Toxic “Spirituality” and “Wellness”:
When “Sending Love and Light” Becomes Part of the Problem
“I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.” ~ Bell Hooks
I’m currently taking an online course about staying present while being politically engaged, given by a meditation teacher. “There’s one kind of ignoring politics that I think is positively harmful,” he said in today’s e-mail to those of us in the course. “As one of [our] community members wrote, there are teachers who ‘gaslight us into believing that it’s all in our own minds or that just sitting in meditation or sending ‘love and light’ into the world will resolve the very real-world issues all around us.’ There’s a level of delusion there that I regard almost as toxic.”
I am that community member. I was responding to the feelings of confusion and distress I’ve felt, puzzled over the path of “love and light” that some of my once-close and dear friends have taken. At the same time, these friends have been schooling those of us engaged in political discourse and interest in current events, such as a global pandemic, that “it’s all an illusion created by our own minds,” and that “you should only focus on what you want to attract and send love and light into the world.”
Buying into Conspiracy Theories
Oddly, this path has somehow led my friends down a rabbit hole and straight into the hands of conspiracy theorists. It’s as if they disappeared from the world, going into their own beautiful bubble of positivity. Then they re-emerged long enough to spread conspiracy theories on the social media platforms — the same platforms that they have often stated they despised. They berated those of us involved in discourse about various political and social issues. And, then, they quickly shut down their own pages as a response to the questioning by friends on this odd turn they have taken along their paths. It’s a phenomenon that has been, not only difficult to fathom, but also deeply saddening. And what’s more, these friends do not know each other, nor live in the same area. And they all move in different “spiritual circles.”
Distrust of Information Outlets
The question that I don’t have the answer to is if the spiritual groups in which they have immersed themselves are the sources of their strange and dangerous disinformation. My friends have consciously chosen to avoid news outlets and, even, social media, for the most part. I’ve wondered if the toxic and delusional teachings of their gurus, advising them to keep away from engagement with current events, made them particularly vulnerable to the disinformation in the dark reaches of the web. This might fit with their previous distrust of the information outlets as well as the findings of scientists and modern medicine.
One might argue, legitimately, that modern medicine and large pharmaceutical companies, the media, and the “government” have not always been up-front, transparent, and honest with us. There are always seeds of truth utilized in creating the most easily spread conspiracy theories. That’s what makes these theories so interesting to those who believe them. It certainly makes my friends ripe to feel that they are “special” and more in touch with the workings of the Universe than the rest of us. They seem to believe they have access to information from the far-reaches of other dimensions that the rest of us haven’t “woken up” to. And it appears to have made them wide open to conspiracy theories disguised as messages from beyond.
Finding the Middle Way
So, how do we each prevent ourselves from falling off the path of even-mindedness and falling into dogma, no matter how spiritual or non-spiritual we believe we are?
The psychologist and Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, describes the Middle Way as “To be in the world, but not of it….If we seek happiness purely through indulgence, we are not free. And if we fight against ourselves and the world, we are not free. It is the middle path that brings freedom.” This is a piece of advice that fits for all, no matter how aligned one might feel with Buddhism or any other spiritual path or philosophy. Buddha, after all, was the first psychologist.
As I see it, focusing completely on our own inner peace and on staying away from the realities of the world, is the self-indulgence he describes. The middle way would be the practice of staying present with the realities of the world, not running from the pain of the world, and bringing compassion to those who are suffering and to ourselves. It also requires that we remain active in peacefully being part of “the change we want to see in the world,” as Gandhi phrased it. At the same time, it’s vital to have a practice to stay centered within so that we are not easily swept up by the emotions that cause us to lose our ability to act from a place of peace. Finally, and possibly most importantly, it’s important that we not believe that our identity is defined by our own tribe, such as the political party, wellness group, or spiritual group, we most align with, and become close-minded to all of the information before making decisions about where we stand on issues. It’s not easy to stay in the middle, and it requires mindfulness and constant readjusting of ourselves and our path.
As I wrote in my previous blog, Riding the Storm and Walking Each Other Home, we can keep peace within while being part of creating peace in the world and remaining engaged with realities of the world, by making it a practice to “Be here now,” in the words of Ram Dass, and we can start by asking ourselves two questions every day:
· “What can I do today to bring light into my life?”
· “What can I do today to bring light into the world?”
Going within to find our inner peace and to bring ourselves fully into this moment is a powerful practice. And it helps us to — rather than run from the world or to try to hide from its pain, or our own pain — to take action that is motivated by our compassion and our desire to alleviate some of the suffering we see in world. In the words of the recently passed, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, “Meditating is not trying to run away, trying to ignore the presence of pain, but on the contrary, it is looking at it face-to-face.”
Am I perfect at following this advice of staying in the Middle? Far from it. I often find myself reacting with anger and frustration out of my own passion for whatever the issue might be, perhaps, saying things that are less than helpful for creating a constructive dialogue. But, being able to then breathe and center, helps me to readjust my path and regain the balance needed for a more helpful discussion and more effective decision-making about the most constructive action. And that’s why it’s called a practice.
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