The Spiritual World Must Face Its Shadow
Imagine that you are looking to heal spiritually, only to have someone you trust abuse you with unwanted contact. Imagine you belong to a spiritual community, only to have the teacher you revere speak in a language that alienates you. Imagine you are hoping to connect with others on a similar path, only to find that spaces of healing are closed to you.
Spiritual communities have shadows, just as individuals do.
The shadow is the side of ourselves that we reject, loathe, and suppress: Nasty things we’ve done and are often ashamed of; the people we’ve betrayed or abandoned, mocked or abused; the parts of us that feel unworthy, not good enough, or unlovable. The shadow is also the way that our egos survive. The shadow can sometimes show up as delusion, arrogance, or self-aggrandizement.
As we build communities, our personal shadows take root in those relationships and structures. The shadow then shows up in how yoga, meditation, and energy healing are taught. It lurks in the business models of retreat centers like Esalen and Kripalu. It resides in the images and brands that take center stage on Instagram and Facebook.
The shadow is born from the ways that our spiritual practices, collectives, and communities replicate the very problems that spirituality is supposed to repair and heal. Often ignored or repressed, the shadow can erupt in the form of toxic relationships; mental, emotional, and physical abuse; or through drama and scandals, sometimes to the point that the community is devastated or collapses.
It is our responsibility to look at these aspects of the spiritual world and heal them. What follows is a brief foray into some of the main aspects of our collective shadow: spiritual bypassing, judgment of others, false and abusive teachers, conspiratorial thinking, money and inequality, white privilege and racism, and cultural appropriation.
Toxic positivity, or spiritual bypassing
Spirituality teaches us that when we can face all our pain and accept it without judgment, we can become whole again. It is an approach to life that seeks to live wholeheartedly and in harmony with all living beings.
By contrast, spiritual bypassing, a term coined by psychologist John Welwood, is the use of spiritual principles to avoid feeling negative emotions, such as pain or anger. This is the primary source of the shadow.
Bypassing our pain is a form of repression and is the ego’s most common tendency. One of the ways to bypass your pain is to develop a strong attachment to positivity and avoid all negative emotions. This is known as “toxic positivity.” New Age spirit followers, meditators, and yogis who claim to be advanced spiritually, but are always happy, are often turning away from the parts of themselves crying out for healing.
What bypassing overlooks is the distinction between identifying with your negative thoughts and emotions (that is, seeing them as true) rather than simply experiencing your negative thoughts and emotions — that is, being aware of and present to them.
The former is what causes people to ruminate, act on those thoughts and emotions, and thereby create the conditions for more negativity. The latter is how you relate mindfully to your experience and by meeting those thoughts and emotions with love and equanimity, you can understand their roots.
In that way, your awareness serves a loving, healing presence to those negative thought patterns. As author Diana Raab has pointed out, the problem with bypassing is that “although these individuals may have practiced sophisticated spiritual practices, they often did not practice self-love.”
The reason this kind of bypass or toxic positivity has taken root is that we have misunderstood a key piece of spiritual wisdom — the idea that you are the creator of your world. It holds that if you are experiencing negativity, it is because your negative thoughts and emotions drew those experiences to you. Therefore, to avoid negativity, you must avoid all negative thoughts and emotions and, of course, negative people.
But if you bypass the negativity, you also ignore the value of facing or experiencing your pain. As psychotherapist Vanessa Smith Bennett has written, “Painful or uncomfortable experiences enable us to grow past our current emotional and spiritual states.” How many of us have experienced a “dark night of the soul” only to discover bliss and a new sense of self on the other side? How many of us have endured horrible events only to see them later as blessings in disguise?
We’re not to blame for all that happens in our life. We are responsible, though, for how we react.
We misunderstand that we are in co-creation with the universe, so we’re not to blame for all that happens in our life. We are responsible, though, for how we react — and that begins by feeling and accepting our pain, not bypassing it with a false veneer of positivity.
Superiority complexes and judging others
The shadow also emerges when we believe our spiritual practice makes us superior to others.
