or, “How I found myself back in that damn box after clawing my way out”
It’s ironic. Years ago an article came out decrying the “spiritual but not religious” seeker. I can’t remember who wrote it and it doesn’t really matter, but for a while it drew people into a debate about how SBNR folks don’t get it and are deluding themselves; that being in community – the supposed purpose of religion (debateable unto itself) – was key to true spiritual growth. When I read that article, I wrote a response to it on my old blog and I pushed back a little bit. But there was something deep down inside of me that was saying, “You know, they aren’t wrong, but they aren’t right about the what.” But I couldn’t define what rankled me either and I think it was because I was only just beginning to catch glimpses of the religiosity of SBNR communities and people.
Now, years later I can identify the what. Until now, I didn’t feel it was my place to call anything into question broadly. And I was scared. I’m still a little scared, but not scared enough to not put this out there. (And I’m going to start marking my articles NSFW when there is language. When I’m with people I trust, I use “colorful” language so you might be seeing that NSFW more often because hey, if you can’t trust me and I can’t trust you, what are we doing here? I’m exhausted of policing my language for reasons that will become evident further down, should you decide you can roll with it).
Background which informs the present
I was raised by various people, and by my culture to believe in a doctrine ruled by a God which was slightly influenced by Prosperity Theology. For example, one of the versions of God I learned about was the God who punished me with clinical depression and crippling anxiety because I didn’t have enough faith, or because I didn’t study my Bible every morning the week previously, or because I skipped Wednesday night’s small group. That same God also tended to reward people with cushy, medical-issue-free lives when they were faithful to the tithing plate, to their daily Bible readings, and to showing up for small group. When there was any struggle (whether it be medical, financial, emotional, or other), it was explained by the authority/expert/chosen one that it was because I sinned and was too prideful to walk away from that sin and/or I wasn’t serving the church enough. (I mean cause and effect, right? Nope. Just plain old manipulation). There were creeds and doctrines and beliefs – checkboxes that if left unchecked, landed me in hell.
And purity was a BIG DEAL. There were a lot of rules around appearance and language and consumed media choices and sex and just everything. Everything was under a microscope and up for review. We were also always confessing our sins – to God, to each other, in prayer, in song, in everything we did there was sure to be a sin because we were born of sin so just hedge your bets and always be asking for forgiveness and never relax. Ever because – purity, but also, Jesus could come back at any moment and you don’t want to get caught with your pants down. (Gee, I wonder where the depression/anxiety combo came from)? It was very performance and image-based, despite being told that we were saved by faith, not works.
The environment was also extremely insular and therefore isolating which made us dependent on one another in unhealthy ways. We were told to “be in the world but not of it.” I learned that we had to suffer through being in this sinful, dirty, horrible world, with sinful, horrible, dirty people, and that to the best of our abilities, we were never to engage with it or them. (Unless of course, it was to save them). The church was comprised mostly of middle-to-upper class white folks. I was allowed to be a part of this group because I checked the right boxes on the form, and hey, I also happened to look like them and have the same privileges as they did. What does that teach us, even if inadvertently? Well, if the “rest” of the world is sinful, dirty, and horrible, and we are not because we are saved, then anyone who doesn’t look like us, live like us, and have the same privileges as us must be “of the world.” Dirty. To be avoided. (Again, unless we’re saving them).
I can’t forget to mention the ever-looming rapture theology where Jesus could come back at any moment, but not before a lot of really bad shit goes down like martyrdom. (Oh the stories I could tell about “preparing” for this). Watchfulness and readiness was a BIG part of my life. And I was already raised by a police officer who couldn’t help but bring home his constant surveillance skills, knowing what he knew (he was trying to keep us safe). (Gee, I wonder where I get my propensity for picking up on subtle cues and body language. I wonder where the crippling anxiety came from)?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being groomed to become a privileged, “clean,” white savior of a world she was simultaneously encouraged to turn her back on. Confusing, no? I was taught to avoid critical thinking and to only engage in self-inquiry when it resulted in self-flagellation and continued servitude to the powers that be. I was taught to willingly hand over my power. I was to never trust my mind or to learn discernment through my heart; nor was I to come to my own conclusions or find my own answers based on my own inquiries and experiences. And it was very subtle. Most of the time.
