From a young age, I have always carried a natural inclination towards the realms of consciousness, psychology and spirituality.
I was born into an intentional spiritual community where I lived until I was three years old, and for the larger portion of my late teens and throughout my early to mid-twenties, I had the unique opportunity to be deeply immersed in an array of intentional, spiritual, and what one might call “New Age” experimental communities.
All of these experiences allowed me to learn a tremendous amount about myself at a young age (which I’m very grateful for), and yet it was also in my mid-twenties that I was hit with a series of hard reality checks that challenged many of my deepest held spiritual beliefs. They certainly crushed a great deal of my youthful spiritual idealism.
It was at this time that I made a choice to leave the comforts of my home country, my intentional communities, the majority of my friendships and my spiritual identity behind, in search of answers for questions that I still hadn’t yet formed the words for.
From Spiritual Awakening to Political Awakening
What set the stage for my disillusionment with much of the spiritual world in my mid-20s had somewhat do with my own upbringing and economic background.
Unlike the majority of my peers within the popular spiritual scene, I had grown up in a relatively well-educated, but lower working class family. For the majority of my early youth, after my parents divorced, my mom, sister and I had survived on welfare. I was moved around from one low-income housing facility to another and went to nine different public schools before I graduated high school.
In some of the worst financial times, I accompanied my father dumpster diving in Safeway garbage bins to dig out expired but edible food for dinner.
Before I turned back to the spiritual scene in my late teens, I spent most of my time partying, drinking and skipping class—and in high school I identified strongly with a social group that existed at the lower and working class strata of society.
When I entered the popular spiritual scene, I worked very hard to hide my lower working class background. I did my best to learn the language of the middle and upper middle class and I paid huge amounts of money to attend expensive seminars and events with prominent teachers.
I went into massive debt traveling to events in exotic places where retreats were being held in luxurious accommodations with esteemed spiritual teachers. Tuition for these events sometimes ran as high as two or three thousand dollars for a weekend workshop.
At times I was generously sponsored or given discounts to attend these retreats, but that didn’t account for the cost of flights or the 200 dollar a night hotel room fees, or the money I chose to sacrifice by taking time off working my Starbucks job while attending the retreat.
I was a precocious young woman with a strong intellect, passion and a deep spiritual thirst, so I quickly networked with a lot of high profile teachers.
I met a lot of amazing people and I even managed to establish myself as a writer and gain a “semi-celebrity” status as an up-and-coming voice in the particular spiritual worlds that I traveled in.
But over time, I started to feel that something was “off.” I felt myself getting caught up in certain subtle trappings of the spiritual culture and the illusions of its privilege. And all the attention I was getting was also starting to go to my head and I began to feel increasingly out of touch with the majority of people in my everyday life.
Perhaps the hardest reality check was that I simply could no longer afford the lifestyle it seemed to require to keep “fitting in”.
The more time I spent at retreats, workshops and networking seminars, the more it became clear that the mainstream spiritual scene had become a space increasingly reserved and catered to the elite.
I found myself saddled with a growing mountain of debt that no amount of self-awareness, positive thinking, or “following my bliss” was paying off on its own.
At age 27, my disillusionment with this scene led me to move to Asia where I began teaching ESL to pay off my debts. And it was at this time of confusion and spiritual disillusionment that I began volunteering with international organisations dedicated to human rights issues.
I also started reading books I hadn’t read as much of in the past. I resisted the urge to pick up another book by Joseph Campbell, and instead followed an intuition to pick up more books about politics, history, economics and social critical theory.
To my surprise, at this particular time in my life, reading such books offered me an important counter-balance in perspective. It allowed me to flesh out a much larger picture for how I saw and made sense of the world around me after so many years of being heavily focused on the interior realms of my experience.
Ironically perhaps, after a decade of navigating spiritual awakenings, I was having a political awakening, and it changed the way I saw everything.
I’m Spiritual…Not Religious!
For many years, as someone identified strongly with a growing demographic referred to as the “spiritual but not religious”, larger complex political and economic realities had admittedly remained somewhat invisible to me.
