After a deep dive into spirituality, I have developed quite a resistance against it, which I find really interesting. Spirituality is about finding your way to be connected to ‘spirit’, to be present in the moment, and to be content in this life. And it’s hard to argue against that. Except when this doesn’t take into account, for example, other people’s lives… In this blog post I’ll walk you through what my new resistance is based on and why I think spirituality cultures are problematic.
Quick note about spirituality: you can say that it is about personal development. Personal development can be about learning to be more efficient in doing daily tasks and generally learning new things, and I believe it is often infused with some spirituality too. At least it is in certain scenes or cultures, like the whole health and wellness culture that came to be. On this blog I named the category for all this ‘inner growth’. There are many different words for similar things.
First of all, for the past three to five years I longed for spirituality in my life and I found it in the form of kundalini yoga. But sadly, my deep dive into spirituality ended with a cold shower of realizations about this ‘kundalini yoga packaged spirituality’. I already wrote three posts about how this community worked (I believe the special ingredient is manipulation!). In conclusion, it left me pretty disillusioned and wary about ‘spiritual cultures’.
It remains interesting to me though, because this was such a good example of how spirituality has a way of luring people in with promises of a better life and world. Spiritual communities generally offer a safe space for sensitive people who don’t feel so safe in their life and societies. Safe spaces are great, we all need spaces where we can thrive. But I do believe that it’s important for these communities to remain grounded in the rest of society and reality, and well, to be honest.
In kundalini yoga I believe there was a lack of such grounding and honesty. I perceived a divide between the ‘normal earthly world and society’ and ‘the spiritual and divine kundalini yoga world’. This lead to people actually getting trapped in the kundalini yoga cult in the US. Of course, the forming of an actual cult is an extreme form of community, but there are more groups in which the members get manipulated and become estranged from people outside of the group.
We should be wary of this. Especially because people have the tendency to surround themselves with people that are like them, and online the social media platforms perfectly allow for this. This way people create their own bubbles and may lose themselves in it, in the rabbit holes of social media, the echo chambers. People create their own worlds with like-minded people and this affects their worldview and how they relate to others and the rest of society.
Earlier I already wrote about that process and about my own social media bubbles. My Instagram bubble was filled with women running small businesses in different spirituality or personal development themes, promoting things like yoga and self-care practices. So that lead to a world view in which everyone was into these things. And I found that pretty confusing. (By the way, in the meantime I have deactivated my Instagram account, and it’s much better.)
Currently the internet is full of influencers and business owners in the sphere of spirituality and ‘wellness’. I’m not so into this wellness theme, but these people supposedly post about green smoothies, workouts and vitamin pills. Even though I personally avoid them, I can’t help but come across them from time to time because they regularly mix with spirituality and veganism.
In the spheres of spirituality and wellness many people display ‘wellness pornography’. Wellness pornography describes the phenomenon in which people consistently show images of their picture perfect ‘healthy lifestyle’, and the attributed benefits such a lifestyle will yield. These images are their ‘brand’. They sell the idea that if you live like them, you’ll be as healthy and successful as they are.
However, the image portrayed is untrue because it is highly crafted. The people crafting it leave out the things that are not pretty, like the uncomfortable aspects of having a body, of having to deal with the earthly problems of everyday life.
The term ‘wellness pornography’ is used because such an image only shows the positive sides for viewers to engage with, and not the more difficult parts that exist too. Matthew Remski defines it as follows: ‘We engage with wellness pornography by consuming attractive images and beguiling ideas of personal well-being for the sake of pleasure, without having to engage with the complexity of biological sciences or social determinants of health, and without having to be responsible for the negative outcomes of fashionable wellness ideas.‘
We are set up for this by the way (social) media are function right now. These streams of attractive images are a logical result of these platforms, because we all select our influencers based on how ‘attractive’ we find their content. Thus, as users we automatically curate the things we do and do not post, even more so if we’re running a business and our livelihoods depend on it, as is the case for many influencers and business owners who are active on social media. This creates a space in which everything there is highly curated and in a sense unreal or untrue.
