against platitude :: or :: a spiritual examination of “for a Reason”

Please know that this is not meant to insult or belittle anyone’s spiritual beliefs. I am not the gentlest of communicators. Trust that I’m working on that: Delivery is everything. I simply feel the need to point out relying heavily on platitudes as a form of spiritual bypassing might not be serving you well.

When I see the word spiritual, I often recoil. What is meant? It is used as if it has a shared meaning, and perhaps within specific groups it does, but it lacks a real definition. Yeah, I just looked it up, and even wikipedia agrees. In our neoliberal age, spirituality is individual. There’s something oxymoronic about that but never mind, not now.

I didn’t take ‘spiritual’ out of the title because I mean it. (Mean what? I’ll use the as the social scientists’ definition, as per wikip, for the moment.)

In the past few weeks I’ve been around some yoga people. I was taken aback by the repetitiveness of the phrase, “It happened for a reason.” And not just the repetition, but its delivery. The sense of disquiet beneath the words was palpable, as if this explanation was not quite quelling their unease.

Well, good. It shouldn’t. Maybe it didn’t just happen “for a Reason.” Or more likely, the reason is that perhaps you made a bad decision, one you’ve made in similar ways before, and you’re rejecting those gnawing little feelings of discomfort. Maybe you should take a second or two to explore that before hoisting it off onto divine providence. Maybe that woman who just broke your heart did so in a way not dissimilar to the last three, and you need to look at the reasons you choose the way you do. (You don’t choose? Please. Take some responsibility. You choose.) Maybe jaunting off for a little trip to Brazil while your sister was on her death bed was not such a great plan, and the guilt that hit well before she made a turn for the worse is something that needs your attention. It was not the first time you jumped ship. Chalk it up to A Reason, and it won’t be the last. And maybe taking that job with the Man when you’d saved three-times enough to start your own business was for no reason but fear. And over and over again.

It is a problem. Not only because it’s annoying (50x so when you’re dropping it on someone else’s pain), but because it prevents clarity. I’m not going to tell you what yoga is, but for me, the (spiritual) practice is about clarity. Using platitudes to avoid pain is an obstacle, not a gift from above. In the long run, nothing you eat, drink, wear, buy, or otherwise use will save you from that discomfort. It must be faced.

And it’s painful.

The biggest positive changes in my life were inspired by pain. An easy example: Around the time I finished college, I was a bridesmaid. My friend and her wedding party were fashion-model stunning. After the ceremony, a friend of the bride dressed in a gown very similar to ours (I was told she felt she should be a bridesmaid), snarked that I looked like a cow in the bridesmaid dress. A horrified groomsmen quickly tried to gloss over her comment, but it was too late. I was hit. It hurt for the obvious reasons, but also because it triggered something in me that was uncomfortable with how I ate, looked, and felt. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have hit me like that.

Thanks to luck, I didn’t head off on a get-thin-quick or a binge-and-purge regime. I found books like Geneen Roth’s, who said to eat what I wanted and noticed how that felt. It was slow going, but long before I learned to meditate, I meditated on each bite I took. This happened for quite some time, maybe months. I didn’t just notice that when I ate too much I felt horrible, I noticed that when I ate high-carb, low-fat food, which the health science of the day advised, I felt tired and awful. In this shift toward awareness, I also noticed that looking at women’s magazines made me feel equally dreadful and that moving my body (hiking, walking, etc) felt really great, both during and after.

I lost weight. If I was tempted to indulge in a pint of ice cream, I called up and felt the searing pain in that horrible comment, and I didn’t. This was, for a time, the main focus of my life. It was not what I ate, but noticing, at every bite, how the food tasted, and if I was hungry. I came to the point I could have chocolate or ice cream or pizza, and without restraint or wanting more, eat only enough. And though I’ve gained weight once or twice in the years since, while indulging on long trips or depressed in a bad relationship, the knowledge of how to check back in was always there when I came back to it.

Sorry to burst any “naturally thin ashtangi/yoga teacher” bubbles. 🙂 Like most people, if I don’t eat well and exercise, I gain weight. (Other than NYC walking and summer swimming, my ashtanga practice is my only exercise. This is not to say people larger than me don’t eat well and exercise.)

It seems shallow, that this change in my eating was a significant life change, but when we look at the money, time, and anxiety women (and increasingly men) feel about food, eating, and our bodies, it is not. If only I could have all the time spent in my teen and college years spent on worrying, counting calories, and reading about nutrition (the science of which changes every few years to fuel profit for new diet fads. Vitamins, too. Who funds that “research”?). It wasn’t just the weight loss and feeling comfortable in my body, it was the awareness I gained of how I felt. It shifted so much.

