What Does It Mean To Be Spiritual?

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“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde

In a 2014 installment of her “Breathless” column for Vogue.com, blogger Karley Sciortino wrote “Setting Your Boundaries When Dating a New Ager.” The piece is a comedic and biting—but oh so true—examination of the contemporary iteration of “New Age” culture. Sciortino addresses the people who swear by cleanses, those who can’t get enough of ayahuasca ceremonies, then the others who love their shamans, moon worshipping rituals, gratitude practices, the whole lot. It’s fucking hilarious, but also a little #tooreal. For me, at least. “Everyone should be aware,” Sciortino warns, “that the cute lawyer you met on Tinder might have crystals on his bedside table.” I am not a lawyer, but I often wonder how many people I encounter to whom I successfully “pass” as rational, cynical, post-spiritual.

I suppose all of that begs the question: what does it mean to be spiritual—or what does it mean to me to be spiritual, particularly in my specific context (as a white, mostly straight, able-bodied cis woman living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in the year 2017)?

I am Jewish—and couldn’t conceive of my identity without Judaism—but I don’t regularly celebrate Jewish holidays nor do I practice Jewish rituals. I also do not believe in God. While I meditate daily, and am a student of Buddhist texts, I can’t say I fully identify as Buddhist (or JuBu). Maybe I am, ambivalently, a New Ager myself.

I know that when I used to be on Tinder (for two years, before meeting my current BF on it), I often felt the need to “come out” as New Age (not in those words at the time) to my Tinder dates.  In fact, it usually didn’t require deliberate work: as soon as I would roll up to the bar in my Namaste beanie and tell my dates to “honor their truth” as they debated which cocktail to order, the cat was out of the bag: I was a crystal-bathing yoga biddie with a 19 dollar vial of rose-quartz- and rose-petal- infused vodka on my window sill. Today, however, I still don’t fully understand how to characterize my relationship to the various signifiers of pseudo-Paganism infiltrating the capitalist machine these days. Yoga, crystals, sage, “energy,” tarot.

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Me en route to a Tinder date. JK but you get the pic.

Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable to position myself, like Sciortino, as fully dismissive and ironic of these things. Probably because I am not.

At the same time, I also feel uncomfortable admitting that I “believe in” the power of crystals or that I genuinely feel vibes of renewal on new moons. Partially, I think that my spiritual life is littered with paradoxes and that it would be too easy for me to “believe in” anything. I also think I worry about the class implications of wholly subscribing to a set of things that are expensive and elitist and, quite frankly, unnecessary. I allow all of these attitudes to exist together, and it’s uncomfortable, but such is spiritual life I guess.

In 2014, after a year had passed and my heart had broken, I started realizing just how much spiritual rituals were being commodified in my immediate surroundings. (Read: it felt like all of the privileged, over-educated and urban-dwelling (neurotic) people I knew in NYC became witches. Or something like that.) And admittedly, I quickly joined them for the ride.

Friends and acquaintances of mine regularly flocked to new moon circles featuring vaginal iconography; I regularly hosted vision board making parties, and led female-only workshops on self-love, manifesting and the meaning of sexual truth at a yoga studio and healing center in Brooklyn. On the night of the spring equinox in 2015, my friend and coworker (at a digital wellness publication) invited me to a “Vernal Equinox Ritual Celebration,” led by a woman who self-identifies as “a ritual expert.” I agreed to go to the event in part because it was free, in part because it sounded entertaining, and in part because I was earnestly intrigued by what strikes me as a Paganism Revival among, as I said, everyone I know in New York who is over-educated, neurotic, and, for lack of a better word, “privileged.” Repetitive, I know, but it feels necessary to qualify again and again.

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In late September, I got several texts from friends like this, celebrating Mercury’s return from retrograde.

When my friend and I arrived at the ritual ceremony, we met the other participants, all of whom appeared to be friends, and were wearing patterned Lululemon leggings and loose fitting sweaters. There was only one man present, who was a skinny 20-something guy with sculpted Yoga-arms and a man bun. He wore a tank top and man-leggings, and was there with his waif-ish blonde friend who, I overheard, was celebrating some important anniversary of being vegan. There were others—probably 15 of us total, me and my friend among them, a little tipsy from our pre-ritual beers around the corner.

When the ritual ceremony started, our leader instructed us to go around the room, say our names, our mother’s name, our grandmother’s name, our great-grandmother’s name (and so on). Spring, I learned from our event leader’s prelude, is a great time to celebrate the Divine Feminine—the literal and metaphorical “mothers” in our lives, the embodiment of beauty, grace and fertility in us and around us. “You can be your own mother,” I remember the leader telling us. Cheesiness aside, her advice resonated with me, as I’ve always struggled with self-judgment. The idea of being my own mother, especially during tough times, made sense to me—as it helped me compartmentalize my caring self as someone external, someone immune to my self-sabotaging bullshit.  It gave me a vocabulary for self-care that felt decidedly not self-indulgent.

