A friend of mine wears a crystal around her neck. When I asked her where she got it, she said, “I think Etsy.” When I asked her why she wears it, she said, “It’s, like, a spirituality thing.”
Honestly, accurate. Etsy crystals are exactly the kind of thing I would describe as a “spirituality thing.” The same could be said of Urban Outfitters tarot cards, celebrity-studded prayer candles, state-of-the-art meditation apps, and $30 gratitude journals. They’re in the realm of spirituality, sure, but there’s something iffy about their place in the pursuit of mindfulness, as though you have to buy your way there.
My friend’s peach crystal necklace, devoid of a definitive divine meaning, got me thinking about how many young people (myself included) treat spirituality as a trend. We often buy products that reflect a “witchy” or Buddhist-adjacent aesthetic, then wear them or perform half-baked sacred rituals with them (think burning incense because you heard it was something spiritual people do, not fully understanding why you’re waving a smoking stick across your living room). We consume material spiritual goods in the hopes that they alone fill some divine void or give us meaning. We consume spirituality.
In this article, I will examine the recent increase in the consumption of spirituality in the U.S. and evaluate whether there is an authentic place for spirituality in our daily lives, if not as a product.
We must first ask when spirituality came to be of such importance. The answer to this question begins with religion. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials today are less attracted to organized religion than their parents were at the same age. In fact, only 40 percent claim that religion is very important in their lives. One might suspect that this higher power void would be filled by some strain of atheism or indifference to spirituality altogether, but about 80 percent of the same millennials report believing in God, with increasing numbers identifying with statements such as “I feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing.” So, if millennials believe in God but don’t participate in organized religion, where and how are they expressing their beliefs, if at all? And, to ask the more complicated question, why in this particular way?
As millennials have turned away from traditional religion, there has been an uptick in various forms of spirituality. The number of self-proclaimed Buddhists in North America, for example, is projected to increase from about 4 million in 2010 to 6.1 million by 2050. Buddhism, a religion centered around the self-paced path to enlightenment, has naturally attracted young people who reject stiff, traditional religious practices. This trend is not restricted to Buddhism, though, as millennials are also adopting elements of witchcraft, Sikhism, and Taoism in their everyday lives.
Meanwhile, people are buying more and more spiritual-esque products ranging from incense for home rituals to Buddha Pots for “the vibe.” Sephora launched a “starter witch kit” for God’s sake (no pun intended)! These products raise questions not only over whether people are commodifying spirituality but also whether they are appropriating Eastern cultures or simply embracing newfound traditions in an increasingly multicultural society.
The practice of mindfulness has also been making its way into the mainstream. Journaling increasingly occupies a slice of people’s everyday routines, while mental health apps like Headspace occupy a square of pixels on their phone screens. Both the demand and supply for one-way tickets to wellness are there. So, what accounts for this reformed, capitalistic return to the spiritual realm?
According to San Diego State University psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, the millennial shift away from religion marks a cultural shift taking place in the United States: a growing emphasis on individualism. Individualism is a social pattern in which individuals are self-reliant, placing more emphasis on their own interests than those of the collective. Collectivism, on the other hand, places the interests of a society or community above those of the individual. Organized religion trends toward collectivism with rules, practices, and values founded on the premise of communal care. Thus, a cultural shift toward individualism is accompanied by a decline in organized religion and a turn to the more independent, introspective habits of mindfulness and spirituality.
To some, this shift seems like a welcome transition to a happier, more self-sufficient population. Critics, though, have their doubts about the effectiveness of individual spiritual practice. Author of McMindfulness Ronald Purser is one of these critics. Purser fears that a highly individualistic approach to wellness does not account for the societal pressures that lead people to chase after wellness in the first place. The rhetoric of mindfulness — plagued by the idea that one can achieve happiness by “doing the work” on oneself — leads consumers to search for answers in the wellness industry, desperately seeking miracle-working, contentment-creating agents. People spend money on products that promise to help them reach fulfillment because spending is what they know. In the U.S. economy, spirituality and capitalism work together.
Matthew Hedstrom at the University of Virginia echoes Purser’s sentiment, stating that because 1) consumer capitalism is defined by choice, and 2) advertising and media teach us to believe that choice provides us happiness, we seek happiness in the religious sphere by choosing our own spiritual path and practices. Whether this exercise of free choice serves its intended purpose is debatable.
After examining the consumption of spirituality in the U.S., I question whether there is room for authentic, homegrown spirituality in our lives today. Can we find spirituality with no sticker price attached, spirituality that sticks when consumer trends inevitably shift? Luckily, according to the skeptic Purser, we can. In order for us to truly access our “higher selves” and lead fulfilling lives, we must turn our criticism from our inner selves — the common focus of modern-day mindfulness — to the outside world. We must acknowledge and criticize the external systems and pressures that make us unhappy. We must work together, not separately and isolated from our communities, to reform these systems.
This does not mean that we must abandon self-care in the name of achieving greater communal happiness. It means that we must understand that focusing the full extent of our attention inward will not resolve the problem of our unhappiness but worsen it. Expanding our interests outward will allow us, as individuals embarking on separate spiritual journeys, to converge and make decisions that ultimately create a better reality for all.
When we stop treating spirituality like it’s a commodity and start working together, maybe then can we finally reach Nirvana.