So anyone who is acquainted with my work knows that I talk a fair amount about cultural and spiritual appropriation. I do find it an important topic to speak about, even if only a slim majority of people are willing to listen.
Since I have been a child I have been fascinated by other cultures– specifically their mythology and fairy tales. When I got a bit older I started studying the spiritual traditions of other cultures. What I found was odd, to say the least. Generally what has happened is that the proverbial “other”– basically and most often a white anthropologist or similar “explorer” type goes to visit a culture and study their spiritual traditions and then will write a book about them, mixing in new-age and pop-psychology ideologies to make it palatable for a widestream audience.
I will say in many ways I understand. Most people have a lot of dissonance when it comes to ideas and thoughts that are not their own. They tend to view them as “wrong” or experience the sort of dissonance where they simply would not pick up a book that didn’t have to do with some sort of stream of energy/idea that they were already familiar with. So I do understand the necessity of such surface-level books, even if I don’t personally resonate with them.
But the real difficulty here is in keeping that culture and its traditions as that “other.” What that means is that if you are not a part of that culture, if you did not grow up with those spiritual traditions, there is a tendency to not only explore the topic through your own filters (the ideas, religious beliefs, etc. that you have, whether you are cognizant of them is a totally different manner)… but also to not respect the culture, to treat it as other, and more simply, to not write about it properly.
Basically, it is ludicrous to think that someone based on one visit, or even ten, can have a full understanding of Haiti, for example. Even if someone has lived there for many years (and I am just using Haiti as an example) there are still matters of culture and viewing that culture as an “other” that are frequently not attended to.
The main question is what to do about this. Well, there can be a realization that studying other cultures and their spiritual traditions, for any spiritual worker, is incredibly important. I work with people from all sorts of different cultures and it is because I have the respect and openness for them… but it is also because I have developed neutrality.
So what is neutrality? It is an understanding that we have somewhat fixed ideas, personal ethics and morals, and spiritual stances that are likely from a specific background. Even if we consider ourselves “spiritual but not religious” many of those sorts state Judeo-Christian beliefs without realizing how heavily they have been influenced by them.
It is also educating yourself to understand that other people believe differently, act differently, and know differently, and that is not something to judge.
This is perhaps most important. I have educated myself on other spiritual traditions. This means that (I am going to use this example further because it is such a clear example) I work with curses quite a bit, and so I have educated myself about curses from many different spiritual traditions– everything from how they are formed, the motivation of someone who might want to curse someone, to different spiritual paths who use them heavily. I read a lot to educate myself, as well as know practitioners from many different faiths and paths who I can turn to in case something comes my way that I have not heard of before or don’t understand. I deeply respect spiritual workers who are willing to do so– but unfortunately this does not happen as often as it should.
Recently I read a blog by a “magician” who decided, amongst other things, to talk about what might happen if you were a “witch” in certain cultures currently, as well as describe some of the “dark magic” of some cultures. There is not much to be expected out of thousand word blog, but this blog was inherently problematic because he was speaking about things that he simply didn’t have much knowledge about, and while some of the things he was speaking on were simply incorrect, what was more offensive was how ethnocentric the article was, with other cultures being simply pale caricatures filled with evil plotting magicians out to put death curses on you.
Most people who know me know that I first began studying “core” shamanism. It simply was what was available at the time to me. A whole different can of worms, what I find helpful vs. what I find irresponsible or not helpful about that subject, but that is not the point here. I was once in a group that was intended to study “Middle World” work, work in which discussion of working with earth energies, curses, and so forth. While there were lovely people in this group, what I found fascinating is that most of them had absolutely no knowledge of curses. They had no understanding of curses beyond the fact that a curse was a “ball of energy” with some emotions or something in it. Their version of someone who would curse would be an evil, vindictive person, or the sort of imagery of an “evil” sort of person that you would get out of a James Bond movie.