In retrospect, I could say that political and economic trends factored very little into how I made sense of my experience. My ignorance was in part simply because I found politics radically depressing, and also because of a Microeconomics 101 course I took in college which I found to be about as exciting as watching paint dry.
But a more subtle cause of my ignorance, which didn’t become apparent to me until much later, was that like most in the “spiritual but not religious” demographic, I believed that the ultimate source of reality and power was within myself, not outside myself.
I wasn’t some extreme blind follower of The Secret, nor did I ever attempt to manifest a new car into existence through inner visualisation techniques, but I did carry a subtle yet pervasive belief that my inner reality ultimately created my outer circumstances.
This belief, unbeknownst to me at the time, was in large part why I chose to ignore much of the politics and the very real economic discrepancies I had experienced in much of the popular spiritual world for so long.
Despite the many great things I gained from my time in these worlds, there were many aspects of the spiritual scene that caused me discomfort.
For instance, the growing over-hyped marketing culture that always promised over-blown results in promotional copy for retreats, seminars, and online courses (a trend that continually seemed to position spirituality as the next hot thing to be uncritically bought and sold in a consumer marketplace). Not to mention the growing positioning of prominent spiritual teachers as over-blown public celebrities—which seemed to be squeezing out a diversity of voices and corroding critical debate on taken-for-granted spiritual ideas.
Furthermore, I found there was little space given within these communities to bring up complex conversations about the ways that spirituality was increasingly being catered to a privileged elite through cross-promotional celebrity networks and unfair access to many of these expensive retreats.
To avoid simple binaries, I’m not saying spiritual teachers should not be compensated for what they do, nor am I saying that money is bad.
What I’m pointing to is the larger social, political, and economic systems we currently exist within that spirituality and spiritual teachings have too often been uncritically assimilated into.
I also realise that these political and economic blind spots aren’t pervasive in all spiritual communities, so I don’t mean to over-generalise.
There are certainly spiritual organizations out there actively engaging issues of social inequality, and of course spiritual leaders like Pope Francis now increasingly challenging broader political and economic injustices.
When this first dawned on me, I found myself fascinated by the implications of my own blind spots and how they had led me into a great deal of my own disillusionment with the spiritual mainstream culture (not to mention mountains of debt).
In an attempt to make larger sense of my experience, I started researching the history of popular contemporary spiritual movements in North America, which led me to the Human Potential Movement and to an eye-opening history lesson in neoliberal politics.
So let’s jump into a little history…
The Human Potential Movement (HPM) was a movement that arose largely out of the experimental milieu of the 1960s (although its original roots date back earlier) and formed around the concept of cultivating extraordinary human potential, which its adherents believed to lie untapped in all individuals.
By employing an array of experimental psychological and spiritual practices, adherents believed that individuals could unlock these latent human potentials and attain inner freedom. It was believed that the net effect of significant numbers of individuals “becoming their own highest potential” would inherently de-stabalize the status quo and bring about transformation to the society at large.
Many contemporary spiritual movements, often loosely referred to today as the “New Age,” arose out of the original ideals that formed the Human Potential Movement.
In his book, Possession, Power and the New Age: Ambiguities of Authority in Neoliberal Societies, Scholar Matthew Wood defines the New Age as a diverse collection of practices, beliefs and ideologies that center around the primacy of the individual and self-authority. Wood writes:
“The New Age is seen as a religion—or, more usually, a spirituality—in which people choose what to do, and how to do it, on the basis of their own authority, rather than being directed by authorities external to them. External authorities and traditions are utilized, often through marketplace consumption, merely as resources from which the self draws…The New Age extols the self, its fulfillments and expression, such that these authorities act to encourage and facilitate people’s expressions of their own inner authority.”
Of course trying to pin down or pigeonhole a precise definition of the Human Potential Movement, or its many New Age offshoots, is not an easy task, as their manifestations are as diverse and subtle as is the reach of their underlying values into nearly all aspects of North American life—from psychology, to spirituality, to business, education and even to politics, (as we will see).
The most important thing to note at this point is that the Human Potential Movement grew out of a much larger shift that was happening since the 19th century, and that was the increasing psychologization of society.