Notice, after you build a meditation practice or dig deep to “raise your vibration,” if you start to judge other people for being “asleep” or “stuck in 3D.” A growing superiority complex may be implicit in words like “ascension” or “awake” and in claims to occupying a higher dimension of reality even though we all inhabit the same planet.
In the name of spirituality, I stopped seeing most of my friends. […] I basically gave up my human card and sat alone in my apartment reading my books, meditating, and secretly hating everyone. They didn’t get it. I did. And I’d show them all.
You don’t have to regard someone who hasn’t yet “woken up” as less than you are because you’ve been on your path for years. After all, you were that person once, so you’re simply judging your former self. As therapist Lee McKay Doe pointed out, one of spirituality’s toxic tendencies is to blame people for not having magical awakening experiences because “anyone who fails just isn’t trying hard enough.”
The most extreme version of that kind of judgment is cutting people out of your life as “toxic.” As I have written elsewhere, some times you need to let go of people who do real emotional or physical harm to you. But other times, people use it as a way to avoid looking inward at their own triggers and use the label “toxic” as a way to avoid challenging relationships.
Bypassing and judgment infuse our communities and are used to create a sense of exclusivity by rejecting others who “just don’t get it.” They lay the foundation for other issues — like false teachers, conspiratorial thinking, and privilege — that are deeply embedded in contemporary spirituality.
False gurus, misconduct, abuse, and sex
The spiritual world is witnessing a proliferation of spiritual teachers. On the one hand, this is to be applauded, as spirituality loses its stigma, and people increasingly challenge conventional ways of thinking about life. On the other, it is easy to put up some slick images on Instagram and post memes, derived from someone else’s material, with an unfounded sense of mastery.
Well-meaning individuals often want to spread spiritual wisdom far and wide after beginning to study. They might be meditation instructors who offer dharma talks after a six-month teacher training course. They might have read The Power of Now or spent some time in a Facebook group and then begin to offer advice online. There are lots of people promoting certification programs, promising to teach people to be healers in days or weeks.
I am not advocating some kind of regulation or a certification process for mediums, healers, and spiritual teachers. But you have to be willing to study and undergo training with qualified teachers. You also have to ask yourself, with humility and honesty, if you’re ready to be a teacher.
Life on a spiritual path is fraught with pitfalls.
All too often, as Ryan Fan’s article on the rise of self-help guru James Arthur Ray makes clear, someone with a lot of charisma can cobble together a platform easily with some spiritual tidbits from here and there. In most cases, the problem is that spiritual wisdom becomes distorted, leading people to use spiritual principles to bypass or manipulate others. But in others—as was the case with James Arthur Ray, which led to the deaths of several followers—the consequences can be devastating.
When you are walking the spiritual path, in a world of sometime advantage-takers, occasional frauds, and not infrequently unprepared students who call themselves teachers, you must arm yourself with one vital question: Does this person deserve my trust?
There are lots of warning signals, once you scratch the glitzy surface of a charismatic guru. Horowitz points to several disturbing tendencies — demonization of outside authority, a disconnect between word and action, and pressures to undertake practices that are extreme. Fake teachers, he reminds us, will often not be transparent and attempt to amplify their image with false stats or conjured miracles. A true teacher should be open about their wisdom and shortcomings and should never try to manipulate you into staying with them.
Life on a spiritual path is fraught with pitfalls. We need to be able to find teachers who can guide us. A true teacher guides us to be a more authentic version of ourselves. I have learned an enormous amount from several teachers, and while none of them was perfect, they were trustworthy and had my interests at heart. I also trusted myself when it was time for our relationship to evolve beyond that of teacher and student. An authentic teacher will let you go. A fake teacher will berate you, force you to sign an NDA, or threaten you with litigation.
Among the most damaging ones are those who engage in sexual misconduct, often wrapping their actions in spiritual tenets and using their authority to cover up the abuse. Unfortunately, such scandals are all too common. Bikram Choudhury, who fashioned a brand of yoga, was exposed by a Netflix documentary for his multiple sexual abuses and fled to Mexico. After Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga died in 2009, many victims came forth to share their stories of abuse. Eliza Griswold, discussing Pattabhi Jois in the New Yorker, bluntly stated, “This is only the latest in a string of scandals involving powerful men within the yoga community that date back decades.”
