Spirituality is big business. Advertisements abound for retreats on Greek islands, with yoga on the beach, and pampering sessions in the spa.
Designed to help us chill, relax from the stress of everyday life, this is contemplation reframed for the ‘me generation’.
But this canny marketing ploy represents a complete misunderstanding of the mystical tradition, as expressed in many world faiths.
These are designed to discomfort the practitioner, not comfort them. By stripping away the veil of illusion, dispelling the socially-constructed false-self, the adherent enters deeper into reality.
And this means encountering darkness, the demons; whether you understand them literally or figuratively, for they dwell in illusion.
Going down into the darkness operates at both the personal and social level, the inner and outer aspects of what we consider normal existence.
This flummoxes many who try ‘mindfulness’. Most experience release from anxiety, as they acknowledge unhelpful preoccupations, and let them just flow past their mind’s eye.
But a minority have experienced deep depressions, and intense spiritual crises, as negative images have arisen in their psyche, or memories of past traumas have resurfaced in their consciousness.
This is because mindfulness is only a secularised version of Buddhism; a bandwagon other religions have joined, as they rediscover their own resources of relaxation for a mentally ill society.
But in all these traditions, there is also the presence of a spiritual guide, who helps the subject navigate through the layers of false illusion or maya, to go deeper into the practice. The culturally denuded westerner, however, wanting a quick fix for their emotional travails, is simply not prepared, has not been prepared, for the spiritual combat he or she must endure.
For, in its origin, spirituality, contemplation or meditation, is not just a consumer product packaged to meet a niche demand.
It is a spiritual combat, struggle. The early stages of peacefulness, and enjoyment for example of the natural world, are a lure to encourage the novice to continue on the path.
As we progress, however, we uncover the false images of ourselves, programmed into our unconscious by early life experiences.
We also realise the lies of prejudice and exclusion, which we project onto others, through our own self-rejection, as political and social structures reflect the inner divisions within our own psyche.
The pain involved in this can make people turn back, cease their practice, or remain content with a supine, superficial top-up for their materialistic lives.
Slavoj Zizek suggests that this western-style spirituality is well-suited to advanced capitalism, by helping workers and consumers to go on playing their part in what is actually an alienating system.
Consequently, companies offer yoga and meditation classes, to keep employees functioning, so they blame themselves for their unhappiness, and not the system.
A rationalistic instrumental reason thereby paradoxically re-incorporates the spiritual, as a means of systemic regulation, to remedy the strains it itself imposes on its servants.
We need to recover a radical prophetic spiritualty, to unmask these demons, and help us live fully human lives.