Six hundred dollars and 72 hours later, I was back in front of my computer checking Facebook. I wanted to see what I’d missed while tucked away somewhere remote in the mountains, where I’d paid a steep fee for accommodations that felt like camping, drank copious amounts of grassy-tasting herbal tea and forced myself to wake up at the crack of dawn to participate in group activities like “walking meditation circles” alongside dozens of other sleepy, shoe-less souls in search of enlightenment, or, at the very minimum, a respite from the demands of city life.
I’d signed up for a workshop at a retreat center in upstate New York that had vowed to transform energy blockages and raise my vibrational level, so I thought it’d be best to leave my smartphone at home lest the cellular waves from the device react badly with my new vibrational level. It took a while to get used to the idea of being completely disconnected from technology, and the first hour spent without my favorite devices was peppered with mild anxiety as the Amtrak train snaked its way up the Hudson Valley. I peeled back the already tatty cover of Conversations with God, and for the first time in a long while, I read continuously without pausing every few minutes to check my phone.
Of course, instead of forking over several hundred dollars that should have been used to pay my rent to get farther from technology and closer to myself, I could have just stayed in my cozy Manhattan apartment, disconnected my Internet and locked all my gadgets away. But I’d decided to do this for the same reason I imagine most people sign up for these weekends: I was feeling kind of down in the dumps, I wanted to get out of the city and get some fresh air, and I’m at a point in my life where I’ve become keenly interested in both spiritual theory and application (yoga, meditation, energy healing, etc.) And it seems I’m not alone: According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, nearly 40 percent of Americans use non-Western medicine and alternative health care approaches for specific conditions or overall well-being.
Even when it comes to religion, people are identifying less with organized faith and are interested in alternative belief systems. According to data from a recent Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion, but still consider themselves spiritual, continues to grow, comprising 20 percent of the U.S. population. This is a trend sometimes referred to as the ‘rise of the nones’ or the “Spiritual but not Religious” (SBNR) movement—the fastest growing spiritual community in the country. In 2012, one in five Americans claimed they had no specific religious affiliation, more than double the number reported in 1990. Yet roughly three in 10 religiously unaffiliated adults say they believe in spiritual energy in physical objects and in yoga as a spiritual practice.
“Spirituality has been the fastest growing part of our website,” said Cathie Brunnick, one of the founders of Patheos, the world's largest independent online interfaith site. “We received so much demand from people who wanted to incorporate practices and beliefs they had learned about from Eastern traditions, such as meditation and yoga, but didn’t see space for those beliefs within traditional faiths,” she added.
This sustained interest in spirituality over the years means that spiritual teachers and “New Age Gurus” like Deepak Chopra and Dr. Andrew Weil continue to be popular. But it seems everyone has something life-changing to offer, such as a new recipe for “how to awaken your infinite, divine potential,” which pretty much sounds like it should be at the top of one’s to-do list. Oprah Winfrey often invites these enlightened folks on her network’s “Super Soul Sunday” for heart-to-heart conversations and before you know it, I’m clicking all over Amazon ordering their latest books, supporting the already burgeoning self-help book industry, which is estimated at more than $1 billion a year. We’ve come a long way since Chicken Soup for the Soul was first published twenty years ago. The self-help industry itself is valued at a whopping $13 billion a year and there is no shortage of retreat centers, online workshops, seminars, CDs and books designed to help people navigate their spiritual paths and educate them on the latest spiritual trends. Some people sell bonds, some people sell fried chicken, some people sell words, and some people sell spirituality.
Feeling lost? Pick up a copy of Meditation for Dummies. Or subscribe to Spirituality & Health, a 15-year-old bimonthly magazine with a steadily growing readership (circulation: just under 100,000). While the magazine covers faith and religion, editor-in-chief Karen Bouris says its new focus is the "spiritual but not necessarily religious" community.
The truth is, spirituality went commercial years ago, even in India, which birthed movements like the Art of Living Foundation started by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in the 1980s and now a global empire. In the U.S., I regularly get bombarded with emails and catalogues from places like the Omega Institute and the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, urging me to come transform myself in some way or another—heal myself, find myself, find bliss, find God, align with the Universe or see the Truth—all for a price. The glossy brochures are seductive, with photos of rainbows and forests and uplifting, albeit sometimes wacky, course titles like: “The Sun in your Heart is Rising: Activating Your Embodied Awakening, Wholeness and Unique Purpose” or “An Introduction to Animal Chakra Healing.”
But intellectual curiosity can add up. If I wanted to book the five-day course at Esalen in November called “Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and Life Beyond Death,” I would spend at least $1800 for the workshop and my own room, not including airfare to California and things like daily organic hummus wraps. To give you an idea of how much some of these places make, the Omega Institute raked in nearly $22 million in 2011.
“When we opened in 1984, it was all very counter-culture and people were teaching for free, but it soon became a way for people to make a living,” said Ralph White, senior fellow and co-founder of the New York Open Center, a non-profit educational and center for holistic learning in New York City, who said that number of people training to become teachers of what was once considered fringe material has increased over the years. As for the commercial undertones to the growing spiritual culture in the U.S., White says: “I don’t see spirituality as a business at all, but there is an inherent tendency in American culture to commodify everything. It’s a challenge, but my observation is that the vast majority of people are doing their best to maintain the integrity of these places.”
