We ask whether the spirituality industry is the new face of money-making religious movements
01 Diciembre 2017 11:11
Spirituality is big business. The burgeoning global market of self-fulfilment is now worth $2 billion annually, according to industry analysis firm IBIS World. Mindfulness, meditation, psychic readings, astrological practices, you name it, are the order of the day. Following on from our previous article examining the boom of interest in astrology among young people, it seems logical to put millennial occupation with spirituality and destiny into the socioeconomic context. With traditional religion in decline, wage growth in Western countries like the US and the UK stagnating, and house prices and value of goods climbing, the buying and selling of spirituality is a natural fit for a demographic letting go of old customs at the same time as looking for new ones. ‘What are we going to spend our money on?’ asks Banu Guler, co-creator of astrology app Co-Star, ‘We can’t afford to buy houses.’
Commercialisation of fringe cultures is an inevitable by-product of capitalism. Whereas mindfulness and meditation once belonged to religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, they are now common practices in mainstream society. Just look at Headspace, the Silicon Valley start-up app that made meditation into a $250m business. Millennial appetite for finding inner spirituality is enormous. In 2015, the meditation and mindfulness industry alone raked in nearly $1 billion. Taking a more cynical stance, Gabrielle Wood, Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at Christopher Newport University, Virginia, says: ‘A lot of what passes for spirituality today is actually a commercial venture of one kind or another. It should be seen for what it is - business, and not serious, genuine spiritual knowledge.’
It can be difficult to pry apart authenticity from fashion trends. Everything becomes blurred when a couple of Instagram filters and a hefty price tag replace the ‘real deal’. But mindfulness, meditation, and astrology are certainly the pseudo religions young people are flocking to. Self-care and teaching yourself how to access a higher spiritual plane are revered so highly that it’s easy to feel like you’re missing some big cultural moment if you don’t buy into it. But, like with traditional religion, it’s as much a money-making machine as it is a place of holy fortitude. Life-long astrologer Kimberly Dewhirst says that with saturation in any industry comes bad practice and exploitation. ‘The more and more something is available to you, the more there will be people pretending to be astrologers, healers etc.’ People ready and waiting to cash-in on the latest wellness trend.
Scepticism about the Church, in any faith, is often fuelled by scandals and education about its economic mechanisms. In many ways, the ‘church of spirituality’ in all its forms is the new face of this deep-rooted establishment. While there are, of course, those who study, practice and inform about spiritual practices with depth of knowledge, the grips of capitalism are never far away. Big businesses are definitely benefiting from the increasing sway towards the spiritual. Etsy, Instagram, and Ebay are awash with sellers advertising healing crystals, herbs and candles. Many gyms offer mindfulness and meditation classes as an ‘exercise class’. Wildly popular New York-based company Mystic Lipstick sells boxes of healing products to ‘keep your aura clear and your energy balanced’ for $14.99 a month. In 2016, 22% of employers offered mindfulness training, typically priced between $500 and $10,000 for large-group sessions, according to a survey by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health.
‘There are people who make spirituality a business and for whom the benefits of commercialisation supersede spiritual values,’ says Wood, ‘These people and organisations have the ability to flood the spiritual arena with superficial and misleading information, backed by a team of designers and marketers with huge budgets.’ I make no suggestion that I have the authority to separate the ‘fake’ from the ’real’, and I’m sceptical that these lines can even be drawn, but there is always a niggling reluctance to accept a commercialised trend as a recipe for enlightenment. It’s more like a privatised enlightenment that you can only reach if you pay for it. Just like with the onslaught of different clean eating crazes, of which many have been debunked by doctors, scientists and nutritionists, it’s a competition to present and sell the ‘best spirituality’ on the market.
What seems paramount to the appeal of the mystical New Ageism, like astrology, tarot reading, and psychics, for example, is its ‘coolness’. There is definitely a hipster, edgy quality to the esoteric. Take journalist and author Ruby Warrington’s website The Numinous and her new book, Material Girl, Mystical World. Although astrology, spirituality and the mystical have always been passions of hers, she does speak of her work as a way to blend marketing with the mystic. ‘I realised there was a gap in the market for a publication that bridged the gap between the mystical or esoteric, and the glossy media world I was a part of,’ she says, ‘I decided to create a platform that presented all things mystical in a way that was accessible, glamorous and aspirational.’ Identifying this ‘gap in the market’, as she did, highlights the importance of aesthetics and brand image.
Warrington’s Material Girl, Mystical World, which was recently published by Harper Collins, covers everything from astrology and the tarot, to shamanism, yoga and meditation, ‘through the lens of personal experiences’. Arianna Huffington described it as making the ‘mystical accessible and cool’. While not trying to discredit the work of Warrington, or her readership, the hyper-personalisation of such spirituality is what feels problematic. As a good read and for some life tips, fair enough, but what about bigger implications for the industry as a whole? Are we all mini life gurus who can sell our enlightenment with a good advertising strategy and some cash? ‘Commercial gurus often create a positive sounding spirituality that integrates into and enhances the lifestyle of their audience,’ says Wood, ‘Essentially telling people what they want to hear.’ Therefore, young people may be drawn to spiritual practices because it can make you feel better about life without having to do the soul-searching yourself. In other words, a handy shortcut to finding balance and inner peace. Namaste.