“In spite of the prevailing tendency to conform, we have a mandate to be nonconformists.”
~Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We are a culture tormented by scarcity and lack.
With an insatiable appetite for consumption and a devotion to endless growth, for so many of us, whatever we have—is never enough. We are the most prosperous society in the world with access to the greatest resources, yet the feeling of inadequacy seems impossible to thwart and has us clamoring for more.
Let's face it. We’re greedy.
Seeking the usual quick-fix, many of us find spirituality offers the life we desire if we:
Meditate on abundance.
Get in the “vortex.”
So we devour these teachings in search of instant gratification and for a moment it works. The relief is intoxicating. We revel in our miracle manifestation and the sensation of “high vibes” has us hooked.
But, it’s fleeting.
The pervasive feeling of lust returns ever too hastily, and once more we are ravenous with desire. Possessed yet again with what we don't have, we return to vision boards, affirmations and "spiritual teachings" to anesthetize our pains of inadequacy and prepare for our next chase.
Meanwhile, poverty, inequality, and corruption roam freely around the world, and the planet’s resources teeter on extinction.
We hardly notice.
Our fondness for fancier cars, bigger bank balances, and newer iPhones grips our hearts and souls—we are a nation preoccupied with material pursuits and endless consumption, and using “spirituality” as a justification to do so.
Mainstream, pop-culture spirituality is the new Happy Pill, and we are addicted.
Whose thoughts are these, anyway?
With the explosion of The Secret and Law of Attraction teachings into the mainstream culture a decade ago, there is no shortage of books, products and services on the market today that reinforce the basic tenet that our thoughts are somehow connected to the reality we experience.
But where do our thoughts of scarcity and lack come from, in the first place?
How is it we live in a country with unprecedented wealth and freedom yet still wallow in the feelings of not-enough-ness?
The truth is that we are unknowingly, and powerfully, influenced by an established order, or control system, that shapes and governs the collective mind. Left unquestioned and unexamined, this system tells us how to live, what to value, and lays the foundation for which all our public institutions (including education, government, healthcare, and politics) are established.
Actually, this is not new to our times; control systems have existed throughout history. Just a few hundred years ago religion was the established order—the masses blindly accepted religious authority and faithfully devoted their lives to its service, all the while enduring its rampant corruption and abuse.
Eventually, religion lost its dominant influence in the Western world (particularly in America with the separation of church and state in the 18th century), but another system slipped stealthily in its place.
And just as religion did centuries ago, this system controls the inner workings of our collective mind and manipulates the masses like marionettes.
The new order of the day is capitalism.
Money is the new God, and we worship those who have lots of it.
We dedicate our lives to the endless acquisition of money, possessions, and status and speaking against the right to do so is modern-day heresy.
Just like religion, in and of itself, capitalism is not evil.
In his book The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System, Jerry Mander writes about the relatively harmless effects of a small-scale business versus that of a global corporation:
A family-run store, restaurant, or local service business, even when it seeks a profit...are structurally and functionally different from large-scale or global capitalism, with different motivations and drives.
Global corporations—especially those whose stock is publicly traded—are obliged to seek constant growth and profit expansion, and [prioritize] short-term self-interest no matter the social, political, or environmental effects. Making profits for shareholders is the primary, if not the only, legal and practical obligation of corporate structure.1
In other words, while small businesses are free to make decisions based on independent values that may or may not maximize their bottom line, large-scale corporations are legally bound to remain in a constant state of rapid growth and wealth expansion—otherwise, lose shareholder value and ultimately fail. Most of them have no room, and no interest, in social welfare, environmental issues, or doing what’s morally right.
With the current concentration of power in the hands of these global corporations and financial institutions, this inevitably culminates in the uneven distribution of resources and we find ourselves trapped in an economic system that perpetuates poverty and racism, undermines democracy, and squanders the planet of its natural resources.
Left unquestioned and unexamined, we become minions under a capitalist control system whose very existence depends on our ever-growing capacity to produce and consume.
Consequently—desire, scarcity, envy, and fear are regularly and deliberately manufactured through media and advertising—encouraging unhealthy, wasteful buying patterns and an acute addiction to short-term gratification.
Under the growing pressure to meet these consumer demands, we devote an excessive amount of time and energy pursuing economic activity, either actively thinking about our next purchase, or working endless hours at a soul-sucking job to pay off our last one.
Most likely, both.
This preoccupation with achieving material and financial success draw us away from critical activities such as nurturing personal relationships and community values, resulting in a host of psychological and social problems including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and addiction.
We are unhappy, unfulfilled, pissed off, and confused.
But the capitalist machine must keep moving.
So despite the tsunami of problems that arise as a result of the consumer capitalist culture, we forge ahead with our possession-obsession, and we birth a special kind of spirituality that coddles our willful ignorance and feeds our neurosis for endless consumption.
It’s trendy. It’s mainstream. It’s Consumer Spirituality.
What is Consumer Spirituality?
Consumer Spirituality is the mainstream, pop-culture spirituality of today that trains us to be better consumers and inadvertently perpetuates blind conformity to the dominating, oppressive structures of global corporate capitalism:
- Consumer Spirituality appropriates and commodifies ancient spiritual teachings: We cherry-pick the positive aspects of other spiritual traditions, package, and sell them, so they are palatable and easily consumed by the Western world. This results in cultural theft and profoundly diluted spiritual teachings that help us feel good, rather than do good or be good. Consumer Spirituality becomes an ego-soothing drug rather than an ego-dissolving journey.
