by Elizabeth Oldfield
Monday, 10
May 2021
Review
17:48

Wellness is no replacement for religion

Yoga and mindfulness won't fill the spiritual void
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Whether it’s yoga racism or incest, women’s shameful secrets are sold as entertainment. Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Sam Byers is an English novelist whose work, particularly his last novel Perfidious Albion, has been compared with Martin Amis. His new book Come Join our Disease tracks Maya, a homeless woman who is offered a new start via a rehabilitation programme run by a tech company. Set up with a new job and a flat, she must chronicle her ‘journey’ on social media, inspiring her audience as she becomes a polished and productive member of society. The programme emphasises health via a rigorous schedule of yoga classes and wellness retreats, and her new boss takes a personal and directive interest in “Project Maya” — the remaking of the self.

The second part of the novel — in which Maya rejects the demands for health, cleanliness, optimisation and ‘authenticity’ in favour of a deliberate descent into sickness and filth, has garnered more attention, but personally I found the set up much more sinister. Rarely have I perceived so clearly the way in which spirituality has been coopted by market forces and sold back to us. The wellness industrial complex which holds such sway in tech, investment and start up circles is keen on practices and concepts taken from religion, but only in so far as they can improve our productivity. As Byers points out in an accompanying essay: “disciplines such as yoga and meditation, which once took as their goal the dissolution of the self, are pressed into the service of a bolstered ego and enhanced productivity.”

This plundering reflex — where the secular raids the spiritual for booty — has been noted before. In Susan Sontag’s essay Piety without Content, the great critic derides the tendency of intellectuals to vaguely pick and choose spiritual and religious ideas without actually committing to any of them:

This is piety without content, a religiosity without either faith or observance….for the modern post religious man the religious museum..is without walls; he can pick and choose as he likes, and be committed to nothing except his own reverent spectatorship.
- Susan Sontag

Still, living in the largely non-religious west, I have sympathy for those who will take sources of meaning and belonging wherever they can get them. There are riches in religious traditions that can be life-giving elsewhere, and striving to be healthy and productive are laudable goals. But Sam Byers’ book made me realise that at worst the use of ‘spirituality-lite’ in service of this goal is a kind of cultural appropriation which severs fruits from roots and leaves you with an armful of dead flowers.

Spirituality which just equips us to be better foot soldiers in a market society characterised by desperate consumption and expressive individualism is not spirituality at all.

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Jim
Jim
1 year ago

An interesting article.
Ironically Christianity involves following somebody who “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”
There again, the same person also said, ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
A church that follows him is never going to fit well with modern culture, but that is rather the point. 🙂

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
1 year ago

It’s been happening for a while now, and is a consequence of the materialist world view.
I don’t know how conscious it is, but there is a realisation that the human soul no longer has anywhere to anchor but the biscuit isle at the local supermarket. So advertising now invests trivial consumption with spiritual meaning. Possessions, be they cars or fridge magnets, have replaced the alter, and when they are advertised they are advertised with a fervour and an earnestness that is wholly inappropriate.

That part of us which should be reserved for the sacred is now yoked to the profane, and gleefully so. As long it brings the money in, of course.

Fennie Strange
Fennie Strange
1 year ago

altar

Mark Knight
Mark Knight
1 year ago

“..there is a realisation that the human soul no longer has anywhere to anchor but the biscuit isle at the local supermarket.” Brilliant!

Phil Bolton
Phil Bolton
1 year ago

‘Human soul’ ? … define please.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Read on ‘The Dark Night of the Soul”, (concept from a 1500s Monk). Ego, the physical us represented in our minds, the ‘I Want’, I don’t like’, which secular Humanism tells us is all a human is, that existence is merely a short and dreary march to death, is all pervasive in our culture; Sort of a happy and fun existentialism/Nihilism.
The problem is we see endless suffering in every direction going on, we feel unsatisfied, life is travails punctuated by some pleasures, it has no meaning and then is depressing, one never actually gets to real happiness by material success. ‘I am going to live till I die, and then I will die, and so will everyone and everything else, and that is it, over, nothing.’
The dark night of the Soul is the moment you live the above, but then you see a glimpse of the ultimate, that there is a soul, that there is actual meaning, that we mean something, and you try to reconcile this with what you always believed. Ego has to yield to ultimate, that there is more than you, more than the mundane. This dark night is always hard, but according top those who go through it, what gives meaning and joy, and makes you whole.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Very well put thanks SAnford -the problem of course is (as Jung said) that that journey is fulltime and lifelong and we dont see that level of committment much-however choosing to take the red (or is it blue ) pill is a good start !

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Jung was great, a Christian mystic – he coined the word ‘Holy S* it’ essentially from his vision of God’s divine excrement falling slowly from heaven onto Vienna as a wondrous blessing on mankind.

