The self-help and “mind-body-spirit” scenes are billion dollar industries, but how has the commodification of spirituality affected our ability to practice it? As sacred principles are co-opted and watered down to sell feel-good mass-market products, those unwilling to sellout spiritual principles are pushed further to the margins – where they are increasingly maligned as “cultist” for putting spirituality ahead of materialism.
Alternative spiritual teachings and groups that encourage a way of life outside of mainstream values are being marginalized and suppressed from all sides.
On one side, what is deceptively being presented to the general public as a viable and appealing alternative to mainstream religious institutions is largely owned by corporations and individuals looking to profit from people’s natural interest in spirituality, making it nothing more than a cleverly disguised offshoot of the mainstream itself.
Corporations and individuals who sell spirituality select fragments of ancient spiritual concepts or teachings and then repackage them to be more appealing as a product to sell. In the process, however, they violate the integrity of the original source and distort the original meaning and purpose.
Additionally, by charging money to access the majority of their products, these merchants of spirituality break the timeless cycle of freely giving and receiving spiritual knowledge (which is a fundamental spiritual principle found within the origins of many spiritual traditions).
This has created a confusing landscape that is difficult to navigate for spiritual seekers looking for truth beyond the mainstream and has begun to change the very definition of what “spirituality” is, as it turns more into an alluring commodity to be bought and sold instead of a way of life.
With corporations having massive funds to market and advertise, along with the power of the media and the charm of spiritual “celebrities,” alternative spiritual groups who don’t conform to this new form of commercialized “spirituality” often can’t “compete” and are drowned out by those selling products designed to have mass appeal. This makes genuine alternative voices increasingly difficult for spiritual seekers to even find.
As corporations push new religious movements to the margins they become more obscure and are seen as outsiders of society. This then makes them more susceptible to vilification by the anti-cult movement with the assistance of the media, which often portray these groups in a sensational way, employing stereotypes that are derived from intolerance and play upon fear of difference and the unknown.
These forces have been successful in cultivating a taboo towards groups of people who seek a spiritual life that does not conform to mainstream values. In many cases the anti-cult movement unjustly describes members of alternative groups with the derogatory label “cult member” because of a commitment and dedication to spiritual ideals over materialistic ones, and for pursuing this commitment outside of a mainstream religious institution.
This taboo has created a hostile (and in some cases dangerous) environment for those seeking to commit their lives to a spiritual lifestyle that doesn’t conform to the parameters of either mainstream religions or the new commercialized spirituality promoted heavily through various large corporations and major media icons.
The end result of this two-fronted assault is that all “socially acceptable” spiritual options are establishment-controlled via either religious institutions or corporations. This creates an illusion of free choice and alternatives, but genuine alternative choices are actually vilified and pushed to the margins.
Alternative Spirituality Throughout HistoryBy “alternative” in this context, I am referring to a spiritual doctrine or practice that differs substantially from the dominant values of the society in which it exists. It is not simply a matter of relative popularity (as these alternatives can in fact become quite popular at times) but rather that these alternatives promote values that are different from those of the mainstream. In academia, these groups are commonly called “new religious movements”.
Throughout history there are many examples of spiritual seekers who found alternative groups of people with a spiritual teacher and dedicated their lives to those teachings – for example, the disciples of Jesus or Buddha. Communities like the Christian Gnostics, Essenes, Cathars, Rosicrucians, and Sufis all taught outside of the mainstream, and were forms of alternative spirituality in their time.
Alternative spirituality was also very popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the rise of occult groups and esoteric schools like the Theosophical Society and teachers like Gurdjieff. This period also saw a wave of new Christian denominations, such as the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.
In the western world during the 1960s and 70s, a surge of alternative spiritual groups appeared on the scene, many of them influenced by an infusion of teachings and spiritual practices from the east. It became very popular to join these new religious movements. The counter-culture at the time was already very open-minded, with many young people leaving their homes and prospective careers to take up an alternative lifestyle that rejected the values of mainstream society.
