I have been considering the ethics and practices of spiritual appropriation lately. This is a different concept in some ways to cultural appropriation, which is essentially taking the culture of people from a different background and adopting their spirituality, belief systems, and other practices as your own, typically with little understanding or consideration for the people or contact with the people whom you have taken it from.

The subject of cultural appropriation is further muddled by the fact that it is typically the oppressors who have done and continue to be the perpetrators of cultural appropriation. It is also a consideration that often this flow of information is then passed through a mediator who initially visited the culture or its people and has taken the practices, combined them with their own Western training in psychology, anthropology, etc., further combined them with their own views, wounds, and belief systems, and then writes books, teaches workshops, and is a mentor to their students. This mediator will typically translate the practices for the Western audience, inserting their puritanical beliefs and other values, their outsider view of the culture, and belief systems, religions, and new-age thought patterns into the mix to create a “spiritual system” that can be easily assimilated, typically by white, middle/upper class Westerners.

The students who then are on the receiving end of this knowledge are typically ignorant (either truly or willfully) that their “pipe ceremony”, their Peruvian or core Shamanic course, their introduction to Curanderism, Voodoo, Hoodoo, African, South American, and/or Native American practices are at best different than what practitioners of that culture or lineage would perform or do, and at worst would be flagrantly offensive to the culture.

There is also the basic consideration that many of the students of the original mediator do not know that what they are actually learning is more of a “buffet style” of information from the original culture, psychology/anthropology or other background of the mediator, and information from other cultures that simply fit into the spiritual system that the mediator was creating nicely. Beyond this, much of the information that is created through these means is simply wrong or misguided.

This is cultural appropriation. Much of it creates deep harm (but sometimes money) for the culture that is being appropriated, but typically it mostly makes money for the mediator. Cultural appropriation also creates an atmosphere of ignoring the every-day reality of the culture being taken from in order to see the culture as somehow being “mystical” or “magickal”. Sometimes this myth is perpetrated by the members of the culture that is being appropriated for money. I remember a member of a tribe being paraded around a workshop I attended. Nobody noticed that he looked fairly miserable or the undercurrents of anger and desperation in his face. People at the workshop wanted to believe that he was a mystical being, and so he took on that role. By attending this one weekend workshop he made enough money to feed all of the members of his tribe for several months.

So how does spiritual appropriation differ? Spiritual appropriation shares many commonalities with cultural appropriation. It is the taking of specific deities, spirits, beings, etc. and appropriating them for your own uses. Again, many people do this in a sort of buffet style, picking and choosing which spirits or deities they want to work with, what spiritual systems or religions to use for their own purposes. This is all typically done at a very basic/surface level without any real knowledge of what the being, deity, spirit, etc. is. We live in a Wikipedia world, for better or worse, and someone can simply hear about Kali, or a specific Saint, the Lwa, or beings such as fae and off of their very rudimentary understanding attempt to utilize them in their spiritual practices.

Many times this has no consequence, as people who do this sort of “buffet-style” spiritual appropriation are simply working on the archetype level, meaning that they are working on the aspect of themselves that they view as Kali, or Ganesh, or an ET. When you view Kali as a “dark mother” to view the darkness of yourself (of course not understanding the other attributes of Kali, her history, her followers, or anything about the culture or country out of which she emerges) you will more often than not simply work on that shadow aspect of yourself. You will then will lose interest in her the next time a new trend in spiritual appropriation comes out and switch up your interest to Hekate, or Isis. I always find it funny that people will only appropriate the names that they can pronounce and are culturally popular. You never hear of the Archangel Zadkiel coming to people or people working with Venkateswara for a very good reason.

This sort of spiritual narcissism is very common… to assume any culture, deity, creature, etc. for your own. To feel the right to do this without knowing anything about the deity beyond the Wikipedia version or the culture from which it emerged. But there is also another factor here. This is the simple fact that if you know anything beyond the very surface level, if you go beyond yourself and have the power to do so, that these deities, beings, and so forth are separate from you. Separate and powerful. They are not something you made up, they are not an archetype or disassociated aspect of you or a wound for you to heal and integrate. Most people do not get to this point, which is understandable… to see, feel, sense, or work with anything outside of themselves. Many of you may not believe me. That is fine. But what I will say is that when you are taking on Isis as your goddess, a wolf as a power animal, or any other deity, spirit, being, demon, elemental, or animal is that they are real. They are powerful- many much more powerful than you could or would ever be. I would invite you to ask some questions before you spiritually appropriate anything else in your practices:

Have you considered asking before you appropriate them? And by asking, I mean asking them. For a sign, for something. Directly.
Have you shown them respect? Are you choosing your new spirit or deity like a candy bar from the store? Like a side from a buffet that you can use and cast away at whim? Are you treating them as if they lack power or are some sort of archetype you can use for your own purposes? Do you know anything about them beyond reading a book or looking at the internet? Do you know anything about the culture from which they emerged?
Do you integrate them into your life appropriately? Again, this is about respect. I use the example of Kali because she is the current trend, but you could insert any name here. Real spiritual energies require commitment, many require initiation, and at the very least they require to not be treated like a Homecoming date that you dump right after the dance because a new girl moved to school you find more interesting or trendy.
Finally, are you not pissing them off? I ask this in all honesty. Many people develop strong, important, and life-changing relationships to deities, spirits, and other energies of all sorts. Like I mentioned, most people will not piss anything off because they lack the power. They are still at the very surface of understanding, and do not have the fortitude or practices to achieve depth. The “buffet-style” spirituality that has emerged, the cultural appropriation that has occurred, and other factors have led to spirituality and spiritual paths that are incredibly watered down. They lack power and it is rare that someone will get anywhere real without the respect, daily practices, and know-how that is not in books, not online, and wasn’t told to the mediator that created the newest spiritual system. But sometimes people stumble onto real information. Sometimes beginners access real energies, beings, and deities for whatever reason. If you are contacting God, asking for a favor, and God grants you that favor, are you going to cast God aside after you receive that favor? If you would not do that, why would you do that to any other deity or being? If Kali is culturally appropriated as the “dark mother” known for her destruction does it make sense to make jokes about her, use her and then throw her away?

Simply think about what you are doing, what you are learning, and if what you are learning and doing is real. If you want to stay at a surface level, if you want to be ignorant of the cultural and spiritual appropriation that has been engendered in most spiritual paths, that is certainly your decision. But by showing basic respect, learning about cultures, questioning what and where you are learning came from, we can all find a spiritual path that leads to depth, understanding, and realness. In Part II I will be tackling the question of how to go beyond the basics, how to walk a spiritual path with respect and without culturally or spiritually appropriating anything.