On the virtues of cherry-picking

Matthew’s extensive comment in response to my Yoga post raised some interesting points and deserves an equally considered reply:

The irony of all this talk of cherry-picking is that the actual picking of cherries is surely a tedious and taxing task that requires the virtues of fortitude (so as to keep going) and temperance (so as to not eat all the cherries straight away).

But I take your point, though I ought to clarify that I never expect anyone to actually take up what I’m advising, whether it be making their own beer or realising that atman is Brahman.

At the same time, I would be remiss in suggesting that I am more virtuous than my contemporaries. So at minimum, I am writing for the pleasure of recognising that some things have a deeper meaning and a greater significance, yoga being one of them.

As the immortal sage Bruce Lee also wrote/quoted/paraphrased: when the wise man points at the moon, the fool sees only the finger.

Now, people can cherry-pick, but we take for granted some element of wisdom in their cherry-picking: that at least they are picking what they want, or at best they are picking something of value to them.

Yet stretching is not easy, it is painful and difficult. Why do people pick it? Have they been told to pick it? Have they been impressed by advocates of stretching who have promised great benefits? Have they tried it and found it deeply satisfying or beneficial?

I suspect the first point is that it (Yoga) looks exotic. In addition it is praised as beneficial. Subsequent experience shows that it is difficult, yet rewarding (either physically rewarding or rewarding in the “hey look at me I’m doing Yoga!” sense).

But in addition, I think we’re all told by multiple sources from an early age that flexibility is important and valuable. It’s a deeply ingrained message that we should aim to be able to touch our toes at any point in life, and Yoga seems to epitomise that goal; like running marathons epitomises fitness and endurance.

I think that the value you are calling ‘cherry-picking’ has likewise been extolled by multiple sources from youth. We idealise it as freedom and autonomy, and respect the person who ‘takes control’ and improves himself through his own choices and actions; who lives a rich and enjoyable life; a person who – importantly – is not bound by anything unpleasant or odious or unwanted.

The virtues extolled by traditional Yoga appear to conflict with this ideal. Few want to cherry-pick “stop picking cherries”, without some promise or other condition of reward. Look at Bikram: he’s incredibly wealthy, powerful, and famous thanks to his physical mastery of Yoga asanas. If he committed himself as fervently to the abstentions and observances, he would not be able to enjoy his wealth, power and fame. But for some reason, people do not look at his physical mastery as an imposition. They don’t look at the opportunity cost of all those hours of stretching and training. They don’t think fearfully of how much laziness and sloth and leisure time he has had to sacrifice. How much enjoyment he has lost and pain he has endured.

So if I may reverse the equation: we are all fools looking at the moon, and we don’t realise we only see it because it has been pointed out to us.

Every religious and spiritual discipline that I have come across contains the same essential points of abstention and observance, discipline and virtue. And in the past, or in the limited circles of religious adherents, exemplars of these disciplines are praised and the benefits of these disciplines are known and understood.

Zhuangzi wrote: Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

But what the hell are the springs of the Heavenly, and why should I care? My lusts and desires are the backbone of my identity, and the thought of purposefully diminishing them is about as appealing as abandoning friends and family to go live in a tin shed in some godforsaken desert.

Yet the Patanjali Yoga sutra refers to them as “afflictions”:

2.1 Austerity, the study of sacred texts, and the dedication of action to God constitute the discipline of Mystic Union.

2.2 This discipline is practised for the purpose of acquiring fixity of mind on the Lord, free from all impurities and agitations, or on One’s Own Reality, and for attenuating the afflictions.

2.3 The five afflictions are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the desire to cling to life.

2.4 Ignorance is the breeding place for all the others whether they are dormant or attenuated, partially overcome or fully operative.

2.5 Ignorance is taking the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure for the pure, evil for good and non-self as self.

2.6 Egoism is the identification of the power that knows with the instruments of knowing.

2.7 Attachment is that magnetic pattern which clusters in pleasure and pulls one towards such experience.

2.8 Aversion is the magnetic pattern which clusters in misery and pushes one from such experience.

2.9 Flowing by its own energy, established even in the wise and in the foolish, is the unending desire for life.

2.10 These patterns when subtle may be removed by developing their contraries.

2.11 Their active afflictions are to be destroyed by meditation.

Clearly Patanjali didn’t understand that the purpose of meditation is actually to heal your body, make you rich, give you peace of mind, and stop you complaining about your employment conditions.

