Community or Commodity?
In America nothing reaches the media unless it’s commodification. This is all the media is interested in, something which can sell products.
—Hakim Bey, Millenium
The idea that spirit lives among us has been knocking on our door for some time now. Over the past twenty years there has been a surge of interest in all things spiritual, and in that time interest in traditional Western expressions has steadily grown. People have started reclaiming traditional practices associated with witchcraft, ancestral veneration, herbalism, and astrology, and the repurposing of Mary as the Divine Mediatrix Mother continues to inspire new devotees.
Up until a few years ago, there would have been very little room for the Holy Spirit in our very hip spiritual climate. While interest in the biblical tradition, especially in its magical and folk elements, seems to have grown at an increasingly rapid rate, among pagans, witches and occultists with an interest in Catholic magic there is still an understandable hesitancy to keep anything seeming “too Christian” at arm’s length. In cases where an interest in the Christian tradition has sprung up, it has almost always been in it’s hybrid and syncretic magical and folk expressions. For progressive young Americans interested in Western spirituality, the Bible, and the religion tethered to it, still presents as a significant problem.
Left-leaning antagonism toward a State increasingly enamored with far-right takes on “Christian mores,” has put many progressive-minded spiritual seekers in a tricky spot. Do you reject your culture’s religious expression, and orient yourself within a spirituality towing less baggage? Or, do you climb inside, and root out what speaks to you, reclaiming what is rightfully yours? Even though new books and blogs are being written all the time, it’s a question that increasingly gets answered on social media through the sharing of memes, photos of home altars, and pithy affirmations.
Social media has allowed people from different parts of the world to share their personal practices and reclimations of the faith. People with heterodox takes on traditional exegesis are finding it easier to connect with like-minded individuals and groups. There is a sense that a magical Catholic surge is manifesting just over the horizon.
And yet, social media has also turned expressions of spirituality into fodder for late-stage capitalist branding. People document their spiritual practice not only for networking purposes, but also in the hopes of legitimizing the monetization of their magical offerings, often at an inflated price point.
A platform like Instagram, which has been accepted by many self-styled spiritual radicals as a necessity, transforms posts into products. Images of candle magic double as advertisements for candle magic. A post about spiritism, becomes an ad for spirit consultations. If there’s an actual business tied to the account, the currency exchanged may be monetary. But, as is so often the case, the currency is merely egoic, a currency of “Likes” conveniently interpreted as “affirmations.” In an ironic twist, in the realm of social media those who posture as being the most anti-orthodox and, as is the flavor of the day, anti-capitalist, are sometimes the most spiritually materialistic of all, following in the footsteps of the antiauthoritarian hippies of the 1960s who, by the 1980s, had morphed into stock market yuppies, recontextualizing anti-government sentiment as anti-government oversight.
From a financial standpoint, it’s not surprising to see why. The yoga industry alone, which through the late 1990s and early 2000s paved the way for our current state of hyper-capitalist spirituality, is an $80 billion dollar industry, just shy of all the wealth in Europe. If something which was once the primary practice of hermits living in caves can be turned into a multibillion dollar industry, maybe something called “folk Catholicism” can be too! After all, ancestor veneration, spiritism, and witchcraft have already begun to merge with slogan-forward pop psychology, taking cues from the fandom success of Instagram self-help gurus parading as therapists.
But, does the value of the spiritual market, the number of memes being shared on social media, or the branding of expensive takes on inherently inexpensive spiritual practices have anything whatsoever to do with spirituality? Are we actually living in a spiritually woke time?
Old-Timey Holy Ghost Spirituality
The biblical world was rife with spirit. The stuff was everywhere. Spirits began their lives inside humans, fawn, and fauna, and when their hosts passed away or dried up, they needed to find new places to hide. So, they spread out, seeping into every available nook and cranny. In an effort to establish some sense of sanity, idols, cemeteries, and shrines were set up as domiciles for these wayfaring entities. The hope was that they’d behave and stay put. But, this was rarely the case. Spirits would regularly escape, and latch on to unwitting people. Those who could handle it would go on to become inspired prophets and poets. Others would simply go mad.
But, spirits no longer cause people to go mad. These days, madness is seen as an unfortunate psychological glitch, an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy due to chemical imbalances, drug use, or emotional trauma. Even “inspiration,” a word embodied with spirit, is less an expression of the ephemeral, and more the logical outcome of putting oneself in the right place at the right time, followed by a series of ah-ha moments.
Spirit and spirituality typically play little to no role in either. Inspiration and madness have become too messy for spirituality’s very tailored persona. Today’s spirituality is rational and “grounded.” It’s sensible and “engaged.” It’s there when you need it. Happy to sit quietly in the corner if you don’t. You can invite it over for dinner, and it’ll never overstay its welcome. Spirituality is respectful that way.
Two thousand years ago, however, the spirits were a downright nuisance. They caused people to get sick, have a run of bad luck, rant and rave in the middle of the street, go mute, blind, or worse.
So, while we may think of ourselves and our boutique apothecaries and nuanced appreciations of subtle energies as being spiritually evolved, one could argue that biblical times, rooted in direct experiences of the Spirit in everyday life, were even more spiritually-conscious, dare I say, more spiritual, than we are today.
Praise for Sitting with Spirits
“Doto draws from years of study and practice at the margins, to distill the beauty of spirit and spirit work into an easily digestible, exciting and inspiring read. He explores the history of the Christ tradition and its texts to unearth a fresh perspective on what it is to be ‘spiritual’ and engage the unseen world. It is a mind and heart opening book. Whether you’ve been burned by Christianity, if you’ve been a devout practitioner your whole life, if you’re looking to start a spiritual practice but don’t know where to begin or if you’ve ever wondered ‘What the Hell Am I’ (an actual subsection in chapter 5) you’ll find something meaningful, new and powerful in this book.”
“I loved this book. It’s a wonderful and much-needed take on how spirits and spirit work function from the point a few different perspectives: biblical, psychological, and spiritist/spiritualist. I was particularly impressed with how deep the book gets in such a short time (only 136 pages). Peppered with personal stories, this book also contains a short manifesto at the end on ‘Reclaiming Your Root Religion,’ as well as a chaplet for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
“What I love about Sitting with Spirits, and Bob Doto’s writing on Christianity in general, is the sincere depth of research, presented in an unpretentious yet educational format. Bob digs into the meaningful roots of Christianity, free from spiritual materialism, and presents a concise examination (both theoretical and experiential) on what it means to be ‘spiritual,’ or in communion with god/energy/spirits.”
About the Author
Bob Doto is a writer and speaker on the intersection of spiritual margins and society. He is host of the Wild Christianity Salon, the creator of the anarcho-folk Catholic zine, Babylon Begone, and is a founding member of renegade yoga blog, The Babarazzi. Bob is a licensed massage therapist specializing in Chinese Tui Na massage, acupressure, and sports medicine. He is the founder of the Ditmas Park Yoga Society where he teaches yoga in the Mysore tradition, and also maintains his private massage practice. He is a faculty member at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in Manhattan teaching Chinese massage therapy with a focus on hand techniques, structural pathologies, and internal disharmonies.