Earlier I already wrote that social media users easily turn into marketing machines, and that this creates distorted internet environments or bubbles. These digital environments are not the same as everyday reality; they are glossed over. How this affects you depends on who you allow to fill up your digital reality. But I believe it’s part of a cultural change that affects us all. So even though you don’t follow the wellness pornographers, you will still be impacted by the stories they spin. And so is the spirituality sphere.
An impression of wellness
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may check Bo Burnham’s music video and parody White Woman’s Instagram. It is not specifically about wellness, but he does give an impression of images that women tend to display on social media like Instagram. It’s mostly just funny, but recognizable too.
Another great impression is given by journalist Calliste Weitenberg and producer Elise Potaka who build a fake ‘wellness’ influencer persona to see if they can cash in on the influencer industry. In the short documentary series they give a good impression of this industry and of how it is to be a part of it. Go here for part one of Like, Subscribe, Follow.
Otherwise, here’s an impression of a wellness-themed grid:
Does it look familiar? I find it hilarious how these pictures together make such a recognizable image, and not just from wellness influencers, but also from magazines in the same sphere. In a way, influencers do behave as magazines, but they have a personal brand. To make it seem more personal, influencers will add loads of seemingly casual selfies, as well as highly stylized pictures that required an actual photo shoot. They will make it seem as if it all comes very easy to them, and no photo shoot was necessary, but that’s false image. At least with the pictures above, I know there’s a photographer behind it who uploaded the pictures to Pexels.
But yeah, does creating such a grid, brand or image mean that you are always mindful or zen? Or that you somehow have the perfect life? And that this same ‘perfect life’ is accessible for others who follow your lead? No, not it at all. It just means that you put these images together and probably wrote some texts to go with it. And that you probably put all this effort into it because you expect a return on investment.
Thus far there’s nothing wrong with it, except that what’s shown is dishonest. But it gets more wrong when it’s not just pretty images on the internet, but when the internet becomes a manipulative environment build to, among other things, make money.
Toxic positivity is business
We like to surround ourselves with positivity, with wellness or spirituality that can positively explain things. But I believe positivity can turn toxic if it’s no longer rooted in the real world, if it doesn’t acknowledge the negative things in life. And when it doesn’t take responsibility for the negative effects it may have, just like wellness pornography. Wellness pornography is an example of toxic positivity.
I have come to the conclusion that in current times online spirituality cultures inevitably display toxic positivity, because they exist on social media and in a capitalist society. Spirituality cultures tend to form alternative cultures but they still exist within the larger structures of social media and capitalism and they develop within these structures. That’s why they’re not so alternative at all.
Online spirituality cultures inevitably display toxic positivity, because they exist on social media and in a capitalist society.
Generally, social media and capitalism have us increasingly act like businesses and think economically. This happens in spirituality too. More and more people seem to start their own spiritual businesses, which means they start to be dependent on the financial outcomes of their work. Then it is no longer spiritual development only but also a business that needs to grow to be profitable. Marketing is needed. And these business owners are the people that make sure that they are the most visible in online spaces. They dominate the online space because that’s where the money is.
The wellness pornographers are displaying toxic positivity to grow their audience and thereby their ‘likes’ and income through ‘influencing’ or selling e-books. Also, there’s a growing scene of online business coaches that’s displaying toxic positivity to sell more online business and marketing courses. Many of them sell the idea that running your own wellness or spirituality business (or coaching business!) is a good way to win at life. This may be so for some, but not necessarily for everyone. But entrepreneurs and marketeers generally tactically leave the bad stuff out of their marketing.
By the way, being your own boss is presented as the ideal alternative precisely by the people who started their own business and are branching out to be business coaches. These people are already in the (quite spiritual) ‘being your own boss culture’, and they really don’t know what is good for you and what isn’t. They’re just selling their product: their online business courses. Read more about this paradox of online business and marketing coaching in my earlier post.
Individuality: wellness as a competition
The current display of toxic positivity, spirituality and wellness is rooted in the societal trends of individualization and meritocracy: the ideas that we have to fix our problems on our own and that we are personally responsible for our successes as well as our failures. These ideas build to the pressure to self-actualize, to keep running on the hamster wheel of self-improvement. It pressures us to always be hustling, to always try to work harder and smarter, because that seems to be the only way to feel worthy and earn a living wage.