Sadly, the history of Buddhism confirms that yoga has no monopoly on sexual abuse. Ösel Tendzin, the successor to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the Shambala tradition, contracted HIV and transmitted it to students he had sex with and did not forewarn them of the risk. In 2018, Mipham Rinpoche, the current head of Shambhala, was found to have abused female members of the sangha for several years; the scandal led famed Buddhist nun Pema Chodron to resign from the organization. As Mark Oppenheimer detailed in a compelling exposé in The Atlantic, three of the four Zen masters who came to the United States in the 1960s were found to have engaged in serious sexual misconduct; the fourth was succeeded by his student, who soon enveloped the San Francisco Zen Center in its own sex scandal.
Sexual shadows in teachers often emerge, with traumatic consequences to students, because the hierarchical structure rooted in a singular male authority figure allows such misdeeds to go unchecked. But the problem isn’t just having a guru at the top of the pyramid. Spirituality has a sexual problem because it continues to be hampered by antiquated views of sexuality as sin, as “dangerous” energy, or as New Age people have recast it, “low vibe.”
We can think of our sexual encounters as mini-enlightenment experiences. These glimpses of loving awareness give us an idea of how it feels to be fully embodied and connected to the universe.
Sexual energy is to be respected and understood, not repressed. Otherwise, it returns in the form of violence or trauma inflicted on someone else and, by extension, an entire community. In a teacher and student relationship, differences in power render consent problematic and allow the teacher to manipulate the spiritual meaning of the sexual experience.
But the answer isn’t simply to reject abusive teachers as “bad apples.” The spiritual world needs to build a more nuanced and direct understanding of sexual energy. It cannot repress it, label it as “dangerous,” and simply hope that spiritual growth will prevent people from misusing it. History proves that spiritual practice alone is not enough. Until spiritual communities are willing to integrate sex consciously into the spiritual path, it will continue to emerge from its repression as an explosive and traumatic shadow.
Conspiratorial rejection of mainstream thought
Spirituality is, by its nature, countercultural. It offers an alternative way of looking at the world. Unfortunately, the embrace of the unorthodox has sometimes led people to reject all mainstream thought. Jules Evans has shown how the New Age penchant for free-thinking and alternative viewpoints has fostered a kind of “conspirituality” — a tendency among spiritual seekers to embrace conspiracy theories. For his part, Joe Forrest explained why that kind of thinking is also prevalent among Christians.
This resistance has played out in the ways that spiritual communities have gravitated, uncritically, toward alternative health care, often with disdain for Western medicine, and have embraced conspiracy theories around topics like vaccines and mainstream media and politics.
A conspirituality worldview that harbors deep suspicion or even antipathy towards any knowledge generated by mainstream science simply can’t be an upgrade for humanity.
Our fascination with conspiracies reflects the ego’s need to be special, to be part of something elite. The spiritual world’s sense of having access to special, rarified knowledge leads people to almost reflexively reject conventional knowledge or science. Dinan makes a similar connection, showing how it ties in with our penchant for judgment of others as inferior:
Basically, this ego trick bolsters our sense of self-worth in the face of mainstream marginalization by inflating our sense of knowing… While this contrarian perspective might lead to some interesting experiments in living, what it doesn’t lead to is a higher level of integrated wisdom for life.
The knee-jerk rejection of the mainstream and uncritical embrace of conspiratorial thinking also applies to a lot of the so-called spiritual wisdom that gets passed around social media in memes and private groups. Whereas conventional wisdom is outright rejected, spiritual seekers willingly embrace a lot of spiritual information as truth without interrogating it or requiring any kind of confirmation.
For example, people will believe someone’s theory about what’s happening on a cosmic scale simply because they claim to have received that information from a disembodied entity and posted about it in a Facebook group. If something comes from mainstream media, it’s a manipulative lie, but if someone I never met tells me that the Earth is going through some kind of galactic portal on a date certain, I’m supposed to accept that without question?
