Beyond Tribal: On Empathy, Wholeness, Yoga & Vedanta [books, J. Rifkin, video]

“Somewhere beyond right and wrong there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
~ Rumi

There are no others.
~ Ramana Maharshi

For some years now I have been pondering ‘identity’ as I study and seek to practice Yoga and Vedanta. Identity meaning sense of self – in community, in society, in relation to spirit and divinity, in relation to our apparent tribal nature.

Yoga and Vedanta teach the nature of Wholeness, brahma vidya, knowledge of Brahman, and the practice of karma yoga. Brahman, or the limitless sustainer, and karma yoga (see blog post on Karma Yoga), or action as offering and graceful acceptance of results or our actions are unfolded through dialog, question and answer, and practice. Brahman is that which sustains all and is self-sustaining, that which is our source from whence we come and to which we return; that understanding which helps reveal the nature of Wholeness, of shared source. Seeing and practicing this essential teaching of Yoga and Vedanta can help us cultivate a view beyond I, me, mine, beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’, beyond tribal, beyond modern yoga brands created for business and narcissistic indulgence.

Yoga is for all tribes. Whether you practice Bikram, Iyengar, Anusara, Cowabunga Yoga, Yada Yada yoga, My Special Sauce Yoga… can we not see the shared source, the unifying teachings? Cliques build walls and instill perception of ‘others’, rather than diluting perception of ‘other.’

Recent studies in neuroscience, psychology and behavior point to empathy and compassion being strong biological drivers; the ability to feel what another is feeling, to see ourselves in the reactions of others is a biological experience says Jeremy Rifkin in his new book “Empathetic Civilizations” (video animation and lecture with J. Rifkin and book links below).

I have been a deep student of world mythologies all my life, as a child, in high school, in college and since. I have taught greek mythology and literature to high school, studied Welsh and Celtic mythologies, as well as native and middle eastern texts. So when I came to deep study of Vedanta (knowledge of the Vedas in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita) in 1996 with Swami Dayananda Saraswati, I was steeped in language of archetypes, cosmologies, and mythos, both classical and indigenous. I was a big fan of Jung, Joseph Campbell, William Blake, Jacob Needleman, Parabola Magazine, Emerson, Thoreau, Robert Graves, Norman O. Brown (my teacher at UCSC), Evangeline Walton, Robert Bly, Ovid, Starhawk, Mary Renault, native ceremony and politics and more. Meaning to say I was steeped in our human tribal stories.

The message in Vedanta, the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, is ‘you are the whole, and this is to be understood, not believed.’ Meaning we are manifestations of, made of, our source – whatever language in which one describes our source. The Maker and the material are the same. Wholeness is Wholeness, there is no American Wholeness and European Wholeness. We don’t speak of ‘American gravity’ or ‘Spanish thermodynamics.’ Infinity is infinity. Language can help us as we seek to understand what we cannot experience, but language does not change the nature of the force being studied. Vedanta shows us an understanding beyond me and you, beyond us and them, beyond tribal. Just as with gravity, thermodynamics and other truths, the truths in Vedanta are not culturally specific or time dependent. We explore which verses bring this understanding to the surface in our Gita study groups .

A common misunderstanding is that such a conclusion must mean that at the same time Vedanta, or statements emphasizing shared values, diminish diversity or individualism. Rather there is a recognition of a partial truth, a dependent truth in our tribalism, or in our individualism. The part is dependent or more accurately defined by the Whole, or Source. A pot is both a form or shape and clay. If I say “Here take the pot, I will keep the clay” what do you have? The truth of the pot is dependent on the deeper truth of the clay. The pot is mithya in sanskrit, or a ‘dependent reality.’ The clay is akin to sarvam or ‘truth’ in this metaphor. Meaning I can see me and you, and I can see ‘Us’ without creating a ‘Them.’ Most times when we create ‘us’ we create ‘them.’ A community creates outsiders, those who don’t belong. The story of religious and then national wars through the ages, true? There was no ‘white’ race until there was a desire to distinguish from a ‘red’ or ‘black’ race; before that there was a multitude of nationalities, English, Saxon, German, Celt, French and so on…There was no ‘black’ race until the meeting of a ‘white’ race, and so on. Identity can be made up of multiple inclusive tribes and identity shifts or is redefined when encountering one perceived as ‘other’.

If, when we see others, we see ourselves, what happens? If ‘I’, the pot, see clay rather than another pot when I see others, what happens?

10 Minute Animation of Jeremy Rikfin’s lecture

In fact, as Jeremy Rifkin goes into quite some depth in his new book “Empathetic Civilizations”, we are biologically wired to see our feelings in feelings of others, to empathize with their response. When we do not respond empathetically, meaning from competition or aggression, it is because sense of self is threatened in some form and thus sees ‘other.’ Books like “How Yoga Works” (HYW) (see blog entry on HYW) show how empathy is intrinsic and central to yogic teachings, and that personal practice means by definition consciously cultivating compassion, accomodation, acceptance and selflessness in relation to likes and dislikes. Rifkin claim it is recent research that shows humans are biologically wired for empathy, and does an amazing sweeping view of psycho-analytic, behavioral and socio-biological research over the last 75 years or more to refute claims of innate aggression, competition and sexualization of everything.

I see Jeremy Rifkin’s book, the recent neurological and behavioral research, and the rising popularity of communities of yoga as signs that he has his pulse on current trends in human development. Rifkin’s conclusions raise the importance of making conscious and willful the movements towards shared values, caring for each other, sustainable interdependence (urban gardens, local economies), and collaboration in business rather than competition and domination.

Tribalism has served humanity for millenia. I believe in our times of global crisis and global communication that is no longer the case; and in fact, our tribal nature leads to as much conflict and separatism as it does inclusion and community. This is not to say we need or will lose our local, cultural and spiritual affinities and identities – rather that if you belong to another we don’t have to start a war, or I don’t have to take what you have. Think ‘Beyond Tribal,’ what do you see?

Somewhere beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’ there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

Empathy ~ Interdependence ~ Collaboration. It’s time.

Jeremy Rifkin on KQED’s Forum

Jeremy Rifkin speaking at Google. Good context on social technologies. 50 minutes or so.

PDF Printer    Send article as PDF to

One Response to “Beyond Tribal: On Empathy, Wholeness, Yoga & Vedanta [books, J. Rifkin, video]”

  1. Tony says:

    I think one can study, practice, and learn from one teacher and lineage without being that or nothing at all.

    Thoughts?

Leave a Reply