Intended for practitioners of healing, sacred and spiritual work, this article has been written to provoke uncertainty upon our internal feelings of identity, worth and meaning. I have endeavoured to do this in a way that supports us to reflect and sharpen our sensitivity to the constantly evolving truths we hold for ourselves and for the society around us. I am aiming to approach this topic of what is ‘sacred’ and what is ethically open to ‘commercial endeavour’ as an inherently grey space, riddled with multiple truths that emerge from the different traditions of understanding and the diverse situations we come into this conversation from. Feedback and commentary are welcome and are, in fact, essential to furthering this conversation and all of our journeys towards greater awareness.
I grew up in the alternative cultural hub of Northern NSW, Australia. Here and in other pockets of bohemian culture, I have increasingly seen the usage of different forms of ancient healing knowledge, spiritual wisdom and ritualistic processes stemming from religious and indigenous practice (from here on in known as ‘the work’ for the purposes of this article). The integration of these understandings and practices into Western culture is a core part of the healing of our world and is of great importance. However, as the community of people finding, learning and sharing these practices with the West has grown I have observed a growing need for this community to reflect and critically think about how we go about this work.
Before going further I wanted to share my subjective way of defining how sacred something is in terms of how it relates to the practice of sharing the work with the community. To me, something is increasingly sacred when it facilitates a sustained experience that facilitates emotional feelings and mental thoughts of awe, reverence, contemplation, awareness, ego dissolution, reflection and or devotion to god, love, life and the energy of the universe.
Before going further to discuss the elements of tension between sacred work and commercial endeavour, I firstly want to address how the work can be done in a way that respects the traditional custodians of it. A website called Culture Aware addresses this issue directly and is a great place to find out more about Native Cultural Appropriation that needs to be a foundation for this discussion. Shortly put though; it is my view that to share traditional understanding and practice in a respectful way, four steps need to be taken. These include:
- Seeking permission and informed consent from traditional custodians to share; making clear how and to whom.
- Acknowledging traditional custodians at all points where knowledge and practices are shared according to their wishes.
- Making reciprocal any benefits received for sharing this content with the custodians of the work in a way that they have decided by them.
- Maintaining dialogue and relationship with the custodians to keep continuity with and respect for the custodians and to maintain a proper understanding of their perspectives on how the knowledge and practices are to be shared and evolved.
Without detracting from the importance of respectful post-colonial ways of sharing the work, the main purpose of this article is to discuss the ethics and effects of receiving money in exchange for sharing the work. The intent is also to consider how exchanges of money relate to the intent and impact of the forms of spiritual, wellbeing or healing practices that, although inspired by traditional knowledge and involving parts of ancient practices, have evolved through the creativity of our community to become new or adapted forms of practice.
There are a range of arguments for sharing the work in a way that asks for and or expects a financial return. One concept I try to keep in the back of my mind when thinking about what is and what may not be appropriate to share for commercial benefit is to do with the type of practice and to what extent is it culturally accessible and relatable to the present state of the mainstream of the culture in which it is being offered.
Take Yoga for example. Yoga is a spiritual practice originating from India that has been widely adopted and utilised across the West. It has many components but the physical aspects of the practice have been the most culturally accessible and so has become the element of yoga that is the most popular. Yoga teachers choosing to run classes as a form of income make sense to me because without this option many teachers would not have been able to teach and as a result, this powerful practice would not have become so widely available.
It also feels that often whether the work is practised with a group or an individual needs to play a role in considering how and if it is something that can be done for commercial benefit. When we work with groups we are often appealing to the shared experiences and feelings of the group and thus the power of the feeling and connection within the group. This power to me is a sacred thing and weighs heavily in considering how a work should be practised and shared. When compared to the unique and tailored approach that may be required when conducting work with an individual it feels that often such work takes on more of healing and individually spiritual dimension that is more akin to medicine and therapy. Of course just as a Kahuna massage or a confession with a priest, these can be deeply spiritual experiences but I would differentiate the two in proposing that the experience of a confession taps into a more strongly set mental framework of truth and sacredness that is a spiritual gift to be shared freely in the community. As with the example of yoga above, perhaps those experiences that target more physical healing of an individual is a way to consider something as being so unique for the recipient that it is abstract to the feeling and power of group work and as such is a commercial service.