We cannot grow if we simply regurgitate theories that others have spread based on what they heard from someone else. To do so is to elevate rumor to dogma, to make whispers into wisdom. There’s nothing enlightened about rejecting all thought simply because it’s mainstream or accepting all alternative narrative as truth.
Don’t take people’s every word as truth. Use your critical faculties and ask questions. Investigate and apply all of that to your own life. To paraphrase Horowitz, ask if this person deserves your trust. What may be true for that person may not extend to your life and how you live it. That’s what it means to be a sovereign being. A teacher serves as a guide, helping to walk each of us home — to our truth. But that truth is one that only you can decide for yourself. No one else can decide it for you, and importantly, your truth doesn’t dictate anyone else’s truth either.
Money and access
Money bedevils the spiritual world. Many believe that money is inherently corrupting and thus all spiritual work should be free. This is partly a product of an antiquated belief system that purity comes with disavowing wealth and that trying to make money is a sure sign that what you’re peddling is snake oil. Teachers or healers who charge anything resembling a living wage are often met with derision. I’ve had many people criticize me on social media, claiming my work should be free. But my work is never truly free; it means someone else is subsidizing my work.
The spiritual world’s issues with money are also partly a valid response to the fact that only an affluent subsection of society can afford activities like meditation retreats, yoga teacher training programs, or trips to centers like Omega and Kripalu. As coach Roshni Patel mentioned in her piece on privilege, “It’s classist and elitist to reserve personal growth as a ‘luxury’ that only the privileged can afford.” Spiritual growth requires both time and money. A single mother working two jobs to make ends meet can’t easily head off to Esalen for a weeklong retreat, much less find the time to do meditations on InsightTimer.
The irony is that most teachers, healers, and speakers make little money. The majority of yoga and meditation studios and retreat centers are running on the thinnest of margins, and many of them have to rely on angel donors — investors who have the money to donate because they believe in the mission. Some never turn a profit. Again, someone else is subsidizing the costs, and very few teachers are making ends meet, much less getting rich.
There are, of course, the superstars — figures like Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Gabby Bernstein, and Eckhart Tolle — who probably do earn a lot of money. Another exception is the personal development crowd that focuses on “business coaching.” People are willing to pay big bucks for others to tell them how to make big bucks; many of those course graduates go on to launch business coaching gigs rather than opening spiritual healing businesses.
In short, the spiritual world is too expensive for most people, but not lucrative enough for teachers to earn a decent living. Spiritual wisdom should be accessible to a wide audience, yet teachers should also be able to sustain themselves. As a community, we need to upgrade our relationship to money, including broader issues of income inequality, by finding ways to share our wisdom without devaluing our work and without sacrificing teachers by asking them to scrape by.
White privilege, racism, and patriarchy
One of the most pernicious aspects of the shadow is how the spiritual world replicates gender, sexual, and racial biases. Privilege infiltrates the spiritual world. New Age spirituality, meditation, and yoga in the United States have been dominated by white figures, with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) teachers sidelined or rendered invisible. Many spiritual traditions have reproduced patriarchal structures and heteronormative values in how they talk about men and women.
As our country undergoes a massive transformation in consciousness around race, spiritual communities need to take a hard look at how they have replicated white privilege by making spiritual spaces unwelcoming to people of color. Sharyn Holmes’ powerful letter to white women catalogs many of the kinds of behaviors — tokenism, indifference, and silence in the face of injustice — that spiritual white people, men and women alike, are guilty of.
Thought leaders, healers, and teachers need to examine how the spiritual world has replicated older forms of consciousness. We should begin with who the thought leaders are. What voices are elevated and whose voices are diminished or ignored? We should look at the places where spiritual practices like meditation, yoga, and reiki are taught and who is included and who is left out. We should look at the language we use and whether emphasizing wearing white clothing or having classes taught solely in English function as exclusive devices. For example, as a gay man, I have often struggled to find a place for myself in spiritual communities where the Divine Father and Mother are talked about as if they were models for human love relationships or where the concept of “twin flames” is framed in heteronormative ways.
