Sound Against Flame by Derek Beres

[7 October 2008]

By Erika Nanes

I once had a boss who was a joke around the company for his utter inability to communicate (he ran the communications department, natch). He made what could have been brief, informative statements in the most roundabout, long-winded way imaginable. 

Years later, I realized that this was probably a deliberate strategy, one adopted so that no one would accuse him of having committed himself to anything. But at the time, naïve and credulous, I couldn’t get over the paradox that someone who had been hired to make things clear left every meeting with a trail of ambiguity in his wake.

Reading Sound Against Flame: The Process of Yoga and Atheism in America, by Derek Beres, is a bit like sitting in one of those meetings with my long-ago boss. Except that unlike my boss, Beres possesses a sheer enthusiasm for his topic that makes you want to listen (or, in this case, read) even if you can’t tell where he’s going, how he got there, or what’s coming next. 

He comes across as someone so immersed in his subject—and in the connections between his subject and several others—that he can’t quite comprehend why you aren’t as interested in exploring it as he is. As he himself notes, the book is “written entirely from the perspective of yoga, but it’s not necessarily about yoga”.

To put it another way, if you come to Beres’ book expecting a linear argument, you will be disappointed. It bears a much closer relationship to a late-night dorm room conversation, the kind that might make perfect sense at the time but seem utterly hazy when recalled the following day. 

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. In some ways, the insistence on narrowly-focused linear argumentation has impoverished cultural inquiry by leaving it primarily in the hands of academics. Beres, instead, takes the approach of what Gramsci dubbed the organic intellectual, someone without the formal status of an intellectual who nonetheless challenges a society’s ideological commitments. 

If his decision to explore the relationship(s) among such seemingly disparate topics as yogic philosophy, atheism, fundamentalist Christianity, Rastafarianism, and a few other belief systems and practices sounds like the beginning of a bad joke—hey, did you hear what happened when the yogi, the atheist, the Rasta, and the Jesus freak walked into a bar?—it nonetheless displays an admirable range and ambition. 

In fact, in Beres’ hands, it becomes possible to understand how these philosophies might share certain affinities, as well as how they differ from monotheistic and/or fundamentalist approaches. 

Beres’ book is perhaps most refreshing when it probes the fallacies that pass for conventional wisdom in a variety of belief systems. Writing about the dietary codes that characterize many religions, for instance, he comments that injunctions such as those against eating cows (in India) or in favor of fasting during Lent were, in effect, modes of resource management.

He also throws a skeptical light on the idea of deity itself, noting, “Gods are not mega-people with superhero skills. They are the reflective quality inside of us documenting the process”. With similar irreverence, but a more acerbic tone, he criticizes the advertisements in many mainstream yoga magazines, arguing that they have turned yoga into a “sales tool to pimp someone’s newest gadget”.

This combination of passion about belief systems with critical distance on them can be difficult to find, and its absence has probably played a part in turning many otherwise curious people away from religion altogether. 

Perhaps the strongest element of the book is the thorough, chapter-by-chapter list of sources with which it ends. This list demonstrates the sheer variety of thinkers, ranging from Mircea Eliade to Sam Harris to Octavio Paz, on whose thought Beres drew in developing this project. More importantly, it makes it possible for those seduced by Beres’ enthusiasm to explore the topic further on their own. 

Given his frequent emphasis on direct, individual experience, Beres would no doubt be delighted to inspire such exploration. After all, he ends his book by reminding us, “When you take full responsibility for your actions and stop letting dreams of cosmic schemes influence decisions made, there is no longer any quest for liberation. No one else can free you from yourself”.

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