Spirituality – let the buyer beware

At its best, “spirituality” (whatever that term actually means) is a spur to greater compassion, engagement with social justice, and trying to make the world a better place. This used to be called mysticism, which actually meant something and sought to wrestle and engage with the wider tradition in which it was situated. Many times, organised religion sought to crush the mystics, with their call to genuine compassion, and their speaking truth to power, and their direct engagement with the divine other (or others).

At its worst, “spirituality” is a mess of cultural appropriation, exploitation of the vulnerable, silencing of dissent, sweeping justified anger under the carpet, and offering a pabulum of spurious advice, airy-fairy sayings, and consumer offerings of easily-digested “wisdom” and manufactured artefacts to make you feel “spiritual” and get in touch with your inner wossnames. Many ‘spiritual directors’, ‘life coaches’, and other self-styled spiritual leaders – most of whom are not even qualified therapists – prey on the vulnerable to make them feel that they cannot have self-worth without succumbing to a rigorous programme of self-help, self-examination, and generally beating themselves up for not being spiritual enough. They keep their ‘followers’ as perpetual neophytes, never empowering them to lead the group themselves.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him

Every time I have an encounter with someone who has an interest in spirituality, and also possesses power over others, I find that they want to silence my anger at injustice because it is “not spiritual” to be angry. I find myself bruised and diminished by their criticism of my way of being in the world. Any engagement with the intellectual or theological or historical context of an issue is also silenced by these people, because that is “not spiritual” either. These people are so convincing with their “peaceful” mien and unfurrowed brows, untroubled by actual social injustice or the suffering of others. These are the type of people who silence those who complain of racism, sexism, and homophobia, claiming that they are “obsessed” with race, gender, and sexuality.

Some of them do engage with the suffering of others, but in my view, they only exacerbate it by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer, convincing them that they must “work on themselves” and buy whatever the latest self-help book, video, course, life-coaching, etc happens to be. Some of them even say that the first step to being more spiritual or loving or whatever is to accept oneself. The natural response of many people to this is to feel guilty for not loving themselves. However, the lack of self-love and self-esteem that many people suffer from is caused by alienation from other people, from nature, and from life. It will not be solved by increased introspection, but by going out and doing what you love. If you are an introvert, that might be different from what extroverts love to do, and that is just fine. The first step to accepting yourself is to stop worrying about yourself so much.

The blame for social ills is constantly shifted from the collective to the individual in many contexts. Instead of preventing bullying in the workplace, employers hire stress and time-management consultants to ‘fix’ individuals who haven’t ‘adapted’ to the workplace.  The same applies to dieting, where the fact that it is difficult to avoid eating fattening food, and difficult to get enough exercise to burn it off, is laid squarely at the door of the overweight individual, and hardly anyone bothers to look for social or societal factors that  might contribute to obesity.

Whenever you see a self-help book, or a person who sets themselves up as an authority on spiritual matters, ask yourself what qualifies them to be such an authority. I am not saying their life has to be totally organised (whose life is not subject to misfortune and the vagaries of circumstance?) – but rather, how do they respond to disaster? Do they curl up in a welter of self-pity, or do they actually get out and do something, perhaps getting involved with trying to right the social injustice that caused their misfortune (if applicable)? As the wonderful saying has it, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Anyone claiming to be a Buddha is not a Buddha. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. Indeed, it was Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha himself, who said that if the things he said did not make sense to his hearers, they should ignore him:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Subjecting advice to scrutiny and reflection about whether it applies to your own life is of course a principle that you should apply to anything that I write as well. Nothing is exempt from this principle. My perspective is also limited to my own experience, as is that of every other writer.

Do without doing, and everything gets done

If all the money and energy that was expended on trying to become more spiritual was expended on trying to make the world a better place for everyone, think how much better the world would be. I am not saying that people should not indulge themselves in a bit of pampering like a massage and a bath with some nice candles and a bit of tinkly music, but do it unashamedly because it makes you feel good, not because you think you ought to, or because you think it will make you a more spiritual person.

As the great Viktor Frankl once said:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Personally, I derive more benefit from going for a nice walk in the woods, or going on a demonstration about a social justice issue, or having a nice evening with friends, than I ever have from any attempt to “be more spiritual”. I am not a naturally introspective person in any case. You can derive a great amount of self-worth and connecting with others by going to take part in conservation work, or feeding the homeless, or helping animals, or doing something creative – you don’t need to sit about worrying about whether you are spiritual enough. I also derived a great deal of benefit from being a trades union caseworker, because I learnt to speak truth to power, but I became a caseworker because it was the thing in front of me that needed doing, and I knew it was the right thing to do, not because I particularly hoped to gain anything from it.