So the comment. It was for a Reason! Maybe in hindsight it looks that way. But if I’d have used that excuse then to diffuse my pain, it’s unlikely I’d have done anything about it. Anything that nags at you is asking for exploration, not platitude. If you are in too much pain for that, I ask: Do you want a band aid to get you through to the next round of the exact same experience, or do you want to find in yourself the Persephonean effort required to meet your pain and its causes? That’s the only place real change comes from.

14 thoughts on “against platitude :: or :: a spiritual examination of “for a Reason””

  • Great post. I couldn’t agree more, but I would suggest that when you say “take some responsibility. You choose” it assumes that you, the moral agent, necessarily knows what “you” are. It assumes the self as a singular entity rather than a complex set of relations–biological, social, cultural, etc.

    Naturally, this relates to the notion of “free will” which is a debatable concept itself (Sam Harris’ book “Free Will” does a great job of debating this concept and its Augustinian roots as does Heidi Ravven’s “The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will”).

    Whether or not you believe in free will, I think that the notion of “blame” needs analysis since it can be tightly enmeshed with our psychology. It makes the difference between recommending therapy vs. punishment–despite it being prescribed for a criminal or for “yourself.”

    Your point, however, is a good one: we need reality–at least as much as we can perceive and muster. We also need fixing (I try not to roll my eyes when I hear “you’re perfect as you are” during yoga classes). I just think we need some kindness as an accompaniment, since the moral indignation and the blame can be just as insidious as the platitudes. Thank you.

  • hi Matt, thanks for the comment and your thoughts. I’m not sure I totally follow a few points, but perhaps it’s the fault of unclear writing on my part.

    I assume most people understand that decisions are not made in an individualist vacuum. While neoliberal-Ayn-Randian ideas are popular in some circles, I do assume my readers know that they are deeply influenced by environmental factors of all kinds. Nevertheless, while interconnectedness might be a strong component of my worldview, I do feel safe in arguing (perhaps thanks to our neoliberal culture) that the self can be acknowledged as such–a singular entity that makes decisions affected by these complex relationships–for the sake of functioning in our postmodern world. That we are affected by our environment does not preclude our ability to choose, and therefore take responsibility for those choices. I’m not particularly interested in debating free will, as I had the conversation a million times during my liberal arts years and I’m comfortable with where I stand. As far as I’m concerned, you are free (or not) to stand where you like on the matter. I don’t care to argue it. Further, I am not commenting either way on the existence of divine providence in this post, but the habit of using it for spiritual bypass.

    Sam Harris is a moralist who is intellectually dishonest. I find this an alarming combination, and avoid him and his publicity stunts when at all possible.

    The notion of blame. It is unclear if you are bringing this up out of nowhere, or you have taken my suggestion, that we own our decisions so that we might make better ones (which, I will grant, is not an easy labor, but it is entirely possible) if we see those we make habitually are not serving us, to be blaming. It is interesting, taking the notion of owning responsibility and turning it into self blame, which is quite different. Better to blame God? “Self?” Truly taking responsibility renders blame irrelevant. I might even call it EMPOWERING. (oi.) Blame and moralizing do stand as a nice distraction to getting the job done. And we like distraction.

    I’m further confused as to how we need “fixing” if you argue that the self is not an entity but a complex web of relationships. It is quite difficult to fix (or blame) a web ad hoc, but perhaps Brand is right, and it’s just gonna take a revolution. If that will improve our romantic choices or cure Brand’s ugly sexism remains to be seen. (Read: unlikely.) Perhaps it’s semantics, but I don’t think that fixing is quite the word I’d use. Yet I think our sentiment is more or less the same.

    But morally indignant and blaming? Is that how you read this post? Hmm. Well, I’m not sure where you are getting that. (Read: you really might want to look at that. I’m not blaming anyone. I am suggesting we look at the things that gnaw at us repeatedly.) Except from maybe Sam Harris, who can’t seem to keep himself out of the news of late.

    What we do agree on is kindness, though in pomo life this oft seems to be confused with disingenuous sentimentality, which I’m not so keen on. What is that cliche from the girl who called me a cow? Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind? Ugh. Sorry. But hopefully you get my point.

    Okay, I know, I am salty. And I prefer sugar, too. As I mentioned. I’m working on that one. My learning has come from hard knocks and that tends to be how I teach. It’s not my preference, but there is care in my tone that’s might be hard to hear in the interwebs. It’s hard to come from a place I have little experience with myself (gentleness), though slowly that is changing. You know, baby steps. Please understand that every word I write comes from my own experience. And let me tell you, owning my bad taste in men, my penchant for escaping to faraway lands (and faraway men), my years lost to cubicles and bad lighting…is not about self blame or moralizing. It is about serving myself and that complex web of which I am part, which in the end you are right, do tend to merge into one and the same.