It is entirely too easy to move from this evil vs. good, lightworker vs. “dark” sort of imagery when you do not understand anything about the cultures in which curses arise. In fact, most “core” shamans do not actually believe in curses, or believe them to simply be psychological mechanisms that if the person doesn’t believe in them, they go away. This is again because most people have not studied any cultures that actually could curse. This also has to do with personal fear, of course, because if you believe someone can curse you despite you putting up a shield of purple light or whatever is popular these days, well… that is something most people are not willing or ready to believe until they have to. So I understand how most people simply would not want to entertain the reality that there are people out there who can.
But also it is easier to stay in this mindset than to realize that people are multi-faceted. In a different introductory training I once took, I remember the teacher saying that anyone who used spiritual work for personal purposes or against anyone else was a “sorcerer.” Which was, of course, a bad thing. But “lightworkers” use spiritual work for personal purposes all the time. What is even funnier is that people who refuse to see their own darkness, or to even know anything about their own darkness, are frequently the ones to send out the most intense thoughtforms– filled with jealousy and unprocessed emotions– to others while maintaining a facade of “light”.
Quite simply, I have had to deal with more shit from people who consider themselves “lightworkers” or “core shamans” than any folk magician, spiritualist, spiritist, or any other spiritual path (including ones like Traditional Witchcraft, Vodou, Palo, Hoodoo, and so forth) because those people are the most likely to put their emotions, energies, and other difficulties inwardly to not deal with them, and they often do not have the training to realize that the more spiritual work you do, the more consolidated things like thoughts and emotional energies become, especially if you have a whole storehouse of them.
Think about this for a moment… I have had felt more difficult and negative energy from “lightworkers” than from people who work with, say, Solomonic magic and grimoires that deal with demonic energies. If you are able to process this last sentence, it might say a lot to you.
It was a fairly interesting “awakening” for me when I actually began to study with some people who had vastly different traditions than myself. I found that a lot of people do spiritual work not based on personal ethics but on the concept of divine justice. This is a difficult concept to explain, but basically many traditions have the spiritual foundations to be much more than psychological, to have physical and spiritual elders as well as divine energies (including God) that would be checked in with before doing any spiritual work, whether it be something for health and well-being, or something for destruction or cursing.
In fact, and somewhat ironically I suppose, the idea that someone would turn to spirituality as a sort of self-help thing, or for personal purposes, rather than to inspire, assist, and communicate with ancestors and be a support to the community is astonishing to most spiritual workers who are not aware of what more mainstream shamanic/spiritual paths are like.
I will say that in studying traditions other than my own, that I am extremely aware that I am an outsider. Many of the traditions I am interested in are initiatory, which means that I can only gain so much knowledge from people in those circles unless it is my time and calling to become a part of that tradition.
I am not particularly talking about one spiritual tradition, although the active interest these days in the more mainstream is on the ATR’s (African-based) or Peru, because this situation is endemic, and a new fad will ultimately arise.
But what will remain is this viewing of specific traditions as “evil” or “dark” because we do not have the knowledge to understand them. Books about other traditions will be written by yet more “explorers” who have this outsider view of the tradition, complete with their biases, often without the realization or understanding that the tradition is being misrepresented or even re-written for outsiders to make it more palatable. We will continue to have people interested in the newest fad, removing anything seemingly “dark” from it for their own selfish purposes, without understanding it. And we will continue to have people think that specific cultures and specific people are either “magical” because we have no concept of their daily reality, or “evil” because all we are reading about and hearing about is the crassest understandings that are meant to arouse fear in us.
But we can wake up. We can move beyond this. We can realize, for example, that Vodou (Voodoo, Vodoun, etc) is a beautiful system of ancestor worship. I choose this because it is the most feared by people. We can wake up to the reality that we cannot take the spirituality of another without attending to and understanding their daily reality. If you are interested in Peru, or in American Indians, what are you doing to support their daily reality, what are you doing to understand their daily reality? These are living, breathing cultures, ones that can be shown respect. We can emerge out of our bubbles and realize that people even doing “evil” are not James Bond villains– they are most often living breathing individuals who have gone about things in the best way they know how. By understanding how others think, what they believe, and just simply educating ourselves to be neutral, compassionate, and most of all educated with whatever path we wish to follow, we can move beyond this. We can move beyond our own judgments, our own way of thinking, our own beliefs. It is just a matter of if we are willing to do so.