The other day, I saw a brilliant and hilarious video by J P Sears, How to be ultra-spiritual, which sends up the “spiritualler-than-thou” types (as I call them): the people who speak ultra-softly and go about dispensing unsolicited “wisdom”. It is a merciless send-up of the “ultra-spiritual”, and a critique that needed to be out there.

And then I saw a post by a “life-coach” giving women contradictory advice about how to be irresistible to men, where one of the pieces of advice was a blatant piece of slut-shaming. Fortunately, a bunch of people had posted hilarious comments on the piece, sending it up mercilessly.

I vividly remember my first encounter with a “life-coach” and I remember thinking it was a load of pretentious tosh and quite possibly a sugar-coated version of “how to be a capitalist bastard and succeed in the rat-race”.

I feel much the same about most so-called “self-help” books, which again locate the source of suffering in the individual, and fail to offer any remedy that we might all undertake as a society. There are a few excellent exceptions, such as Families and how to survive them by Robin Skinner and John Cleese, Taking care by David Smail, and Women who run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (brilliantly satirised by Women who run with the Poodles, however).

This is why I have been trying to eliminate any talk of “spirituality” from my speech and writing, and instead talk about embodiment, and connecting with the body. This too might become problematic if we assume that there is only one right way to be embodied, but at least it is more earthy, and takes actual physical and emotional needs into account and makes a connection between them. Writers on embodiment that I have seen do actually seem to engage with the world around them.

Spirituality as a commodity

Nevertheless, it strikes me that the elephant in the room, and what really ails us, is the commodification and marketisation of everything – also known as capitalism. Value is no longer seen as intrinsic to an experience or a thing, but only as a marketable commodity. “Spirituality” has become yet another marketable commodity – a thing that should be our birth-right, that should be as natural as breathing, has been packaged and marketed back to us as something that can only be mediated by experts.

They say “the best things in life are free” and actually, it’s true. Having a consensual hug or a massage with someone you love, or a stimulating conversation with a friend, or a lovely walk in the woods, or some other experience of shared beauty, is much more effective than hours of “spirituality”-related activities.

One of the things that has made me a more empathetic person, and possibly a nicer person to be around, is reading novels, because novels teach you about the nuances of feeling and allow you to empathise with someone else’s pain in a safe space (the privacy of your own mind) before going out and practising compassion in the real world. The trick is to make the connection between the character in the novel and real people, of course.

Look outwards, not inwards

Many people have emphasised the idea that you need to love something greater than yourself, and/or other than yourself, in order to find happiness. Of course, many people who aspire to be spiritual do love God, or Nature, or something beyond themselves; but then they spend a lot of time worrying about how to be more spiritual, and fall back into introspection and self-doubt.

Viktor Frankl explains that the only way to find meaning and peace is to look beyond the self:

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

So, all this relentless self-examination is actually counter-productive. The Muslims say that “Allah is closer to me than my jugular vein”; Buddhists say that enlightenment is only a heartbeat away. The great mystery of life is always available, always present, always pouring itself into reality at every moment, waiting to be experienced and enjoyed.

For me, the central mystery of my religion is love. The word religion comes from the Latin word, religio, to reconnect. Love is about connection, connecting fully and deeply with another human being. There are many types of love involving different types and depths of connection (eros, filia, storge, and agape are some that have been named).

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Our culture has also sought to commodify love, and reduce it only to romantic love, but it is much broader and deeper than that. In Hebrew, one of the words for love is Ahava, meaning ‘I will give’. The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) contains an extended meditation on the meaning of Ahava in the story told in the Book of Ruth. Another is Chesed, meaning steadfast love, loving-kindness. This term is often translated into Greek as eleos. Eleos is the personification of compassion in Greek mythology. Her Roman counterpart was Clementia. Ancient paganism had thought about love, compassion, and forgiveness, and these were among the virtues they cultivated.

Photo of Robert Indiana's 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. "Ahava" by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928 - Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Robert Indiana’s 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. “Ahava” by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

All the best writing seeks to broaden our humanity by encouraging us to connect, to have compassion, to love (both ourselves and others). If we cannot be compassionate to ourselves, how can we have compassion for others?

Love is a fierce and joyful thing

Love does not mean complete negation of the self. I am a human being with needs and desires, and I deserve love and compassion as much as the next person. Transcending the ego is not the same thing as erasing or negating the ego. All that happens is that one becomes aware of a reality beyond the ego, and seeks to connect with that greater reality.