The current display of toxic positivity, spirituality and wellness is rooted in the societal trends of individualization and meritocracy: the ideas that we have to fix our problems on our own and that we are personally responsible for our successes as well as our failures.
Being your own boss is hip. I want everyone to realize that it’s not hip merely because it’s glamorous, it’s hip because of cultural trends like individualization and meritocracy. It’s important to note that these trends coincided with the breaking down of societal safety nets and widespread privatization of all kinds of institutions.
Under capitalism and neoliberalism, we have come to believe that we need to be able to fix it all for ourselves, individually, so that we don’t need these collective safety nets anymore. We have been made to believe all is fair and well, and we should just work harder and smarter and then we’ll be safe. We collectively accept not having safety nets because we started to perceive the need for safety as an individual problem with an individual solution.
Being your own boss is hip because we seek an alternative to the oppression of working as an employee for a boss and being your own boss is presented as the ideal alternative. But being your own boss requires you to accept all responsibilities and risks that come with that. It requires you to individually build up your own safety net.
It’s not you, it’s privilege
And who doesn’t want to look good on socials? Who doesn’t want to showcase their face, body and smarts on a platform that rewards the producers of wellness pornography? Everybody may want it, but it’s only achievable for those who fit the commonly accepted beauty and health standards.
That’s just one example, but it’s true that not everything is achievable for everyone. And that’s not just because these people don’t work equally hard or smart, but because of many reasons including the environment and circumstances they grew up in, and whether or not they are part of a group that’s marginalized or oppressed.
When does positivity become toxic? Maybe that’s when it conceals reality. When it doesn’t acknowledge power relations, oppression and privilege. Maybe positivity is toxic when it doesn’t acknowledge that being positive is a lot easier for people in privileged positions, for people who actually benefit from the power relations in the world.
Toxic positivity doesn’t fully acknowledge that people can have traumas and that bodies can have illnesses and that these are not cured by some positive thinking alone. It doesn’t acknowledge that being positive can be a result from being privileged, instead it preaches that positivity creates wealth and abundance. It doesn’t acknowledge that wealth and abundance aren’t equally distributed in a world that is built on colonialism and oppression.
It’s not mindset, it’s oppression
So what about the colonized and the oppressed? The traumatized and the people with illnesses? What about the workers with flexible contracts, low wages and bad working conditions? Do we allow them to have a safety net too? Or is safety only for the privileged who manage to be successful in this society?
I hate how everything is portrayed as a choice and as the results of these choices. The individual and their self-actualization take center stage and their successes are attributed to their choices. And that’s not a good depiction of reality.
We have to be honest about our societal structures, about our systems that give privileges to some and take from others. It’s not the fault of the underprivileged that they are underprivileged. It’s the system that’s at fault and the people who are in a position to change this system. Generally, these people are not the underprivileged ones but the privileged. The privileged people are the people with power and the power to change.
I definitely do not want to say that people have no power themselves. But we have to be honest about power relationships in the world and hold people accountable for their participation therein.
Collective problems: capitalism
My resistance isn’t so much against spirituality per se, but against the problems that arise when spirituality becomes corrupted by capitalism. And I believe this is happening on large scales and we have to be aware of how this works and how it impacts us, as individuals and as communities.
My problem with spirituality is that it poses individual solutions to collective problems. It offers inspiring content on social media platforms that are the ultimate distraction machines and effectively make people feel bad about themselves. It offers online courses that cost thousands of euros and apps that can help you be in the moment. It offers more and more ways to discover inner problems to fix and it offers paid products and services that promise to help you fix these problems. It offers communities that you can only be a part of if you pay. It offers an infinite hamster wheel of self-improvement that effectively distracts us from large scale structural problems.
My problem with personal development is that it tells you that you are not good enough the way you are. It tells you a neoliberal and capitalist story of having to become more efficient and productive. It tells you that you always need to be flexible and available for work so you can become more successful and add more value to the economy than you already do. It sells to you this idea that you have to reinvent yourself every moment so to be able to win this game.
