The Commodification of Spirituality

Lucy LiversidgeFebruary 11, 2019Reality and PerceptionInterfaith Connections

Suddenly, it is Sunday night. Forty-eight hours of respite dwindle to a few more minutes. Deep breath in through my mouth. Hold it. And out through my nose. Once more.

The smell of burning sage, carried in wisps about the room, and a line of polished crystals (rose quartz for activating the heart, obsidian for protection) on my windowsill prove my centeredness, my enlightenment. Yet there remains an emptiness no amount of material goods can fill. I had perceived the holistic wellness boutiques situated in West Los Angeles as a one-stop- spirituality-shop peddling the solution to my discomfort, pain, and anxiety in the shape of an organic scented candle. I would learn later (but not before spending too much money) that the acquisition of more spiritual paraphernalia was never a marker for improvement to my mental health or growth in my spirituality. In reality, spirituality is the rightful opposite to this kind of consumerism, with its emphasis on the human spirit or soul instead. It seems to me that Martin Luther was on to something when he claimed good works do not achieve salvation. It may not be salvation that I am after, but it is apparent that the symbolic stones I purchase in Highland Park are not going to carry me over the finish line.

The increased commercialization of spirituality has marketed kombucha, yoga, veganism, and essential oils as cure-alls to fragmented inner peace. Corporations have commodified spiritual direction, all wrapped in a compostable bow, and I’ve bought into it. Exploiting the movement to seek spirituality outside of mainstream religious organizations, particularly in white middle- and upper-class America, corporations are more inclined to advertise their products for a mass market, leaving little room for alternative spiritual groups in any context outside of a commercial one. These powerful companies have trampled over age-old traditions and rebranded spirituality as shiny, new, and innately materialistic. Alternative wellness and spirituality are now an accessory branded for me, the privileged American white girl. What I sought, innocently, was quick relief and comfort, and I thought it was available for pickup in-store.

Spirituality seekers, well-intentioned and committed, should not rely heavily on what are supposed to be material supplements. Enigmatic descriptions and impressive promises led me astray as I made a preliminary attempt to navigate the commercial spiritual movement. “Exuding the spiritual energy of the wise guru” made me believe spiritual progress was mine for the purchasing from someone else, rather than mine for the earning through self-reflection. Not only did this misguidance leave me feeling unfulfilled, it also left my spiritual progress stagnant. I yearned for interconnectedness but refused to make the effort needed to achieve it. As it turns out, paying for tangible affirmation in the form of spiritual tools comes much easier than the price of changing your way of life for spiritual equilibrium.

Business and spiritual values differ fundamentally. The commodification of transcendence opposes the very nature of a transcendent person. What is logical about selling for a profit the one thing that transcends earthliness most? Spirituality is no one’s to hand out, nor is it anyone’s to purchase. The finest incense, healing crystals, or adaptogenic edible dust that money can buy will hardly earn you the one thing money can’t buy. Spiritual progress requires time. It was not until I began to see any symbolic possessions I had invested in as reminders rather than progressors that I bore witness to growth. Considering my materials for what they were — of the Earth — allowed me to make connections between a spiritual realm and my daily, terrestrial one.

Corporations are looking to sell a watered-down, fast-tracked version of spirituality to consumers who aren’t looking for the real thing. These products have become tools customers may use to become “at peace” with themselves and the world around them, but by catering to the feelings of an individual consumer, companies have betrayed an initial intention of the religions these commodities appropriate: to develop a meaningful world view. Buying into a material spirituality reinforces big companies’ incentive to market transcendent goods in eye-catching packaging backed by descriptive language to make their customer comfortable with the status-quo. The last person you want narrating a path to enlightenment is a CEO aiming to sell as many downloads of a meditation app as possible. Material goods marketed as enlightened or full of good energy are not a replacement for reflection, knowledge, and time.

Lucy Liversidge, 17, is a member of the California Editorial Board and lives in Altadena, California. Her interests include poetry, creative writing, sewing, and sustainability.