The first time I ever heard the term “cultural appropriation,” it was in the context of Pagan spiritual practice. This is ironic, because if there’s one area where I think this concept simply doesn’t belong, it’s in the realm of spirituality, and I dismissed the idea as ridiculous immediately upon encountering it. Since coming to understand how it is applied elsewhere, I’ve tempered my stance, but I will still argue against dragging the concept into places where it doesn’t fit. As such, before I go any further, I want to qualify that I will be focusing on the subject as it applies to spirituality, magic and mysticism, rather than more secular aspects of the subject such as whether or not a white artist can paint a black lynching victim1. This is because there are nuances when it comes to spirituality that don’t translate well, or can’t even be wholly understood, from outside that perspective.
I’m also going to lay out right here that this is basically a rant, and I’ll admit that it’s fueled in part by a touch of butthurt. No shame in my game, ladies and gentlemen.
I really wish I hadn’t started this essay. I’m going to finish it because I’m pretty stubborn that way, but I already know I am wading into waters deeper than I care to inhabit—and I mean that. I hope I never become an expert on this subject because every one of them that I’ve seen comes across as an insufferable pedant, raising objections purely on the level of ethics and social justice while they are steeped in spiritual practice and ignoring some very important points that play out on that level. Therein lies the crux of the issue: A lot of people whose primary focus is spirituality or magical practice (myself included) have come under fire for what, within that context, is a positive and beneficial thing. It’s only when you decide to intensely analyze what they’re saying from a completely different context that any sort of problem arises, and then you’re mixing apples and oranges, which, I’m sorry, makes you look like a jackass.
I’ve read some well-trimmed, painfully dry and academic writings on the subject, and they frankly give me a headache—not because I can’t understand them, but because the level of hair-splitting that goes on in debates about the subject can be excruciating. I’m going to try to keep my take very simple. I’ll cover a few points before getting to the only reason I am bothering at all to mention the topic.
- Most people who can be accused of cultural appropriation with a straight face are shamelessly shallow about it, and many of them know exactly what they’re doing.
You can spot these quacks a mile away if you’ve spent any significant time fostering your own spiritual development. I’m thinking of basically the whole town of Sedona, AZ (sincere apologies if you’re from there and you’re not a dashiki-sporting, amethyst-hawking charlatan). I guess the argument is that even though anyone with some spiritual integrity can avoid supporting these folks, said folks are making money hand-over-fist selling a hollow image they picked up for peanuts on a trip to Sri Lanka, at an insane markup, and that this hollow image perpetuates erroneous and superficial ideas about the cultures from which it draws while paradoxically allowing those who partake to feel diverse and sophisticated—at best. At worst, it serves to obscure the culture of origin by taking a tiny corner of it and dishing it out to people who may continue to approach and follow the appropriator instead of digging deep to discover the roots of the image.
I can’t really argue with that, and I do think it sucks, but I can also say that there will always be suckers. There will also always be people profiting from their lack of depth. Arguing semantics all day isn’t going to put a stop to it (“Look where arguing with Republicans has gotten us,” writes D.E. Numen in the early days of Trump’s America). Most people you might be able to “wake up” with edifying missives about cultural appropriation are people who’d likely come to the same conclusions on their own, thirsting for something deeper than a Tibetan prayer flag to hang over their fireplace. The people shopping around for aura-cleansing sprays and buying up cultural artifacts they don’t understand aren’t going to be turned around by your righteous and meticulous argumentation, because if they could understand it, they wouldn’t be the kind of people shopping around for aura-cleansing sprays. Stop wasting your time pandering to the lowest common denominator. You’ll never win. What’s more, even the most well-researched and heartfelt presentation of a given culture will be skimmed by people with short attention spans who will go on to appropriate bits and pieces of it while missing the bigger picture. The presenter can’t be held responsible for the idiocy, ignorance or insincerity of certain members of their audience.
