We have been taught early on to obey our parents, our teachers, our government etc. because they know better than we do, right? Who here would consider yourself an obedient person? A law-abiding citizen? A committed follower of rules?
Could obedience have negative consequences? An experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University sought to understand what the human tendency is when given a conflict between personal conscience and obedience to authority. This experiment came about because the experimenter wanted to understand how it is that the Holocaust happened, how it is that immoral things were legal, how it is that causing harm to others is normalized.
In this experiment, the participants were assigned the role of a teacher, where they had actors who filled the role of learner. So the participant/teacher would work alongside an experimenter, and when the learner made a mistake, the experimenter would give the order to the participant to administer an electric shock to the learner, between 15- 450 volts. There were 18 variations of this experiment done, and in 65% of the cases, the participants chose to obey the orders— even if it meant causing another person great harm. The results are very alarming, because it shows that atrocity happens not because we human beings are “evil” but because we are too afraid to disobey.
Now there are a few things in this experiment that tilted the obedience factor. One, if the participant was reminded that the consequences of the actions are theirs to bear, they are less likely to follow an order that would hurt another person. Two, if the participant was able to see that another participant disobeyed, they gather the courage to also disobey.
The yoga practice is a practice of anarchy, a practice of self-rule, a practice of looking within our own minds, our own compass, our own experience. The focus of the month in Jivamukti is “Big Brother is Watching Us”. Big brother is a fictional character and now a metaphor of authority, of conformity, of obedience. Let us not fall under the trap of obedience for obedience sake, conformity for conformity’s sake, groupthink for groupthink’s safe.