Recognizing Spiritual Commodification In Wellness And The Digital Age

For many, the term wellness invokes notions of self-care regimes, fitness and diet, mental care and mindfulness, and an immersion in nature. The truth is, wellness has different interpretations in different cultures across different communities. With all of our increased screen time trying to stay connected, many have picked up wellness practices from social media and popular influencers. But in this online space, are we aware which of these wellness routines are actually contributing to the commodification of Indigenous heritages and spiritualities around the world?

Commodification is not a new phenomenon, having been used by European colonists in the founding of many of our current Western perspectives from science to spirituality. The dawn of the New Age model in the West allows for individual-centered spirituality within a framework of commodification, in alignment with the spiritual “seeker” often pursuing personal wellness.

Image of two Caucasian women taking part in a purification ritual at an Indonesian water temple

Introducing: New Age Spiritualism

The “seeker” is a traveler searching for spiritual expansion or self-development–inducing experiences, like visiting culturally sacred sites or ancient places of worship. The emergence of the seeker can be traced to 1960s America, with the rise of mysticism as a counterculture (other scholars cite its beginning as early as 1950s), picking up popularity and pace in the 1970s. Think Glastonbury Festival—one of the original New Age spiritual destinations. In Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys, a collection of essays published in 2006, ‘Nature religion, self-spirituality and New Age tourism’ was written by a Phoenix park ranger Paul J. Conover and professor in the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University Dallen J. Timothy. Conover and Timothy describe the New Age as having “rapidly spread to Europe and other parts of the world,” in some aspects as an echo of colonial legacy. Importantly, they note that the movement was “fueled by people’s dissatisfaction with life, growing stress levels, and struggles with the fast pace and uncertainties of contemporary society,” in much the same way that wellness continues to gain popularity today as an antidote to the stresses of Western work culture and an integral part of self-care movements.

The New Age model is another lens through which people can “understand the world and their place in it,” as ethnographer Jane Mulock has phrased it; a departure from traditional religious identities as many continue to seek alternative lenses. Since Pew Research Center’s 2014 study on America’s religious landscape, an ever-rising number of people in the United States have continued to self-identify as religiously unaffiliated, agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular” (around 23% of the adult population at the time of the study), referred to as “nones.” In 2019, further research found approximately a third of teens in America were religiously unaffiliated, a higher proportion than their parents’ demographic and demonstrating the decline of traditional religious affiliations with younger generations.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou, Māori) is a professor of Indigenous education at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and author of the landmark and groundbreaking 1999 book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. In this book, Smith foresaw continuous growth in the spirituality industry “as people, particularly those in First World nations, become more uncertain about their identities, rights, privileges and very existence.” The very absence of perceived meaning and purpose as previously religiously derived can be interpreted through the absence of inherited cultural heritage, like ancient sites or sacred places of worship, and may be one of the facilitators of different Indigenous people’s heritage so often being co-opted and appropriated by spiritual seekers. Two Spirit storyteller Taté Walker is Mniconjou Lakota and a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, living in Phoenix, Arizona. They specify that it’s important to understand that “not everything belongs to you or is yours to play or experiment with,” and so “finding yourself – your wellness – shouldn’t come at the expense of someone else.”

Healing crystals and sage burning, popular among enlightened Western New Age followers on social media, are two examples of spiritual commodification.
Image of a deck of tarot cards laid on a table along with candles. A clear example of spiritual commodification is engaging in spiritual rituals or practices  as a fad, disregarding their faith-based context.

The New Age places importance on subjective truth, which characterizes spirituality by self-help rhetoric and an emphasis on individual well-being, thus centering the philosophy in personal transformation. The idea is that “the self” holds the answers to life’s mysteries, to truth, to inner peace, to questions of meaning and purpose . . . rather than sourcing spiritual guidance externally, in the way a religion may turn to a deity or deities. Buzzwords rooted in New Age thinking surround concepts like, as Conover and Timothy detail, “self-esteem development, positive thinking, self-improvement, mental and physical health, and spiritual transformation” — all areas that can fall under the wellness umbrella. A parallel can be drawn with popular tropes within tourism too, as TravIndy editor and sustainable travel consultant Jeremy Smith notes in an interview. Overemphasizing our current notion of “transformation” in travel can mean selling a narrow idea of transformative holidays, focused on “challenging ourselves” and pushing the idea of “strive to do more.” Conover and Timothy reflect upon the nature of tourism New Agers engage with, diverting from traditional escapism and often seeking to “become part of the destination through meditation, prayer, and other rituals.”

How Was The New Age Born?