Securing our attachments, defending against our aversions, consolidating our ignorance, and celebrating our egoism: this is the ‘Yoga’ of modern life; – stretching optional.

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3 thoughts on “On the virtues of cherry-picking

  1. There is little doubt in my mind that many people (probably most) do “yoga” because it has “exotic” appeal and thus it becomes a fad. It is also heavily motivated by our vanity (in relation to both physical and psychosocial forms) and our own spiritual listlessness. No offense to Bruce Lee or others, but we already know what the moon is about. We put a man on it (though some of us got bored with this notion and tried to challenge it!), we based calendars on it (though we’ve adopted a new one), we discovered that our tides were affected by it and also tried to base our predictions of life events on its phases, and alas, we now accept that it is not made of cheese. So now we move onto Mars and from what I can tell I think it’s made out of Paprika (much more exotic than the moon and it’s boring cheese)!

    But getting back to “yoga” I suspect that such a fad which is heavily fueled by marketing and business will eventually burn out only to be replaced with the next fad, whether it is something new or just some repackaging of the same. As far as the exercise/fitness industry is concerned, I’ve observed both of these things happen in the last 20 or so years. For example, Pilates was the big fad in the 90s/00s but since 2010 it seems various forms of “yoga” (the fad versions) are coming into their own, such as “hot” yoga (e.g. Bikram). However, the rise of “hot” yoga like “Bikram” will eventually subside and this seems to be now happening is we see the emergence of “frozen” yoga or “snowga”! The whole “Les Mills” thing (that practically all gyms in Australian and USA offer) is just a repackaging of “traditional” aerobics classes but I can sense they are trying to innovate and “evolve” to deliver the same thing under a more attractive and lucrative banner (2 years ago they incorporated “MMA” into an aerobics routine, much like “tae bo” if you remember that!)

    So once we’ve exhausted all kinds of yoga, all kinds of ways to prepare teas and coffees, all kinds of ways to eat and cook food, all kinds of ways to mix martial arts, we’ll find something new on the menu to try (like inhaling vapor from flavored tobacco on side walk cafes). Perhaps a concern might be that certain apparent fads might stick around for a while. I predict that instead of “smoko” breaks during work, it’s “MM” breaks (mindfulness meditation). Is this good or bad? It’s very different to the tradition of the work place that our parents were more familiar with, but MM is way better than inhaling addictive carcinogens.

    The notion of “fad” is something I believe is deeply ingrained in us and has greater inertia than tradition or ideals. The speed of technological advancement helps. Just look at the mobile phone and computer fads? And the weird memes that have come and gone (whatever happened to “planking”? I was still doing that in the gym last week during my empty posturing class!).

    We live in a society driven by autonomy and self interest only occasionally mitigated by genuine attempts to seek solidarity and unity with others. But the reality is that it is much easier to act from self-interest while attempting to justify that self-interest than it is to be genuinely selfless. In fact, this is encouraged and those who do not do this are criticised as being “weak” or “naive” or not knowing how to “play the game”. So when all traditions, ideals, and virtues have been corrupted and most people have sold their soul, what else are we left with? The answer is “Business” and everything is viewed through the lens of “fad”. Hence we focus solely on the finger and miss out on all the heavenly glory of the moon. These values are indeed extolled in us from youth and galvanised during early adulthood and onwards. I once heard someone say “it’s just business” in response to another person inquiring about their apparent “marriage”!

    But whether one’s orientation is more towards “business” or towards “virtue” I can’t help the sense that both end up being a divide and conquer approach which creates a dichotomy between those who choose to “play the game” (perhaps unwittingly or begrudgingly) and those who choose to “live in a tin shed in a desert”. I believe there may be a middle ground that society in general can gravitate towards but of course this requires some degree of cherry picking. Speaking of which, perhaps the issue isn’t so much to do with the fact that we cherry pick, but more to do with what we cherry pick. After all, every single person throughout human history has cherry picked from somewhere and left other things behind much to the chagrin of those who would prefer we buy the whole package from them and not dribs and drabs from all over the place. There’s not one culture or tradition or movement or doctrine, that has ever been without its critics.

    I don’t profess to know very much about history or Buddhism but from what I have read and heard it seems to me that the only thing that has stood the test of time is impermanence.