Love is not a mealy-mouthed, weak thing that allows others to walk all over one. Love is a fierce and joyful thing that seeks the greatest well-being for all – bearing in mind that another person’s well-being may look quite different from yours. As many sages have said, “love thy neighbour as thyself” – in other words, love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.

Buddhism talks about ‘foolish compassion’ – the type of compassion that fails to involve the mind as well as the heart, to try and assess what would really help the suffering other. Love is not afraid to speak truth to power, or to tell the schlemiel that he is a fool.

Love is out on the front line telling the world that Black lives matter, standing up for the rights of LGBT people, indigenous peoples, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the marginalised. Love may be gentle and kind, but it is also fierce and joyous, and angry and sad, and embracing diversity.

Transplanting from one culture to another – appropriation or exchange?

Many people do not understand what is and is not cultural appropriation because they assume that practices and techniques can be easily transplanted from one context to another, but this does not take into account the issues around the particularity of traditions to their culture, place, and history, and it does not recognise the impact of colonialism and the commodification and commercialisation of indigenous traditions.

Dandelion seeds in the morning sunlight blowing away in the wind across a clear blue sky

Cross-fertilisation: dandelion seeds blowing away in the wind. Photo by Brian A Jackson, courtesy of Shutterstock

Take for example the practice of calling the quarters. This is based on several assumptions: that circular space is the most sacred; that there are four cardinal directions, and four elements with a meaning that is embedded in a particular cultural context (the Western Mystery Tradition, or of several Native American traditions), and that making a connection with the four elements and the four sacred directions helps you to become more connected to Nature, or the universe, because we are the microcosm of the universe (an idea found in Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, and Swedenborgianism). If the practice of calling the quarters is transplanted to another tradition which does not have these assumptions, myths, and symbols, it will only be a shallow version of the practice, and will probably not even make sense in the context to which it has been transplanted.

People who charge money for the practices of others, without respect for their situatedness in a particular culture, history, tradition, and totally failing to notice the power relations involved in the colonialism of the very recent past, and the continued assertion by the West of the superiority of capitalism, consumerism, and the rationalist enlightenment is a big ethical issue. Spiritual traditions are not and cannot be divorced from context, and they are not automatically the property of all humanity. We need to approach other traditions with mindfulness and respect, and not assuming that everything is ours for the taking.

Spiritual traditions are rich with meaning, both mythological and historical, and taking a practice or a ritual out of the context within which it was created strips it of the rich associations that it had in its original context. If you take practices out of context, you are very likely to end up doing them superficially.  Respectful engagement with other traditions requires a reasonably in-depth engagement with them, and a certain amount of immersion, not just a brief encounter. I guess ‘respectful’ is the key word in all of that.

As a minor example, even copy-cat behaviour towards an individual can be problematic. A few years back, I had very specific labels in the religion and politics boxes on my Facebook profile, which I had arrived at through considerable soul-searching, angst, and upheaval, both social and personal. I was also recognised by other members of the groups I belonged to as a member of those groups. Imagine my horror when some eejit who did not even know what they meant (and I know he didn’t because I asked him) decided he was going to copy them for his profile. He was not even a member of either of the religious traditions concerned. I was furious. (And there was not even a history of colonial oppression in the history between him and me.) Now imagine how people from other cultures feel when that happens with their identities and culture.

However, say you have encountered a practice that really speaks to you, or that will significantly improve your health, and you want to borrow it respectfully. What should you do? Is it enough to ask someone who might be considered an authority in the tradition you want to borrow it from? The problem here is that there are many different people within a given tradition, and they do not all speak with one voice. So, what should be the criteria for whether or not a person can be considered the keeper of a tradition? Is it strength of belief? Is that they are a priest or recognised holy person? Many people would argue that the laity should have just as much say in the matter as the priesthood. Or should the criterion be the consensus view of many members of the tradition?

However, the construction of an argument around strength of belief as a possible criterion for being the keeper of a tradition, or the idea of a holy person as no more worthy than a secular person, is all grounded in a particularly Western and rationalist and Protestant view of how religion works. My argument has nothing to do with strength of belief, keepers of tradition, or any inherent ownership of ideas: it is about the historical and cultural context in which something arose, and (in the case of Native American spirituality in particular) the colonialist appropriation of ideas, artefacts, rituals, and the commodification of them. Cultures whose spiritual traditions have been appropriated are complaining about the commodification of their ideas, and the way they have been packaged and sold and marketed by fake gurus and shamans in the West.