This shift towards psychology and a new conception of the individual self also supported the increasing secularisation of society and laid the ground for people to eventually begin searching for a God within themselves, rather than through external authorities or religious institutions.
The Privatization of the Self
The Human Potential Movement of the 1960’s, and it’s many New Age offshoots, have offered important developments in breaking down traditional barriers to religious experience and putting power in the hands of the individual to control their destiny in a way that has been unprecedented.
On the level of individual individuation from the wider culture and stepping into new dimensions of personal power, this was, and still is, a hugely important historical moment that ought not to be understated.
But this move to increased individualisation, self-authority and what we might term “the privatisation of religious experience”, didn’t occur within a vacuum.
The Human Potential Movement also arose at a time when the values of individualism, self-expression, and individual exceptionalism formed the central platform for the introduction of a new neoliberal political and economic agenda in Euro-America.
Sadly, not only did the ideals of the Human Potential Movement fail to radically destabilise the larger socio-political status quo of the time, but rather ironically, its central values of individual self-expression and self-authority became central leverage points for politicians to usher in a series of economic reforms that would effectively dismantle the welfare state and instigate the beginning of an unprecedented new era of winner-takes-all politics.
To understand the implications, let me first unpack this seemingly obscure term: neoliberalsm.
Neoliberalism loosely refers to a cohering set of economic, social, and political policies that seek to secure human flourishing through minimising the role of government. It locates freedom in individual autonomy, expressed most prominently through consumer choice.
Neoliberalist economic policies were based on the ideas of the economist Milton Friedman, and often serve neo-conservative
Neoliberalism first flourished under the joint Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan administrations in the 1980s in the UK and USA respectively (although neoliberal policies have been supported by both Republican and Democratic governments ever since).
Under the Thatcher-Regan adminstrations, the welfare state that had been set up by Roosevelt after the war was effectively dismantled, and a new reign of privatisation, de-regulation and unbridled hawkish capitalism took hold—which many now argue led us directly into the Euro-American economic crisis we face today.
Critical educator Henry Giroux describes neoliberalism as a mode of governance that produces identities, subjects, and ways of life free of government regulations. It is driven by a survival of the fittest ethic, grounded in the idea of the free, possessive individual.
“As a policy and political project, neoliberalism is wedded to the privatization of public services, selling off of state functions, deregulation of finance and labor, elimination of the welfare state and unions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment and the marketization and commodification of society.”
Magaret Thatcher famously summed up the importance of the individual in this neoliberal political vision when she said, “there is no such thing as society”. Thus an entirely new era of crony capitalism, unfair wealth accumulation, income disparity, and the buying out of the democratic political process by big businesses and interest groups was born.
The Invisible Silencing of Political Dissent
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporary embarrassed millionaires.”
~ John Steinbeck
The emergent cultural values of individualism not only gave politicians and big businesses the ideal platform to implement a new era of radical free-market ideology and generate a whole new market for commercial consumption, but it also offered a useful ideology to quell the problem of political dissent.
In the fascinating and informative four-hour documentary film, The Century of the Self, we watch how the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s increasingly moved from outward political protests (Civil Rights and Vietnam) to inward psychological and spiritual quests increasingly aimed at self-liberation and psychological self-actualization.
Because the Human Potential Movement believed the transformation of the self was the ultimate leverage point for wider social change, political protest often became subsumed under the growing imperative for internal self-liberation.
A series of books and television programs proliferated during this time promoting the idea that one’s only real duty was to become themselves, and larger political visions often began to fall by the wayside as internal transformation and “becoming oneself” became viewed as the key to social change.
Despite the partial truth within this belief—(I do believe individual liberation is an essential compliment to larger political change, and this was not lost on revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King)—the unexamined and over-emphasised belief that the individual was the central locus of power unfortunately offered a useful complement to neoliberal ideology.
Both Thatcher and Regan took advantage of this convenient compliment.
Where Human Potential Movement and/or “New Age” adherents emphasize the central role and power of the individual and their internal state in creating their reality, neoliberal ideology also places full responsibility on the individual to control their destiny in a free-market capitalist system.