    So can we blame ourselves for cherry picking? Have we ever been presented with a package in which every component is acceptable to us? Or is the adage of “taking the good with the bad” still important to us? I guess this might depend on how good or how bad.

    I don’t think we should be too hard on ourselves for having to grapple with business virtues, traditional virtues, vice, parochialism and the occasional attempt to maintain integrity or to even probe deeper beyond current fads? If a person is born in the west, raised on values of autonomy, self-interest, as well as specific cultural values (cringes?) then perhaps this as good as it gets and we should uphold our right to cherry pick based on the values or lack thereof that we were to a large extent indoctrinated into. Can we privilege one form of indoctrination over another? Can we privilege one fad over another? The only way to combat indoctrination or fad or competing traditions is to allow freedom of expression after which must let the chips fall where they may.

    Of course we protect people from exploitation but by educating them (we need to be able to think for ourselves, lest we remain children forever). For example, we need to teach these wannabe yogis that empty posturing wont make you realise that Atman is Brahman. But I suspect such teachings might fall on deaf ears. I suspect most informed yoga instructors know that their students will probably get their “Atman is Brahman” knowledge from alternative sources of spiritual practice, if they are so inclined in the first place (though many wont be). Much of west loves empty posturing but hates heresy especially if there is something occult-like about it. But of course you also have those who love the occult and the Harry Potter movies/books and will dabble in “yoga”. If indeed there are suckers who actually think they will yoke themselves with Brahman by joining their local gym because it offers yoga classes, or because those classes are done in 40C heat, then I would think they need a healthy dose of education and a sense of incredulity first before they even attempt to embark on a journey of spiritual enlightenment. Of course people like Mr. Bikram in the meantime will try to take their money and whatever else he might be able to get. That’s the trade off.

    Admittedly my views might just be born out of my own subjective preferences, social conditioning and my own conception and spin on what I think society ought to strive for. If I can admit this then maybe Bruce Lee can admit that wanting people to observe the heavenly glory of the moon might also be born out of his own subjective preferences, social conditioning and conception and spin on what he thinks society ought to strive for. I don’t want to dis one of my childhood heroes nor do I want to denigrate the moon but I don’t want to be bound by them either. If I chose to gaze at the moon then of course it is incumbent upon me as a rational human being to gaze in the right direction. But if Bruce Lee’s finger was more interesting to me than the moon then likewise I would gaze at his finger. Eventually I might only come to realize on the deathbed that I should have focused more on the moon! But when there is so much confusion, conflict, obscurity, differing traditions and fads, who is to know?

    The best we can do is promote the right for those scantly clad self-conscious girls to do empty posturing. Such a fad is much healthier than others and may in fact path the way towards genuine yogic practice (if they are so inclined). For me, condoning or promoting freedom of expression (which includes freedom to cherry pick) means that I take the good with the bad. and hope that people see through the facade that is say, the new age mystics who talk about science as though it is a friend (when in actual fact they know it is a foe), the glorified primates who fight each other in an octagon shaped area (under the guise of promoting a new and improved “mixed martial art”), the managers continue to whore themselves to their empty careers (while treating subordinates like disposable cutlery), the new atheists and their theist rivals who preach to their converted (while making money from public debates and book sales) and the “philosophers” like our good selves who philosophize, debate, denigrate and celebrate, while making sure we define the terms that we use very carefully and occasionally being charitable to our opponents. This is as good as it gets and the only way we could ever possibly freely converge on that which we all might agree is good.

    • This conversation reminds me a little of the book on relativism I was reading at work some time ago. I can’t remember the name, and I didn’t get to finish it, unfortunately.
      I think I had just gotten past a section on Wittgenstein and so the overall picture was something like: yes, everything is relative, but not completely subjective or else we couldn’t even discuss it, so perhaps the best way to view it all is in terms of language-games?

      However, I have a suspicion that in a friendly philosophical discussion the first person to say “language games” wins, but in bad form.

      Nonetheless, there’s a touch of that involved, because you could say that I’m cherry picking as well, but what I’m cherry picking requires me to believe that I’m not cherry picking, or at least to appear to believe it. You are cherry picking, but doing so in support of cherry picking. So both the pro and anti cherry picking sides are cherry picking equally; but it’s okay because everyone is, and if everyone is, then what meaning does ‘cherry picking’ even have? and lo, we’ve deconstructed our way out of the argument.

