Western Karma

Helping the Helpers program, 2016, which taught about trauma awareness for people working with refugees, including trauma-sensitive yoga. Photos courtesy of the author.

Italy’s contribution to the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest (one of the world’s most watched non-sporting events) was “Occidentali’s Karma” by Francesco Gabbani. Eurovision is the longest-running international televised music contest. It was inspired by the Sanremo Music Festival, which is a similar contest that has set the pulse of Italian cultural trends on live television since 1951. “Occidentali’s Karma” (which translates as “Westerner’s Karma”) became one of the fastest-selling singles in Italian history after its debut at Sanremo. It is a lighthearted jab at the recent explosion of Orientalism in Italian popular culture. From yoga to New Age philosophy to Buddhism to the orientation of chakras, Gabbani uses clever plays on words and silly pop-culture juxtapositions to question the sincerity of the “honorary members of the anonymous selfie club” who cherry pick spiritual truisms with “easy answers / useless dilemmas.”

I am originally from the United States and have been living off and on in Italy since 2013. As a Friend raised in unprogrammed Quaker circles, I’m used to a patina of shamanism, ayurveda, and the Tao in casual conversation at my largely White, middle-class meeting of membership back in the United States. Even here in Italy where it’s not exactly new to seek beyond the ubiquitous influence of the Catholic Church, one senses how powerful influential trends become in the collective consciousness of an extremely homogeneous culture. It can appear that from one day to the next, not only is everyone wearing the same style of jacket but they’re also talking about a certain line of thought or spiritual persuasion. That’s how it’s felt about yoga and Buddhism and shamanism in the last several years I’ve been here. While in any given unprogrammed Friends meeting in the United States, one can count on finding several Friends who’ve quietly practiced yoga since the 1970s, in the last few years the number of discussions in Italian I have had with people about realigning their chakras has skyrocketed. Many of these folks are quick to point out they are no longer “with the Church,” which technically still forbids yoga practice (let alone Buddhism and animism).

Screengrab from Francesco Gabbani’s “Occidentali’s Karma” official music video.

What does this mean for Friends in Italy? We’re an interesting bunch, with a distinctly native base compared to many Continental European meetings founded by expats from the United Kingdom or United States. We have one meeting in Bologna recognized by Friends World Committee for Consultation Europe and Middle East Section, with other worship groups (the most active one in Florence) and individual members scattered around the country. Overall, most of us are either from Catholic backgrounds or raised among Friends in our home countries. We have gathered the last several years at the end of the summer in a kind of annual meeting that is spiritual, convivial, and logistical in nature. We’ve hosted or been hosted by other sympathetic faiths, like the active Vipassanā meditation community here in Italy. And this is an interesting point.

There are times when some of our members point out how similar we are in nature to Vipassanā practitioners. Like many Friends in the United States, the meditative silence of unprogrammed worship feels very similar to Buddhist meditation to these Italian Quakers. Especially in contrast to the smells and bells of Catholic mass, I understand the comparison. It’s all a matter of perspective. I’ve never considered Quakerism very much like Buddhism, but I was raised a hippie Quaker. Growing up in parallel Quaker and hippie, New Age circles, I always experienced these worlds as quite distinct, even if they did occasionally include the same players. I do not wish to dismiss all practitioners of Buddhism, yoga, shamanism, or New Age philosophy. But for me, the degree of overall commitment and accountability to principle distinguishes those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” while practicing these disciplines casually. Are we as spiritual seekers prepared to take on both the inspiring and also the uncomfortable parts of spiritual practice? How seriously do we take our efforts? Who holds us accountable to traditions we learn secondhand or half-price that make us appear exotic or trendy?

Are we as spiritual seekers prepared to take on both the inspiring and also the uncomfortable parts of spiritual practice? How seriously do we take our efforts? Who holds us accountable to traditions we learn secondhand or half-price that make us appear exotic or trendy?

Casual practitioners of Buddhism are just as common as casual Quakers, but for me the value of the Religious Society of Friends is the religion part: the quality of connecting with a community of others bound together with a (semi) established set of norms, obligations, and values going back generations. Perhaps the main takeaway I see here is that the more trendy it becomes to “do yoga” or take selfies in meditative poses, the greater risk we face of watering down our practice into irrelevance or simply self-gratification. Increasingly more people are also asking hard questions about cultural appropriation, questioning how appropriate it is for a White Westerner to lead sweat lodges or write how-to books on the best protein shakes to pair up with your yoga routine.