While not defined under one explanation, some academics focus and illuminate the commercial aspect of New Age spirituality in their analysis as an important characteristic. In 2001, former Bath Spa University professor and researcher on contemporary paganism Michael York published a paper in the Journal of Contemporary Religion, in which he suggests the New Age model is an “outgrowth of liberal Western capitalism.” Associate professor in the Department of Cultural and Gender Studies at the University of Sydney Guy Redden describes the New Age as simultaneously “materialistic and spiritual, individualistic and bent on collective transformation.” He goes on to evidence that the “commercialization of New Age culture” interacts with its modern context of liberal marketplaces and globalization, whilst at the same time offering an antidote and alternative to the very same capitalist consumption.

Redden breaks down one fundamental difference between major traditional religions and the New Age model by the absence of structural organizations, like the church, that would normally provide a guiding structure for spirituality. Instead, the nature of participating in New Age spiritualism is “best realized through travel and consumption of various products and services” such as “crystals and psychic readings,” an approach underpinning the modern spiritual seeker. Engaging in New Age spirituality is guided by and through commercial consumption.

The nature of commercializing participation in spirituality can be seen in today’s digital world, where the individual-based philosophy allows for the cultural appropriation of spiritual practices from many Indigenous cultures in an attempt to build one’s personal spirituality. Conover and Timothy draw on previous commentators, highlighting that the taking and corrupting of different Indigenous people’s traditions “perpetuates the history of social oppression in the United States and trivializes an important spiritual heritage.”

Settler Gaze And Social Media Wellness

We live and work and socialize in a digital world, more obviously so in the last year than ever before. We’ve seen a myriad of wellness practices become popular, aka trending, on social media platforms and being sold to us by our favorite influencers. Many of these are culturally appropriated from different Indigenous cultures and traditions, from burning sage, to sweat lodges, to white-owned ayahuasca retreats, with devastating real-life consequences. Walker comments, “I find the idea of a ‘smudging trend’ to be oxymoronic. I’ve been taught that smudging is a spiritual practice – azilyá; I can light stuff on fire all I want, but it’s not smudging until I’m connected to the Creator, and I don’t even need smoke for that to happen. If you have sold or purchased sage, then you are not smudging.”

We may have heard of the “male gaze” by now—but in online spaces where appropriated trends thrive, such activity can fall under the concept of the “settler gaze.” The concept of the male gaze has made its way into popular culture, a phrase referring to the heterosexual male perspective as a default narrative and audience-positioning in media, in a way that often sexualizes a woman as an object of male desire. The settler gaze, then? The assumed default perspective is a colonial one—in many spaces including media—which then position audiences to view Indigenous peoples through the lens of harmful colonial stereotypes, narratives, and outdated ideas of different Indigeneous identities.

In Decolonizing Methodologies, Smith delineates how dehumanizing the legacy of colonialism can be in contexts that we would expect to be objective and free from cultural biases. Upon European colonial expansions and invasions in the 18th and 19th centuries, a rule in science was that an object of research did not have agency or a voice at all; Smith notes “this perspective is not deliberately insensitive” and was an unchallenged belief in European science. Combined with notions of “otherness” informing beliefs of European superiority, the “indigenous Asian, American, Pacific and African forms of knowledge, systems of classification, technologies and codes of social life” were regarded as “new discoveries by Western science.” The legacy was perpetuated and entrenched into the “default” perspective of Western science—and, the society it informs—when this knowledge was then “commodified as property belonging to the cultural archive and body of knowledge of the West.”

Walker explains, “For generations, my people fought and died to protect our medicinal and sacred knowledge; that I know how to sustainably grow, harvest, and pray for and with a plant relative like sage is a testament to Indigenous resilience in the face of systemic genocide. All of that is minimized and devalued as soon as you exchange money for it—the wellness intentions you claim are marred by the inherent colonizer-based ownership of a plant whose Indigenous names you’ve never heard of, nor care to know. Capitalism cancels out the good vibes you’re going for, regardless of your intentions.” The criminalization and outlawing of Indigenous knowledge and culture continues in the West, as Walker points out: “It wasn’t until the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 that Native people were even legally allowed to access our spiritual sites and practices, so your fashion and wellness trends definitely chafe.”

Commodification In The Digital Space

Bronwyn Carlson, an Aboriginal woman and professor, and Ryan Frazer, a postdoctoral researcher, both from the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, Australia, published a paper in 2020 examining the “lived experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on social media as it relates to accessing and sustaining networks of trust and support.” The paper’s interviews and findings testify to the reality that many Indigenous social media users are aware of the settler gaze as an online presence—for some, an omnipresence—of people “ready to co-opt sensitive and esoteric knowledge.” In describing how colonial relations underpin and overarch some Indigenous people’s online engagement, they detail how the settler gaze can “delimit, silence, and police what is possible for Indigenous people.”