Unquantifiable Gifts for which Giving is a Gift
For many religions and spiritual traditions charging people money for their participation in the work is sacrilegious. The fundamental and shared reasoning for this is that the work is considered to be beyond financial value and just as a life of a living being is, unable to be quantified because it, in essence, gives powerful life energy to those who receive it. Auxillary to this is the notion that for the sharer of the work there is such an enormous privilege and gift to be endowed with the awareness, ability and knowledge to offer the work. Understood here also is the reality that people often (not always) cannot help but have a sense of expectation of what benefits they should experience when they pay for the work knowing that it is not being shared voluntarily. Entering an experience of the work with this type of mentality can be detrimental to achieving the aspired state of surrender and gratitude because participants can end up dwelling on their sense of whether what they are experiencing is value for money. Sure, this is partially the responsibility of the participant to be aware of but we can also consider that it is the responsibility of the sharer to acknowledge and take responsibility as a potential pitfall to the way they are sharing the work. In the modern age what has often seemed appropriate to ensuring that facilitators of the work do not end up out of pocket for food, transport and accommodation costs is an open discussion with participants after the event to get financial support for these costs. Another way of recognising the contribution the sharer of the work is making to the community is by inviting participants to offer voluntary donations and gifts of food in appreciation of the work.
In responding to these ideas it is also important to consider that Western culture has developed a sense of the relationship the cost of the experience has with its expected value to the individual (pending marketing and reviews etc). If we want to be able to operate in the modern world I could argue that we need to be pragmatic by working with the cultural norms that have developed. In this way charging people to experience the work may at times be an important part of making people feel like it is a good use of their time or investment in their learning. My personal belief is often that this dynamic can be overcome by asking people to pre-commit a financial contribution that eventually goes to a charity or approaching the sharing of the work in a way that first builds relationships with participants. This way their trust and commitment to attend an event is pre-established and as will be discussed further, a critical phase of the relational work of spiritual community development.
Relating to these psychological factors to motivate attendance to experience the work is the notion I have heard of trying to avoid encouraging peoples ‘poverty mentality’. The idea being that if people are encouraged to feel like they can only afford things that are cheap or free then the mentality within a person that they will never have enough money will develop. The consequence to this being that the persons live in fear and a state of mental deficit rather than abundance. In response to this idea, I feel other points that will be discussed later are of greater significance and that not being in poverty mentality is something for an individual to manage for themselves in terms of the spending choices they make.
Financial Accessibility Fixes
It is true that the work can be made more accessible to all people by ensuring scholarships and tiered ticketing for concession holders, pensioners, students and the unemployed are utilised. I feel that tools are important regardless of whether the sharer of the work is financially benefitting or not as they help to share the essential costs of delivery of the work in a way that is according to the means of each participant. I have met so many devoted change-makers over the years who often do not have the funds for expensive spiritual growth opportunities. Because of this, it has generally been my preference to try and do things with a priority on making things affordable without sacrificing the level of comfort necessary to do the work. However, costs inevitably can arise and these need to be shared amongst attendees. One model, I have seen work before at a Waiters Union community orientation course is where at the end of the event the costs of the event are openly discussed with participants as well as the level of income participants have at this time. Following this participants are invited to contribute how much they think is fair for them considering the costs of the course and abilities of other participants to pay.
