Recently, I read this article by Mischa Allen of Yoga with Mischa in southern California. In her author bio in Elephant Journal, Allen describes herself as a “meat-eating, whiskey-drinking yogi.” Reading her bio reminded me of the writings of Noah Levine, yoga teacher and author of Dharma Punx. Levine came of age during the punk rock, grunge era of the 1990s. His youthful anger and rebellion led him to drinking and drugs. Eventually, he realized he wanted a more fulfilling life – but he wasn’t about to turn his back on his grunge background. As Levine’s website states, “Fueled by his anger and so much injustice, Levine now uses that energy and the practice of Buddhism to awaken his natural wisdom and compassion.” In short, Allen and Levine are hard-ass yogis.
While I don’t have that kind of personality myself, there is something very appealing to me about Allen and Levine’s approach to spirituality. It is easy to view spirituality as the domain of saints. We imagine vegetarian monks living in Zen austerity – celibate and leading lives devoid of many common pleasures. We imagine that maintaining a spiritual practice means we must give up foods we enjoy, wake up at dawn to chant mantras, and refrain from emotional reactions. But that simply isn’t true.
True spirituality comes down to authenticity. It is about not lying to ourselves – and doing our best to be honest and compassionate. Having a spiritual practice simply means we strive to examine our beliefs and emotions and determine if they are well-founded or if they are the result of underlying misconceptions or emotional traumas. It means we realize our innate connection with our fellow humans and that we work to respect it. But all of that can be done in the real world. We don’t have to attend meditation retreats that cost thousands of dollars or deprive ourselves things we enjoy to be spiritual. Life itself is the practice. Aiming to live mindfully every day is all that is required to practice spirituality.
What is more, Allen and Levin’s approach to spirituality circumvents the tendency of some to become ensnared by the trappings of spirituality. I have met my share of people who eat vegan, organic food and practice yoga and meditation religiously, but fail to demonstrate real compassion or respect for others.
There are also those who believe themselves to be open-minded because they are supposedly spiritual and politically progressive, but in truth, they harbor hateful thoughts about those who don’t share their beliefs. In that sense, they are just as closed-minded as the more conservative people they criticize – and even more pretentious. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself to be very progressive politically – but voting for Obama and practicing yoga don’t make a person spiritual. While I’m not the perfect picture of spirituality, I try to live according to my belief that real spirituality is about being honest with myself and compassionate towards others. Allen and Levin’s approach certainly makes it easier to practice real spirituality, because they simply don’t care about the outward expressions of spirituality that, alone, often lead only to pretentiousness and self-delusion.