New Age Spirituality Meets Black Lives Matter (How to Love the Human Race Without Sounding Like an Asshole)
When I first discovered spirituality, I thought I had found the answer to waging peace in the world. The idea that, at some level, we are all one, all united, all interconnected—this, to me, seemed like the idea that would bring world peace.
After I wrote my first book, The Love Mindset, people kept writing to me to ask, “How?” “How do we keep ourselves open to love?” “How do we experience ourselves as parts of an interconnected reality?” “How can we overcome the divisiveness of the world and experience oneness?”
That book released almost seven years ago, and over those years, my answer to this question has been evolving. Before I realized what the potential answer might be, I learned what the answer was not.
In the first few years after the publication of The Love Mindset, I found myself on various spiritual radio shows, stumped by questions about my favourite healing crystal and my zodiac sign. I took a step back from the New Age movement.
In the next few years, I found myself more involved in the self-help world, disgusted by the marketing ploys and consumerism that kept people dependent on so-called gurus. I took a step back from the Self-Help genre.
Over the next year, I found myself involved with the Toronto conscious community. Soon after, I was sexually assaulted by one of its members, spoke out about it, and had no one in the community reach out to help me or eliminate the predator. I took a running step back from the conscious community.
Right now, I find myself involved with poetry and activism. Poetry has allowed me to look into the viewpoints of human beings all over the world, to empathize with those whose life experiences are different from mine. Activism, including continued education about social justice and equality, has helped me define the systems that dictate human experiences. Finally, I am getting an answer to The Love Mindset ‘s How that isn’t full of spiritual bypassing, ignorance, and privileged light-washing.
John Welwood defined spiritual bypassing as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”
While this definition rests on the avoidance of personal growth, it also explains how spiritual ideas can be used to avoid societal growth. In response to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, some so-called spiritual people are shutting down the calls for justice by saying things like “we are all one race,” “but I love everyone,” and “all lives matter.” While these ideas might seem like they are advocating for unity, they are in fact, perpetuating the very racism they claim to exist above.
In his brilliant book How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi states, “The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’”
This non-existent safe space is where much of the New Age spiritual movement resides behind the ideas of “detachment,” “non-dualism,” and other concepts that encourage mental and emotional distancing from the world. Of course, being able to detach from our thoughts is a useful tool. Knowing that we are not our thoughts or that we don’t have to believe everything we think—these are helpful tools on the journey of self-awareness. However, when we use these concepts to ignore or oppose the necessary work of correcting injustice in the world, our spirituality is not founded in love. It’s founded in apathy.
Recently, I saw an Instagram story by a prominent influencer who used the common New Age belief that “our souls choose our bodies before birth” to invalidate anger in the black community and tell people to “relax” and “use this as an opportunity for personal growth.” This is not love. This is not spirituality. This is not compassion.
In his book Spiritual Graffiti, Jeff Brown defines what he calls the “New Cage Movement” as “ungrounded, dangerous and simplistic elements of the New Age movement, including but not limited to: wishful thinking mantras, spiritual bypass and premature forgiveness practices, superficial healing techniques, the perpetual denial of common sense realities, and the insistence on inflated, fantastical perspectives—‘Everything is an illusion,’ ‘It’s all perfect,’ ‘There are no victims,’ ‘Anger is a substandard emotion,’ ‘Everything that happens is meant-to-be,’ ‘All judgments are bad,’ ‘You chose your every experience and circumstance,’ ‘Your personal identifications are inherently false,’ ‘Just ask the universe for what you want…,’ ‘Everything you see and feel is a reflection of you,’ ‘There is no one to blame,’ ‘The ego is the enemy,’ etc.” He goes on to say that “these perspectives have their place in certain circumstances, but taken too far—as they often are—become a prison of their own making, locking humanity in with its unresolved pain, obstructed from doing the real work by their addictive flights of fancy.”
When I first came across this definition, I rolled my eyes at it. Years later, I saw how I was harming myself with these ideas. Years later, I saw how I had harmed other people with these ideas. Reading it again today, I see how these ideas perpetuate racism and halt the fight for justice.
