4 Terrific Ways to Combat Spiritual Appropriation

Prime Shine, Social Consciousness / Sunday, November 26th, 2017

Affirmation: I value and appreciate each person’s spiritual identity and seek ways to uplift their history, beliefs, and practices

Is it possible to be appreciative of religious and cultural beliefs without sliding over that thin line of appropriation?

I am a young and diverse member of the New Thought community, which trends towards middle-aged and white. Throughout my life, I have dealt with people who view me as exotic or other. As a result, I am sensitive towards New Thought community members who integrate religious elements into their spiritual practice without understanding the historical implications. This reality gives me pause.

I know that those who do this often mean no harm, as they have been fitted with the tailor-made blinders of privilege. Nonetheless, blase mimicking of another’s traditions can be damaging and trends down a slope into degradation. On the other side of the conversation, I whole-heartedly stand by the New Thought statement: “Ancient Wisdom, New Thought.” I am an immense lover of all things religious and know that we can appreciate and even adopt spiritual practices from other traditions. The question is . . . How?

How can we take the thread of Ancient Wisdom found throughout these spiritual traditions without disrespecting or diminishing the persons who follow them?

As I grow and evolve, my answer to this question will evolve, as well. But for now, here are some considerations for integrating a new spiritual practice into your life.

  1. Study the history and cultural significance of the spiritual practices you incorporate

In a world where yoga has become a mainstream fitness practice in every gym and people decorate their homes using feng shui or their favorite brand of Buddha, it is easy to commercialize the spirituality of others. This isn’t a new phenomena. Even as Europeans colonized and “civilized” any person who inhabited beautiful and abundant lands, they tore apart their cultures in dual parts fetishized romanticism and dehumanizing mockery. They set up exhibitions, shows, and created so-called art all in the name of profiting.

Knowing this, we must be careful of how we incorporate spiritual practices into our daily regime.

Meditation is universally beneficial to our minds, bodies, and spirits. However, it can be detrimental to mindlessly repeat a foreign mantra because you like the way it sounds. For one, the translation of the mantra may not correspond to the energy you are trying to access. Additionally, you may find that your personal values do not align with the values of the mantra’s tradition. Take the time to research what spiritual tradition the mantra originated from, what the followers believe, and how they use it.

Broaden your reading repertoire. If you like Eastern spirituality, don’t only read books written with a Western perspective. Branch out and look for books written by Eastern teachers. Obviously, the best sources on  certain traditions come  from the holy books that center on spiritual  teachings.

Most importantly, take time to learn about the people who practice the spiritual tradition to which you are drawn. Many of these people have been or are currently being subjected to oppressive environments, marginalized identities, or persecution. For this reason, it is necessary to ensure that your actions are not further marginalizing or fetishizing towards the people or their practices.

  1. Experience new spiritual practices with somebody of the spiritual tradition

In 2009, there was a so-called spiritual leader who led a sweat lodge for new-age practitioners. This is a serious spiritual practice and vision quest that involves communicating with ancestral spirits. His negligence and inexperience resulted in the death of three individuals, which led to his conviction of felony negligent homicide. He not only misrepresented his qualifications, he stole this tradition without any regard for the culture. The Lakota Nation—who cites sweat lodges as not a religious practice, but their way of life—has spoken against people appropriating and capitalizing on their culture at the expense of others.

Many indigenous tribes across the world incorporate sweat lodges into their way of life. Leading a sweat lodge isn’t something that any person, even if they are indigenous, should lead. More than a safety issue, practitioners must undergo rigorous training. Lodge carriers are responsible for the participants’ physical, mental, and spiritual state. In order to be a sanctioned lodge carrier in the Lakota Nation, one must attend at least four Sundances, pray fluently in the indigenous tongue, and be granted the role by their Elders.

I have participated in two Sweat Lodge ceremonies. Both times it was led by an adopted Lakota Indian, who has undergone the rigorous trials necessary to lead a sweat lodge. Being mindful of this ensures that even as we are expanding our spirituality, we are not diminishing the traditions of those who own these practices.

  1. Think Local not Luxurious

If you want to deepen your own faith tradition by experiencing new spiritual practices, I urge you to be conscious of the places you attend.

Although there should always be abundance exchanged in gratitude of learning a new skill, be careful when attending spiritual retreats with unreasonably expensive price tags. Furthermore, if you attend a retreat outside of the country, it should be ran primarily by locals. There are countless so-called spiritual retreats that are cover-ups for luxury vacations.

These retreats do nothing to boost the local economy or underscore spiritual diversity. Often, they may even further marginalize the original practitioners. Do your research before booking any overseas retreat. If you go, spend your time with the local population in a mindful organization.

  1. Don’t Be Afraid to Explore

I am thankful that society is growing more conscious in relation to how we interact in the world. There can be drawbacks, however. Many people are too cautious, which can result in missed opportunities to discover new things about a spiritual tradition.

The vast majority of people are eager to share their traditions with you. Don’t be afraid to go to religious events or ask your friends about their spiritual practice. I have found open and welcoming communities throughout most of the major world traditions and look forward to celebrating with them in the future.

The important part is to be mindful and respectful of how they practice. The best way to do this is to ask questions:

  • Tell me about your faith tradition.
  • Is there anything that’s considered offensive?
  • How can I be an ally in daily life?
  • What about your spirituality gives you the most joy?

These are my initial thoughts on how to appreciate and integrate a spiritual practice into your life without appropriating it. Are there any additional thoughts? As an example, I didn’t explore dress, jewelry, or talismans. Please share your thoughts in the comments. I will return to this topic in the future and would love to start a conversation.

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