My life has always been one long Jungian Synchronicity event – and once wile drifting about Switzerland I climbed the wall on Jung’s private house gardens and went all about, taking pictures of the very unusual sculptures…

Now Freud, what a curse he has been on the world. Amazingly he was linked up with Marxism to form the most twisted form of Marxist/Liberalism, one which still haunts the world today as Critical Theory, in the Frankfurt School of Wiemar Republic at the Goethe institute of (existentialism) godlessness.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I’m with you, and yet without Freud there would have been no Jung.
Salley Vickers’ book Where Three Roads Meet is well worth reading; it’s a clever reworking of the Oedipus myth, as well as an insight into Freud’s own personal psychological flaws.

Last edited 1 year ago by Claire D
David Simpson
David Simpson
1 year ago

Those who are really searching will find what they are looking for, whatever or whoever sets them off on their journey. Those who are merely sampling will move on to other distractions soon enough. And people will see through the exploiters and manipulators all the quicker if they are really practicing mindfulness, which is the first step of a long walk to real depth and meaning.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Well said.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Whatever…everyone knows it’s all nonsense but people are happy to hand over their money and others are happy to take it. On the corporate side of things I sometimes profit in a small way, although nothing like to the same extent as I do from the sustainability racket.
That aside, why must everything have ‘meaning’? I have never understood this.

Alex Camm
Alex Camm
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Surely if there is no meaning there is no purpose but to see out our time in the least troubled way we can. If Nothing matters why do we bother to get involved in these discussions?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Camm

(from Macbeth, spoken by Macbeth)
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Bravo!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Excellent, those tortuous days at Eton have paid off!
Off course there is also Hamlet on the same theme:

(from Hamlet, spoken by Hamlet)
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Camm

I don’t think Fraser meant that nothing has meaning.
Lots of people may find meaning in lots of things. That’s great.
But some people are so desperate to find meaning in everything that they get wrapped around the axle in the pursuit of it. That is a questionable use of time and effort.
Wanting something to have meaning doesn’t mean it does. To state the obvious.

Last edited 1 year ago by A Spetzari
Simon Sharp
Simon Sharp
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

‘spirituality has been co-opted and commercialized into a pale replica’
‘there I – in my infinite wisdom (and based on whatever tepid persuasions reside in my mind).. will proceed to throw the whole baby out with the bathwater.’
know-it-all smart ass ha ha ha…

Last edited 1 year ago by Simon Sharp
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

No, off course it shouldn’t.
That why at the end of his amazing life Socrates stated simply that “he knew nothing”.

bgulland
bgulland
1 year ago

Astute, thanks Elizabeth

Johanna Louw
Johanna Louw
1 year ago

Nothing that a good dose of biblical Christianity wouldn’t solve. Christ is the saviour of mankind, the Way, the Truth, the Life and the Logos of Creation.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Johanna Louw

O that he was.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
1 year ago

What all beings (including the non-humans) equally require is Divine Compassion, Love, and Blessing – the Thread of Communion with the Living Divine Reality made Certain and True, and directly experienced. All.
Needless to say it is almost impossible for any of the dreadfully sane members of the congregations of the institutional churches to experience such Compassion, Love and Blessing.
Never mind of course that the kind of religion that Elizabeth and the Theos organization promotes is itself empty or devoid of anything which could be called Spiritual. Such is of course true of Western culture altogether which has no living Spiritual Tradition. The Protestant tradition (in particular) has never had anything to do with any kind of Spirituality – it is the “religion” of the left-brained Spirit-killing word.
Meanwhile there are now over 35,000 different Christian denominations, sects and sub-sects, all of which pretend/claim to be unique.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
1 year ago

Conventional Institutional religion as it is commonly promoted is a form of pious (but, nonetheless, childish) consumerism – full of posturing, bargain-hunting, haggling, and deceitful practices of all kinds – whereby the separate self (or the client-like ego-“I”, whether as an individual or as a socially-defined collective) seeks to acquire what is desired, or whatever objectively-defined condition, thing, or state the proprietary “God” can provide to satisfy the wanting-demanding ego-“I” itself.
The religious form of of the consumer ego wants and seeks – as in a marketplace – what it can beg,take, somehow earn, or otherwise acquire from the presumed storeowning-shopkeeper “God”.
The consumer ego uses religious means to seek and demand what the parent-like “God” can do for the alternately and (otherwise) adolescent ego-“I” in the midst of its vulnerable and unsatisfactory conditions of life. Life is of course always unsatisfactory

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
1 year ago

Wellness IS a religion-just like religion! And after the report on child abuse across all.organised religions in the UK I think it’s time for religions to be a bit quiet. Militant Islam is certainly a religion causing huge misery. I assume that we don’t mean that one? So put me in a room with a few clerics then..whose made up system is the true one?