But we also need to look at how the purpose of spiritual practice — to liberate us from the conditions that separate us — needs to be brought to bear on political and social conditions. We should look at the ways that we retreat from tough issues with easy answers like, “sending love and light.” Meditation and mindfulness, raising one’s vibration and the law of attraction, releasing limiting beliefs, and disidentifying with the ego’s negative talk are not meant for personal liberation alone. They never were.
As Tai Salih 500hr CYT correctly points out in her illuminating piece on spiritual privilege, “Let’s collectively own up to the fact that we have incorrectly used our spiritual toolkit to avoid accountability.” She identifies this as yet another form of bypass. By avoiding the painful reality of the world around us, which is just another version of numbing oneself to the world’s shadow, we remain complicit with injustice:
The inaction of the spiritual healing community during times of injustice […] helps maintain the system of white supremacy whose foundation is maintained through indifference and minimizing.
That’s because personal liberation isn’t achieved without social liberation. Historically, as Salih reminds us, spiritual figures have engaged directly in politics. What has been lost in our current brand of self-care and self-improvement-focused spirituality is a radical understanding of the purpose of inner work—it’s not so that you can manifest a better life or be at peace. Those are byproducts of a spiritual mission that seeks to liberate all beings.
Yes, you will be happy and have a better life when you work to create a world where all beings have a better life. The personal work, whether rooted in yoga or Buddhism or New Age spirituality, has long held a vision for a new era for humanity. The purpose of our inner work is to understand that the separation between you and me is an illusion. It is an illusion that our minds replicate and we reinforce with socially constructed categories of identity that we have developed systems of government, law, finance, etc., around. Based on that illusion of separation, we create the world again and again — which is why humanity continues to suffer.
Doing the inner work should be done along with outer work. We need the first to be able to interact with the rest of the world in ways that are conscious so that we are not speaking from our wounds or working exclusively in our self-interest at the expense of others. Done unconsciously, the work of social change often replicates the same kinds of structures that led to the imbalances and inequities that social change work is trying to overcome; it also leads to burnout, resistance, and backlash.
The inner work allows people of color to come to terms with their personal history and generational trauma, to heal the wounds they have suffered throughout their lives and from prior generations, whose pain they carry with them too. It means recognizing the many barriers to doing inner work, including healing the ego, that historically marginalized groups face. That’s the kind of healing work we’re seeing rise up now into white spiritual consciousness. That inner work also extends to the biases and racism held within the consciousness of white spiritual seekers. As Naz Ahsun explained, “love and light” as a kind of platitude is woefully insufficient as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Privilege is doing this work for yourself and then going about business as usual in your daily life. Instead, the spiritual world needs to bring its attention to systemic and structural issues, with the wisdom and insights that spirituality can provide.
To offer one example, why does our criminal justice system rely on mass incarceration, especially given the profound disparate impact on communities of color? This is where spiritual work and mindfulness must be brought to bear on deconstructing social categories of identity, uprooting racism, and dealing with the fear that drives an incarceration-based model of punishment. This is where spirituality can advocate for a model of justice that doesn’t seek retribution, but instead reconciliation and forgiveness.
In short, we need to bring an understanding of human consciousness, rooted in the spiritual wisdom of the heart, not the fear of the ego, to our social structures.
Cultural appropriation and essentialism
Closely related to privilege and racism, appropriation is another form of shadow in the contemporary spiritual world. Appropriation is often defined as the use of specific practices, vocabulary, clothing, and symbols derived from another culture. Such borrowing does not acknowledge a historical legacy of colonization in which a dominant culture was able to take from the appropriated culture through an imbalance of power.
In the spiritual context, then, appropriation is the use of specific tools, practices, or elements associated with a particular culture’s spiritual practices, usually without an understanding of their historicity or without any kind of authorization from that culture.