When personal development is corrupted by capitalism, it gets used as a means to increase economic growth. Whereas spirituality and personal development have the key objective to increase one’s well-being, these practices are now being used to serve capitalism. These practices are now used to keep people ‘well enough’ to perform in high pressure capitalist societies. Under capitalism, wellness and self-care are seen as a personal investment for your future productivity. Wellness and self-care are tasks we have to do to continue contributing to economic growth in a system that doesn’t take care of us.
What personal development that is corrupted by capitalism doesn’t tell you, is that the game is set up for most people to lose so that only a few people can win. It doesn’t tell you that this game is set up to increase inequality and bring more and more money or capital or power in the hands of fewer people. It doesn’t tell you that the idea of infinite economic growth is unsustainable on a finite planet with limited resources
Spirituality tells you there’s a way out, out of the painful contemporary society, into this dream world in which you can be your own boss. It tells you that you are lucky to have found this exit. It tells you that you can win in life and that you can do it ‘your own way’.
It doesn’t tell you that to live in such a way doesn’t solve the problems of so many others. It may offer you a way to live, but it’s very questionable whether that life is going to be how you imagine it. Because spiritual businesses still need money to come in. Spiritual businesses still have to compete in the rat race of social media influencers. Spiritual businesses are still part of capitalism and are benefiting from how the systems are set up right now.
Collective solutions: systems change
We don’t need a spirituality that tells us that we’re not good enough yet. We don’t need a spirituality that tells us that we need to be part of a paid and highly moderated online spiritual community, that we have to look good on the internet and collect followers to prove our worth and our existence. We don’t need a spirituality that tells us that we need to have a divine life purpose and need to dedicate our whole lives to that. We don’t need a spirituality that tells us that we have to start a spiritual business around our spiritual interests. We don’t need a spirituality that tells us that mundane life isn’t spiritual enough. We don’t need spirituality that tells us that ‘being your own boss’ is better or more spiritual than working as an employee.
We don’t need wellness that makes us believe we’re in competition with everyone else. We don’t need wellness that makes us believe that be can only be well if we spend money on goods and services that are branded as ‘wellness’. We don’t need wellness that tells us our well-being has to look a certain way to be true.
We don’t need personal development that tells us we shouldn’t waste time on existential questions. We don’t need a personal development that has the main goal of increasing our productivity and thereby our contribution to the economy. We don’t need personal development that tells us that we are machine-like and need to be as efficient as machines and algorithms. We don’t need personal development that tells us that we need to work 24/7 to be worthy of a sufficient income.
We don’t need individual solutions to fix our collective problems. That’s not going to cut it.
Instead, we need to acknowledge our collective problems and how they impact us individually and collectively. We need to look into these problems and to look for structural collective solutions. We need to dismantle the systems of oppression and install systems that benefit all people and life on earth.
This requires us to take a step back and observe the systems we operate in, the same systems all these spiritual and wellness business operate in. Because ultimately we need to deconstruct the systems that we try to beat by working harder and smarter. We need to acknowledge that the exhaustion that we try to beat through meditation should instead be beaten by changing the system so that it supports us instead of draining us.
We should use our spirituality, wellness and personal development to transform the capitalist system that benefits the few and harms the many. We need to create societal systems that supports all life on earth.
So please be careful in deciding what to spend your time, energy and money on. Keep asking yourself if the person behind the marketing is honest in what they deliver and what it should cost you. Keep asking yourself if the content is really worth your time and energy and if you shouldn’t instead focus on something else. I mention this because I believe that spirituality and wellness can also serve as a destination to flight towards, to escape from having to deal with problems in the real world or society. But it’s not always an escape, often it’s procrastination. So ask yourself whether it’s a dream (of a business owner doing their marketing) or reality, especially when a lot of money is involved.
I personally have decided to stay away from Instagram and ‘paid’ spirituality (communities) for a while and focus on true system change and sustainability instead.
PS Congratulations for reading through all that! I know it was a hard one. You’re more than welcome to let me know what you think! And even though I’m taking a break from spiritual cultures, it is likely that I’ll write about the topic again. So you don’t have to worry about that. 😉