It occurred to me after doing my second Vipassana at Dhamma Rasmi in Pomona (a course I can recommend above all) that making the work financially accessible and inclusive is not the only reason to avoid making the work something that is done as a means of income. It occurred to me that in the world there is a great process of spiritual practice and natural selection taking place that is essential for our cultures to find a synthesising pathway forward. I cannot help but consider that if we want this process to happen most fluidly people need to be able to choose what experiences they want without being manipulated by interest provoking and appealing marketing that inherently becomes on the agenda when someone wants to financially sustain themselves. It occurred to me that the most authentic way for people to gather the information they need to make these choices is when people share their experiences with one another and discuss what gave them benefit and how. Just like product advertising creates overconsumption of goods I fear to advertise the work can create manufactured demand that is not based on the authentic dialogue between those who have experienced something and those who have not. The essence of the idea is that if we want the spiritual pathway forward of our culture to have unadulterated integrity we need to be wary of commercialised sacred work attempting to convince the community that what they offer brings the most benefit.
A big consideration in this discussion is that Western culture has developed a strong sense of respect for ‘professionals’ for whom maybe sharing the work is their sole profession. Charging people to experience the work, in turn, acts as a motivational element if the cost appears congruent to the quality and professionalism of the sharer of the work. However, an opposing argument is that if we really believe in the work and its need to spread and grow we need to ensure that other would-be facilitators of it feel like the practice is not so far into the realm of professionalism that it is inaccessible to them to learn to share themselves. My sense is also that if we see ourselves as professionals we are at risk of developing a competitive mindset in terms of how much of a market there is for the work we share and as a result not allocating adequate energy into training and empowering others who show passion and interest to also become a sharer of that work.
To add to these arguments cautioning people about identifying as a professional of sacred work are the philosophical principles of voluntary poverty and the dignity of labour. Voluntary Poverty which is a core principle of the Catholic Worker Movement (check out Dorothy Day House in Brisbane) which claims that to live lives that are in solidarity rather than charity with the marginalised and oppressed we must live life physically on a level as they do. The notion is that if we are not economically sharing the same experiences as the people we want to see spiritually empowered by the work then we are going to struggle to relate, connect and work with them to create a better world. Also embedded in this philosophy is the idea that if we are not willing to physically bring ourselves to the level of those we are trying to help and nurture, and completely opening our lives and our doors to them, then how can we say we truly love and care for them?
The dignity of labour, specifically manual labour, is another principle that is shared across spiritual Christian and Islamic teachings as well as the writings of M.Ghandi. Here the notion is similar to that explained above. To labour with our combined hands, heart and body is an essentially humanising and humbling experience that the majority of society goes through every day. Most of the people in the world work farming, building, making and caring. In this work we can find a sense of clarity, focus and reverence to the world that comes from being in touch with that which is created by nature but also by getting a balance in the level to which our mind and body is engaged. To live a life working only as an intellectual or spiritual professional deprives someone of the physically embodied lessons that manual labour provides. It would disconnect someone from the reality of life that most people experience and hide from them the patterns revealed in the physical systems of nature whether it be the way plants grow or how a house is constructed that manual labour provides. In a way, this principle points to the possibility that if society is to spiritually and intellectually progress with cultural cohesion it needs to be done in a way that is slowed by the fact that there would be no professionals pushing the way forward and as a result slow enough for the entirety of a community to evolve their understanding together in greater unity.
I could argue in response to these principles that the question still remains as to how people become skilled in different types of the work in order to pioneer and develop them in new directions while still making a living doing other work such as a form of manual labour. If someone really wants to excel in an area of practice and devote the majority of their time to it how do they survive financially?
Spiritual Community Development
My belief is that if I wanted to sustain myself fully by sharing sacred work that I do not have the mandate to do it unless I am part of a reciprocally organised spiritual community (aka religion) in which that is my role and my financial allowance would be something that is set by transparent, accountable and democratic decision making processes of that community. So what then if I do not want to start a religion or be part of one? My answer to myself here is that we need to follow the emerging path of spiritual community development worker. To me these are people who are aspiring to facilitate the synthesis of a plurality of traditions of the work to heal, support, raise consciousness and teach awareness in a way that focuses on community participation and empowerment.
