Angela Vroom is a teacher at Wanderlust Hollywood. Come practice, listen, taste, learn, and gather with us at our new center.
Recently my friend Jessica and I were talking about the value of cynicism in approaching spiritual pursuits and philosophy. The quality is often-maligned in new age or spiritual movements, but we both had experienced the importance of taking a rigorously inquisitive approach in parsing and integrating knowledge and practices. Jokingly I coined the word Cynamasté: the cynic in me honors the cynic in you. I used the term in its vernacular sense—the quality of being critically discerning—but was drawn to research more deeply the etymologoical and philosophical roots of cynicism.
The Cynics of Ancient Greece were less a formal school than a movement of eccentrics—individuals who challenged the social conventions of their time in sometimes extreme ways. Despite this their ideas and practices were highly, but guardedly, respected and connect in interesting ways to other individuals and movements through history and around the world.
The name Cynic is derived from the Greek kunikos, meaning “dog-like,” and is popularly understood to refer to the sometimes-antagonistic, anti-social, and “snarling” character of some noted individuals of the movement. However, in referring to a dog other underlying central values are revealed: dogs were considered to be simple and pure creatures who live according to the impulses of nature without shame, and were believed to be able to instinctively judge the character of humans. Key cynics Antisthenes and even more so Diogenes were referred to as dog-like for their often crude way of living: they emphasized asceticism, owning no possessions beside a cloak, living in the street, begging for food, and believed the division between public and private life created shame and dishonesty.
Though “Cynic” seems to have been used originally as an insult, the movement reclaimed the term and found within it elements of the the truth of their intentions: to live a life of virtue free from material desires and in harmony with nature. Impatient with social convention and focused on the cultivation of virtue through pure and uninhibited living, Cynics were ruthless practitioners of their ideals: indeed, the practice of these ideals was held as the highest path, a short-cut to virtue over the more established Athenian schools, which focused on erudite scholarly discourse. It should, of course, be noted that their commitment to honest, full-disclosure living involved acts of public elimination and masturbation (Diogenes, the ultimate ancient philosopher who DGAF) and for prominent female Cynic Hipparchia, the consummation of her marriage in public on her front porch (neither of which I condone, though both practices are clearly alive and well in modern urban settings…).
While these attention-getting, sometimes performative elements (Diogenes was known to wander the public market with a lantern in broad daylight, saying he was searching for an honest man) are often what is most remembered about the Cynics, they are not merely surface acts. Rather they are examples of askesis, training or practice, which served to connect the practitioner to the higher Cynic ideals of liberty, self-sufficiency, and freedom to speak frankly. In the Cynic view, the acts themselves, rather than intellectual elaboration, facilitate the realization of the ideals. The practices are also radical in the sense that they refuse to acknowledge the validity of social hierarchy and value above all the commonality of human corporeal existence (an especially potent idea in the highly stratified world of Athens and Greece as a whole). This egalitarian worldview is highlighted in the report that when Diogenes was asked his name and citizenship status (a central element of ancient Grecian identity) he responded, “I am a citizen of the world”—an ideal that is as relevant in our time as it was in 300 B.C.E.
It’s interesting to draw connections between the Cynics—with their commitment to poverty and resistance to common cultural mores—and the sannyasin* of India, and even to certain Christian monastic sects. All emphasize the primacy of connecting with a higher realm—whether Nature, consciousness, or God—and spending time on earth in practice that reinforces that connection while doing no harm to others, letting go of attachment to material desire, and valuing truth above social conventions. We can find more immediately the realization of Cynic values in the actions of Henry David Thoreau, who freaked out 19th century Concord, Massachusetts, by building a tiny hut on the shores of Walden pond and refusing to pay taxes that supported an unjust war, and in the performative acts of disruption and resistance demonstrated by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters or the French Situationists in the 1960s, and contemporarily by political movements like Code Pink and Occupy.
While the full-bore intensity of true Cynics is hard to justify, the deepening of connection to the history and evolution of the term supports the sense of value Jessica and I originally recognized. The value of practice, the ability to question convention from a place of clarity, and an ethical sensibility oriented toward universality and connection are ideals worth embodying.
With that, Cynamasté!
*Interestingly, Alexander the Great, who is reported to have sought an audience with Diogenes (and then summarily dismissed by him) also encountered Dandamis, a great sannyasin, during his Indian campaign. Dandamis gave this statement, a perfect Vedic echo of Cynic values: “Know this, however, that what Alexander offers and the gifts he promises are things to me utterly useless; the things I prize and find of real use and worth are these leaves which are my house, these blooming plants which supply me with daily food, and the water which is my drink; while all other possessions which are amassed with anxious care are wont to prove ruinous to those who gather them, and cause only sorrow and vexation, with which every poor mortal is fully fraught. As for me, I lie upon the forest leaves, and having nothing which requires guarding, close my eyes in tranquil slumber; whereas had I anything to guard, that would banish sleep. The earth supplies me with everything, even as a mother her child with milk. I go wherever I please, and there are no cares with which I am forced to cumber myself.” (source)
Photo by Ali Kaukas
Angie Vroom is a mother and teacher of Vedic meditation and other consciousness-expanding practices. An adventurer with autodidact tendencies, intimately familiar with mysticism and cynicism, her desire for wisdom has taken her from Harvard to the Himalayas. With a decade’s experience meditating and teaching and experience running retreats around the world she brings wit, clarity, and intelligence to her classes.