Are Our Spiritual Leaders Speaking Truth or Just Blowing Hot Air?

Google “New Age Phrase Generator” and the search engine will return a variety of oracle-esque algorithms that assemble words into meaningless, yet profound-sounding phrases. One of them scrambles existing tweets from New Age speaker and author Deepak Chopra, in effect, challenging the visitor to differentiate between his actual posts and random crap. A study inspired by that site, “Wisdom of Chopra,” and another, “New Age Bullshit Generator,” defines bullshit as “something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.” By asking participants to judge computer-generated bullshit’s profundity, it concluded that less intelligent, more religious people who also are “more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, and the paranormal,” rated a greater number of bullshit phrases as anywhere from “profound” to “mind-blowingly deep.”

I’m curious whether that group also might be more open to the accidentally profound. If, as the saying goes, beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder, then profundity — that quality of something striking you to your core — must also be somewhat subjective. A computer might strike at something golden, like when coincidences are taken as a “sign” from the universe. To each their own.

But the existence of these so-called “wisdom generators” does dig at a problem, which to my mind is the imprecision of the language we accept from everyone from our yoga teachers to the great Chopra. The Internet loves to talk about “Deepakese” — the author’s esoteric, supposedly unintelligible manner of speaking. With this article, I want to hold all of the spiritual practitioners and leaders bringing value to our world to a higher standard of speaking, and not just “being.”

Pew Research Center has determined that millennials are, on average, several measures less religious than our Baby Boomer parents. As a result, we’re replacing God with various surrogate objects of worship: tech accessories like our iPhones and Instagram feeds, the feeling of centeredness we strive for in our yoga practices, the openness or confidence to be gained from talismans and tarot cards, unnamed higher powers, ourselves and other people, and whatever natural landscape or blank internal space is to be the focus of our meditations.

This all adds up to the fact that we come into contact with spiritual language in much smaller and more piecemeal chunks than, say, the lifelong study of a single, meaty text, like the Bible or Quran.

Let’s turn for a moment to the smallest and most omnipresent chunks of that language: 140-character tweets like Chopra’s, for instance, or the endlessly reposted graphics of sayings that populate our Instagram feeds. For now, let’s drop the component of ego since the dynamics of that would be too complicated to address here. Instead, I’d like to focus on two other pivotal things: time and money.

Firstly, we’re scrolling through these little nuggets of wisdom, if they are there, as fast as our fingers can take us. And secondly, we’re doing it right alongside that cute vintage feed and our favorite cooking magazine, not to mention first cousins, friends, and that ex we never unfollowed. As Instagram evolves into an e-commerce platform and more of our time is spent behind screens rather than existing in living, breathing communities, we’re increasingly shopping for spirituality, whether by searching for influencers to follow or simply tapping “like” on an empty post because 8,651 other people did.

In sum, we want to be hit with wisdom in less time than it takes to fully process it, or we want to be the ones to deploy (or redeploy) it.

I’m not trying to point fingers or criticize here, because I do see value in what spiritual businesswomen and men bring to the table. Money and spirituality have always co-existed; the world’s great religions are also massive, land-owning businesses. In addition, I intimately understand that Instagram isn’t everyone’s favorite activity but is, rather, one of the many requirements of doing said business in our day. I’m simply asking professional leaders, healers, and teachers to demand and use more precision in their language, especially when it comes to areas of life that are murkier, like spirituality.

But please, don’t only be precise; be real.

Part of the power of the New Age bullshit generator is that certain words — “intention,” “transformation,” all of the words on the menu at Cafe Gratitude — tend to repeat themselves until they are meaningless.

Ironically, they are all being used in service of human, not divine, interaction. They comprise preachy reminders to no one in particular, judgment of others, complaints, and descriptions of a world filled with man-made objects, like Twinkies and Free People sweatpants. So if their use isn’t a mark of closeness to gods, deeper knowledge, or higher vibes than other humans, then I predict that they are leveraged to, simply, help people fit in. In our age of Instagram, that’s no far cry from branding. According to the study of linguistics, it’s human nature to use speech to align with a social tribe.

I love yoga, but I don’t want to pay $22 a pop to hear someone incant the way they think they’re supposed to because everyone else does. Instead, I delight in observing my teachers’ baseness, their humanity, their individuality, even while they’re lifting their students along in striving for something greater. One of my favorite teachers smokes a joint and sips beer when he’s off-duty, yet attracts hordes of sober spiritualese-speakers with his European accent. Another, admirably, curses in class between Sanskrit words — “this pose is a bitch,” she says, pressing her heels down and lifting her pelvic floor in malasana.

As the “spiritual industrial complex” gains steam, it’s increasingly important that our yoga teachers, tarot card readers, crystal salespeople, and spiritual writers and podcasters continue to provide value that cannot be manufactured or, heaven forbid, randomly generated.

By championing precision, acknowledging the growth of wisdom over time, and by staying true to their unique, badass personalities and incontrovertibly human forms, we may just crack the code on how to talk our way to spiritual enlightenment.

Lara Wilson Townsend is a writer, brand designer, producer, and movement artist who, along with her husband and puppy, attempts to cram her various interests and occupations into an ongoing project called Compound Yucca Valley (@compoundyv), an art space in the high desert.

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