Of course this is not the first time any of these questions have been raised, but I’ve been particularly immersed lately in comparing two Western countries’ flirtations with non-Western thought and spiritual practice. Especially as a Friend, I’ve been curious to explore this in Quaker circles. I think there is actually some interesting insight to be gained in comparing the different approaches with a critical eye.

“Occidentali’s Karma” references the darker side of the “purity culture” that arises in some spiritual circles: “It’s raining drops of Chanel / On aseptic bodies / Save yourself from the smell of your fellow men.” How quickly we become experts in realties of our own invention by picking and choosing this or that cultural touchstone to define ourselves as better than those around us. I see this frequently in Friends circles, where we allow what feels comfortable for us to define our whole worldview. While in a privileged, middle-class existence, it’s often the things that make us uncomfortable that teach us the most. Here in Italy, being from a non-Catholic faith (the Italian translation for this is literally “sect”) means I must regularly not only explain my faith but justify its Christian interpretation in the face of the “one true Church.”

“Occidentali’s Karma” frequently returns to a refrain of “The naked monkey dances / Westerner’s Karma,” inviting us to take ourselves a little less seriously. This is a quality of Italian culture that I really appreciate, along with the Italians’ general curiosity and flexibility: it may be that we’re doing something because it’s trendy, but we’re not pretending we’re 100 percent committed to it either. We’re trying something on. Even if we are practicing yoga or even being Quakers in a casual way as we learn about them, there’s space for that. In the United States, I often found folks to be deadly serious or really defensive about all aspects of their religious or spiritual experience. I recognize faith is not a laughing matter, and dynamics of power are important to keep in mind, but in the end, we are really just monkeys dancing about in our efforts to find greater meaning.

2020 Italian Quaker gathering.

One significant challenge for me living in Italy is a lack of cultural interest in discussing dynamics of power and identity on a personal level. I know far too many male activists here who are ready to “fight for the cause” but refuse to do dishes, or Catholics who believe in “solidarity with the poor” but call Muslim refugees invaders. The same contradictory identities and politics exist in the United States, but Americans are finally asking ourselves hard questions about them. At our best, I think Quakers’ efforts to let our lives speak is about living our values both in Italy and the United States. We have something to teach but also to learn, and I appreciate that many of my Italian Friends seem a little ahead of the curve in this respect.

So what lessons can this silly pop song on the European stage teach us? “Occidentali’s Karma” refers to “Cocaine of the masses / Opium of the poor,” but doesn’t go deeper into our long-standing addiction to philosophies of the East while at the same time colonizing and dismissing their people. Edward Said’s Orientalism challenged us to consider how our obsession with the Eastern “other” is indeed the unconscious recognition of how we are defined by what we have robbed or adopted into the West. Especially now, as we increasingly question dynamics of power and identity in the United States, I’m frequently struck, while living in the seat of the modern Renaissance, by how self-satisfied we all can be about our perceived Western superiority. The irony of an Italian, inheritor of the Holy Roman Empire, fearing the threat of “invading refugees” of Western wars in Asia and Africa is hard to miss. (Though of course they are also all too aware of how all empires fall.) It’s all the more galling when they sip Chinese medicinal extracts while complaining about the “Chinese virus,” or love yoga while being unwilling to rent to South Asian immigrants for fear of “smelly food.” These blatant contradictions also exist in the United States, but there is not even a direct translation for the word accountability in Italian.

Especially as Friends, we should consider more critically the importance of faith and religion in defining and shaping culture. In the United States, we may be more open to acknowledging religion’s role in oppression and in denial of the full expression of humanity all over the world, but as we make known our preferred “adopted practices,” we must be on the lookout for cultural appropriation and essentialism. At the same time, I think we would do well to stay curious, not take ourselves too seriously, and recognize how our interest in the “exotic” reveals what we consider the “everyday.”

