Spiritual Commodities in a Capitalist Market
A Jewish friend commented that she thinks of me as someone who is spiritual and told me she is surprised that we could be friends because she is not at all spiritual nor religious. So I am wondering why I am perceived as a spiritual person as I do not often speak or write about my spiritual practice. In fact, I was once challenged by a friend: Leny, why don’t you ever write about your spiritual practice?
In my published works about decolonization, I always include in my narrative a glimpse into my religious and spiritual formation: a child of a Methodist pastor and granddaughter of probably the first convert of the Methodist missionary to my hometown in the Philippines. The story is told that my grandfather really wanted to be a priest but then he came across a missionary preacher on his soapbox at the public market and he converted on the spot. I am also the daughter of a Catholic mother who became a Methodist when she married my father.
I tell this story in Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization for Post-1965 Filipino Americans. (2001 and reprinted in 2016). And the story has evolved. Decolonizing my Christian upbringing has led me to the edges of transformation where the boundaries are no longer well-defined; where what seemed like universal theological positions now make sense only within certain belief systems; where the transcendent is also immanent; where binary and hierarchical thinking give way to the vastness and multilayered wholeness and silence of cosmic awareness.
The evolving story of my spiritual life in the last four decades includes the exploration of CS Lewis, Jungian psychology, literature on shamanism, Indigenous Studies, Native American literature, Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan mostly), Daoist practice of qi gong, Advaita Vedanta teachings, earth-based spirituality, postcolonial studies, literature on healing grief and postcolonial trauma, poetry, readings on Eros (Irigaray, Haunani Kay Trask), mythic stories, and dreamwork. A very syncretic list that is growing longer.
Most of these explorations are based on the written word and mostly through the lens of deconstructed western, mostly patriarchal, philosophical and phenomenological meditations. And my most recent read of The Biology of Wonder by Andreas Weber confirms my belief that the foundations of western civilization has got it all wrong and it has led us to the current state of panic over the survival of us anthropocenes.
I suppose it is a good sign that many folks are now turning to spirituality in order to find ways of coping with the psychological impact of the global climate crisis. I point to the global climate crisis as a bottom line because the crisis is caused by the relentless plunder of the earth’s resources in the name of an ideology that sells the dream of an urban consumer culture as the only dream worth pursuing. But this illusion is giving way with the younger generation and it’s making their parents and grandparents nervous.
A lot of young people are choosing to eschew their parents’ materialist values, rejecting definitions of success that value competition, individualism, and the Darwinian ethos of survival of the fittest. They want meaningful lives with a purpose. They want to feel connected. They are looking for something more grounded. They want to serve. They want community.
Even years ago I jokingly told a friend that someday the U.S. will become a third world country as it turns towards spirituality and the East (China and India, for example) will turn towards capitalist values. Yin and Yang.
But with the explosion of social media, the spiritual commodities market is overwhelming. My inbox is full every morning with offers of workshops, retreats, virtual gatherings, online connections, etc. Each one offering peace, happiness,enlightenment, realization, health, wealth, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
The first taste is always free. Sign up for a free webinar or workshop and then you get offered more series of lessons but now for a price. And certification is offered for professional and personal development as well as educational units if needed.
At a women’s gathering, a young white woman introduced herself as a plant medicine woman. Another young Latina woman asked how she came to that title and she answered: I spent a month in a village in Mexico and I was adopted by an old woman who taught me about plant medicine. I have always been interested in medicinal plants. The young Latina woman then said that where she comes from, such knowledge is a result of a lifetime of learning that’s why all the medicine people are older people. Feeling rebuked, the young white woman shed tears of confusion. How can her calling to something so blessed and sacred a path be questioned?
I joined the dialogue and it went this way:
Me: Is there anyone in your European ancestry who, perhaps a long time ago, knew about plants and herbs as medicine? Perhaps you come from a lineage of plant healers?
White Woman: All my ancestors were scoundrels, drunks, good for nothing.
Me: What do you think turned them into such?
WM: I don’t know.
Me: I am guessing that perhaps they became sick because the civilizing process is a violent one. It attacks the inherent goodness in human beings and turns them into something they are not. If you remember your own history as settlers on this Turtle Island, it might tell you that when we destroy the “other” we are also destroying ourselves. Could it be that the reason why you couldn’t embrace your ancestors is because it is hard to face these shadows? Could it be because it is so much easier to go to another country and try to find what we are looking for in “otherness”?
She couldn’t answer the question.
I have always been fascinated by the ‘self-help’ culture in the U.S. In this day and age of ubiquitous self-promotion, the spiritual commodities market is saturated. You can go online and get counseling or call in to a prayer hotline; you can go on youtube and choose a channel for meditation, chakra cleansing, yoga, qi gong. You can google any topic and up comes TEDtalk about it or an RSA animation. All the help you need to get spiritually connected is available.
What is also encouraged by the spiritual commodities market is “branding”. What sounds like newly discovered healing modalities are really re-packaged ancient wisdom teachings mostly from indigenous and non-western mystical and philosophical traditions. So when someone is offering “energy workshops” for example I think of the ancient Taoist healing arts. I have often wondered why and how so-called teachers of spirituality are able to patent healing modalities and spiritual teachings whose roots are from ancient indigenous cultures. Why not acknowledge the root source of the tradition and be explicit and transparent about the re-packaging that they are doing for a more contemporary audience?
Such amazing array of spiritual commodities!
In a conversation with a Southern Pomo woman, she said something that resonated with me. We were talking about young people who are searching for spiritual grounding so they look for native elders who might guide them. Yet when an elder requires a stringent set of practices to follow, the searcher becomes ambivalent about having to focus one’s entire life on these requirements for a lengthy period of time. My friend said that often young people are attracted to the Power (the power to heal, power to go into altered states of consciousness, the power to communicate with spirits) but they are not attracted to the arduous path it takes to get there.
We live in dire times that call for a deepening and broadening of our capacity to hold in our heartmind and our bodies the tensions and contradictions of living in our modern bubbles. What would it take to burst the bubble? What would it take to walk out of this kind of rushed, frantic, way of being?
I don’t know if the answer lies in a weekend workshop or an online webinar or a weekend retreat. Maybe these are intended to be portals that can lead to a disciplined and life-changing everyday habits. I remember when I first went to an acupuncturist and the first question he asked was: Are you willing to change your lifestyle and your habits in order to become healthy? Or are you just wanting relief from your symptoms without changing anything else? Ouch. That was a tough question. The fact that I couldn’t shake off that question is indicative that I, too, found it hard to face the question.
That is why I am writing this essay. I am trying to resist the seduction of quick-fixes and fast results. I realize the privilege of having access to so much “help” from the self-help industry. But in the end what I must buckle down to is the daily practice of being awake, mindful, and reverent in my approach to all that I am and do.
And that is Hard. Lonely. And Good.