodies, how will we ever save our selves?

For more opinion and culture from New England, check out rfne.orglike RFNE on Facebook, or listen on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Author: Chris

Chris is the program director and founder of Radio Free New England.

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