Evan Welkin

Evan Welkin is a member of Olympia (Wash.) Meeting living in Emilia-Romagna, Italy. He and his wife, Federica, are founders of a folk school, ecovillage, and ecotourism project called Borgo Basino, located on a 20-acre organic farm in the hills between Bologna and Florence. More info at borgobasino.org.

3 thoughts on “Western Karma

  1. Am I the first to comment?
    This is an interesting article but seems to have a lot of (American?) worry and anxiety about guilt and ‘cultural misappropriation’ which I think is misplaced.
    Ironically it also strikes me as full of definitely American assumptions of cultural/personal superiority. Why not just accept that all cultures are equally valid in their own terms (a sort of extension to ‘that of God in everyone’) and equally able to stand up to so-called ‘cultural appropriation’ (but perhaps not equally able to resist the American cultural domination worldwide or American imperialism).
    I met some Italian Friends (from Bologna) at Brentwood meeting in the UK about June 2016 or 2017, but not sure that I recognise anybody in the 2020 picture!
    The East has been coming to the West since Yogananda, Maharishi, D. T. Suzuki and indeed very much earlier – not appropriated but proselytising in effect.
    The most encouraging part of the article is perhaps its close:
    ‘I think we would do well to stay curious, not take ourselves too seriously, and recognize how our interest in the “exotic” reveals what we consider the “everyday.”’

  2. As a (young) religious studies student, I can vouch that the osmosis of religious ideas between religions is as old as religion itself. It may surprise some of us in the West, but historic interaction between Buddhism and Christianity is not unheard of, even if pre-colonial times! (Many Westerners like to forget this, but Christianity is not an exclusively or historically Western faith, and in the first millenia there were enough indigenous Christian communities in East and West Asia to interact with burgeoning Buddhist communities.


    All this being said, friendly and presumably in-depth interaction between Nestorian Christian priests and Buddhist monks in Asia in the eighth century or so is a far cry from white Christians or “spiritual but not religious” progressives in the United States reading something about Buddhism on Wikipedia and deciding that they like it without really understanding it (after a long period of powerful Protestant colonialism in Buddhist communities outside of the West while the Nestorian Church continues to flounder under persecution). Not only can I imagine that it feels disrespectful to other cultures to merely take bits and pieces of their religions and use them in one’s daily life, but it can also water down our own spiritual belief systems into shallow, sanctimonious spiritual buffets.

    For one thing, Hinduism, Buddhism and all the other “isms” (which are names that really benefit Westerners) have their own histories of oppression, sexism, racism and violence. Let’s not put them on a pedestal as somehow immune to basic human viciousness. They also have much that they may be able to teach us (the ancient Christian communities in Asia may agree on this) within reason.

    A lot of Quakerism itself feels as though it is almost being appropriated by secular universalism in a way that makes me slightly skeptical. Traditionally, Quakers were non-creedal Christians who waited on the Holy Spirit to move them to speak. They discerned leadings using Bible passages and the behavior of apostles and other Christian figures. Quaker threshing sessions and councils demanding utmost unity before moving a decision forward and Quaker nonviolence have distinct roots in Christian spirituality and the tradition of ecumenical councils. Perfectionism harkens back to the implications Christians have drawn from Christ as being identifiable in some way with both man and God. (Christians have used terms such as theosis, gradual sanctification, mortification, etc, but the doctrine is there.) Many liberal Friends will go through the motions with these things, but they don’t seem interested in why they do the things they do. They simply do them. But it feels slightly shallow, as though they are sitting on the branches of a tree while trying to cut off its trunk and hack away at its roots. Yes, Quakers have these distinctive elements, but why do they have these elements?

    Sufism, Kabbalah, rosary prayers, and a host of other traditions across the Abrahamic faiths seem to have roots with each other and outside traditions (even if individual practitioners attempt to deny this). Rumi had Christian and Zoroastrian students. Christians, Muslims, and Jews have all been influenced at different points by Plato’s writings and Plotinus’s neo-Platonism. I’m not saying no osmosis of religious elements from other cultures ever. But where do we draw the line: preventing potentially disrespectful appropriation of other traditions’ beliefs, and also preventing the kind of “watered down”, pick and choose buffet spirituality that I see so often in Western circles?

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