- Consumer Spirituality promotes self-interest, personal development, and radical individualism over all else: Spiritual development is offered not as a way to alleviate collective suffering and create social change, but as a way to become more personally comfortable, productive, efficient, and wealthy.2 Emphasis is placed entirely on the needs of the individual. This lends to a pseudo-spiritual justification for selfishness that robs us of the vital opportunities for meaningful connection and selfless contribution that are essential to spiritual growth.
- Consumer Spirituality encourages over-consumption and materialism: It emphasizes that the Universe is infinite so we “deserve” to manifest as much as we want—but when this spiritual law is married to consumerism, we end up reinforcing the vicious cycles of over-consumption that perpetuate poverty, inequality, corruption and environmental degradation around the world.
- Consumer Spirituality neglects humanity: It teaches us to be relentlessly positive and to seek pleasant emotional experiences at all costs. Uncomfortable human emotions such as pain, conflict, anger or grief are shunned and labeled as “low-vibe” or negative. These emotions are cast as the opposite of spiritual enlightenment, when in fact they serve as a portal to connect deeply with the human suffering around the world. By stigmatizing these human experiences, we separate ourselves from those who could benefit from our support and resources, and further normalize radical individualism—i.e. “If it doesn’t affect me, it’s not my problem.”
Let’s be clear. Consumer Spirituality, the mainstream, pop-culture spirituality of today, is designed to be a capitalist product for privileged, affluent Westerners.
And of course, what’s missing, are the values of community; civic discourse; social justice; compassion for those who are suffering; as well as an honest (and sobering) look at the systems that perpetuate scarcity, inequality, and oppression in the first place.
Our finite planet can no longer bear the assault of uninterrupted capitalist expansion and infinite consumer growth.
Modern-day capitalism, as we know it, will have to end if we are to survive as a civilization.
Some say it’s already obsolete.3
There, I said it. Hang me at the cross.
So what’s next?
What I do know is that social, political, and environmental chaos will not disappear with platitudes of thoughts and prayers, or affirmations of love and light.
I know that the pervasive, and persistent, feelings of inadequacy and scarcity do not dissolve with prosperity meditations and Law of Attraction manifestations.
I know that change is pummeling down the door and we are faced with a critical decision to make: answer the call, or succumb to the systems of power that conspire to keep us mute during times of great upheaval.
Here’s what else I know: in this urgent moment in time, in a time of acute oppression and injustice, the role of the spiritual person is not to conform to prevailing social conditions, but to challenge the status quo—to be a nonconformist.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asserted in one of his famous sermons:
In spite of the prevailing tendency to conform, we have a mandate to be nonconformists.
This command to not conform comes from Jesus Christ, the world’s most dedicated nonconformist, whose ethical nonconformity still challenges the conscience of mankind. When an affluent society would coax us to believe that happiness consists in the size of our automobiles, the impressiveness of our houses, and the expensivess of our clothes, Jesus reminds us, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” 4
Nonconformist spirituality, then, requires that we develop the social consciousness necessary to advance humanity forward and disrupt the established order in a way that aligns with our natural aptitudes (because let’s be honest, not everyone is a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). It requires we actively deprogram the cultural conditioning of consumer capitalism and break free from the insidious belief that we must consume, or buy, something in order to be ok.
Nonconformist spirituality, as opposed to Consumer Spirituality, calls for a radical shift in our collective consciousness—to move away from the myth of scarcity and separation towards the divine truth of sufficiency and oneness. We must begin asking ourselves, “How can I contribute?” (because I am enough, I have enough, and I have a lot to offer) rather than, “What’s in it for me?” (because I desperately need more).
This doesn't mean we renounce our earthly desires for joy, pleasure, and abundance—it's within our spiritual birthright to fulfill these human desires. But at the same time, we must also become acutely aware of the systems and structures in place that convince us there's something fundamentally wrong with who we are and that we need something outside of us to be fixed.
Nonconformist spirituality, as opposed to Consumer Spirituality, asks that we grapple with human suffering and develop a commitment to social responsibility. It plucks us out of our hyper-individualistic, self-indulgent stupor and inspires us to galvanize our resources, talents, and skills to be in selfless service.
And finally, nonconformist spirituality urges us to cultivate Divine Confidence—so that no matter what is happening in the world outside of us, we are grounded in a powerful knowing of who we are, and what we’re here to do. It calls upon us to fill the void not with material possessions or cultural addictions but with this eternal spiritual Truth: I am enough, you are enough, and together we have all the brilliance and ingenuity we need to take care of ourselves, take care of each other, take care of the earth, and flourish.
This is all within our capacity, and our humanity.
This is the grounded, socially aware, and responsible spirituality that is calling us forth.
Let’s answer the call, and do the work.
Because dammit, we need you.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please share and comment below.
- Mander, Jerry. The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System. Counterpoint. Kindle Edition. (p. 11, 12)
- Jeremy Carette and Richard King. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. New York: Routledge, 2005
- Embury-Dennis, Tom. “Capitalism is ending because it has made itself obsolete, former Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis says.” Independent. October, 18th. 2017.
- King, Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Cleveland: Fortress Press, 2010. (p. 12,13)