In Smith’s 1999 Decolonizing Methodologies, she highlights a quote from Jimmy Everett, a Tasmanian Aborigine from the clan Plangermairreener of the Palawa. He explained that white Westerners “farm” Aboriginal culture and allow only “static stereotyped images” to contribute to and affirm the white Australian narrative of Aboriginal culture. Everett states, “Anything that doesn’t fit the white criteria is rejected on the presumption that it is not wholly Aboriginal.”

Digital spaces and platforms are notoriously tricky to monitor, let alone effectively police, meaning it is already difficult protecting intellectual property online within the context of Western law—where ownership is rooted in the concept of individual rights and tangible, economic value. To match, the mechanisms protecting this idea of intellectual property are economic and ownership-based in response, such as copyright and trademark. Indigenous philosophies and cultures are different the world over, shaped by thousands of distinct and unique histories, ecologies, and lands. Professor Deidre Brown (Ngapuhi, Ngati Kahu) of the University of Auckland, and Professor George Nicholas of Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, published a 2012 paper examining Canadian First Nations and Māori heritage. They point out that many Indigenous understandings of intellectual property contrast with Western understanding. It is instead “based on social relations and responsibilities,” where cultural and intellectual property may not be divisible or separate, and ownership can be communal.

Walker explains, “Many Indigenous nations, my Lakota people included, believe land and water are sacred. I don’t compartmentalize my spirituality from my daily life – it is everywhere all the time, not just on Sundays or held in specific buildings or read in specific books.” When Indigenous intellectual property is infringed upon in digital spaces, the loss is also cultural and thus more profound than the loss of a few dollars. Brown and Nicholas cite some consequences, from “loss of access to ancestral knowledge” to the “commercialization of cultural distinctiveness” and “uses of special or sacred symbols that may be dangerous to the uninitiated.” This can mean others outside of the community can co-opt practices like tribally produced work to make inauthentic reproductions, ultimately creating “threats to authenticity and loss of livelihood.”

Brown and Nicholas highlight the reality that for some Indigenous communities situated within Western cultural landscapes, heritages are perceived as “part of the public domain” representing a “vanishing culture” from the colonial perspective as it fails to move out of harmful, outdated stereotypes. In Decolonizing Methodologies, Smith explains that collective knowledge is commodified as public knowledge, and knowledge is commodified as intellectual property. The danger of Indigenous heritage being treated as public, to then be stripped of cultural significance and commodified into intellectual property, becomes all the more threatening. Could, then, the sage-burning Insta-lives on our feeds actually be contributing to the erasure of Indigenous heritages? As Brown and Nicholas note in creating new ways to protect Indigenous cultural property online, it is vital to acknowledge “that tangible and intangible knowledge are indivisible, as is the case for many indigenous peoples.”

Calling Out Commodification

Carlson and Frazer posit, in investigating narratives of hope that some Indigenous social media users were actively pursuing, such narratives of hope can write a positive future for Indigenous people instead of the settler narrative of “Indigenous lack and decline,” as Carlson and Frazer suggest. “I think Indigenous people are turning to social media more and more to call out commercialization and appropriation of spiritual and cultural matters,” Walker reflects, “and for the most part they are using online platforms successfully to spread awareness. Following multiple Indigenous accounts is a great way to stay connected to the many varied issues that matter to us and ensure your trend doesn’t tread on our spiritual and cultural well-being. Just keep in mind that there’s no one megaphone for any single issue.”

In the same way that European colonialism stole ideas and knowledge from Indigenous peoples, New Age spirituality is criticized for culturally appropriating and commodifying practices and knowledge from Indigenous peoples. Smith highlights the commodification of otherness, explaining that “trading the Other deeply, intimately, defines Western thinking and identity” and disregards the human origins in this process.

Walker suggests one way to deeply self-reflect is to “ask yourself: In what other ways does my privileged behavior impact someone else’s spiritual beliefs and practices? Do you dance at music festivals wearing a feather headdress? Are you rock climbing in an area with Indigenous petroglyphs? Do you make rock piles along hiking trails and call them cairns? Does your bank fund oil pipelines that cut through Indigenous lands? Did the last book/movie/TV show/podcast/etc. you consumed feature Indigenous creators, characters, or voices? Are there any Indigenous people working in the leadership positions at your job – or anywhere in your company? Challenge yourself not to make excuses or claim Indigenous ancestry you aren’t actively working to connect with (e.g., my great great great grandmother was Cherokee so I can wear this headdress, but I don’t know anything about my tribal history nor do I advocate for any nation-specific issues). Ask yourself how you can change the answer to these and other questions.”

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