I would like to offer some insights today into a phenomena that I call Cosmetic Spirituality. This is a partner piece to my earlier post, Lessons from the other side of dreams. This topic requires some contextualization before launching in primarily because I have been a participant in this system of cosmetic spiritual consumption, and I think that is good to call out up front. I am not offering these observations from a pedestal of enlightenment. I want to make it very clear that I do not presume to have completed this lesson. In fact, I believe that Cosmetic Spirituality is a symptom of the colonial system of capitalism. One that we who live in the west, in the United States, must be disciplined and honest in observing. Using my voice as a white man and a medicine person to identify the ways I benefit from privilege and taking steps to walk away from the systems that support that privilege is an example of ‘dismantling privilege’. This is the spirit that I offer this teaching from.
The concept of Cosmetic Spirituality is rooted in privilege. As the wise Maya Angelou correctly states: 'Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.' I invite you to learn along with me. To begin the process and practice of dismantling your privilege. Part of my ‘doing better’ while walking the shamanic path is naming the imbalances that I see driving certain behaviors in spiritual communities, then taking action to walk away from contributing to those imbalances. Cosmetic Spirituality is a phenomena that I believe we will see increase with the scaled introduction of sacred plant medicines into the colonial care system of western psychology. For it is a sticky trap indeed when your pain is conflated with compliance and fed back to you as success. When we transform the sacred medicines of the Earth into treatments offered through a for-profit and broken healthcare system, who are we really serving? Can we really trust the intentions of an industry that has pathologized, commodified and profited from an illness created by the very system healthcare works to support?
First, let's start with some definitions.
[Contemporary] Colonialism: Contemporary Colonialism refers to the persistence or resurgence of systems and structures that involve the domination, exploitation, or control of one group or nation by another. While historically associated with the European colonization of various regions, contemporary colonialism recognizes that similar power dynamics can and do exist in different forms and across various contexts. In a modern context, colonialism is not limited to direct political control over territories, as seen in historical examples, but also encompasses economic, cultural, and geopolitical influences that perpetuate asymmetrical power relations.
Colonial Capitalism: In a modern context, the term can be extended to describe certain aspects of the global economic system that perpetuate inequality, exploitation, and neocolonial relationships. The idea emphasizes the persistence of exploitative economic structures and power imbalances.
Cosmetic Spirituality [Andy’s definition]: The intermittent, casual participation in spiritual healing communities (i.e. plant medicine circles, spiritual retreats) to provide temporary, analgesic relief from the pain of life. This temporary, analgesic, relief provides a cosmetic effect on your well being. It makes you look good and feel good until it wears off. Spirituality and spiritual healing become cosmetic when they are not paired with the disciplined pursuit of meaningful, permanent lifestyle change. Spirituality becomes cosmetic when it is not the intention of the individual to address the core wounds that create symptoms like depression, anxiety, etc. but instead set out to mask the symptoms of those core wounds. To achieve this masking, one must simply participate in a ‘tune up’ a few times a year. In this way, Cosmetic Spirituality can become a lifestyle, or a personal brand. Applied too often, Cosmetic Spirituality can be addictive.
Definitions can be misleading. They imply that a concept is static, not fluid. Leading with definitions is important so that you as a reader know what I mean when I speak with these terms, but definitions are fluid just like the rest of the world. Definitions are socially constructed by the repeated and observable behaviors of the collective ‘we’. As the collective ‘we’ change, so too do definitions. Shamanism is a great example of this fluid state (read more here). Within the definition of Cosmetic Spirituality that I provided above, I identify that spiritual healing becomes cosmetic when it is not paired with the disciplined pursuit of meaningful, permanent lifestyle change. I feel that this is important to highlight. For those of us who were born in a colonized country and were not raised within an indigenous lineage, we were born with the constructs of colonialism and consumerism pre-programmed into our being. Though we did not consent to receiving such programming, the inoculation was compulsory as determined by our social contracts. If our family in any way participated in public services like education, politics, religion we received the colonial operating system. To belong and be accepted at our schools, our churches, and in our families our compliance is required. Without compliance, we do not survive. To eat, we need money. To be physically safe we need to buy or rent a home, which requires money. We are born into this sticky trap and continually need to be convinced (and convince ourselves) through cultural compliance that it is actually freedom.
