In which I call bullsh*t on my own industry
I had hoped that the world of shamanism and healing would be immune to the myth of effortlessness. I was wrong.
In the myth of the Effortless White Woman, we’re told that we should look and act like Gwyneth Paltrow, with perfect skin, perfect yoga pants for perfect yoga classes, and plenty of time after our passion projects to devote to our perfect children and husbands. This myth implies that any life worth living is fair-haired, “high-vibe,” thin, and includes at least two homes. But if you can’t achieve this effortless perfection today, don’t worry: buy this juice cleanse and take this online course with a multimillionaire coach and maybe you can try again next month.
I had hoped that the realm of shamanism and healing — where I spend a lot of time — would be immune from the EWW myth. At their best, ancestral traditions are about interdependence, personal truth, collective good, and ancient wisdom. Shamanism existed before organized religion and Madison Avenue, which to me makes it more trustworthy than a lot of what came later. I’ve spent a lot of time and money in shamanic circles and it has changed my life for the better, without question. Nevertheless, I continue to see EWW tentacles in the preponderance of shamanic schools and products, and I find myself feeling wary when the advertising overpromises, knowing it must underdeliver.
I understand the modern need to advertise what one does. I do this myself. To have a livelihood or even a lively hobby, some public announcement is usually involved, photographed, and posted. As I do it, I try to question my own motives. At the very least, I remember that I’m not selling myself; I’m offering something that I hope others will find useful. So I apply this question to the ads I see elsewhere. What is the message behind the offering?
It seems that the principles in shallow holistic marketing are the same as in the EWW myth, even if some of the vocabulary is different. It goes like this: “Go on this exotic retreat and then you’ll be able to manifest the life of your choosing. Spirituality is the way to happiness, so if you’re unhappy, it must be because you aren’t spiritual enough. Do these five healing sessions and take this herb and then you’ll finally be happy. Buy a shaman’s starter kit complete with feather and quartz even if you don’t know what to do with them. See these satisfied customers who are now wealthier than ever, having unleashed their inner shaman/ warrior goddess/ wild woman.”
We are sold this bill of goods about how life is supposed to look and feel according to those who are trying to sell it to us. And often, when it doesn’t look or feel that way, we feel cheated. Disappointed. Shamed. Like we’ve screwed up somehow or else we’d already have that Life Worth Living. We keep waiting for the promised peak experience that will change it all, because if we could only have that one perfect insight, not only would we look worthy, we’d actually be worthy. We could make our own memes instead reposting other people’s. We’d have it all figured out just like those beautiful spiritual people if only we weren’t such fuck-ups, if only the Universe was fair.
Or maybe it’s just me. I have felt like a fuck-up. I’m a holistic practitioner and I’m in debt. I’m a shamanic healer and I’ve struggled with depression, and earlier this year I threw my back out really badly and gained a little weight. And because I’ve equated materialism with success, because I’ve bought into the EWW lie, I have felt like a failure. I’ve allowed positive client feedback and great results take a backseat to how it all looks. I have less social media clout than my counterparts and so no matter how skilled I may be, I’ve felt like I’m trailing behind. Part of me believes I’m not as good as them because I forget that followers don’t equal worthiness.
I see holistic teachers in different modalities with perfectly curated Instagram feeds in which none of their pictures are selfies (which means a photographer tags along everywhere). They write exclusively about love and light and authenticity yet reveal nothing of themselves or how to accomplish this. I read the bios of self-proclaimed healers who have taken every course at Omega and Kripalu and traveled all over the world (which you can see if you follow them) and really, all this tells me is that they have the time and money to take courses and travel. Anyone with means can pay to sit at the feet of a shaman in Peru or a yogi in India — I know this because I’ve done it. If you have disposable income, you can be certified in anything you want. It says nothing about integrity or skill, about what you’ve actually learned and integrated, or what service you can genuinely offer others. It guarantees nothing.
I’m a practitioner, and I’m also a consumer of ideas and images, and I’ve been a student of many training programs. Along with the rest of the audience, I’ve been told, however subtly, that we should be able to make a living doing what we love even if we don’t know anything about business models. We’re told to look at Venn diagrams, those neat circles of passion and practicality overlapping into a central sweet spot, as maps for our lives. This is how it’s done. This is how you manifest your best life. This is the way to up-level everything and stop sucking. Once you’re certified as a Light Activator / Goddess Facilitator / Ascension Guide, once you’re off sugar for three months, once you train with that famous and gorgeous teacher, yes: then even you can be happy and rich.
Except we’re not. So we sign up for more. Because we think we’re the problem.
The myth of effortless manifestation may have begun as a tenet with some truth, some encouragement to find our individual integrity and stamina. And at heart, that can work. I’m proof, actually. I feel like a stronger and more peaceful version of myself compared to fifteen years ago, specifically because I did the work I was encouraged to do by real healers and mentors.
But I’ve also seen and bought a lot of charlatanism that ultimately just made me feel more broken when happiness didn’t arrive at my door. And this is why so much New Age marketing is sneaky: despite a trustworthy, earnest veneer, pseudo-spirituality relies on our feeling broken so that we keep buying. Just like fashion magazines. Just like diet fads. It’s supposed to work, we think, but we are not. We hope for the benefit of the product and wait for life to change.
When my back pain was at its worst earlier this year, my partner and I had a talk about my impatience to get better. I was really frustrated. “What if you don’t get better?” he asked. “What if this is as good as it gets? Can you be okay with that?” I got mad at him and his crappy pep talk. I didn’t want to be okay with it, I wanted to be doing handstands to prove how resilient I was and then tell everyone about it. But as I sat with his questions, I discovered that they applied to everything. What if this is it? What if this is as rich as I will ever be? What if I’m already as enlightened and good and qualified as anybody else? Can I be happy in this skin, right now, without anything changing?
I realized that I don’t want to waste my life on aspirations. I don’t want to wake up in thirty years stupefied that I never let myself be happy.
When we’re in pain, we don’t want to be told that life hurts sometimes. We want a better pep talk, one that promises us that we can transcend the mundane and uncomfortable, that we’re special enough to get a pass. We want someone to teach us how to escape ourselves. We want the promise of beauty and effortlessness instead of the truth of real, messy, everyday living. That’s why these programs and cleanses and starter kits never work the way we think they should. They don’t get us off the hook for being human.
What I’ve begun to learn is that the everyday is beautiful, the effort is usually worth it regardless of the outcome, and life really does just hurt sometimes. That’s how it is for all of us, whether we’re shamans, plumbers, accountants, or stay-at-home moms. Nobody gets out of here unscathed or unmoved — — at least, not if they’re paying attention.
So from someone in the healing business, please receive a few hard-earned, non-meme takeaways that you don’t have to pay for:
- Healing is not a lifestyle brand for the wealthy.
- Spirituality is not a luxury item.
- You are totally acceptable and lovable. You will have bad days and grief and you will make mistakes. This makes you no less acceptable and lovable.
And from one spiritual consumer to another, let’s try to see through the marketing and choose consciously whether or not to buy in. Let’s trust our guts: that inner wisdom has been there since day one and we don’t need a guru to unleash it. And let’s remember that there is no map. No one can know with certainty where your unique path — or even their own — will lead. No one can GPS us through all of life’s foibles and potholes, because everybody’s got their own to navigate.
And sometimes, they even post about them on Instagram.