The reality of spiritual oneness does not erase the reality of material, social, and racial divisions among people. The way to keep our minds open to the interconnected love that binds us all is not to ignore the disconnections. In fact, by addressing the disconnections and working to solve them, we can heighten our experience of oneness with the world—specifically by ensuring that other human beings have equal opportunity to experience that oneness.
When people are denied their rights to breathe, to eat, to live—our awareness of oneness with those people should not numb us to their struggle. If we truly felt at one with others, would that not make us empathize with them? Would that not mean we feel their pain as our own and seek to make their lives easier?
The fact that we are all part of one human race should not, therefore, make us disregard those who are bringing up racial inequalities. It should make us want to stand beside and behind them in addressing those inequalities. If we truly feel that we are part of the same human race, should we not want to help those who feel separate because they are constantly, systemically made “Other”?
Kendi says, “To be antiracist is to recognize the reality of biological equality, that skin color is as meaningless to our underlying humanity as the clothes we wear over that skin…To be antiracist is to also recognize the living, breathing reality of this racial mirage, which makes our skin colors more meaningful than our individuality. To be antiracist is to focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape peoples’ lives.”
So, yes, race is a construct that was invented in order to justify the slave trade hundreds of years ago. But this construct is currently responsible for the existence of racist policies in society. In order to dismantle the divisions, we have to acknowledge them. In order to experience ourselves as a unified human race, we must address the ways in which we are divided.
If you would have asked me, seven years ago, how to use spiritual awareness to address racial injustice, I might have said that we should acknowledge people of different races as identical to ourselves on a spiritual level and then allow our actions to evolve from that awareness. Now, my answer might begin the same way, but it would continue to specify what those actions might be, such as: read antiracist books, participate in the dismantling of racist policies, donate to social justice organizations, speak out against systemic injustices that lead to inequality, buy from business owners in marginalized groups, acknowledge the reality of privilege, participate in classes by antiracism educators, and most importantly of all, invite and validate the experiences of those who are experiencing racism. These are just a few ideas. There are so many actions to take. There are so many opportunities to help. I’m listening to leaders in the antiracism community who know more than I do. I do not have the answers, but I am learning from those who do. Spiritual awareness alone is not enough.
It’s common for many spiritual seekers, myself included, to experience feeling worthless, useless, or empty. We reach for spirituality because it gives us a sense of meaning in a meaningless world. But if we do not reinforce this intellectualized meaning with behaviours and emotions, we start to feel empty again. If we continue churning our experiences of oneness into practical, conscious, everyday choices that support human rights, it becomes simpler to maintain our awareness of that oneness.
Battling racism is a daily choice, a daily struggle, and a daily process of awareness. In that process, seeing those who are racially oppressed as spiritually equal to us is a given. It’s not something that needs to be said out loud, and it’s definitely not something that should be used to invalidate anyone’s feelings.
I was in my late twenties when I discovered that my grandmother held Muslim beliefs. As a Ukrainian immigrant with Russian roots, I thought people of my culture were all either atheist or orthodox. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Tatarstan, where my grandmother is from, is a part of Russia that houses people of Muslim faith. When I asked my grandmother why I had never heard about this before, she said that spiritual beliefs were not something she considered necessary to share with anyone. She said her spirituality was her own business.
My grandmother’s words come to mind when I see self-proclaimed spiritual people shutting down black activists with refrains of “we are all one.” This is like reminding George Floyd’s family that “we all need to breathe.” It might be true in an objective sense, but saying it in that time, in that place, to those people—it helps no one and, frankly, makes you sound like an asshole.
Empathy is not the opposite of mindfulness. The idea that every emotion and experience is temporary does not negate the idea that every emotion and experience is valid. Detaching from identifying with our emotions is not the same as detaching from feeling them.
It’s time to take a good, long, hard look at the New Age movement and question the ways in which it perpetuates inequality and silences marginalized voices. A black square on social media is not solidarity. Real solidarity requires compassion. Real compassion requires listening, empathy, and action.
Loving spirituality doesn’t sit with its hands folded neatly in its lap, waiting for someone else to clean up the mess. It gets its hands dirty. It cares. It helps.
**Please note, I am donating 100% of the affiliate commissions and book sales generated by this post to various organizations promoting racial justice. If you have suggestions for where this money should go, I welcome your suggestions in the comments below.**