Discerning Cultural Appropriation in Spiritual Practice

Theses on the Not West

I have participated in my share of circles where Western folks like me are seeking deeper spiritual connection outside of their Christian or Abrahamic roots. Many of us have come from more rigid religious backgrounds that felt moralistic and spiritually anemic. In addition, the unfortunate legacy of violence, toxic patriarchy, intentional genocide and overt structural racism within the cultures that cluster under the umbrella of Western civilization has led to an understandable longing for the “Not-West”. As a result many of us have mixed, dabbled, converted, or fawned over traditions generally labelled as Eastern, Indigenous, Pre-modern or non-Western.

We say things like “Christianity is dualistic” or “Western civilization is patriarchal”, “colonialism is violence”, “this land was stolen”. We feel ashamed of our history and seek to extract ourselves from tainted, offending identities by talking about the need to move toward anything but the “West.” The general belief seems to be that unlike our civilizations, Indigenous cultures and Eastern philosophies are animistic, more spiritual, and egalitarian.

This disillusion with the entirety of one’s own culture/civilization can be quite distressing. One may, as many of us have, descend into an internalized self-loathing rooted in a self-imposed cultural exile. We feel lost, uncertain, despairing. The centering of our sin as Westerners compels us to seek atonement through our lifestyles as post-Western, post-Christian, or what have you.

However, sometimes it feels like there is an unhealthy polarity in this longing for the not-West.  By this I mean that our longing seems to reflect an instinct implanted in us by the very cultures we critique. This is a logic expressed by either/or thinking, by dichotomies. Because we have come to reject the framework of the West, we seek alternatives in culture perceived to be outside of the West. For example, disillusioned Christians will sympathize with a vague sort of Buddhism, which is imagined to be less moralistic, focused on individual spirituality and closer to nature. This view conveniently ignores the fact that Western Buddhisms have mostly found a social niche within counter-cultural individualism. Rarely is it acknowledged that historical and global Buddhisms are quite capable of their own versions of patriarchal sexism, violent Nationalisms or a strict, even suffocating, socially constricted moralizing.

In light of a flood of individuals embracing non-Western spirituality and identities, some social justice advocates have rightfully raised the question of inappropriate cultural appropriation. This is generally defined as: “the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression and doesn’t respect their original meaning or give credit to their source.”[1] This critical gaze is generally cast toward those in the Neo-Shamanic, Neo-Pagan, New Animist, Entheogenic, or the ever evolving New Age traditions. It is sometimes levelled against Western Yogis who teach Yoga that has been stripped of its Tantrism/Hinduism, or Mindfulness meditation stripped of its Buddhism.

I sometimes find that the critics of cultural appropriation are too rigid in their boundary policing and fail to discern between spiritual eclecticism and harmful exploitation. It can be difficult to tell the difference. The practices associated with cultural appropriation that I find most harmful or offensive are not the ones that adopt practices into one’s own spiritual path, but those which twist the practices into something entirely contrary to their original intent.

For example, non-Western cultures which carry a kind of cache or alluring exoticism are easily appropriated as yet another marketing icon in the religion of consumerist self-worship. Late capitalism’s fetishism of brands and consumer goods is unequivocally religious in nature and believe it or not, most of us are members of the Church of the Consumer.

A contrast: Perhaps the use of Yoga primarily as a means to physical fitness with some positive mental and spiritual side effects would be a slight misuse of the practice’s original intent, but certainly not necessarily the kind of repugnant cultural appropriation that is worth denouncing. Rather, appropriation is the intentional distortion and exploitation of the allure of Yoga’s exotic imagery for profit or in service of the exalted, self-realized, human being. Once a yearning for a particular type of life, value, or habit gains any semblance of social cohesion, focus-group-high-priests are there to sell it back to us as a means to self-fulfillment. Your spirituality, your zero waste lifestyle, your veganism, your social justice activism are already being sold back to you in a thousand different ways.

In my view, this twisting is worthy of public denunciation and avoidance by those who care enough to think about it. However, another danger that lurks behind the adoption of non-Western forms of spirituality is that it can enable what has been termed spiritual bypassing: avoiding the necessary healing of one’s own cultural traditions or the reclaiming of one’s own culture’s symbols and archetypes. The term spiritual bypassing was coined by psychiatrist John Welwood who defines it as a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”[2] So, for example, rather than working through our issues with the Divine Masculine, we opt to focus on the Divine Feminine. Harnessing the momentum from legitimate grievances against our own cultures, we ping to the mirror image of a polemical spiritual binary, rather than seeking to re-integrate a broken and abused dimension of the whole. Again, I am not against authentic conversion, or responsible syncretisms, but I think this caution is not often heeded before starting on the journey out of the traditions of own upbringing (if we in fact have had them).