The in between insanity and sanity
Yes, I had cognitive dissonance all the time, which I repeatedly shoved to the back of my deep, privileged, walk-in closet because if I questioned the teachings, I was warned with a small, disapproving frown, that this indicated a lack of faith and the devil was trying to steal my soul. And you don’t want to take a beat to allow a question to linger in the ole brainbox because what if you are questioning and then BAM! Jesus comes at that moment, or BAM! you get hit by a bus?
That cognitive dissonance didn’t stay hidden. The depression and anxiety didn’t leave me alone either – no matter HOW faithful I tried to be. I got married and moved away and before long I was in an existential crisis. But something great happened when I married too (in addition to being married to my husband who, in case you’re wondering stuck around despite the following). I moved from a very conservative state and insular experience to a very liberal state with nowhere to insulate myself. And thank God, because that forced me to meet people who were different! Like, pagans, people of different ethnicities, alternative wellness practitioners, atheists, libertarians, Unity church goers, non-church goers, gay people, democrats, people who lived together without being married, socially liberal conservatives, women who weren’t married and had kids, women who were married and didn’t want kids, women who had abortions, women who told their male partners what they thought and often took the lead on decisions big and small.
These people seemed pretty happy and they had what they needed. Things weren’t adding up. I was miserable and doing everything “right,” (I was saved) and these people, according to the teachings of my church, were doing it wrong and were happy. It’s hard to unsee a thing once you’ve seen it, so I left: the church, the association, the label, the doctrines, the misogyny, the patriarchy, the false image of God who was a bloodthirsty yet somehow unconditionally loving granter of goods and services only to the faithful. (My head still spins at that last one – what does unconditional mean)? I was miserable with anxiety followed by dark and long periods of depression followed by more crippling anxiety and obviously couldn’t meet God’s requirements anyway so why the hell was I trying so hard? For what?
Put another way – I was so desperate and miserable that I was willing to roll the dice on an eternal life of torment without access to God. And roll the dice I did.
Lest I give the impression that I “just” left
When I say I left, I mean that for 12ish years I continued to have crippling panic attacks while reading scholarly articles and books about the history of Christianity and the Bible, as well as dipping my toe into the history of other religions and spirituality in general (uh, that’s a big no-no where I came from). At the same time, I placed every single thought and belief I had ever acquired on the table for dissection and when exhaustion from that settled in, I would go into a 1-2 week depressive episode.
I forced myself to change ingrained, unhealthy mental habits like constant watchfulness for signs and constant self-doubt. This felt like wearing a 25-pound pack and scaling a mountain every moment of every day. All while also struggling with suicidal ideation because the question, say it with me, fellow Religious PTSDers, “What if they are right?!” lurked in the back of my mind the entire time, trying to lure me back. By then I knew too much to be able to go back, yet that question haunted me.
12 long years. 12 painful, barely-made-it-through long years where childhood and high school friends walked away from me because I was now “of the world” and a host of other personal and family difficulties arose.
I can’t believe I’m being pulled back into this again!
About 9 years ago I found myself empty. I had shed a lot and was asking, “Now what?” because there was a problem. If I hadn’t had some experiences throughout my life that were mystical and sacred, I would have rebuilt my perspective around a completely rational, scientific, possibly humanistic worldview. But I did have those experiences and continued to have them (huh, interesting, “God” or Source or whatever didn’t leave me!) and so I went looking for community and landed with some people who listened to me without judgment and had an accepting nature I had never before experienced. I could QUESTION! I could THINK! I could EXPLORE! I could have an OPINION!
We who have left organized religion, but have since found ourselves in spiritual groups, can often carry an air of self-congratulations and relief because, “Thank God we’re not still following THAT.” Yeah. Go us. Except for when we are.
The longer I hung around new age/metaphysical/energy healer groups, the more classes I took, the more books I read, and the more social media groups I joined, the more I noticed that much of what I had just extricated myself from had been relanguaged, rebranded, and was being taught and sold in the spiritual communities.
Talismans and prayer for stuff and security? Check.
Priests and go-betweens? Check.
Appearance expectations? Check.
Purity expectations? Check.
Rituals to appease or attain something from “Source”? Check.