Today, alternative spirituality still exists much in the same way as it did in the past. While beliefs and practices vary from group to group, many consist of a spiritual lifestyle that requires discipline, commitment, and an aim to transcend the materialistic world and desires, in order to reach salvation or enlightenment.
In the past, it was understood that a life dedicated to those aims would be full of difficulties and contain many challenges to overcome in order to gain spiritual rewards, and this understanding is still prevalent in many alternative spiritual groups practicing today.
Alternative spirituality has always had waves of popularity and suppression, as people have long sought after alternatives to the mainstream, and mainstream institutions have long sought to suppress anything that threatens their dominance.
In more recent times, the burgeoning popularity of new religious movements in the 60s and 70s coincided with birth of two powerful forces that has profoundly changed the way we view alternative spirituality: the self-help industry and the anti-cult movement.
Corporatization of Spirituality via the Self-Help Industry
While self improvement is a concept that has always been around, the self-help industry itself began in the 1900’s1 with a few books and essays promoting personal development as a means of success in life, like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.
Though these authors became quite popular, and are still heavily quoted even today, the industry itself didn’t completely take off until the last part of the 20th century, right around the time that new age and new religious movements were becoming widely popular.
As more people rejected the mainstream and became interested in various alternative spiritual groups, the self-help industry expanded rapidly, ready to capitalize on the emerging “market,” and quickly developed a niche within which products could be marketed and sold by large corporations.
Before long, new age and self-help products of various description began to stock shelves, co-opting, repackaging, and selling various spiritual ideas, terminology, and practices, often distorting them in the process. People looking to make money off of spirituality set up shop in the western world, much to the dismay of many new age practitioners and alternative groups.2
The self-help movement is now a multi-billion dollar industry that has steadily been increasing as people move away from mainstream religious institutions and consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” So much so, that even during the American recession when many industries saw revenues plummet, the self-help industry still remained strong, with Americans alone spending 11 billion dollars in 2008 on self-help books, seminars, CDs, and coaching.
Many people naturally have an interest in alternative forms of spirituality and search out a spiritual practice that is more mystical, personal, or experiential than what traditional religious institutions provide. Unfortunately, this natural interest in alternative spirituality along with the rise in feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness has made it relatively easy for the self-help industry to capitalize on the “market,” using both our insecurities and spiritual yearnings against us.
The notion that you can purchase your spiritual progress, in a sense, has become common place in commercialized spirituality, putting a monetary value on spirituality which limits those who can access it to those who can pay, contradicting what is found in original spiritual teachings found throughout history.3
This is having a major impact on spirituality today, even distorting the very perception of what “spirituality” is held to be.
How Corporatized Spirituality and the Self Help Industry Go Against Spiritual Principles
In this day and age, it may seem normal to have to pay for something we value, especially if we feel it will change our lives in a positive way. But when you look at the origins of spirituality, particularly at spiritual teachers like Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, or Krishna, they all gave their teachings freely to anyone who was interested, without expectation of financial reward.
Buddha encouraged others to find peace and “share the way.”6 Lao Tzu spoke about how the wise “take care of everyone” and “abandon no one.”7 Lao Tzu also comments on those who attempt to help others spiritually while seeking a superficial reward and its lack of real value:
“Some help others in order to receive blessings and admiration. This is simply meaningless. Some cultivate themselves in part to serve others, in part to serve their own pride. They will understand, at best, half of the truth. But those who improve themselves for the sake of the world—to these, the whole truth of the universe will be revealed. So seek this whole truth, practice it in your daily life, and humbly share it with others. You will enter the realm of the divine.” Lao-Tzu – Hua Hu Ching, Chapter 16. Translated by Brian Walker
This fundamental principle found within the origins of spirituality has for the most part been utterly lost within commercialized spirituality found today.