The best way to demonstrate spiritual and ethical integrity is to shut your mouth and live it. It will be evident to anyone bright enough to notice, and the rest just aren’t ready to perceive it. If you could win your campaign to end cultural appropriation, the appropriators would just go find a different shallow trend to dabble in, and it would probably be economically disempowering to someone too. Speaking of which:
- In a spiritual context, the big, scary imbalance of power implicated in cultural appropriation runs both ways.
Another argument against cultural appropriation, both spiritual and secular, is the idea that the appropriators are typically at an economic and social advantage, with resources at their disposal for the dissemination of information that the people from whom they are taking their artifacts or ideas do not have. A 13-year-old in the West could start a Facebook page on a boring Saturday afternoon and come away with the workings for globally disseminating knowledge that they have taken from some other source, filtered through their own lens, stamped as their own, and they can profit from it while the original source is cut off from any compensation or even recognition. There is truth in this, and this is about as far as I am willing to admit that cultural appropriation is even possible in the strictest sense of the term–but consider the following:
One reason it’s so easy to make a buck selling mass-produced figurines based on ancient and indigenous spiritual motifs, or selling seats at “Tantric” retreats, is because Western culture is largely suffocating for a breath of genuine, spiritual fresh air. Religion in general is threatened by a materialist, consumer-based culture that elevates atheism an inch or two higher every day, and our mainstream outlets for spiritual life and expression grow more hollow and devoid of real pneuma by the week. Their answers don’t satisfy, their doctrines are crooked and contradictory, and it seems like the only real doses of spirituality come from impulses that originate in other cultures and times that have honored the life of spirit much more effectively than ours does. We need their wisdom. Anyone who has studied or lived through the 1960s will see how this manifests. Anyone who tries to live a spiritual life knows that spiritual wisdom is one of the greatest forms of empowerment. I’m not saying that this offsets the damage that can be done to a culture via cultural appropriation, and it’s not going to stop the bulldozers when the developers come to cut down someone’s forests and plop down a resort or ten—but it is worth considering, and it gives the cultures in question something they can maneuver into a middle way.
In fact, there are groups that recognize this malady and seek to leverage the need of Westerners for spirituality in order to help preserve their traditions. One of them is Shamanistic Studies & Research Center2, which exists specifically to bring Westerners to Nepal to learn about indigenous shamanic traditions. If an American goes to their 3-week workshop, then comes back to the States to get rich sharing what they’ve learned, then yes, shame on them; but jumping down the throat of any person who makes a blunder in approaching the spiritual traditions of another culture isn’t going to help the situation. Remember that learning takes time, and a lot of people who mean well also happen to make mistakes.
- Bafflingly, some of the more spiritual “warriors” of this subject overlook the ramifications of their own spiritual views.
I once attended a workshop presented by Gede Parma/Fio, and was chatting with them during the break. Fio was talking about the different types of lineages they have been a part of, including ancestral and cultural ones. Fio called them “threads,” if I remember correctly, and one of the ones brought up was the “white” thread: That of direct spiritual transmission, which is one that can actually run “sideways,” and not just in a direct, descending line. In a way, the level of emphasis some people place on initiatory lineages is silly, because every lineage had to start somewhere, and if you claim that your lineage is spiritually genuine, then you ultimately believe it originated in the spirit world. Who’s to say that a person can’t be touched by the white thread, and yet struggle to put the pieces together in the mundane world? I bring this up because that’s basically where I’m at (and I’ll get to that in a minute).
Reconstructionists can be really stuck up about this. Study and hard work are necessary in order to understand a culture, but all the homework in the world won’t give your practice spiritual legitimacy if you just don’t have that spark. So, we arrive at an impasse: A practice can be spiritually enriching, but culturally shallow, and still do what it was meant to do. Meanwhile, another practice can be as authentic as is humanly possible, painstakingly tuned to a high level of accurate historical detail, and completely fail to touch a single living heart because, for all its authenticity, it is simply too alien from the current overculture to actually resonate with anybody. These are two hypothetical extremes, but my point is that if you’re more concerned with the medium (and the tedium) than the message, then you are less a spiritual leader and more a living academic showcase. One must be very clear when blending spirituality with controversial social issues.