When we awaken to our spiritual path in the West we typically begin walking it as a spiritual consumer. How could we know any difference? Contemporary western spirituality, religion, psychology all have been created by neocolonial operating systems. Within that operating system we are taught to consume things that make us feel better. We are trained to seek healing from professionals as a first step not a last resort. We are hardwired to not question the actual source of our depression, anxiety, trauma because it nearly always is rooted in the core wounding of our species–our self-selected separation from Earth. And when things do get so bad that we need to receive treatment in order to live, we are told that the source of our pain is biological, individual. That our bodies are a problem, our chemistry is off, that discomfort is ‘all in our heads’. Women especially are told this. So most of us find spirituality after we have been thoroughly chewed up and spit out by the colonial operating system; when we are at the end of our road. Either we have come close to dying, have considered killing ourselves, or have literally tried every other thing we can think of to feel better. Our cultural path to contemporary spirituality travels through the belly of colonial capitalism. We begin our spiritual healing journey as consumers. Where else could we begin if that’s all we have ever known?
So if we are born into this context and need to participate in it in order to survive, how can we pursue meaningful, permanent lifestyle change and avoid the pitfalls of Cosmetic Spirituality? Well, we begin to first acknowledge and understand our role in the process and then begin to dismantle our attachments to the ways we privilege from the colonial operating system. We enter into a form of recovery that becomes a practice. We learn to live in the paradigm of Both/And so that we can maintain our sanity while trying to dismantle AND rebuild the plane while flying it, all while discovering it wasn’t a plane you were really building at all! From a shamanic perspective, the answers are equal parts spiritual, energetic and mundane and are all interdependent. Shamanism does not subscribe to the belief that we are separate from the Earth. Shamanism asserts that we are a component of an integral whole that includes the plants, the animals, the stones, and fungi, and water and so on and so on. Working within a shamanic paradigm, healing becomes a practice of re-connection and remembering paired with a somatic restructuring that occurs within a context that also matters. We cannot seek and will not find the answers to our pain from within the dominant systems as they are what created our core wounding. We need to seek them from within our souls, or spirits, within a context of interdependence with the Earth. Permanent meaningful change requires us to walk a path that leads our spirit as far away from the influence of the illness as we can stretch ourselves. On this path of walking away, the noise of the collective reduces. We begin to reconnect with the voices of the Earth, and weigh the voice of the other kingdoms with equal importance.
After 15 years of practice in shamanism I am just starting to scratch at the surface of this lesson. This relatively short blog piece is the result of countless hours (nay YEARS!) of prayer, ceremony and effort to gain some distance from the colonial operating system for perspective. Cosmetic Spirituality may be where we begin. There is truth and beauty in participating in contemporary spiritual practice. Those systems are informed by ancient roots that haven’t forgotten their way. Contemporary spiritual practice improves lives and leads to deeper awakening. And it may also become where we get trapped. These spiritual systems have been intentionally subverted and co-opted to prevent you and I from accessing those deep roots via the tools of capitalism and consumerism. Truly changing your life means walking away from the original source of your pain. When the source of your pain is the system itself, the implications are far reaching. Many people choose to stop at the cosmetic level because they are unwilling to sacrifice their privilege and learn to sit with the discomfort that brings.
Two years ago when I quit my six figure job as a Director of Health and Healing at a leading wellness resort I killed my corporate identity in a ceremony. I shot him in the heart with an arrow, and then set him on a boat, pushed him into the lake and lit that ship on fire. After the ceremony I took my name tag from that corporate job and I burned it in the fire. Now that I am looking for work to support my family so that ceremony can stay sacred and decoupled from the colonial operating system as much as possible I have applied to about 40 corporate positions. I have not received a call back from one of them. This is not because of the job market or the general reduction in white collar jobs, nor is it because my skills and experience are lacking. It is because I took spiritual action (attending ceremony), energetic action (killing my corporate identity in ceremony), and mundane action (burning my name tag) to walk away from the source of so much of my pain. There was nothing cosmetic about that work. It led to permanent change in my life and because I am interdependent my actions have had a rippling effect in my family, my community and has led to greater accountability on my path. Even though the colonial operating system is telling me to return to my state of compliance, my sacred action has thus far ensured that I cannot return. The only way out is through. The only way through is with. With the Earth, with the plants and the animals, with the voices of all of her kingdoms, and with a community of humans who are making the same difficult choices to decouple, deconstruct and walk forward towards our great return to the arms of our first mother. Pachamama.