Spiritual communities have begun to ask themselves, in ways they never have before, about the origins and meaning of practices. Is saying “namaste” or practicing yoga a form of appropriation, as Megan Holstein has asked? What about saying the phrase “spirit animal” or smudging by burning sage or palo santo? In her powerful article on smudging as a practice appropriated from Native Americans, Mary Pember writes:
The adoption of smudging is another in a long line of colonial predation of Native nations that have seen nearly everything — their lands, languages, and cultures — taken from them in the name of progress and civilization.
The concern isn’t simply selling, but rather selling without respecting the integrity of the practice, but selling in the form of “upscale wellness” that is ignorant of the history of the practice. As Haley Lewis explained in the Huffington Post:
Indigenous communities have not only taken issue with retail chains profiting off of their spirituality, but also the promotion of smudging as “trendy” when, for decades, Indigenous people were banned from practicing it themselves.
Appropriation is concerned with superficial misuse of something sacred that can be discarded at a whim or trivialized and simplified for expediency in a way that distorts the practice. It takes something spiritual and reduces it to a commodity as part of a transaction devoid of connection to the spirit that animates that practice. I know of healers who draw on the marketing power of the word “shaman” without any connection to an indigenous community. Similar arguments could be made against practices like Sanskrit mantra or the Hawaiian forgiveness practice, Ho’oponopono.
Critics of appropriation nevertheless point to how charges of appropriation can easily be used as a gatekeeping device that relies on essentialist notions of identity. As Farah queries in response to her critique of cultural appropriation:
Who, then, gets to decide who is the most oppressed and most powerful and what rightfully belongs to who? What defines privilege in such a context? There is far too much essentialism that the concept of cultural appropriation leads to that I am simply not okay with.
Kenan Malik similarly asks in his thought-provoking article, “Who does the policing? Who gives permission for people of other cultures to use particular cultural forms? Who acts as the gatekeepers to gated cultures?” And, as Alyssa Rosenberg posits in her piece:
Far too often, though, the conversations we have about cultural exchange […] end up reaffirming smug preconceptions of what it means to be virtuous. […] It’s worth pointing out that demands for cultural purity can be as restrictive and ahistorical as exploitative cultural appropriation itself.
As these critics make clear, the arguments for cultural appropriation, while intending to address issues of structural racism and inequality, often end up reproducing dominant structures of power. Farah asks us to ponder: “Ask yourself if the censorship and banning of words/arts/crafts/food by people in power is something that provides a viable solution to the problem of structural racism and inequality here?”
Essentialism invests in normative versions of race, ethnicity, and national origin that are antithetical to progressive social change movements. It establishes rigid norms of purity for “proper” behavior and who is “right” and who is not. That kind of mindset is what has structured dominant culture — white supremacy, heteronormativity, and patriarchal values: Men are not women, white people are not Black, and straight people do not feel any sexual attraction to the same sex.
Policing and gatekeeping become aspects of our shadow when people claim authority as cultural arbiters to derive satisfaction from judging others and telling them that they’re wrong, not to protect the integrity of spiritual practices. Policing appropriation can attempt to correct one error and end up committing another one. In so doing, spirituality’s shadow becomes something like a serpent biting its own tail.
Culture will inevitably be shared. Culture is dynamic, and it evolves by coming into contact with others. It cannot be contained in rigid silos with barriers and placards warning that no one from outside is allowed in. Yet it’s equally understandable in a world where dominant cultures have colonized, suppressed, and violated other cultures that this history must be acknowledged and boundaries drawn. Essentialism’s lie, however, is that you can undo the history and trauma of oppression simply by rigidly enforcing cultural lanes.
Membership as a simple measure of cultural access has its appeal, and it often serves as a proxy for authenticity. But it’s an imperfect one. Instead, we need a consciousness that values the exchange of culture from a place of unity and cooperation. By having spiritual communities ask about the difference between “sharing” and “appropriating,” we start getting to the core intentions with which we engage in any particular practice: How did you come by the information or practice? And what is your relationship to it?
