WTF is Wellness: New Age Spiritual Tourism aka Spiritual Colonialism

WTF is Wellness: New Age Spiritual Tourism aka Spiritual Colonialism

Pop Wellness Entertainment is just that, really entertaining. 

It feeds our salacious materialism with crystals, tarot decks, wide brimmed hats, panchos, singing bowls, prayer flags, yoga outfits, mala beads, etc…

Pop Wellness boosts our egos and projects a false sense of ownership over traditions from other cultures. Studios and communities trivialize these traditions and objects that are revered in other cultures while stealing them to turn a profit. Overnight you can become a shaman or a wellness guide and people will trust you even if you are ignorant and/or misleading them, as long as you sound like you know what you’re talking about. 

In these conditions, Spiritual Tourism is attractive! There is so much to say about this topic that this article will barely cover the tip of the iceberg. But, we must start the conversation somewhere, because it has become a booming arm of Pop Wellness.

One prime example of the Spiritual Tourism breakdown is the 2018 death of Peruvian Traditional Medicine Woman Olivia Arévalo at the hands of Canadian Ayahuasca spiritual tourist Sebastian Woodroffe. Woodroffe shot Arévalo twice and was lynched by her tribe in response. This is not the only incident of its kind. When we travel somewhere to practice and indulge in another culture’s spiritual traditions, regulating and clearly defining a system of Spiritual Tourism ethics become crucial.  Without regulation and agreed upon ethics, trauma driven indulgence of international ‘healing’ practices becomes fertile soil for the rise of toxic cultural abuse.

What we are noticing now in Pop Wellness is that predominantly wealthy, well off, well positioned, white Americans are operating an industry that closely resembles the church. And not unlike the Christian church, members of this new age spiritual wellness are hijacking resources from other cultures and commercializing them in the name of human evolution and unity. These wellness church members are also proselytizing, hard, with persuasive platforms of promised healing, positivity, evolution, renewal, and peace. 

This model creates a self-sustaining industry that at once commodifies consumers’ suffering and oppresses cultures through a modern and less obvious form of colonialism: spiritual extractivism.

Colonialism

The practice by which a powerful country/community seeks to directly control another country/culture and use their resources to increase its own power and wealth. In other words, a minority of foreign invaders dominate the indigenous majority in pursuit of their interests.

Spiritual Extractivism

This occurs when a foreign demographic appropriates indigenous spiritual practices for profit. Often, they use these symbols and practices outside of their original cultural context which can distort, disrespect, harm, trivialize or even contribute to the destruction of the original traditions (for example: Ayahuasca becoming a vice for self-indulgent spiritual orgasms). 

We’ve run this hamster wheel over and over again throughout human history. We find a ‘foreign trend’ that we think will heal us or fix us (because we consistently champion a cultural mindset of pain aversion), then we analyze and break that ‘trend’ down into digestible methods of practice, we classify them as products in order to capitalize on them, we market, and we use up whatever value there was until there is nothing left. Then, we go on with our search for a new commodity.

The other side of the industry coin exists so long as consumers feel satiated by thinking only about themselves day in and day out. This is lucrative, because the pursuit of self gratification is endless and creates consumers for life. It distracts us from getting to know ourselves with videos, podcasts, events, products, retreats, pseudo spirituality, etc… It controls us by keeping us as weak consumers looking for an answer that will ‘fix’ us and by deluding practitioners into thinking that their intuition and popularity is what makes them an effective ‘healer’.

Pop Wellness incites a ‘fix it’ mentality, that is reinforced by the emotional satiation found in Spiritual Tourism, and perpetuates racism, classism, ableism, exclusivity, etc… It is being shaped by a small number of socially influential minds who don’t consider all of the actual needs of their consumer base, only the profitable needs. And potential profitable solutions to profitable needs become the traditions we steal from others. We do so without original context and therefore without the original intent, purpose, expression, or efficacy.

In her book on selfishness as virtue, Ayn Rand writes, “We are not to sacrifice ourselves for others nor should we expect others to sacrifice themselves for us. And this is because we are each individually and naturally engaged in the pursuit of our own survival, interests, and self-fulfillment through the exercise of our individual reason.” Her definition of selfishness sheds light on a nourishing way to practice a self-care driven life. It is what we are circling in Pop Wellness but can’t quite seem to get a handle on. It is what we are insatiably searching for around the world when we become spiritual tourists. Instead of finding it within ourselves, we consume what is sacred to others and hope it will solve us.

Consider that Rand’s definition differs greatly from the current expression of narcissistic selfishness within Pop Wellness which brainwashes us into thinking that our privilege gives us inherent permission to steal and profit from other cultures’ sacred practices. We are convinced that our spiritual awakening means the entire world must give us access to their traditions in order for us to serve that cause. But, our need to feel healed is not enough reason to whitewash the world. It can’t be.

Will Spiritual Colonialism always exist? Probably, because globalization necessitates amalgamations of traditions and values across continents in order to function. 

However, we need clarity on this topic if we are to cultivate an industry that offers effective and nourishing guidance to people everywhere. Such an industry, that deals with our deepest human struggles and global evolution, requires a degree of integrity and authenticity to function effectively. Not as empty promises. Not as an egregious expression of privileged narcissistic selfishness. Not as another global powerplay by the elite.

Although we could point out the narcissistic selfishness running rampant in other industries and attribute it to the requirements of capitalism or human nature or something else, the presence of these issues is particularly insidious and problematic when discussing Wellness because we are dealing with people’s deep psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical realities. There is an element of inherent trust that people bring with them as they consume wellness trends. So, they open up and become vulnerable to deep influence. And since the components of individual human realities form the system that shapes our future global reality, we should probably take seriously the directionality of this massive and highly influential industry, or we could end up losing valuable traditions and cultural pillars.

If we want an industry to champion unity, human evolution, and peace, one of the vital first steps is to stop stealing people’s customs while simultaneously keeping those people out of spaces where we are practicing what was originally their creation. I’ll leave us with this question and welcome you to comment or send in your thoughts…

Is there a way, for us to be respectful of, honor, process, experience and integrate wellness practices from other cultures without appropriating, without stealing and without being elitist or exclusive?

3 thoughts on “WTF is Wellness: New Age Spiritual Tourism aka Spiritual Colonialism”

  1. Carol Jeanne Williams

    Oh wow this is deep… I’ve seen a growing trend across the years and I agree with you. In my opinion, people are hungry-for knowledge, for answers, for money, for notoriety. Hence the downside to social media platforms. People get caught up in feeding their spirit with checking in to see their “audience”.
    I feel we need to feed the human spirit but do so in ways that create holistic inclusion without exclusions.
    I see the problems but do not have the answers. I am willing to help, though, if someone has suggestions. In love and light, Blessed Be.

    1. Thank you so much for openly sharing your thoughts Carol. Already, by being open about this you are making an impact. I appreciate you and hope you’ll continue to join us as this WTF is Wellness series grows.

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