    Thanks again for dropping by! ~Anastasia

  • Anastasia,

    Sorry, I make no assumptions about where you or your readers stand with the “self.” I also do not deny the individual self, except to say that–IMHO–it is not only a singular entity (backed into a corner I’ll always “both/and” rather than “either/or”).

    I am not a defender or apologist for Sam Harris, but I don’t always find myself at odds with him either. I didn’t care for “The End of Religion” but I liked “Free Will.”

    Finally, I did not read your post as morally indignant or blaming. Rather, my humble suggestion was that many of us tend to do this to ourselves–but I could be projecting! 😉



  • Hi Matt,

    No need to apologize. Though I might point out you did assume that I assumed environment was not a factor in choice, which is an equally large assumption. You have reminded me, though, that I am writing with an audience of my students in mind, and it will be read differently by people who don’t know me. Also, my directness is tempered by humor, which lightens things and attracts a certain type of student. That might not be palpable in the interwebs either, I realize.

    Oh good. I’m very glad you didn’t find it morally indignant or blaming. I was concerned, as I can be a little heavy handed, and that’s not really the best way to get people to hear what you have to say. However, I have learned that sometimes we want kindness and softness, but that might not allow us to face what we are avoiding. If you are going to face your shit, it’s not going to be gentle or kind, and often a good friend or teacher will point something out in the kindest way, but because it is painful, it doesn’t feel kind. It feels excruciating. But it’s kind. (I am not speaking of my teaching but of my facing things.) Does that make sense?

    Yes, certainly we moralize and blame ourselves. But as I said in the prev comment, that is just more avoidance and distraction and maybe not a little self-pity. Responsibility (for what you can do right at this very moment) is the way to go.

    What are you projecting? Now that’s probably where it gets interesting. And where the work is.

    Again, thanks. ~Anastasia

  • Anastasia,

    Point taken. After all, I did say “but I would suggest that when you say ‘take some responsibility. You choose’ it assumes that you, the moral agent, necessarily knows what ‘you’ are. It assumes the self as a singular entity rather than a complex set of relations–biological, social, cultural, etc.”

    I know you realize that environment is a factor–I wouldn’t have bothered to read the entire post if I thought otherwise. By saying “it assumes” rather than “you assume” I was trying to refer to the statement “take some responsibility. You choose” rather than your point of view.

    Still, it was some sloppy and glib phrasing on my part, so dammit, “I take responsibility–I chose to phrase it that way” and it elicited confusion, obviously.

    I won’t go into my projections publicly, but you’re probably right, that is where it gets interesting!

    All the Best,


  • Yes, I got that, but “it assumes” dislocates the writing from the writer. This is in fact nothing but my point of view. I take responsibility for it. 😉

    I disagree that ‘you’ has to know what ‘you’ is to choose, or to take responsibility. If that were the case, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. For that matter, I don’t think it needs to be either/or, singular entity or complex set. I imagine most people identify and view it somewhere on a continuum rather than one or the other. We don’t have to agree if the point is a means of understanding. But this also feels a bit wanky and beside the point.

    Oh, gee, yeah, that was asked rhetorically, not aiming for the jerry springer yoga forum. Crikey. Thank you for maintaining some mystery. A rare quality these days, esp in the iwebs. ~Anastasia

  • Anastasia,

    “Wanky and beside the point?” Sheesh! I can stay offline for this kind of abuse. Can we just pretend that my initial comment was truncated after “Great post. I couldn’t agree more” and leave it at that?

    Yours in Wankiness and Irrelevance,

    Matt Helmick

  • Nooonoono no no. I was speaking to my own furthering of the topic as much as anything. There should be no stigma about wankery. It has its place, no? As long as we’re aware of it, and that it can distract from, well, the real thing. Not abuse. I hope you are kidding. No truncating. It’s been fun.

    • I am kidding, Anastasia, I don’t think you’ve been abusive–well, maybe a little, but I do like that sort of thing.

      I just thought it hilarious that I was waving a white flag like three or four comments ago, yet the volleys kept on coming. Is there a safe word I should be using?

      And I was usually right, but such is my kind and gentle non-singular nature that I grant concessions while eschewing all personal responsibility.

      So no hard feelings, except to remind you that you looked like a cow in that bridesmaid’s dress. 😉



  • Okay, Anyuta, you win. Yogians are more annoying than Jungians. Hard to imagine, but I see it.

    Reminder: All guys aren’t righteous and disingenuously kind.

  • Sigh. Feel free to delete my last comment, Anastasia, or any others of mine in the thread for that matter. While I thought my feigned righteousness or disingenuous kindness (or unkindness) would be rather obvious and regarded in a fun and playful spirit, I really meant no offense to anyone. Thanks!

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