How to break free from indoctrination

May 29, 2024

by Hagar Harpak

Is it possible to be free from indoctrination? Is our mind capable of recognizing brainwash while it’s happening? Are we able to become more discerning and more inclusive at the same time? What can we do in order to avoid being swallowed up by propaganda? 

Over the weekend we went to a party of a dear old friend and teacher. I ran into some people from other periods in my life. It was like revisiting old selves, saying hello not only to people I haven’t seen in a while, but to parts of myself I no longer identify with, hello to memories, to old patterns, to new ones too, to old beliefs, and to ancient and current narratives and their convergence. 

I ran into a (delightful) super talented and successful person in the yoga industry (on the music side) who used to take my classes, and we had a lively conversation about the state of the yoga world, and what the hell happened, and the flattening of spirituality, and how strange it is that yoga is just a workout for most people nowadays. We talked about a lot of things. And we laughed at a shared memory. We spoke about it in a lighthearted way, but honestly, I cringe whenever I think about it. 

You see, back in the day I was teaching a yoga method that had many beautiful aspects to it, and plenty of wisdom. It was a thriving and successful system that spread fast and grew around the world. Many of us teachers were creative and deeply invested in studying, practicing, learning, and expanding our knowledge. There was a sense of pride in being a teacher of this method. Many of us were clueless about the cultish aspects of the whole thing. The talk was that this was the “crème de la crème” of yoga, putting together all “the best” parts of many other traditions and systems. We heard over and over again that this was the correct, most effective, and essentially more true than any other view. I mean, the leader of the system called the principles of alignment he taught; “Universal,” implying that they work for everyone, always, everywhere, no exceptions. 

Whenever we step into the territory of no exceptions, we fall into the bog of authoritarianism. No other way means we’re being indoctrinated.  

When we think we’re so right about something, and leave little to no room for another perspective, it might be a symptom of being indoctrinated.

Thinking that the information that we have, regardless of other facts, is a knowledge superior to someone else’s is a sign of indoctrination. 

When we think, regardless of facts, that we hold the only truth, and that anything that contradicts it, or contextualizes it, is false, we’re most likely indoctrinated. 

Back in those days, my career was thriving, I was young and excited and passionate about what I did, and so honored and proud to share what I learned with others. I was, it’s humbling and hard to admit, indoctrinated. 

So we laugh, this person and I, every time we run into each other, when we think about that one time in my class, when I insisted that he should do the pose the way that I was teaching it, even though what he was doing felt better and safer in his body. Are you kidding me??!!!??? I really thought that I knew better than him, better than his body. I truly believed that my knowledge was superior to his experience. Seriously?!?!? That’s messed up! Insert the face covering emoji five hundred times. I was blind, arrogant, and brainwashed. 

From where I stand today – a mother, an aging woman, a jaded yogi, a person who has now been through a lot, and yet has much more to go through, someone who has been eating humble pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for over a decade now, a little human within a falling apart society – I can see now what I couldn’t see then; I was susceptible to propaganda. 

I am embarrassed by my lack of questioning, by the unshakable trust I had in what I had learned and experienced and taught, and by my lack of humility and nuance back then, and I wish I could say it could never happen again. I’ll do my best, but I know I’m not immune. I have my blindspots. I can’t see the whole picture. I’m vulnerable. Flawed. We all are. That’s the point! 

The system of yoga I taught dissolved due to the misconduct of the guru guy at the top, who thought he was immune, and pretty much disappeared since then. And it freed up a surge of innovation in many teachers. Only to meet a new reality of yoga in the age of IG and Tik-Tok. 

The years that followed the collapse of Anusara Yoga were the years that turned me into a mother. These have been the years when my career shapeshifted many times, in many ways, disappearing and reconfiguring. Underworld years of feeling lost in lactation, and in love with my babies. These have been the years of meeting my greatest weaknesses and my deepest shadows. Years of breastfeeding and changing diapers and watching them grow way too fast. These have been sleepless years of loneliness yet never being alone, and now facing the other side of it, which is them separating, moving into becoming their own. These have been the years of identity death, one after the other, when the phoenix keeps rising from the ashes, and pretty much burns again right away. These have been the years of losing every piece of self I’ve ever gathered, and finding the most lost me. 