Neoliberal free-market utopian propaganda has thrived on the myth of meritocracy and the belief that anyone who cultivates their individual exceptional potential has equal access to happiness, prosperity and unlimited social mobility in a free-market economy.
And perhaps more importantly, by consequence, if you aren’t able to achieve wealth and prosperity in this utopian system, then it is essentially your fault. There is no recourse for blame outside the individual, because it is within the individual where the locus of all power lies.
Both these ideologies often have the blindspot of negating (or are simply ignorant of) the larger complex dynamics of systematic inequality and the chain effects of influence that our current neoliberal political-economic-complex
Therefore when unexamined in all dimensions, contemporary spirituality, with its tendency to overly focus on the individual and its commonly built upon blind spots to larger systematic trends, can easily be usurped into the very socio-political system it aims to overturn. At worst, it even becomes its own sedative or “opium” for the masses.
As Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson point out in their brilliantly illuminating book, Winner Takes All Politics:
“More than most societies, Americans believe that people rise or fall as a result of their own efforts, and therefore get what they deserve. Critically, when we say this is a nation of individualists, we don’t just mean Americans embrace individualism as a social ethic. Underpinning this ethic is a tendency to interpret the world in highly individualistic terms. We distribute blame and praise to individuals because we believe that it is their individual actions, for better or worse, that determine their reality. People get what they deserve…Our preoccupation with specific personalities and insistence on attributing everything that happens to the qualities of individuals is a form of blindness.”
Perhaps more disturbingly, Hacker and Pierson go on to say that the ecosystem of politics, specifically in American, has seen an organisational revolution in the last 30 years that they argue is unprecendented in history.
In this new ecosystem, (business), Wall Street and ideological conservative organisations that are pushing for free market policies have become much more strategically organised as groups, and more influential than ever. At the same time, most of the organisations that used to represent the middle class, such as labor unions, broad-based civic organisations, and organisations at the local and grassroots level, including social movements, have all lost enormous political ground and influence. In such a climate, when we continue to focus so heavily on individuals rather than larger complex dynamics of systematic organisation, we do so at our serious detriment.
The values of the free individual and self-actualisation that are central to the Human Potential Movement are also easily appropriated by consumer culture and neoliberal economic policies. In fact, the psychological research of Abraham Maslow, one of the founders fathers of Humanistic psychology, and a prominent voice in the Human Potential Movement, was used directly by advertisers who switched from selling “products” to selling “individual lifestyles”.
This was a shift in marketing strategy that allowed people to feel they could express themselves and their sense of individualism through consumer choice, and also offered a useful pre-occupation steered away from larger political concerns.
This is another fascinating trend with many implications that go beyond the scope of this article.
More to this point, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King argue in their book, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, that with the rejection of the Church and institutional religious ideology, we increasingly moved towards a new form of authoritarianism of the market and capital. Spiritual self-actualization became a new kind of market-actualization, often clever for its very concealment. They state:
“The territorial takeover of religion by psychology (individualism) offers the platform for the takeover of spirituality by capitalism (corporatisation). Psychology provides a way for the market to embrace religion through the language of ‘spirituality’ and politically removes its threat to the status quo. While “New Age” followers dance the gospel of self-expression they often service the financial agents and chain themselves to a spirituality of consumerism.”
The Stalled Revolution
Ultimately, after years of being immersed in the worlds of psychology and spirituality, and engaging many deep practices to develop self-awareness, I know how powerful our inner state is in determining our experience of life.
I believe in the power of individual choice and self-responsibility in shaping our lives, I believe in unique self/soul expression, and I believe that engaging in practices to strengthen mindfulness and become aware of ones own limiting beliefs is an extremely potent ingredient in the recipe for social change.
I also believe, after years of being engaged in these worlds, that the current focus on inner transformation and individual self-expression as more important than critical thinking about systematic political and economic realities is a serious blindspot for a great deal of the Human Potential and New Age Movement.
The ideal of the Human Potential Movement, that inner liberation and groups of individuals who were freed to become themselves would be enough to lead to widespread social revolution, has arguably proven itself over-idealistic.
We could say this blind-sighted idealism has led us to a stalled revolution, and has even played a partial, if indirect, role in leading us into one of the worst political and economic crisis of our history.
