commodifying spirituality?

Something I’ve noticed lately on social media is that someone with a sacred spiritual practice or religious belief will share something from their culture/practice for the education of the community. Then, seeing that it’s cool, viewers go out and use that as their own tradition, usually without giving credit where credit is due. Without even truly understanding where the tradition came from in the first place.

This is a unique form of cultural appropriation that has evolved with social media — especially TikTok. There’s a gray area for some, who see that the tradition has been shared online and thus assume it’s okay to replicate. Sometimes, this is true, but I’ve found that it’s only when the person sharing the tradition says it’s okay that viewers can use it in their daily lives. Without this explicit permission, it is undoubtedly appropriation, if a veiled form.

Why do people do this? It may be a lack of culture. In the U.S. especially, people have grown up without anything “sacred.” I know I grew up in a two Christian households that certainly enforced going to church and serving others, but outside of that, we had no practices or rituals that would distinguish ourselves as Christians. We celebrated commercialized Christmas and Easter and everything else.

I can’t speak for those who were raised with other religions or traditions, so this is just speculation… But I can imagine that for people who grew up agnostic or atheist, this idea of sacred anything is quite foreign. So when someone comes across, for example, the idea of wearing a hematite ring to absorb negative energy, it’s enticing. They don’t stop to think whether or not they believe in the negative energy they’re trying to collect or why this tradition even exists (it was used in Egyptian tombs and as mourning jewelry in the Victorian era). They just go and buy a ring to feel a part of a greater tradition.

There are more unfortunate examples, too. The use of unethically harvested white sage by non-native peoples has risen because witches online spread the message that burning white sage is the best way to cleanse the energy of a place. They say this without acknowledging native lands or traditions. And that is just about the most dismissive and appropriative thing ever, but it happens to indigenous people all the time. Indigenous practices do not belong to non-indigenous people! There’s no gray area here!

But this issue is more than just knowingly appropriating culture. It’s seeing a tradition that has been severed from that culture and taking it into one’s own practice because it’s not being linked to any spirituality or culture. This is the danger of sharing cultural experiences on social media. It’s sad that this has to be a fear — in several cultures, sharing experience on socials has become a way of preserving themselves and making themselves known. But with that desire to be recognized comes the risk of someone sharing that experience… without referring back to the original source. This is disheartening and plain wrong.

So, what can be done? First of all: if you come across a practice and think it’s something you might like to incorporate into your own life, do your damn research. Know if it’s a closed practice, as in it’s intended for members of a specific culture that you are not a part of, or if it’s a secular practice and free to anyone.

Next: don’t just copy and paste. Spirituality isn’t a cookie cutter of going through the motions. If people are copying practices they see because they seem cool, or because they don’t have any sacred practices of their own, they’re defeating the entire purpose. By just carrying over the exact practice into your own life, you’re removing the personal influence of having rituals in the first place. Make practices unique to you, your beliefs, and even your surroundings. Say you do want to try burning white sage (which, unless you grow it in your own backyard and/or have explicit permission from a native person, please don’t do this!). Instead, think about what grows around you. Do you have thyme, rosemary, lemon balm in your backyard? Another kind of sage? Mint?

Take into account the place where you live instead of blindly making a copy of someone else’s spiritual practices. Honestly, doing that is just plain lazy, and when you’re being spiritually lazy, you’re not cultivating practices you care about, and you’re hurting other traditions that just want to be heard.

My final point: give credit where credit is due! If someone who shares a practice says it’s okay to use what they’ve shared, honor their experience and tell people you share it with that it belongs to someone else. This is one of the best ways to mitigate online appropriation. You learn it in middle school: always cite your sources. Only this time, it’s not a zero on an assignment that’s at risk, but the harm of groups of people.

So, that’s my soapbox for today. Please take these things into account the next time you see a trendy evil-eye bracelet on TikTok.

-ellynn ❤

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