Another aspect that you’ll find mixed in with commercialized spirituality is the importance placed on materialistic gain. Many spiritual “entrepreneurs” and celebrities promise to hold the keys to a better life where you can become better looking, own a better house, become more successful and incredibly rich. This is something that also differs greatly from many of the world’s greatest spiritual teachings from ancient history, which in most cases taught about the importance of detachment or denial of temporary and superficial “worldly pleasures” when in pursuit of self-knowledge and enlightenment.
Today, modern day spiritual entrepreneurs are selling spiritual concepts which in many cases they themselves do not even practice. What then gives them the authority to teach these spiritual concepts, if they lack direct experience themselves? By packaging their product in an appealing way, and with all the marketing, branding, and publicity support that large corporations can provide, many of these individuals have gained celebrity, fame, and significant fortune.
According to the Watkin’s Top 100 Spiritual People List of 2015, for example, (a list put together by Watkin’s magazine, which pulls together data based on what spiritual people or topics the majority of people are googling or reading about online) within the top ten you’ll find spiritual “celebrities” whose combined income is in the billions.
Can we really trust a spiritual teaching that is “packaged” for the sake of profit and fame, instead of spiritual value and the sake of others, and is only available to those who can pay?
Selling Salvation: The Fast Track to EnlightenmentThe materialistic approach found in various commercial spiritual options today is at odds with the principles found in spiritual teachings and sacred writings of the past. Looking at the greatest spiritual teachings and teachers in ancient history, you can see many striking similarities. Many taught of a personal struggle to change within, and emphasized that reaching “enlightenment,” “liberation,” or “salvation” was the primary goal of life. They taught that this was done with a specific process and that much of it was full of hardship and struggle, but with an ultimate reward spiritually.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains that those who “bravely restrain themselves,” renouncing “attachment and hatred,” and also abandoning, “selfishness, power, anger, arrogance, and desire” within themselves are those that “reach perfection” and “find the eternal spirit.”8
Jesus also speaks of the many sacrifices that are needed in order to reach the Heavens, and Buddha mentions that to gain enlightenment requires a great deal of perseverance and struggle. You’ll also find it shown allegorically through tales of the struggle between darkness and light, in the literature, myths, and legends of many cultures throughout history, like the Odyssey, the Churning of the Milky Ocean, the battle between Horus and Seth, or the Quest for the Holy Grail.
In this aspect, much of what passes for spirituality today is almost unrecognizable compared with the spiritual teachings of the past. Today, commercialized spirituality has extracted all of the pleasant or positive aspects from ancient spirituality, and have left out the hardship, self-sacrifice, struggle, and standards required to gain spiritual knowledge. The original spiritual concepts become distorted and taken out of context all for the sake of profit, which goes against the fundamental principles taught within the original teachings themselves.
As Krishna points out in the Bhagavad Gita:
“Only the ignorant speak in figurative language. It is they who extol the letter of the scriptures, saying, `There is nothing deeper than this.’ Consulting only their own desires, they construct their own heaven, devising arduous and complex rites to secure their own pleasure and their own power; and the only result is rebirth. While their minds are absorbed with ideas of power and personal enjoyment, they cannot concentrate their discrimination on one point.”
You can trace this kind of co-opting of spirituality throughout history. Many of the original teachers venerated today in mainstream religious institutions were initially rejected, and then later had their teachings taken, changed or interpreted in ways to fit the agenda of mainstream political and religious organizations. This resulted in the formation of powerful religious institutions that strove to stamp their authority over those teachings and control how they could be used.