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Drinking beer after a run: self-care?????!

During the event itself, we went through various rituals to connect more to ourselves, to each other, to our mothers. One of them was called “an egg divination,” and involved rolling a hard-boiled egg with several of our intentions written on them across the room to see which intention we should focus on. I will note that the vegan of our group had to leave the room because she was so distraught about the presence of animal-derived activity materials.

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Apparently, boiling eggs is not easy for many. I hate eggs but Namaste.

You may be confused about what my attitude toward all this stuff was at the time, or what it is today. Well, I am still a unclear. But one thing is clear to me, and to others: New Age-y-ness has made a comeback in the 20-teens, and that there must be some sort of sociocultural slash historical explanation as to why. Last year, the editors of n+1 published a piece entitled “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” for Issue 24 of the magazine (the theme of which was “New Age”). In the piece, the editors ask the rhetorical question, “When had astrology become our irrationality of choice?” and quickly provide an answer: “Probably sometime around 2012, when things were not so good for us.”

Indeed, there’s something to this argument, and it’s not unique to the topic of astrology, nor to the editors of n+1. Any ritual can be individually comforting during times of collective discomfort because, in large part, they ask us to be passive, to put our intellects on hold, to “hold space” (love that expression) for that which we cannot control. Many, if not most, popular spiritual rituals have long, long histories, and yet in today’s world they still strike many as silly, most as self-indulgent. We are living in the so-called “Information Age,” so is it that we feel dumb running away from information and toward irrationality? Maybe so, but I say, “fuck it!”—at least in part.

The n+1 eds quote an article critic Christopher Lasch wrote in a 1976 issue of The New York Review of Books in which he argues that Americans sacrificed interest in politics in the 1970s for the sake of “purely personal satisfactions” like Buddhist philosophy and therapy, running and aerobics classes. Lasch saw all of these things as a retreat from political turmoil—helping the self came to replace helping the civic body.

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My sister and I invited our parents to cleanse crystals in the ocean with us this summer for the full moon in Capricorn. It was right after my grandfather’s death and we needed something to feel better TBH.

I don’t know if I genuinely believe crystals bring me good energy, or if the tarot deck has all the answers. I recognize these are distinctly #firstworld concerns, and also that there doesn’t really need to be a think piece about commodified spirituality now that we live in Trump’s America. But actually in the wake of recent political turmoil, I have been looking for something comforting to mollify my anxiety as I read the news and try and stay engaged and active in all the bull shit. I don’t know why I feel that I am a spiritual person, but I do feel that I am. I understand that such an attitude is a byproduct of my matrix of privileges, and also recognize the limitations of relinquishing my control in life, especially when it comes to our current political climate.

But I still think it’s worth asking ourselves why we gain comfort from the things that comfort us, and what we can do to be more in touch with them, without self-criticism. For me, the bottom line is that self-care—genuine self-care, not just doing spin class to burn calories and drinking water because it’s good for you—is related to one’s politics. It’s a tool for resilience and no one—not even you—should give a fuck if it seems silly. So long as you’re checking your privilege and not being a dick to other people,  I don’t care how many crystals you charged on February 10th’s full moon, and I celebrate all of the wisdom it brought you, or didn’t.

Can irony and acceptance coexist?

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art 4 art’s sake (hat tip 2 the mobil mini mart :D)

Part of my conceit in starting this blog was to recognize the role irony can play in the process of acceptance.

What do I mean?

To me at least, part of the reason capital-A Acceptance seems so daunting is because it feels like it has to be pure, all-consuming. A capital-D Decision. No turning back.

If I accept the fact that I gained 15 pounds last winter, that means I have to be content with my body image, and likely commit to staying this weight for the rest of my life.

I somehow assume that if I’m going to accept something about myself or something that happened, I can’t also account for any lack of acceptance, or any other feelings that challenge the acceptance. I don’t know where I learned this assumption. Here are other examples:

  • If I accept that I didn’t get enough work done today, I guess I’m accepting that I will always be a lazy loser with nothing good on my CV.
  • If I accept that I was a bitch to my boyfriend, I am resigning to treating him terribly forever, and to always having bad relationships.
  • If I accept that I forgot my friend’s birthday, I am recognizing that I am a categorically forgetful person and self-absorbed friend.