My Own Situation

All of the world’s spiritual and religious traditions formed from some level of improvisational spiritual jazz. I was raised in the Mormon tradition which borrows from Judaism, Masonic rites, folk magic, and Puritan capitalism. Gradually however, I found myself drawn toward the contemplative Catholic tradition with a strong emphasis on the natural world as a means of communing with the Divine. I identify very much with the pluralist impulses at the heart of the Perennial Tradition, Western mysticism and esotericism. So, I converted. Catholicism is an open-invitation tradition, all are invited to join and participate in the forms of Catholicism. It is also within the same religious family as Mormonism, Christianity.

In my personal spirituality I practice Centering Prayer as a method of meditation. This is a silent meditation practice developed by Catholic monks in the Christian contemplative tradition. It is not borrowed from Buddhism or Hinduism, but shares certain qualities and characteristics. However, even if I chose to participate in a Zen community for example, the spiritual goals, though very different, are in some ways compatible. So, even though I would feel justified borrowing and mixing from Buddhist practices, I don’t really need to, as the resources are available within my own tradition. Rather, I am able to admire the Chan/Zen/Dao traditions of China and Japan and cross reference the theologies of the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads to be very resonant with my own Catholic pan-en-theistic pluralism. I do this inter-spiritual work rooted in my contemplative Catholicism.

However, Western contemplative practice is notoriously Neo-Platonist, meaning it often elevates the mental/spiritual over the bodily/earthly. In my own practice I have really struggled with ways to engage in a more embodied contemplative prayer practice. Christianity, as far as I know, has not developed a rich tradition of ‘body prayer’ except for perhaps pilgrimage, which I have embraced. Yet, I have still felt drawn to experimenting with other forms of embodied contemplative spirituality. For example, I have begun to learn more about the basics of spiritual Qigong and Hatha Yoga. I am fascinated by the cosmological depth of Chinese spirituality, and it’s reflection in the human body. Certainly Western forms of astrology attempt this, but do not have any forms of actionable body prayer practices that I am aware of. So, I have experimented with a few rudimentary forms of these practices. I have incorporated them into my own spiritual goals, goals that certainly resonate with the various religious traditions they come from, but not exactly. Unlike the forms of economic cultural appropriation discussed above I would characterize this use as within the bounds of an ethical appreciation and adoption (spiritual jazz).  

However, I am curious to hear your thoughts on the difference between appropriation and appreciation. I wonder if those of us who were raised with a particular tradition should spend more time seeking out and understanding the jewels in our own traditions before we begin to bridge and bricolage with others. This not only honors our ancestors, but builds up a strong point of reference when seeking alternative expressions for specific spiritual goals. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when thinking through the question of cultural appropriation versus cultural creativity:

How would you feel about charging money to teach a specific and known practice from a tradition that has a history of suppression from your own lineage/group?

Was the practice you are engaging with looked down on with skepticism or seen as superstition by previous generations? What historical injustices took place as a result of this?  

Were you trained in your practice by a member of your own culture or the practice’s originating culture(s)? Does that bother you? Did your teachers have a reverence for their lineage?

Did they have the blessing of someone in that lineage to use the practice as a source of livelihood?

Have you listened to traditional practitioners of this practice? How do they feel about you practicing it? Promoting it?

Have traditional practitioners made repeated and public efforts to discourage the use of a certain or set of practices?

Are you participating in a practice that has become athleticized yet retains certain vocabulary and concepts that have been repurposed toward general wellness or individualism, the dominant religion of capitalist humanism?

Are sacred symbols or statuary that are often associated with sacred rites being used as aesthetical objects or décor?

Does your practice feel like it is being used as a weapon in your own rejection of the dominant culture?

To the post-Christians out there, if broadly speaking, Buddhism and Christianity are equally capable of being awful, why is the Eastern foil so consistently sympathized with and apologized for? Why not spend that energy re-claiming, healing and transforming Christianity? 


[1] https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cultural-appropriation-5070458#:~:text=Cultural%20appropriation%20refers%20to%20the,give%20credit%20to%20their%20source.

[2] Fossella, Tina; Welwood, John (Spring 2011). “Human nature, Buddha nature: an interview with John Welwood”. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. 20 (3). https://www.johnwelwood.com/articles/TRIC_interview_uncut.pdf

One thought on “Discerning Cultural Appropriation in Spiritual Practice

  1. Pingback: More on Embodied Contemplative Spirituality | holyscapes

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