An editorial by Laurence Kirmayer of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, comments on the potential downsides to taking spiritual concepts and practices out of context and using them in isolation, instead of as a whole spiritual process as was taught in many of the original spiritual teachings. He points out:
“Often, happiness, well-being, or following one’s bliss is framed in terms that reﬂect the political economy of consumer capitalism and neo-liberal eﬃciency in which feeling good itself becomes both commodity and goal. While reducing or eliminating suﬀering may be a worth-while goal, certain forms of suﬀering may be essential for empathy, solidarity, and depth of fellow feeling. Moreover, there is a sort of “tyranny of happiness” that in its zeal for feeling good threatens to drain life of any meaning beyond hedonic pursuit and (temporary) fulﬁllment.
In many ways, the moral orientation of Buddhism as seen explicitly in the Four Noble Truths and the teaching stories surrounding the Buddha’s own life directly challenge this shallow notion of well-being by insisting that even when one is well oﬀ, life will inevitably bring illness, suﬀering, aging, and death. In the face of this stark existential reality, happiness must be understood as something other than the successful pursuit of ﬂeeting satisfaction. For Buddhism, the end lies in seeing through the delusions of the self that is so deeply attached to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Articulating this ethics of well-being is an essential feature of Buddhism that may disappear when mindfulness is turned to purely instrumental ends (Huntington, 2015).” – Laurence Kirmayer
After taking out the struggle, hardship, and serious commitment, what is left is a feel-good, watered-down version of spirituality that misleads the spiritual seeker from the original meaning and purpose of the spiritual teachings of the past, while simultaneously deceiving them into feeling like they are partaking in something that will bring them closer to the Divine and self-realization.
This reduces the seeker to become nothing more than a repeat customer going from one spiritual “best seller” to the next, as the teachings are so fragmented from their original source (and in some cases, even plagiarized) that real spiritual “enlightenment” or “liberation” never comes.
Persecution of Alternative Spiritual Groups Throughout History
Looking back throughout history, it is noticeable that the vilification of spiritual groups that deviate from mainstream values has long been part of an agenda to control and stifle those interested in pursuing a lifestyle dedicated to alternative spirituality. In the past, political and religious leaders made decisions on what spiritual texts and teachings would be accessible and acceptable within society. Those trying to practice spirituality outside of their structure could then be labelled as heretics, witches, or blasphemers.
At various periods in time, many alternative spiritual groups were violently persecuted and driven underground by authorities supporting and promoting mainstream religious or political ideals. The Gnostics were condemned as heretics and the Cathars suffered a bloody persecution for teaching a doctrine that challenged the status quo, and for providing a spiritual avenue for people independent of dominant institutions.
The teachings and efforts by those alternative groups directly clashed with mainstream religious institutions that sought to monopolize spirituality and insisted only they had the means and right to offer people salvation.
During the inquisition, people who practiced spirituality contrary to the church were targeted as heretics, and some were tortured or killed. Many groups and mystery schools who wanted to continue existing were driven underground to practice in secret to avoid persecution. This early suppression of alternative spirituality served to strengthen the power of mainstream religious institutions.
Now, a similar formula is repeating, only instead of heretic, the new label for alternative spiritual groups is “dangerous cult.” Instead of being burnt at the stake, you can be accused of being a member of a cult and have your reputation destroyed, lose friendships, relationships, or even careers – not to mention, the loss of personal freedom that comes with having your religious choice questioned, ridiculed and effectively suppressed.
This modern form of persecution is in part a backlash against those alternative spiritual groups that became popular in the 1960s and 70s for providing a tangible way for people to live a spirituality-oriented life that is independent of consumerism and less controlled by the established systems in society. This would obviously run counter to the interests of those who profit from this consumerism and those seeking control and power over society.
Interest in alternative spirituality also upset the parents whose adult children turned their backs on conventional life, often giving up their possessions, education, and the chance of a successful career to join a new religious movement. Many parents began networking to try and “rescue” their grown children whose religious choices they could not control, in order to force them back into mainstream society and a more normal life.
Out of this developed what’s known by academics as the “anti-cult movement,” where secular groups and individuals began working together to label alternative spiritual groups as “cults” and to provide a way for people to remove and “deprogram” individuals who had joined them. Many of these professional “deprogrammers” carried out horrific abuse on the people they were “deprogramming,” and many were kidnapped, and physically, emotionally and even sexually abused.