A priest or shaman has been trained in the technique and the safeguards that go with it. Many popularisers of various meditation techniques forget to tell you the safeguards. The shaman or priest is steeped in the culture and the context and the meaning of the practice. A populariser (whether a lay person from the same culture, or someone from another culture) is not necessarily aware of the context, meaning, safeguards, etc. The people who don’t want their practices taken out of context are not doing it to protect the practice as a commodity which they could package and sell – as far as most of them are concerned, their practices are not for sale. They are very likely to be trying to protect us from bad / shallow / poorly understood versions of the practices. Because without the safeguards and correct techniques, and an understanding of the context, some practices are dangerous. The people doing the commodifying are the appropriaters, who often want to make a fast buck out of repackaging the practice for a Western audience, usually stripped of its sacred context and meaning.

All of this does not mean that you can never borrow a practice or a ritual from another culture – but it does mean that shallow engagement with it is not enough. You need to examine whether the practice fits within your own tradition, by looking at the religious, spiritual, and cultural assumptions which have gone into its construction.

There have been many fruitful and successful moments of syncretisation of different traditions, and some failed ones. The most successful ones seem to be when the two traditions met as equals, and engaged in genuine dialogue and exchange (as when Buddhism met Taoism and created Zen Buddhism, or when Buddhism met Shinto and created Ryobu Shinto). When an imperial and colonising tradition moved in, the indigenous religion was often either crushed (like when Christianity met ancient paganisms) or subsumed (like when Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity met indigenous religions).

Anyone studying the history of encounters between religions and cultures can easily see that cultures are not monolithic, intact, or impermeable. In fact, cultures are always exchanging ideas, inventions, material goods, books, food, recipes. There is clearly a lot of healthy and respectful cultural exchange. Hence the attempt to make a distinction between culturing borrowing and cultural appropriation, both in this article about decolonising your yoga practice, and in my previous attempt to write about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

Appropriation means claiming that you own something or have a right to it. Borrowing means acknowledging that the other party owns it. They are not synonymous.  Borrowing can be respectful. Appropriation is disrespectful. The trick is learning the difference.  However, if a person from another culture says, hands off, you cannot access this without going through the proper process – then proceeding to take it without their approval is theft.

If the culture which you had the misfortune to be born into goes around colonising other countries (both by conquest and via economic power) and you then come along and steal their spiritual traditions, despite them saying no: that makes you part of the colonisers.

If on the other hand you acknowledge them as the ones with expertise, and learn from them, and acknowledge their sovereignty, and they decide to give freely: that is respectful.

An obvious analogy is Wicca. There are practices in Wicca that I would not recommend to anyone uninitiated (because initiation prepares you for them) and that would not make sense outside of the symbolic framework of Wicca.  Although these practices are available from other spiritual traditions, invocation is also carefully situated within a symbolic framework and an initiatory process in those other traditions, too. It occurs in Buddhism, and they have a very elaborate system around it – with good reason. And the same with all the other practices.

I know there are things in Wicca that don’t quite fit in Druidry, and vice versa – and those two traditions are reasonably similar. Consider how difficult it is, then, to import a practice from a dissimilar tradition. I generally don’t do Buddhist practices because I disagree with the basic founding premise of Buddhism, that all is dukka (suffering) and that the only way to free yourself from suffering is to avoid attachment. If you don’t buy into this basic premise of Buddhism, then a lot of their meditation techniques don’t make sense.

In my previous post on this topic, I outlined some thoughts on what constitutes appropriation, and what constitutes respectful borrowing. When I wrote that post, I was largely unaware that sometimes people accuse non-Europeans of cultural appropriation when they try to join in with European forms of Paganism. I learnt this from reading the excellent book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend doing so.

Cultural appropriation cannot be properly understood unless you look at it in the context of colonialism, power, money, exploitation, and capitalism. Although Pagan religions are not part of the dominant paradigm of Western culture (which is predominantly Christian with an overlay of Enlightenment rationalism and a big dollop of capitalism), and are often relegated by the dominant discourse to the realms of the “primitive” – white practitioners of Pagan religions still benefit from being members of the dominant social group much of the time. Cultural appropriation is usually done from the dominant position in any encounter between two cultures. So if you are not in the dominant position in the encounter, it will be difficult to appropriate the culture of the other.

To sum up, then: ritual techniques and practices are not universal, and it is difficult to lift them from one context to another; doing so without consideration for their original meaning and context is disrespectful; and it is often a continuation of colonialism, capitalism, and commodification.