The Paradox of Pop Spirituality
It wasn’t long ago that yoga and meditation were very niche interests. When I was a teenager, they were just starting to gain popularity, but were still considered the odd hobbies of Californians. Today, you can’t open a magazine or look at your newsfeed without being inundated with post after post of serene meditating self-portraits in billowy clothes, perfect bodies in impossible yoga poses, and the word “mindfulness” sprinkled over headlines like cashew cheese on a vegan pizza. While in some ways, this is a good thing, it’s a sign that these ancient teachings from the other side of the world are rising in the collective consciousness, however diluted they might be. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that mainstream, pop spirituality is what happens when Eastern yogic traditions are distorted through the lens of a Western capitalist world view–two completely opposing philosophical perspectives. This distortion involves stripping spiritual practices and teachings of their context, focusing on narcissistic achievements, and projecting a false image of sanitized perfection. The result is that people either end up feeling badly about themselves or are simply turned off by the whole thing. Fulfillment Comes from the Outside vs. Fulfillment Comes from Within We live in a Western society which runs on the principle that fulfillment comes from products, services and achievements, basically on things for which money can be exchanged to keep the capitalist wheel turning. However, ancient, Eastern teachings center around fulfillment coming from within. When we see aspirational, idealized feeds of wellness professionals, they are adopting a very tried and true marketing model that is used by everything from fast food to fashion. They're sending a message that you are lacking in some way, that you need something, this shoe, this car, this meditation course to be full. My last career was in advertising, so I know this all too well. There is a fine line, however, as we all obviously want to learn from those who have something figured out which we don’t, so there is some aspirational element intrinsic to the role of teacher. But there’s a way of doing it without using over the top images of a perfect yoga-inspired life, the kind where people see them and think, “my life doesn’t look like that, I must be doing something wrong.” This just creates separation, not unity which is what meditation and spirituality is all about. Pristine Perfection vs. the Beautiful Mess When it comes to those kinds of images, the truth is meditation won’t make your life look like that. Their lives don’t look like that. True life and spirituality is raw, wild and authentic. It’s a beautiful mess. Most of us get our strongest taste of spirituality not when we are in our perfectly curated meditation nook but in situations like after a loved one dies, or when giving birth, or whenever the heart is cracked open wide and the full intensity of life is running through us. There’s conflict and heart break and dirty dishes around every corner for all of us and that’s how it’s interesting. The perfectionist spirituality messaging we see over and over again does not reflect the gnarly yet glorious reality of the spiritual path. And while meditation won’t clean up the mess of life necessarily, it allows us to experience it all fully in the moment, to laugh when we’d normally be freaking out, and most of all to see the love shining through the cracks of any situation. Spiritual Hacks vs. Infinite Depth Another thing our no-attention-span culture does is teach us to take in information in only tiny bite-sized doses. The collective consciousness is feeling more and more the need to meditate but many are trying to learn through short self-help posts and 99 cent apps. I recently saw an article entitled, “5 Spiritual Hacks to Reach Enlightenment.” I guarantee, nobody reading that article got there. Even the popular practice of Mindfulness is based on ancient teachings stripped of their context. Much of this fast-service spirituality is giving people some false expectation that they will be able to see some kind of benefit and then when they don’t, leaving them feeling discouraged and empty. True spirituality refers to your own individual evolution towards experiencing the world in its infinite diversity as one, whatever that path may be. This is a deeply personal process that has bottomless depth. For some, a kind of spiritual dabbling is where they’re at, and that’s fine. It’s a beginning. There’s nothing wrong with it so long as there is an understanding that it is about as nourishing to the soul as fast food is to the body and that there is so much more there to discover when ready. Obsessive Self-Improvement vs Dissolution of Ego Now I teach my students that by making the effort to meditate and take care of themselves first, they are better able to be there for their family and others. And it’s entertaining and sometimes helpful to read self-improvement articles and literature from time to time. That being said, so much of the information and imagery in the spiritual sphere is borderline (if not far over the border) narcissistic. Mindfulness media is pervaded by an endless stream of self-focused subjects like your ideal yoga body, your relationship woes, your Ayurvedic beauty routine. You may have noticed that many yoga and meditation professionals post almost nothing but art directed, idealized pictures of themselves. This goes against the grain of the realizations that come with meditation and yoga. The more we meditate, the more we feel the Self in all things as opposed to identifying with the ego. One’s life becomes less about reaching some kind of standard in the hopes that we will finally be happy or about needing attention and self-assurance through social media. We experience that happiness is from inside and our motivation for action is to bring that happiness to others. In short, life becomes about service. I do not wish to come down on anyone’s means of expressing themselves. I’m certainly guilty of putting out a shinier portrayal of my life than is the reality on my Instagram feed. And I have gratitude for the rise in pop spirituality as it has raised awareness of meditation. I simply want to reveal the inconsistencies that occur when you mix East and West. Thereby, hopefully, those who would normally be turned off by the typical messaging will still give the spiritual path a try and find their way to true happiness.
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My attempt at a meditation-y promotional selfie.