It may sound like I’m poking fun at reconstructionism at a fundamental level, but I’m not. I think it’s an awesome and venerable pursuit. I just also think there is a level of undeserved snobbery to it sometimes, and being a snob detracts from one’s spiritual street cred. Spending long hours researching other cultures, past and present, doesn’t make you a better person than people who don’t. If you do it, it’s because you have a passion for it. Other people have other passions, and don’t have the same amount of time to spend on yours. If you can at least recognize this, you’re not a snobby reconstructionist.
I probably didn’t cover everything I wanted to, but this is getting long, and I do feel I’ve reached catharsis, so now I am going to tell a true story. It’s about a process that followed some patterns reminiscent of cultural appropriation, but totally wasn’t. I swear!
7 or 8 years ago, after more than a decade of eclectic magical practice, I’d been looking for an established magical system to work within as a way of expanding my horizons through limitation. Likely due to its relatively wide coverage and its connections with angels, with which I have always resonated even after walking away from my Catholic upbringing, I settled on the Golden Dawn system—starting, of course, with the LBRP. I didn’t have a dagger or athame, never having found one that really spoke to me. At the same time, I was tired of using my finger and I wanted a physical object that could accumulate a magical charge over time.
My would-be first wife just happened, at that point, to bring me a couple of gifts from her trip to China, one of which was a copper phurba with a double-dorje for a hilt. Not only was this highly convenient, but the dagger struck an inexplicable chord in my heart. I started using it. It felt right. Later on, I met someone who knew a thing or two about tantric practices, and I asked them if such a tool were appropriate for the work I was doing. She responded in the affirmative, pointing out that phurbas are often used in exorcism rituals (and what is the LBRP but a practice which, among other things, serves to exorcise certain elements from the psyche/aura/magical space?).
I lost that phurba, but years later, walked into a shop in Denver that imports and sells religious goods from the Himalayan region. I fell in love with a copper phurba there, bought it, and started working with it.
The phurba felt alive to me. I’ll admit it, I’d seen The Shadow as a kid, and although the details were really fuzzy, the concept of a phurba as a living entity may have had something to do with that (look up “cryptomnesia,” in which people forget that they know certain things as they remember those things and thus mistake the memory for any number of paranormal phenomena); I took this very seriously, though. I started researching phurbas, and found that good, substantive information was hard to come by. I did pick up some of the basics, including the fact that the phurba’s threefold blade is meant to banish the “demons” (known as The Three Poisons) of attachment, aversion, and delusion. There was a lot I was able to intuit about the phurba because of my involvement in Theosophy, which draws heavily from Tibetan Buddhism. I was able to intuit that working with a phurba as I was would be anathema to Theosophists (and, as it turned out, to some sects within Tibetan Buddhism).
I was so touched by my phurba that I chose to have its likeness tattooed on my right shoulder (despite its occasional Left Hand Path resonance, I always felt that the right arm was the “correct” place to put it, just as holding it with the right hand was “correct.” Only years later would I learn that this is held to be true in lineages that utilize the phurba). Before I went to get the tattoo, I took a spiritual shower (no bathtub available) and made a conscious pledge to my phurba that I would always work to eliminate The Three Poisons within myself. The blood I bled in the process of getting the tattoo was a conscious sacrifice to my phurba’s indwelling spirit. Its image on my body would be a daily reminder, as I stood before the mirror, of that commitment. I refused to break the tattoo into sessions, instead insisting on getting it all done at once. It was my first tattoo ever, and I did it for phurba and what it meant to me.
There were certain other spiritual symbols/godforms that I had admittedly cherry-picked throughout my life, including Shiva, to whom a former friend had introduced me to, and Garuda, a figure I fell in love with as quickly and inexplicably on my first trip to Thailand as I had with phurba.
Wouldn’t you know it? The research I did years later revealed that in many Himalayan lineages, both Shiva and Garuda are so integral to phurba that they are practically held to be synonymous with one another.
