essays

Simulating the sacred

A few nights ago, I received a massage at an upscale location in my area on a coupon some students had given me. At this location, massages run around $200, although this price also affords one access to the grounds’ saunas, hot tubs, and meditation spaces.

DIY Sauna Guide: How to Build a Sauna at Home | Architectural Digest |  Architectural Digest

While employing the latter of these services in anticipation of my massage, I tried to–but couldn’t–feel the relaxation toward which I assume the entire space is engineered. All around me, there were statues of the Buddha and other deities, natural vegetation and wildlife, and Japanese rice paper fixtures, and yet I just felt as though I were sitting in my body in a constructed space, trying to access spirituality. At base, the experience felt hollow to me.

When I thought about it afterward, it occurred to me that the entire location was a simulation of spirituality: rather than an authentic hub of any tradition, it bore an amalgamation of their paraphernalia, a veritable pastiche posing as spiritual to the uninitiated Westerner. Further, beneath the surface of tranquility roiled money, excess, and self-absorption–the probable cause of the strange disquiet I perceived in my mind.

A third reason for the organization’s artificiality is more interesting: while genuine spirituality eventuates in service, this location was entirely about the pampering of the individual, something which jives with Western consumerism but is at odds with the words of all enlightened prophets. At legitimate spiritual centers, people may indeed soothe some of the trauma they have incurred from living in mainstream society, but they do so not merely to feel well–instead, the entire function is for them to then return to society as servants of the same, uplifting humanity to a greater state of consciousness.

While I do not think it is wrong to attend a spiritual mirage such as the one from which I received my bodywork, I do think such sites place a bandaid over what needs healing in society: these are the habits of overwork, violence, and alienation that result in people’s needing to turn off in the first place, and these sites of pampering render a surface treatment such that the cycle can begin anew. In other words, people who find themselves alienated, exhausted, etc go to such a site to feel “restored,” after which they reenter society uncritically.

As an entirely different approach, the genuine spiritual center serves as a site of worship for a specific tradition and power higher than oneself. Rather than seeking to ameliorate the self’s wounds as the end goal, the adherent at such a center seeks to do so only for the purpose of becoming a more effective actor in the world, after which society itself can be changed. Genuine spiritual centers do not strive for the perpetuation of the problem: they strive for a solution, after which indulgences will not be necessary and life can continue more smoothly. As such, illusions like the one I encountered stand as symptoms of a deeper problem and will surely disappear in time. 

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