Creating victims and then blaming the victim? Check.
“Gifts” given to the special chosen few? Check.
Defending one’s healing modality as the “right” or superior modality? Check.
Requirements to work with and be in communion with Source? Check.
All while preaching unconditional love, self-acceptance, and nonduality? Check, check.
(Dare I bring up the extreme pendulum swing of misandry while simultaneously bemoaning that more men weren’t spiritual in a few instances? Yikes, no. We’ll leave that for now).
So when I read the following in Rachael Rice’s article:
There’s also a military fuckton of Law of Attraction stuff that’s basically repackaged Christian Prosperity Theology for new agers without critical thinking skills….It’s an entitled orientation towards the extraction of resources because “I deserve it and the Universe is waiting to bestow wealth upon me” with little regard for how those resources were accumulated and are distributed. Wealth is de facto proof of being “in alignment with your soul’s purpose” irrespective of how grossly stratified wealth actually is. The inherent racism, classism + other -isms of LOA and The Secret, and other “mindset” and “manifesting abundance” programs are rarely thoroughly confronted.
I sighed with relief. I cried a little bit because she had the guts to call us out on our bullshit. We cannot heal until we’re willing to see our own bullshit. The LOA has been problematic for me since day 1 and she encapsulates the reason so perfectly. I can imagine people thinking, “That’s not the LOA I follow.” Good! Then start sharing your more nuanced, deeply personally responsible, and widely accessible brand of LOA with the rest of us. Don’t hide that light under a bushel!
But also, can we take a moment to contemplate why we are so focused on manifestation and are so needy for stuff? What do we imagine X is going to solve or heal? What is our obsession with the idea of being able to attain a “perfect looking or perfect feeling life”? Why are we not working with what we got, allowing what Is Now to be our teacher?
Are we brave enough to ask ourselves, “Do I really need that, or am I using this activity of striving to achieve something as a distraction from the real work of healing myself?”
Honestly a whole host of other questions about self-validity and self-empowerment opens up for us around these concepts, classes, workshops, certificates, and rituals. Trust me, as someone who teaches a course, I’ve thought about this a lot. And I turn people away who think that if they just take this course, get this certification, something will finally be fixed in them. Or they will finally find THE answer. Nope, you don’t need my course or to spend money to access yourself. But more on that later down.
To the person who is following LOA/The Secret and not experiencing abundance: it’s not your fault. You aren’t faithless or unworthy. It’s not necessarily because you haven’t been generous enough in your own life. In the same way that when I had severe depression, it wasn’t because I wasn’t a good enough Christian. You have been misled. Just as I was misled. In the awareness, what do we do next?
Here’s what we (broadly speaking) don’t seem to want to acknowledge: it’s not all Love and Light. It’s not all effortless and dreamy if we just think the right thoughts or clear our auras. When we heal ourselves it is WORK – especially in the beginning. Why? Because we are going against every innate and learned defense mechanism our brains, bodies, and conditioning can throw at us, trying to stop us from honest self-inquiry: a willingness to SEE and ACKNOWLEDGE our honest thoughts, feelings, and motivations to stop us from doing something about it.
Carmen Spagnola of the Numinous Podcast (#67)
Do we want to be comfortable and superficially accepted, or do we want to be reformed – changed? Are we willing to do the work it takes to uncover and heal our karma, to learn how to be truly vulnerable and intimate with one another, to experience healthy community, creative expression, and self-actualization together? Are we willing to screw up in front of each other and let that be an opportunity for growth? Are we willing to learn how to observe our thoughts, to learn how to reshape them? Are we willing to stay in the room and learn from each other? Are we willing to learn how to embody love and compassion for ourselves and for each other? Do we want to be happy from time to time, or expand our perceptions such that we can access joy always?
If we are using spiritual principles and rituals as an escape hatch from reality, responsibility, or honest self-inquiry, it’s no longer spiritual.