      • You’re right in terms of the risk of arguing past each other because of the different ways in which we conceive of “cherry picking” and of course it’s pointless to debate against a moral relativist though a moral relativist who genuinely understands their position would soon realise that they are wasting their time disagreeing with anything or trying to assert that relativism is true against some opposing proposition. If they did this they would soon realise how incoherent they were and therefore instead adopt a position of moral subjectivism (or pluralism, or particularism).

        With regard to philosophizing I believe we can speak the same language or play the same game or at least try (if we want). So for argument sake (or for the sake of remaining in the argument) we could both go with a pejorative definition of “cherry picking” whereby we can both agree that one ought not to “cherry pick”. But if we are using “cherry picking” in a pejorative sense then it means it is value-laden or normative (rather than value-neutral or descriptive). In other words if we refer to something as “cherry picking” we are not merely describing that thing, but we are indeed proscribing against that thing.

        So before we label something as “cherry picking” perhaps we should find an adequate descriptive term (that is a term that doesn’t beg the question). I will use the phrase “being selective”. We can then decide whether certain acts of “being selective” is a good or bad thing (i.e. “cherry picking”) because I take it that we are all guilty of “being selective” one way or another when it comes to tradition, spiritualism, religion and culture.

        Perhaps the major concerns about cherry picking are within the domain of spiritual or religious traditions as opposed to other non-spiritual/religious traditions. Obviously, people can and do make their selections from the non-religious/spiritual menu as well. For example, a lot of non-asians like asian culture but I doubt many of them go beyond dining at Chinese restaurants, learning how to use chopsticks and saying “ni hao”! Obviously it would be absurd to view this as a problem thus regard it as “cherry picking” as opposed to committing oneself more fully to asian culture.

        So what is it that is “bad” about cherry picking from spiritual/religious traditions? Perhaps is relates to how we conduct ourselves (beyond preferences for particular types of cuisine) and what are our ethics and values. To understand this many will draw from their cultural traditions and ultimately their understanding of spirituality/religion. So I do accept there may be some genuine concern with regard to spiritual or religious cherry picking such as that of westernised yoga.

        But we can’t assume that those people who perform empty posturing or are otherwise “being selective” when it comes to yoga, are neglecting their spirituality. We might know that they are spending 90 minutes at a time in 40C heated rooms amongst other scantly clad flexible young women, but can we be certain that they don’t spend a proportionate amount of time in a church or synagogue or mosque or temple (alongside others clad in whatever is appropriate for that setting!). I recall a former colleague of ours was a fan of the Bikram brand of empty posturing, but she is also a devout Lutheran and married to a Lutheran pastor. She was one of the catalysts in my decision to take up Bikram (the other was my yoga/pilates teacher who enjoyed dissing Bikram and who first informed me about his exploits).

        Of course, I suspect for many the empty posturing is as “spiritual” as they get. So perhaps this is the real issue. Perhaps we want to see for people to go a bit deeper and at least give some thought for the spiritual aspects and teachings of a particular tradition rather than “cherry picking” from here and there. But if we do accept that we should commit to a religious/spiritual tradition we will inevitably end up grappling with the question of “which tradition?” and this opens up a can of worms.

        It has been the case all throughout human history that some competing religious/spiritual traditions have attempted to gain primacy within society. These days the means to gain primacy or at least survive is more to do with competition within the market place than anything else (with one or two notable exceptions). Perhaps this is a fair as we can be towards competing religious/spiritual traditions, which of course is little consolation to those proponents/partisans of particular religious/spiritual traditions.

        Alternatively we can attempt to integrate the commonalities from different religious/spiritual traditions and create a new synthesis, though I suspect many will regard this as “cherry picking” also. Perhaps instead we can be content with people committing to various religious/spiritual traditions which share a common essence. But of course we will have to make the case those different and apparently competing religious/spiritual traditions do indeed share a common essence. You’re in a much better position to take on this challenge than me and from what I’ve heard, I like your chances!

        I suppose others could try and make the case that the western liberal secular way of life can also be part of this spiritual unity as long as people choose to commit to the relevant religious/spiritual traditions instead of being ignorant, neglectful or indifferent towards them. But I don’t like their chances!

        I suppose for now we’ll have to be content with peaceful compromise.

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