Reconciling Spiritual Oneness and Identity Politics
Sometimes I find myself asking, “Why don’t I see more Black women New Age spiritual gurus?”
Looking at the spiritual teachers who sell out weekend workshops and rack up millions of hits on YouTube, I see primarily white men. Sure, there are some white women in the mix, some men of color (whose wisdom somehow always seems to get Orientalized), but looking around the world of capital-S Spirituality, transcendence into divine Oneness seems the purview of the Alan Wattses and Eckhart Tolles of the world. I just don’t see a lot of Black women. This is certainly not to deny the deeply powerful spiritual teachings of countless Black women, simply that the widely-hailed champions of this space I’ll here dub “New-Age-hippie-land” seem to be predominantly white, and slightly less predominantly male.
And I wonder, why is that? Is the way we frame Blackness and womanhood as a culture that keeps their teachings from finding a broad audience? Certainly, evidence would suggest that both Blackness and womanhood require a visionary teacher to justify themselves far more in the eyes of society.
Is it more that the contemporary New Age spiritual movement is already overwhelmingly white, often financially privileged, and is part-and-parcel with teachings, rituals and practices that are primarily accessible to the white and financially privileged? Yoga retreats to Central America are accessible to the upper-middle class of California, not to most actual residents of Central America. The psychedelic movement can be all good vibes and rainbows when your body hasn’t been criminalized for generations, especially for drug use.
Or is it that this whole “movement” seems to frame Oneness in a way that weaponizes it against the realities of oppression for particular identities? How can we declare “We Are All One” when our distinctions in the eyes of society can literally determine who lives and who dies at a traffic stop?
Walking a spiritual path through the contemporary political landscape is a chronic paradox. Do we create our own realities, or are we acted upon by socio-political-economic systems? Is the culprit “scarcity thinking,” or colonial capitalism? How can we reconcile the perfection and harmony of all existence with the drone bombing of Yemen? Is there room for both universal transcendence and social justice?
I am of course not going to attempt to speak for Black women, all women, or any folks of color. Doing so would not be my place. All I can speak to is the seeming diametric opposition of trying to both awaken, and get woke, while refusing to compromise either.
The truth is, the two are not at all disjointed.
I believe that the common “Spiritual self-help” narrative of “Work on your own growth! Follow your own bliss!” can be toxic and individualizing, and erases the reality of our interdependence and need for solidarity. I believe that the common political narrative of “It’s all systemic! We are the victims of an unjust world!” can be toxic and infantilizing, and erases the reality of our power to create and the need to come into union with our true selves.
It may appear that I am writing about two utterly irreconcilable ways of seeing the world. In a sense, I am. But the remedy to suffering in both world-views is, actually, the same. Socio-political liberation and spiritual realization are the same process.
To be awakened is to be fully subjective —in the sense of, to be the subject of the sentence. In the sentence “I am something,” spiritual transcendence is about realizing yourself as simply the “I,” and no longer the object, the “something.” To be the creator rather than the role, the experiencer rather than that which is experienced.
Oppression is an act of objectification. Systems of oppression make objects out of subjects. They then exploit what they have dubbed objects. From the objectification of Black bodies to the objectification of women, from the objectification of workers to the objectification of land — there is no difference in process between the Ego-mind’s perception of other, and oppression. This is not to say that all Ego-mind perception is oppression, simply that both are the act of objectification.
To oppress another, you must first view the object of your oppression as an object. The language we use more commonly is that we “dehumanize” that which we oppress, attack or exploit. We make our object less-than-human. What we do, first and far more simply, is objectify it — we perceive it as something separate from ourselves, that our individual will, our Ego-mind “I,” can act upon. But that Ego-mind’s “I,” whose particular subjectivity exists only in contrast to an object, is not the true I.
More plainly: “I am not you” is not the same understanding as “I am.”
When we view anything as an object, we view it as existing to serve a particular function. An object can only exist in contrast. Its meaning is always defined by the role we have decided that it fills. Its worth is always judged by how it fills that role. Only when something is an object can it be exploited or punished, attacked or denigrated.
Spiritual awakening is the act of realizing subjectivity. To “realize” means both “to understand as real,” and “to make real.” In a space beyond definition and separation, in the dimension of Oneness, there is no difference between acting within yourself and acting within the world. All is self, and self is all. Spiritually speaking, this is truth —and the perception of difference can only ever be a perception.