There are other aspects of bad religion that has been relanguaged and rebranded so that it can be sold in spiritual communities. Another portion of Rachael’s article struck a nerve for its similarity to the messages I walked away from:
Anything you dislike in others is a reflection of something inside of you that needs healing. See also: you have a “story” resulting from a “core negative belief” about yourself
Oh the self-righteousness. Sometimes BS needs to be called out. And sometimes we are the creators of said BS. It doesn’t have to be the end of the world when we come into a realization that we’ve perpetuated BS. Nor does it mean we have to agree with the assessment! And our job is to stop, listen, and consider instead of manipulating the story to serve our egos. Let’s be compassionate with each other and honest. We can be both and if we don’t know how to be both compassionate and honest at the same time, well, it’s time we learned.
You should [have the means to pay and time to] try Landmark / Ayahuasca / Sweat Lodge / fancy detox / healing program / pilgrimage to a shaman / yoga or meditation retreat / Tony Robbins coal walking / etc. and fix your faulty “stories”
For the love of all that is good and holy, don’t let ANYONE ELSE should you. You’re probably shoulding yourself quite enough. And also? Our stories getting fixed – that’s an inside job. You need you. And a supportive, wise friend. But mostly a willing you. There’s not enough money in the world to fix us (thanks, Wall Street for proving that). Money and certificates and experiences can be helpful tools, but they are not necessary. And this is an uncomfortable truth because it reminds us that we can’t blame our lack of growth on not having enough money or enough opportunities to have mystical experiences.
Separation is an illusion; politics is separation consciousness, above these perceptions is unity consciousness, and you’re just bogged down in duality + divisiveness (the unity / oneness bypass in spiritual bypassing*)
Sometimes we talk about big ideas in very concrete and assured ways AT other people instead of with other people in a communal exploration. We aren’t even experts of ourselves. What makes us think we have the answers for other people? This, I believe, is a problem derived from our “insta-certified” culture. Just because we take a class and get a piece of paper doesn’t mean we are experts at anything, (or even qualified to start a practice in any way) and it also doesn’t necessarily indicate that we’ve evolved one iota.
And to be clear, I’m not claiming that I understand nonduality 100%. But I will tell you that what I do know about nonduality has a lot to do with humility and taking personal responsibility – two topics people do not like to talk about because it doesn’t feel “Light” and doesn’t make us feel warm inside. Nonduality encompasses it all. We have to be willing to see and engage with our shit. See our culpability with the problems within ourselves, our relationships, and our communities. But that isn’t fun, sparkly, rainbow-laden, et al. So we accept half-baked growth and evolution. Shame can be an important teacher.
Critique/anger/judgement are conflated with “fear” and are assigned “low vibration” energy
High vibration is not better than low vibration. If we understand nonduality and are truly viewing the world through nondual lenses, then why do we keep perpetuating this ascension and high vs low vibration myth? Answer: to escape. The ascension talk I hear in some circles is a new brand of rapture theology. And rapture theology is very much about escapism from the pain of this world and taking any personal responsibility in working in community to heal it. Plain and simple.
While I was becoming acquainted with my new community of “spiritual but not religious/New Age/Alt Wellness/etc.” (I’m not being flip – it’s a WIDE umbrella which is part of its appeal) I started hearing other things that sounded similar to the old Christian paradigm I had just spent over a decade extricating myself from.
When someone got sick, I would hear, “Oh, what do you think the root emotional/spiritual issue is?” Huh, weird. That sounds an awful lot like, “You have depression because you don’t have enough faith.” Why can’t we ask, “What do you need? How can I help?” instead of asking someone who already is struggling to stop and do a personal inventory and critique themselves. It’s not our job to assume that role. (I’m calling this out as someone who has done this to others).
Or, “Oh, you want to take that class but can’t afford it? Set up a manifestation grid!” which sounds an awful lot like, “Pray about it and leave it up to God.” It makes me itchy because while creating a crystal grid (and prayer) could be a great ritual to help someone get clarity around their intention and the motivation behind it, we need to also encourage each other to take actual real-time, physical steps to proactively create their reality, you know, change, and then take responsibility for it. We’re not victims of the universe or of God. Also, can we stop making things into tools that do our bidding? Crystals and God? Can we reframe our relationship with the world and each other as co-creators rather than as a means-to-an-end?