Indeed, the values of integrity, authenticity, and humility should encourage us to ask these kinds of questions about the material we’re studying and certainly should caution us against rushing to teach on social media as if we had mastered the material. We should also be willing to look critically at our practices and point to where they are inadequate. But rather than saying, “You can’t do this. You don’t have the right identity,” a better answer might be to say, “What is your relationship to this? How did you come by this knowledge? Is what you’re doing authentic?”
By way of example, if you buy some sage from Amazon and burn it at home like it was spiritual Febreze, let’s be clear: You’re not smudging. That is a particular practice, requiring certain knowledge and wisdom. If you do some poses derived from yoga and call it “exercise,” you’re not doing yoga. Your actions are not only artificial and lacking in integrity, but they may be harming others’ business and, in the case of the overcultivation of white sage, they may have environmental impacts.
Similarly, reciting a forgiveness practice like Ho’oponopono or chanting a Sanskrit mantra isn’t necessarily appropriation if the practice is meant to be shared. But be honest about the source of your wisdom, and don’t use the practice to give yourself a certain level of authority when you don’t have any connection to the culture it originated from.
We also ought to remember that sharing culture can transform people in unanticipated ways. As a gay, white man born in the United States, I am utterly and profoundly grateful to have been transformed by meditation, yoga, prayer, Sanskrit mantra, healing energy work, and working with plant medicine. I shudder to think who’d I’d be today if a white woman yoga teacher who had studied Ashtanga yoga in Mysore hadn’t decided to teach a “power yoga” class at a local gym in Atlanta, Georgia—because that was the spark that put me on my path today.
Our inquiry should be about the integrity of the practice, not simply the racial or ethnic identity of the person. And, going back to an earlier topic, that might involve an inquiry into a teacher’s training: How many years of study? Who was your teacher? We should be evaluating appropriation by asking ourselves about our own spiritual practices: What is our relationship to this practice? Is this an authentic way of doing this work?
In short, we ought to be asking questions about the transmission of spiritual wisdom and tools so that we are transparent about our practices. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but our spiritual communities need to ask them time and again, with open-hearted inquiry and a commitment to unity and forgiveness—not judgment, gatekeeping, and exclusion—as tools for navigating conflict.
The way forward
How then, do we face the spiritual world’s shadow? The way we relate to spirituality as a whole, as a field of thought, as a community of practitioners, is the same way we relate to our personal shadows. Healing comes from meeting our wounds, patterns, mistakes, and other points of pain with tenderness, generosity, love, and compassion.
We are here to guide each other home, to our wholeness.
We meet them the way they need to be met to be seen, heard, and integrated into wholeness. The same path is true for what the spiritual world is doing. If we fail prey to our lesser selves and meet spirituality’s shadow with anger, outrage, and hatred, then we will simply be repeating the same wounds that led to that shadow being born in the first place.
We also need to address anger. All too often the response to anger is to tell it to go away, and far too many people of color have been told that they shouldn’t be angry (yet another version of bypassing). But every emotion should be given its space. Anger is a response to disempowerment. We feel anger when we are disregarded, our boundaries are ignored and crossed, our bodies are abused, and our capacity to shape our lives according to our free will is unfairly curtailed. Anger pushes back at that disempowerment and offers expansion. Anger should be felt — and met with compassion and understanding.
Building from a place of anger, however, often incites more anger and resistance. Sometimes that may be necessary. Sometimes anger is all that you can muster. But ultimately, anger is a substitute for power, and it will eventually leave you depleted if that’s your only source of power. That is why compassion and community are so necessary; they provide a fuel that won’t leave you burned out.
Just as we should feel and understand our anger rather than suppressing it, we also must face and understand, wholeheartedly, these aspects of our collective shadow. Each of these aspects emerges from a place of wounding and suffering. All these issues bring up deep feelings of shame, inadequacy, powerlessness, guilt, or indifference. Just like our personal shadows, these collective shadows of our spiritual communities are born from places of shame and ignorance.
To paraphrase Ram Dass: We are here to guide each other home, to our wholeness. We are here to remind each other of what we are here to undo — in ourselves and our communities. It is our sacred responsibility to go back within and see where we have contributed to that shadow and meet it with love and compassion.