The anti-cult organizations and prominent figures began to lobby the government and the media, gradually turning coverage on new religious movements from what was initially portrayed as “exotic” and “interesting,” into something “dangerous” and “threatening.”
This fear of alternative groups escalated intensely with the events of Jonestown, and a few other tragedies, which changed how we view alternative spiritual groups, as the word ‘cult’ became negatively associated with these events. Negative perceptions of almost all alternative spiritual groups then became naturalized and repeatedly reinforced in the public consciousness, from decades of biased, negative and sensationalized media representations.
The anti-cult movement has used a set of cult criteria in order to define new religious movements as cults and to “protect” unsuspecting individuals from falling into the wrong hands, so to speak. These questionable criteria are designed to put any group that deviates from mainstream values under the “cult” umbrella, meaning that basically any group of people practicing spirituality outside of the mainstream and whose members display dedication and commitment to its doctrine could be labelled a “cult,” even if their doctrine or way of life is completely benign. In fact, because this cult criteria is so sweeping, you could essentially apply the same “cult leader” label to historical spiritual figures like Jesus or Buddha, and the label of “cult members” to their followers.
While there have definitely been groups whose values and practices have been dangerous or harmful, this is not reflective of the vast majority of alternative spiritual groups. The all encompassing assumption that all new religious movements are likely to be “dangerous cults” has now created an environment where people who display serious interest in spirituality and want to dedicate their lives to it unjustly face hostility, ridicule, and persecution, effectively marginalizing them from society.
Implications for Spiritual Seekers
Unfortunately, the opportunity for people to practice spirituality freely has become extremely limited. The socially acceptable choices seem to be between mainstream religions or watered-down, corporate-backed, commercialized spirituality. Anyone exploring anything outside of that runs the risk of being accused of or perceived as being a member of a “dangerous cult”. That is an outcome that results in terrible associations that have the ability to destroy lives, as well as greatly limiting the potential for development of human consciousness in a serious way.
Genuine alternative spirituality is essentially being drowned out by spiritual businessmen selling appealing but shallow options for salvation and inner peace. Meanwhile, those who practice or pursue alternative spirituality seriously are being demonized by anti-cult proponents, and innocent and benign spiritual groups are made to seem like dangerous, criminal operations.
Commercialized spirituality and the efforts of anti-cult activists to persecute new religious movements have two important things in common: they both effectively limit people’s ability to explore spirituality outside of the mainstream, and they both masquerade as something positive and helpful. While commercialized spirituality can appear like a wonderful influence – advocating peace, and happiness – it can also serve as a justification for hedonism and materialism while parasitically using and distorting the messages of spirituality while obscuring the source. Similarly, the anti-cult movement can appear as a helpful and noble protector of society from dangerous forces, but beneath the surface it effectively functions as a modern day witch hunt or inquisition.
Put together, these forces serve to drown out truly alternative spirituality with a wave of more socially acceptable and better marketed products while simultaneously vilifying it as something dangerous. This amounts to a subtle yet major suppression of spiritual freedom, which takes away the chance for people to find and dedicate themselves to the spirituality of their choice without interference.
The decision to live out a spiritual life, (or not to) has always been a part of the human experience, and it is still considered a fundamental human right; however, that right is at risk of being further eroded if those who are interested in pursuing it do not speak out.
Acknowledgments: Matthew Butler and Justin Norris contributed to this article.
Self-Help, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-help#Late_20th_century ↩
“Commercialized Spirituality – Its a Business Not the Real Thing” by Belsebuub: http://belsebuub.com/articles/commercialized-spirituality-its-a-business-not-the-real-thing ↩
Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/matthew-kjv.htm ↩
The Dhammapada, Sayings of the Buddha ↩