Recently, I had finally reached a point where my research, combined with my magical and spiritual experience, could be forged into a decent workshop. I had presented a 20-minute talk on the subject at FOI’s Chicago [2015?] Goddess Fest that was witnessed and praised by reconstructionists of many stripes who knew how to mind their academic P’s and Q’s.
Sometime after that, I had done even more research and made even more connections. I still didn’t feel that the workshop was “ready,” still did not feel qualified to be an “ambassador” of phurba. Nonetheless, at the urging of my wife, Anna, I submitted the outline as a proposal for a workshop at a local spiritual boutique.
The man to whom I presented my outline has a background in Heathen practice and belief, and markets his own shamanic journeying services to customers. He took a cursory glance at the outline, handed it back to me, and essentially told me he wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole because I am not initiated into a Tibetan lineage, and he wanted to steer clear of cultural appropriation. Further conversation demonstrated that he considered phurba to be rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, and he’d founded his summary judgment on that opinion.
Ironically, one can make a strong argument that phurba was appropriated by Buddhist monks from local shamanic practitioners, who had used phurbas long before them. I was about to make this point to the self-professed shaman and cultural defender when he was called away by a colleague. It’s probably for the better. Why argue with someone who didn’t even bother reading the material I’d handed him?
Probably the most ironic part of this is that there are corvid-venerating shamans in the Himalayas riding around the spirit realms on eight-legged steeds eerily reminiscent of Sleipnir, Odin’s vessel in the spirit realms—something my detractor would have learned if he’d actually read my outline. I can’t think of a better argument against anyone’s becoming the “cultural appropriation police” in a spiritual context: If you believe that your spiritual experiences and contacts are objectively real, that all of the world’s pantheons have some foundation in an overarching and abiding spiritual reality, then you’re no longer thinking along purely cultural lines, and it is foolish to apply such boundaries to your frame of reference. Evidently, Sleipnir crosses geographical and cultural borders about as readily as you might expect an ethereal ghost-horse to do so. Why is anyone surprised to see cross-pollination, even if the people fomenting it don’t realize the cultural nuances they’re traversing? When Odin’s horse is hanging out with Himalayan shamans, arguing about the right to work with spirits from another culture is downright ludicrous. If Sleipnir doesn’t care, why would you profess to speak for him?
Although my rejection was a pitiful and irritating spectacle to behold, the fact remains that my gut was right: The workshop isn’t ready. I’m not ready. I am ready enough to write about phurba on my blog, though, so that’s what I will do. I will also propose this workshop elsewhere once I feel it’s whole enough, and a discussion on cultural appropriation will be a module within it. If and when I do this, I will donate my portion of the proceeds to the aforementioned Shamanic Research and Study Center. I also plan to travel there to learn from them someday, but that will take time and money that I won’t have at my disposal for a while.
So, through this rant about general principles followed by an account of my own journey, I just want to point out that sometimes, things aren’t as they seem. Sometimes, people can forge an immediate connection with a foreign culture before their intellectual knowledge catches up to that—maybe due to some sort of past life/karmic connection, maybe through something akin to morphic resonance3, maybe through aesthetic appreciation, or maybe through other channels we have yet to understand. Sometimes, a lot of good can come from this—arguably, this is the essence of reconstructionism—so brow-beating people for cultural appropriation before you understand their situation is presumptuous at the very least. I think there is usually some unrelated agenda behind it, even if the accuser is blind to it themselves.
In closing, I would just like to point out the hypocrisy typically inherent in calling people out for spiritual-cultural appropriation: Unless you belong to a given culture, going out on this limb to “defend” it from interlopers is an act which stems from the exact same arrogance of which you accuse appropriators. Who appointed you to the role? Even if you do come from said culture, you are potentially ignoring crucial issues, so please do tread carefully. Any instance of sharing or expressing a culture from a heartfelt and genuine space is ultimately beneficial for that culture—so please, back off.