To me, this pathway is one of humility and patience because it at the core needs to accept that how this synthesis and spiritual exploration takes place and progresses is something that needs to be driven by the community and for the community. This means that often things will move very slowly and consequentially the necessity to obtain a deep understanding of any forms of the work for the purposes of sharing them with the community is restricted by the readiness of the community to embrace with shared interest and ownership. If we do not take this slow and deep pathway forward we risk not bringing people with us or together sustainably. We risk putting lots of energy into exploring fields of understanding that although may satisfy our individual intellectual curiosity may not be what the whole community around us needs now or next. After all, it is what the whole community needs right now, not ourselves, that is of utmost importance. At this point in the history of the world where we are faced with so many intersecting crises we need everyone to play an ever more active role in evolving our cultural and spiritual narrative, not just a passionate few. This inevitably means that those of us who are passionate need to consider that if we take too much leadership we risk not making room for the growth in the average level of everyone else’s participation and input.
Following this line of thinking it follows that the work we share is done in a way in which is regenerative. This means energy flows back into the sources from which it came. Seeing ourselves as part of a movement of spiritual awakening then follows that where there are opportunities to raise money in the movement that any money raised needs to go back into the movement. In a time when people are realising the importance of diversity to our movements money can be well spent making the work more accessible specifically to people from diverse and marginalised gender, race, ethnic or sexual backgrounds.
To me, spiritual community development is ultimately about taking it step-by-step and focusing on the local human relationships within our community. It is great that we have had a fossil fuel-powered era where different forms of the work have been discovered and shared between cultures across the world. The last five decades have been an important period of cross-fertilisation of spiritual community development ideas. But just as we look towards localisation as a critical solution to our political, economic and environmental problems so to do we need to look towards localisation of our efforts in spiritual community development. Without the sharers of the work developing a more local and community focus on how and with whom they work with it will be difficult to have the continuity of the relationships in the community at the level needed to develop the trust, cohesion and belonging our society is crying out for.
Government, For-Profit Events and Corporate Work
I have heard sometimes that certain types of the work have been embraced by Government to be part of public health programs. I know that Work that Reconnects through some facilitators is getting support for workshops through primary health network funding and in East Asian countries Vipassana meditation was taught in its prisons and the public service (although I suspect this would have been done voluntarily). This raises the question of whether and how we would accept payment from Government for the work? To me, this needs to be approached very carefully as there are the risks that the work needs to undergo quality assurance standardisation to ensure the bureaucracy and politicians considers it good value for money. This is a necessary process for programs publically funded but for sacred work it risks requiring it to conform to values and norms of operating that strangle the organic and evolving way in which the work is often practised and shared. If forms of the work become co-opted by government or institutions, in general, it may lead to a corrupting of their essence and benefit in a way that can end up being counterproductive.
The opportunity to work with government and or for-profit events and corporations with the work is a great way for a practitioner to be financially rewarded. However, going with the ‘gift is in the giving’ principle I would argue that the privilege of being asked to offer the work and being renumerated for it holds a responsibility of putting that spare time and energy back into our voluntary work as spiritual community development workers to ensure that the level of potentially co-opted ways of practising the work is never more prominent than the free community-led movements guiding the way forward. I must admit that the cynical and judgemental feelings that have arisen in me on more than one occasion when encountering examples of the work being marketed at the corporate or wealthy communities have been a big motivation for me in writing this article. My suggestion is that although we should not be closed to working with corporate and upper-class communities exploring what is sacred that in doing so we must be critical with ourselves to ensure we keep a firm grip with the intent to have an authentic, courageous and honest relationship with the people we work with from these communities. Jesus said ‘a camel can pass through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man passes into the kingdom of heaven’. If in our work with upper-class cultures we fail to be open about this reality we are at risk of validating and even being co-opted by the ‘abundance’ mentality of the individualistic hippy wash bathed mentalities of the growing alternative corporate culture.
The more I think about these issues the more there is that I could write about it. Regardless of all the perspectives, I think that when it comes to complex issues like this, the truth lies in a delicate and fragile space that exists between our own individual perspectives and morals, the values and ethics of the community around us, and the unique situation we are considering. By authentically and deeply reflecting on these three elements we can arrive at an approach that we can work with for that moment.