“Carry this crystal for protection,” is a different version of “Say this prayer and you’ll get to skip hell.” Why are we afraid of self-inquiry? Why are we afraid to explore why we feel we need protection? Why are we afraid to look at and be with and learn from things that make us uncomfortable? By all appearances, we don’t really want to be in true communion with each other. We want to slap a Band-Aid on each other, and get on with our lives where we’re very busy distracting ourselves from our own shit.
And I’m going to say it because why not, I’m probably already up a creek with zero paddles… the whole concept of psychic attack and energy hooks and energy vampires necessitates duality, perpetuates self-victimization, is disempowering, and ignores free will. It smacks of the satan and demon talk which was used in my former life as a scapegoat for taking responsibility, and as a way to keep people disempowered and in fear. When are we going to step into our own inherent power and take responsibility for our actions, and how we choose to interpret our experiences?
I also started to see people talk about the “right” way to practice a ritual or healing modality, and the “right” teacher to study from, and the “right” tools to use. (See also “Original” or “true”). I watched on social media as energy healing practitioners went after each other for deigning to practice energy healing without having had an “authentic” attunement ceremony. Again, this sounds an awful lot like needing to pray the right prayer and needing to be in the right religion and needing to studying under the right pastor. Who do we think we are? And what lie are we perpetuating within ourselves that we think we’ve found the one and only, the “right/true/pure” Way?
Which leads me to learning about energy healing tools by relying on an “expert’s” personal channeled experience. We do not need a go-between to access God or energy or the universe. We do not need a go-between to learn about crystals. We do not need someone else to lay hands on us so that we might have access to the Light. We do not need to keep giving our power away. Look, sharing with each other is one thing – it’s a beautiful thing in fact. Attunement ceremonies can be beautiful, empowering rituals of celebration. But crowning myself or crowning someone else the expert or keyholder of X – that’s the old paradigm. That’s religious paradigm. That’s hierarchy. That’s a powerless people relying on a powerful few. Be willing to have your own experience without external validation. You can do it. You are worthy of it.
And the purity aspect. You know, at first I could not figure out why I got twitchy when I would read or hear someone insist that we had to be “clear channels” before doing energy work. Or that we couldn’t do or eat or drink off of a long list of don’ts. “Don’t eat meat! Don’t drink alcohol! Don’t drink caffeine! Don’t eat sugar! Don’t eat wheat! Don’t watch TV! Don’t don’t don’t don’t don’t.” All this in order to supposedly “be a clean and clear vessel!” Gosh, that sounds an awful lot like purity laws from the Old Testament and the purity laws instituted in 20th century religion.
It also sounds like there’s an expectation that everyone is living in the same body and having the same life experiences. (A la Rachael’s primary point). If we waited till we were “clear” channels, none of us would ever facilitate a healing session. Ever. And if someone has the self-righteousness to believe they are “clear” enough to facilitate a healing session? Are any of us totally reconciled unto ourselves? Are we suggesting that it’s possible to have looked under every rug and into every dark corner? Are we suggesting that in a human lifetime, a person can achieve perfection? Is perfection the goal? Is purity the goal? Is positivity-at-all-costs the point?
This has been there in the back of my mind for years. I haven’t written about this because I don’t want to come across as harsh or confrontational or… who knows how someone perceives this? That’s up to them. I share this from the perspective of someone who has been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Who has also found herself caught in one trap or another and brought others along for the ride before becoming aware of what I was doing.
So many times I’ve wondered, “Do I completely extricate myself from this community?” And, “Do I say something? Do I dare to offer a different perspective?” A couple times I did cautiously say something and that went over as well as you’d expect it to. So I did start to back away from the spiritual and new age and crystal healing Facebook groups. I unsubscribed from newsletters. I stopped going to circles. Not because I’m better or I have things figured out. In fact, it’s precisely because I don’t have everything figured out that I had to back away. If I’m going to continue being an open, honest, self-inquiring seeker, I better find open, honest, teachers and fellow sojourners who are also doing their own self-inquiry. What I was finding in this “spiritual and unaware of their religiosity” crowd was more of what I had just spent over a decade escaping and deprogramming myself from.
If you find a fire breathing dragon in one cave and have the good luck to escape that cave, when visiting another cave if you notice a sudden gush of heat that nearly knocks you over, you are going to slowly back out of that second cave. Even if that dragon’s fire might be glittery and magical. Even then.