What was perhaps most startling for me when reading the book Winner Takes All Politics is the stats Hacker and Pierson share on how little the average American really knows about the political process, political organisation and political polices within their own country (never mind internationally). They state:
“The truth is that that most citizens pay very little attention to politics, and it shows. To call their knowledge of even the most elementary facts about the political system shaky, would be generous.”
Their studies and statistics didn’t document knowledge of politics by the average citizen in Europe, or my home country Canada, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority didn’t fare much better in these kinds of surveys than the average American.
I know I would have likely rated equally as poorly in knowledge if I were polled only a few years ago.
The reason this is critical to my point is that if we are telling ourselves that real transformation happens from the inside-out (a popular and branded slogan in the spiritual and self-help circles which carries some important truth), but at the same time so few of us actually know what is going on in the increasingly complex systems of political-economic social control we are embedded within, then in my eyes we are likely doomed to remain in a stalled revolution.
I would also argue that this systemic blind spot leaves a great deal of the spiritual and self-help world vulnerable to continually having the values of their counter-culture revolutions and rebellions usurped and intelligently incorporated back into the dominant political and corporate agendas of their time.
Why? Because these larger systems are much more strategically organised and well-funded than we are as individuals. As a result, we more often than not become unknowing complicit consumers of the very system we had hoped to change.
Recently, even Esalen, the birth place of the radical revolutionary experiments of the 1960s and 1970s Human Potential Movement, has been criticised for the way it is increasingly catering to the 1%. Some even calling for an “Occupy Esalen” movement in the face of the way Esalen is increasingly packaging spirituality for the elite.
Bridging the Inner and Outer Worlds
These much larger social and cultural trends provide some explanation for the discomfort I experienced in the spiritual scene during my early to mid-20s, yet at the time did not have the words for. I didn’t have words partly because social issues are often rendered invisible under the dominant, often subtle, ideological paradigm of individualism that pervades much of contemporary spirituality.
All of this can be made worse by a kind of spiritual bypassing in many spiritual practitioners (I would have been guilty of this myself a few years back) when it comes to money.
There is a deep thread of magical thinking that permeates the contemporary spiritual culture that if you are somehow spiritual enough, do enough inner visualisations, or set enough positive conscious intentions, that the universe will get behind you and money, abundance, and success will begin to flow to you. And again, if you aren’t getting the money, success and abundance, the implicit implication is that there is something wrong with you.
There is of course a partial truth to some of these ideas and practices, but in sometimes well-intentioned attempts to “embrace abundance,” many contemporary spiritual teachers and self-help gurus can end up uncritically selling themselves back into the system of privilege and unequal access that upholds the very paradigm they wish to transform.
Of course, we all need to make a living, and we have limited choices in this economy. But what I find disappointing is how little critical conversation there is going on about all of this within the mainstream spiritual culture.
I truly believe that if we had a stronger understanding of the powerful systems we are embedded within, we’d have much more of a chance of actually creating viable and sustainable alternatives, rather than simply re-capitulating the same systematic problems in a new spiritual guise.
So, in the face of our current collective economic and environmental crisis, I do believe that contemporary spirituality is nothing if it doesn’t engage social justice and economic realities in an critical, honest and practical way. Our inner and outer worlds are ultimately not separate, and a blind spot to either individual power or social power in shaping our choices, beliefs, and opportunities in life creates imbalances and leads to ideology.
As Matthew Wood states, the idea that we can separate our self-authority from other authorities (“other authorities” being societal, economic or political), and seeing the former as taking primacy over the latter, is as false as viewing people as simply moulded by outside authorities as if they were inert lumps of clay.
Of course none of us will be experts in every domain, nor do I think we need to. More realistically, I think we do well (myself included) to engage openly, creatively and compassionately with others who hold different perspectives and areas of expertise than our own–across the spiritual and political spectrum.
In doing so, we will increasingly engage in more constructive and critical dialogue for generating new integrative solutions for the pressing issues facing all of us. And ideally, through the cross-pollination of networks and expertise, we can become as informed and as equally well-organised as the elites that currently prosper under our collective fragmentation.
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