Spiritual Imperialism and Spiritual Practice

While enjoying lunch recently with the rector of an Episcopal Church near my home, I was asked a seemingly innocent question. It was one of those questions meant to be a kind of conversation starter. My colleague inquired, “What’s new in the world of psychology?” I rambled for a few minutes about the division in psychology between those seeking evidence-based approaches, techniques and treatment plans supported by empirical research, versus those interested in more holistic and integrated approaches based on an understanding of mind-body-spirit connections. But there’s this interesting blend of what’s referred to as Buddhist psychology which is attempting to utilize integrated approaches to psychology while also building a research base to support their use. I mentioned the name John Kabat-Zinn as a focal figure in this movement.

To my surprise, yesterday I received mail from my colleague containing an article which critiqued Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. The article, by Wakoh Shannon Hickey, a Zen priest and Buddhist scholar, was published in the June issue of Cross Currents Magazine.

Hickey affirms the value of mindfulness meditation as an ally maintaining physical and mental health. The research stands for itself. A regular practice of meditation is correlated with lowering the incidence of heart disease, slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and resolving depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD). These are only a few of the documented benefits of maintaining a regular practice of meditation.

At the same, Hickey’s critique raises an important question: is it ethically responsible to appropriate practices which have been developed for a specifically religious context and adapt them to a different setting? When practices are taken intentionally taken from their original context and used in ways they were not intended, does that not demonstrate a fundamental disrespect for the tradition from which they came?

This question has also been raised by Native Americans in what was called spiritual colonialism by Vine Deloria. A leader of the Yankton band of the Nakota Nation, Deloria viewed the use traditional ceremonies and practices like the sweat lodge, vision quest, and talking circles by non-Indian people as an extension of the genocide of the Native peoples of North America. Deloria understood that these practices had significance within particular cultures and belief systems. To take the practices out of those cultures and belief systems, especially using them for personal benefit or gain, demonstrates a fundamental disregard and disrespect for the culture and the people from that culture. In this context, Deloria asked how American Roman Catholics would perceive an Indian from a reservation going into a cathedral, putting on the priest’s vestments, going to the altar and reading the prayers from the book, and then calling that a mass. Just as Roman Catholics would take great offense at this and view it as sacrilege, so Native Americans view the co-options of their traditional practices as offensive and as a contemporary expression of colonialism.

Hickey’s perspective is much the same. She notes the John Kabat-Zinn makes the case that meditation is the primary practice of Buddhism. Hickey notes that only a select few Buddhists have traditionally been meditators. Instead, Buddhist practice has primarily centered on a life focused on devotion to positive living which generates good karma. One must ask whether taking the spiritual practices of others out of context and using them for one’s own purposes demonstrates devotion to positive living.

Part of the challenge for us, as spiritual seekers, is to consider how we move along a sustainable path for ourselves while living with an ethic of respect for others and the great traditions of the world. Are there ways for me, as a Euro-American white man, to join Native peoples in their traditions which demonstrate honor and respect? Is it possible to adopt spiritual practices of another tradition without reducing that tradition to an object which I manipulate for my own gain? How are basic ethical values of respect for others, their beliefs, traditions, and cultures, a foundation for my own spiritual life and practice? Could it be that appropriating spiritual practices outside of their context is another form of either imperialism or ego-centrism? Implicitly, the writing of Hickey and Deloria lead us to ask these difficult questions.

As for my colleagues question, “What’s new in the world of psychology?” the answer may be that nothing is new. Psychology, as a social science, is based on the values of Western culture which places the experience of the individual above that of the community. Health, mental health, and mental disorder are defined as within the individual with little reference to the larger social structure. By viewing the individual without a context, psychology is able to dismiss larger concerns related to a responsibility to demonstrate respect for cultures and communities as integrated entities.

© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Spiritual Imperialism and Spiritual Practice

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. Shawn says:

    Really nice post, appreciated.

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