Realization, then, is an act of reconciliation: reconciling our own perception with the reality of universal Oneness, in all its harmony, freedom, peace, and love. Realizing is the act of creating, in the lived experience, the truth of universal subjectivity.
Systems of oppression make a false subjectivity for particular categories of beings. Under white supremacy, whiteness has subjectivity. A white person can be fully human, and just be. Under colonialism, the colonizer has subjectivity. Under patriarchy, men have subjectivity. Under capitalism, the wealthy have subjectivity. Under ableism, the able-bodied have subjectivity. What is considered subjective is allowed to simply be, and everyone else must first live as their role.
Realizing subjectivity is the liberation from objectification. We typically think of spiritual work as coming to understand the self not as a defined thing, but as the subject, the “I” beyond all objects. But spiritual work is the liberation from objectification, and is likewise done by making subjectivity more real. We come to know ourselves as subjects, and we make our subjectivity real. They are one in the same act. Seeing ourselves as subjects, whose purpose and worth and identity has nothing to do with role, and seeing others as subjects, are spiritually the same. In Oneness, there is no other.
Awakening is coming to know, in full being-ness, beyond role. From a world of full subjects, whose subjectivity is reflected in treatment and opportunity, in law and culture and economy and politics, can arise the universal experience of subjectivity — y’know, that whole “Oneness” thing that gets talked about in New-Age-hippie-land.
Reclaiming the Sacred
Worker is a role. Boss is a role. Ruler is a role. Landlord is a role. House is a role. Farmland is a role. Pipeline is a role. Teacher is a role. Partner is a role. All roles are objects. In the same breath — within a society with any objectification, woman is a role. Man is a role. Black person is a role. White person is a role. Queer person is a role. Disabled person is a role. These are identities that arise out of contrast, and are defined by being separate from a different identity.
It makes intuitive sense to me that, when one has been forced to defend one’s identity from attack, denigration, oppression, murder, slavery or genocide, that one might want to fight for the goodness, freedom, righteousness and sacredness of one’s identity. The talk of transcending identity and realizing ultimate Oneness might ring hollow. It might look as an invalidation of the beauty and sacredness of those identities. It might seem to completely miss the point.
That is because, in this context, it does miss the point — because spiritual awakening is the act of realizing subjectivity. Union (or yoking, or yoga) is the act of uniting what is perception (separateness, objects) with what is reality (Oneness, universal subjectivity). The problem of systemic oppression is that it creates objects. Establishing the goodness, freedom, righteousness and sacredness of an oft-denigrated identity is an act of reclaiming the subjectivity of what has been treated as an object.
Creating a world of more subjects, more full beings allowed to live as full beings — with the freedom to express and to be, to love and receive love, to interact as complete selves containing multitudes and infinities, with others who are complete selves containing multitudes and infinities — this is spiritual work.
Reclaiming sexuality from the clutches of being a sex object is spiritual. Reclaiming meaningful, self-determined work from the clutches of exploited labor is spiritual. Fighting for the sanctity of Black lives is spiritual. Defending land and water from extraction and desecration is spiritual. Look at that word — desecration. Etymologically, it comes from “de-consecrate,” or, to undo the process of a thing being sacred.
Heaven on Earth = Utopia
A world beyond the Ego mind’s judgment — that space of Heaven on Earth — is a world of true equality and absolute sacredness. We reach that world not from painting all with the same brush, but from everything shining fully. The universe is sacred when everything in it is sacred. Union is reached when our experience of the universe aligns with the truth of its sacredness. To enshrine the sacred — from land to womanhood to Black life — is to move towards Heaven on Earth.
We do not reach that world by declaring that we have transcended all distinctions. We transcend all distinctions by reaching that world.
When we embody Oneness, we live in a world that is sacred. Everything is a subject, and life emerges out of deep relationships between subjects that are themselves One. When we live in a world that is sacred, we embody Oneness.
Just as (many of us) are seeming to grasp that under this system, all lives will matter when Black lives matter, so too must we understand on a universal level: elevating and consecrating the identities we have desecrated is the act of transcending identity. To realize Utopia is to realize Heaven on Earth.
To answer my own question, every fist raised in defense of the sacredness of Black life is a spiritual teacher. It does not matter to the universe whether or not the word “universe” is uttered. Liberation is liberation, from the yoga mat to the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone. In wrenching back sacredness from the jaws of oppression, declaring subjectivity in the face of objectification, we do sacred work. We transcend.