Here in New York, the cost of even a single yoga class has skyrocketed. I suppose mental health is priceless, but it is hard to justify paying $30 a class when I already have two yoga mats, my very own floor (which came with my apartment), and a general idea of what I need to do. But the yoga industry continues to attract new devotees. According to a 2012 Yoga in America study produced by Yoga Journal, more than 20 million Americans practice yoga, an increase of 29 percent since 2008. Furthermore, yogis shell out $10.3 billion a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, and vacations. Colorado-based Gaiam, Inc., a large eco-conscious lifestyle media company that sells yoga clothes, mats and DVDs, also carries niche items like herbal towelettes, toeless yoga socks, and yoga flip flops on its website.
Rarely do I come across anything spiritual that is free. There is a portly lady from India named Amma who does travel around the world giving free hugs. The only catch is that you have to wait in a very long line for several hours before being embraced by her. I think the lesson there is patience, but I’m not sure. I had every intention of going to see her when she was in New York this summer, but I didn’t have the patience.
The best thing about these wallet-denting retreats is meeting like-minded people who hunger for spiritual knowledge, and the feeling of synchronistic harmony you get from being immersed in nature.
But at the workshop, despite the high I felt from being surrounded by trees, I also felt a sense of uneasiness. And this is coming from someone who has become increasingly comfortable with what many would describe as weird.
Yet even I was taken aback when our spikey-haired workshop leader performed an exorcism on one of the participants who’d apparently been carelessly fooling around with tarot cards and canoodling with dodgy gurus. As the man convulsed in front of a room of 50 or so people, I turned fearfully to the lady next to me, who was hunched forward on her chair with her feet planted down firmly and her hands in front of her as if she was a traffic conductor trying to halt traffic. “What are you doing?” I croaked, tempted to flee the premises and demand a full refund, but before I could leap away, she admonished me to keep my feet on the ground. Later, I learned it was to keep the bad energy from entering my body. I realized that I was one of the few new students and that the master healer had amassed a rather loyal cult following, many of whom had paid upwards of $1400 to become certified in this particular form of energy healing and had followed her to workshops across the country.
A morbid curiosity brought me back the next day. The same guy who got the exorcism had some sort of breakthrough while we were doing hands-on body work. We had to stop mid-session to watch what was being described as “Christ Consciousness” enter into his body while the master healer spread this new celestial energy across the room. People were shaking in rapture, and tears of joy were flowing freely; one woman even belted out opera. I felt absolutely nothing. Afterwards, I asked the master healer what was wrong with me. She said I was already full of light, already on some higher plane of consciousness, which I cheerfully accepted and bounced off to the cafeteria for a heaping plate of quinoa. Best to leave my cynical journalistic self back in New York City where it belongs, I told myself.
Of course there are people who get value out of these courses. But by the time I’d made it to the bookshop on Sunday afternoon, I had started to feel a little bit duped. I’d tried to keep an open mind, but I was instructed over and over again to use the meditation videos prescribed by the master healer herself. These videos could be downloaded for an additional fee on her website, and would helpfully remind you of other upcoming workshops that would, of course, cost more money. The master healer had also insinuated on many occasions that Reiki, the ancient Japanese spiritual practice and probably the most-widely known type of energy healing, was inferior and that her method was more progressive. Red flag.
As I was fingering all the various pendulums, tools used to measure the body’s energy centers, or chakras, which were for sale in the bookshop, a fellow new student breezed in and we debated which pendulum was more effective. She was convinced that our master healer’s very own nicely-packaged wooden pendulum would be the best bet, and I was convinced that a cheaper metal one was just as good. I plopped the metal one in my basket, and the woman purchased the special wooden pendulum. She turned to me and grinned sheepishly: “I guess I’m a sucker.” But even though I bought the cheaper pendulum, and ignored the master healer’s shrine of bestselling books, I still filled my basket with crystals, aromatherapy oils, and incense. The irony is not lost on me (but I do like it when my pillow smells like patchouli).
I know I’m buying old ideas that have been cleverly and conveniently re-packaged for a modern audience that is apparently in dire need of some serious soul-searching, and that just because someone has a book out, it doesn’t mean they know any more than you do. I once met a self-described life coach at a weekend Kundalini yoga workshop who could barely string a sentence together, so naturally I was in shock when she told me she’d built an empire of best-selling self-help books based on her transformation from cocaine addict / party girl to what she calls “spirit junkie.”
But in the end, shouldn’t the cost of finding God be priceless? As in, free? Of course. But I’m not paying to find God. I’m paying to remove the obstacles to finding God, or universal energy, or however you define the thing we’re all seeking. I know I don’t need my Mastercard to find it, but it sure can open the doors to places and things that help me explore myself and the meaning of my existence.
Or maybe I’m just a sucker.