Monday, August 09, 2004

Spirituality for Sale? Part I

I am writing this because I'm pissed about the fact that I wanted to attend this big yoga conference that's coming to San Francisco soon (I'll refrain from saying what group is organizing it). I've always wanted to invest a more intensive amount of my time and money (I'm a realist, I know these things cost money to organize) into my yoga study and practice, but when I went to the conference web site to get the info, I was shocked to find that the cheapest fee for only one day of the multi-day conference was $150! I had wanted to attend the whole conference in addition to the one-day intensive, which would put me out another $350--and those were the discounted fees!

I am at turns amused and outraged by the rampant commodification of spirituality that I witness all over the place these days. As a subscriber to both Yoga Journal and the New Age book club OneSpirit, I have received offers for products ranging from Thich Nhat Hanh stationery (I'm not kidding) to yoga kits for dummies (OK I'm stretching a bit here), and I've read about places like the Tao Bar in New York City or the Buddha Bar in Paris (surreal but real). Some folks, I'm sure, use images of the Buddha in a tongue-in-cheek fashion and I don't have a problem with that as long as that's clear--I think the Buddha himself would've reminded us not to take symbols and icons too seriously and to laugh at ourselves more often.

While I personally benefit from the shopping convenience that this commodification provides, and have found some true nuggets of insight and wisdom through both subscriptions, I can't help but be disturbed by this commodification trend. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have big yoga conferences or that spiritual healers and practitioners should not market or charge for their goods and services. That is the reality of living in our capitalist society--we have to sell ourselves, to an extent.

But some of this stuff is going way too far. I'm not just talking about the kitsch and tchotchkes inscribed with yin-yang symbols or Native American images, I'm talking about this spirituality-as-a-business craziness that perpetuates, without a smidgen of guilt or irony, exactly what dominant, corporate culture does: the exclusion of low-income and even many middle-class folks from being able to participate in the mainstream--in this case, all the (fairly expensive) soul-searching and kharma-cleaning going on. $500 to attend a yoga conference? Who can afford that?

Having grown up in the Roman Catholic Church (Mass at least every Sunday, Catholic school for 10 years) and currently working as a fundraiser for a living, I know that low- and middle-income people in the US account for the majority of the donations that are given in this country (see The Ten Most Important Things You Can Know About Fundraising' for some context). Most of these donations go to churches. Non-rich people can and do give money to things they care about.

At the same time, no one has to give money when they go to Mass (at least not anymore). It's no longer a prerequisite for confession or receiving the Holy Eucharist. Sure, you'll get a lot more attention from your pastor if you give large sums of money to your parish, but you'll get just as much attention if you show up to Mass every week and act like a good Christian. I won't get into the history of the Church as a haven for the rich (and the poor, at times), but I will acknowledge the Church's checkered past.

I find it ironic that one of today's more popoular spiritual fads is Buddhism, which emphasizes mindful consumption. If one reads the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, there are also tenets that focus on the principle of non-attachment. So where do people get off charging so much money and making big bucks off others' spiritual practice? Where do the ethics come in? Where do we draw the line between ensuring our own physical security and profiting off of other people's spiritual needs? Why do we have celebrity gurus who live lives that ar anything but simple or austere? Check out Bikram Choudhury, who is trying to copyright his sequence of asana (yoga poses).

I know that in our consumerist, capitalist society, things cost money. But I also know that spiritual traditions have thrived and will continue to thrive without the gimmickry and niche-marketing of Madison Avenue advertising companies, or the inflated fees and prices that seem to be the norm today.

For example, the San Francisco Buddhist Center, where I’ve attended great classes on Buddhism and meditation, relies heavily on volunteer work and support--which in turn creates a friendly, accessible environment for those new to the tradition. I've never felt pressured to give more than I could to help pay for classes and keep the Center running. At the same time, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, of which the Center is a part, collectively runs its own business selling books on Buddhism--proof that business and spirituality can complement each other, as long as our priorities are straight: Spirit comes first, money second.

Part II coming soon.


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