One thing that I appreciate about my current shaky confidence, is that doubt is the thread with which I bring the parts together. I know this doesn’t sound reassuring. Most of us would much prefer to find some certainty in this falling apart world. But as I look at the world around me, I am seeing that the very thing that causes the most harm is the conviction with which people are operating. Governments. Revolutionary movements. Social justice activists. Organizations. The Resistance. Religious groups. Leaders. Followers. You name it. The disintegration of care and compassion happens when people hold a narrow view, when all eyes are on one place, when we only listen to perspectives that affirm our biases, when we think that what we think is The Truth. 

The Moon Card in Tarot is often thought of as a symbol of illusion and confusion. These are more often than not qualities our culture urges us to go past. Clarity is revered. And illusion is seen as a lie. But illusion is also when truth is not so much veiled, but more ambiguous. Two opposing things that completely contradict one another can be totally true at the same time. 

Best example? I love my kids more than anything and I am deeply grateful and profoundly enriched by my experience of motherhood. The last 11+ years of my life have been magical. I have also never been more depressed than I have been in the past decade. And if you offered me an option for a redo, I would make the same decisions again, and again; birth them, raise them, lose myself, be depressed – just let me be with them and experience this grand love and depth of connection, let me smell them and feed them, and watch them grow, knowing they will leave me.

Ambiguity is real. It’s what reality is made of. And it’s what gives this life its flavors, colors, width, depth, and texture. 

The moon card, Rachel Pollack says, brings us distortion. It’s the archetype of imagination. It’s the card of mythologies. Myths invite us to interpret. Myth is never about “the right” meaning, but always about how it speaks to us, where we are in our lives, and who we are as every character in the story. 

Mythology gives us monsters and maidens to save, heroines that live to tell the tales and heroes that die for a great cause, demons that devour the goodness and divine powers that find a way, tricksters that disrupt reality and animals that teach us about humanity. Myths speak to our collective unconscious as well as to our personal hidden traumas and triumphs. Myths give us portions of distorted realities so that we gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in and the person that we are. 

The moon is the energy of the nocturnal, the awakening of the unconscious, the light that waxes and wanes within the darkness. It is that which offers more than one way of seeing, more than one truth. The moon is never not full. And the moon only appears to be full once every four weeks or so. 

When we look at the world through one lens only, we lack the capacity to see the layers of truth, the bigger picture, and the pieces that comprise the reality of our world. The moon offers fluctuations, which, sure, is destabilizing, but stability without flex causes rigidity, and whatever becomes rigid, becomes brittle. 

Indoctrination will distort our view of reality, lock us into one, unbreathable, tight place. Distortion might make us miss our interconnectedness. But failure to lean into knowing that we are ignorant causes more separation and less wisdom. Distortion can give us multiplicity, and steer us away from narrow mindedness. Imagination can lead us astray, but our inability to imagine more possibilities leaves us stuck. Confusion is not comforting, but clarity could create too much certainty, which closes our minds and leads to tyranny. 

Why do humans have the need to elevate one side and demonize the other? Why is it so difficult for so many to see the prism, the complexity, the polymorphism of reality, the fluidity of form? Why do people feel so pulled toward polarization? 

We are unfinished. We are ever becoming. The world is ever changing. Reality is multifaceted. 

To be robust, we must be inclusive, and willing to question our own views, beliefs, and knowledge. That’s not a comfortable thing to do, but it is necessary if we are to develop resilience, if we care about people and planet, and if we seek to learn. If we want durability, we have to interweave multidimensionally with a multiplicity of being. 

In one Indian myth, elephant-headed god, Ganesha, throws his broken tusk at the moon, causing it to break – to wax and wane again and again every month. The moon is never just one thing, even though the moon is always the moon. So are you – always you and more than you at the same time. Thinking we’ve found wholeness cuts us from the capacity to keep becoming. The universe makes itself by breaking itself. Broken tusks, broken moons, broken hearts… brokenness generates reformations. 

We are porous. We are semi-permeable. We are an interwoven heterogeneous existence. 

But we build barriers. We erect towers of separation. We forge forts in the fire of justification. Boundaries are needed, and so are bridges. Staying rooted is important and so does movement. A strong core is necessary for a healthy body, but if we don’t know how to soften our bellies, we cannot digest our food properly. 

To be like the moon in a culture that puts everything into black or white boxes is difficult and needed. To be willing to hold more than one thing as true is rare in a society that divides the world into good guys and bad guys. But we must be courageous and understand that our vision is limited, that division and differences are real and important, but divisiveness is dangerous. Every piece contains portions of other pieces. Shadow and light together weave the nature of form. Nuance and the willingness to be unresolved are necessary if we are ever to move toward justice and a thriving humanity within a more than human world. 

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