We associate acceptance with the negative stuff. It’s rare to feel the urge to accept the fact that something went really well at work, or that you had a great revelation in therapy. The dictionary definition of acceptance is: the consent to receive. When good shit is happening, you really don’t take the time to CONSENT to receiving it. You just receive it.

As of recently—and it’s a process—I’m beginning to envision acceptance as something much more holographic. If I gain 15 pounds, I can accept it, but part of accepting it can be that I can also feel bad about myself and want to lose weight. I can also simultaneously accept that I might then ALSO feel judgment about wanting to lose weight, “because feminists shouldn’t hate their bodies.” Then I may find myself reasoning that each person’s feminism is complicated and unique, and that patriarchal conditioning has affected me in ways I am not in control of. I can also simply accept that I feel more comfortable when I am 15 pounds thinner, and let that be that, even if it’s superficial. All of it can be there. Acceptance isn’t tidy or static. It is messy and dynamic.

Let’s just be clear that none of that is pleasant or even feasible much of the time. And for that reason, I think I use irony as a defense mechanism to make the process of acceptance easier for me, in all sorts of contexts. Examples help: I constantly make reference to my psychiatrist in casual conversations with not-close friends; I say things like, “tbt to my eating disorder” or post Instagram selfies of myself doing physical therapy exercises.

Perhaps, on some level, I feel uneasy about how much I need psychiatry, or ashamed of the fact that I used to be anorexic, or nerdy for allotting twenty minutes of my evening ritual to picking up a washcloth with my feet in order to strengthen my toes.

Or perhaps creating distance from certain parts of my life that involve discomfort is part of accepting them. It seems paradoxical that self-acceptance could involve disavowal of my pain or self-deprecation. And maybe these behaviors really do just come from insecurity. But maybe that’s also OK. Acting out of insecurity doesn’t mean you aren’t working on yourself. The real challenge is accepting how uncomfortable that is.

Let me just say that I know next to nothing about most of this. I’m just narrating along the way. Rather than thinking of acceptance as an endpoint, or happiness as the result of X, Y and/or Z, I am just often checking in on myself—my attitudes, my habits, my relationships—by seeing what comes up in the distance that irony, by definition, creates.

I believe it is possible to be a happy, healthy, person devoted to personal growth without committing earnestly and singularly to a green-juice-lentil-chip-yogi lifestyle, punctuated by daily arm-balance Instagram posts and infinite permutations of a gratitude hashtag.

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HOWEVER, I have completely asked a family member to photograph me in Eagle pose for my Instagram so that I could post some pseudo-spiritual and saccharine caption about the process of getting stronger and the role that #presence plays. And you know what? I also fucking love green juice, lentil chips, and yoga. AND much of the time when I buy 8 dollar green juice, 4 dollar lentil chips, or 30 dollar yoga classes, I make fun of myself for being self-indulgent or elitist or narcissistic or dumb. And you know what else? It doesn’t feel like abuse—and I accept that too.

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While I like green juice, I don’t think I feel grateful for it.

When it comes to the irony I bring to my (legit? authentic? earnest?) love of wellness trends, I think I am trying to disavow the fundamental narcissism of self-improvement as a thing. It’s not that I am not making fun of yoga, a practice that I love quite genuinely, but the cultural capital it carries with it, one that is contingent on being privileged in innumerable ways. The idea of being a white NYC-gurl who doesn’t question loving yoga would make me feel like a cultural appropriator and an un-self-aware exercise biddie. And that, I hope, I am not.

Irony often is a mechanism used to create distance, to cause alienation. As Wayne Booth said in The Rhetoric of Irony, irony is “a very messy subject” as it introduces “conflicts of fact.” When I listen to Kesha and get goose bumps, but then post a Facebook status about how ridiculous it is to get goose bumps when listening to Kesha, I contradict myself, I introduce conflicts of fact: I suggest that I somehow doubt the fact that Kesha is an artist I actually love.

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That’s Wayne Booth.

But I think, at least in part, that the partial disavowal, and the humorous friction it creates, is part of figuring out what the fuck it means and is to be who I am. Humor, to me, is empowering, even if it can serve as armor. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the need, sometimes, to be guarded.

Thus, here’s to the value in”repudiation and reversal,” as Booth would put it. To close, I’ll end on an overused Walt Whitman quotation that feels relevant: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Rather, I’ll add just one last quote by another dead white man: Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist intelligence / Almost successfully.” I love this idea of ALMOST SUCCESSFUL RESISTANCE. Imagine resisting yourself almost successfully—enough to incite a gentle, productive back and forth between different parts of yourself.

Imagine self-deprecation and self-acceptance existing in some kind of bizarre harmony. Imagine a perpetually unsuccessful state of resistance, two things against one another, teetering back and forth. Their mutual instability is what creates something resembling stability.