Please don’t call me spiritual
By Kimberly Johnson
The other day a friend described me as “spiritual” and I took it as an insult.
That made me curious, since I am a yoga teacher and a Rolfer. I spent a good decade of my life prospecting my next trip to India. I have to wonder exactly what has happened that turned a word that used to describe my life’s compass into one that makes my skin crawl.
For one, I don’t think I know what the word really means. And I don’t want to look it up either—that won’t help. Spiritual has to be one of the most misused, abused, misunderstood, overused, and trivialized words of our time—or at least the last fifteen years. (Second only to “Zen,” which now refers to anything from toilet paper to an impeccably decorated home interior with Buddha statues.)
Aside from the woo-woo, New-Age-bookstore connotation (and I must confess here, I spent some years frequenting more than a few of those) I’m pretty sure I despise the word because some of the most manipulative, narcissistic, and tight-fisted people I know are “spiritual.” In fact, I trusted them as such. My mistake was in assuming that spiritual people would be different, and better, than average people. That spiritual leaders would have their shit more together, would be more honest, more compassionate, and more present. My experience is that this assumption is WRONG.
People in the yoga and Buddhist communities are no different from anyone else.
In fact, I have seen people act a lot more ethically in corporate America with a lot more clarity than I have in most of the yoga communities I have been involved in. Calling oneself spiritual and pursuing a spiritual path like meditation or yoga doesn’t necessarily translate into coherent action and behavior. (One of the most compassionate people I have met brought McDonald’s to Brazil, which I would have formerly labeled as an evil endeavor.)
Now I have heard the theories: that wounded people are drawn to yoga so it is a de facto self-selected sensitive traumatized crowd (agreed). And I know about the projections of students looking for an idealized perfection in a teacher (guilty). The dynamic is complex.
I have been brainwashed and seduced by some of the most “spiritually evolved” teachers I have met, in insidious and deeply harmful ways—more so because of the spiritual context.
On the other hand, the real angels in my life, who have given me a place to recover from the aforementioned abuse and mental rewiring—who have been there to help me pick up the pieces after the brainwashing and disillusionment—none of them call themselves spiritual. They are just good people. They watched my daughter for me with no strings attached, arranged classes for me to teach when I was sure I had nothing to teach, and reflected material reality back to me when I thought it did not exist.
I’m bored by spiritual. When it is not busy neutralizing perfectly interesting personalities or turning intelligent people into spouters of trite Vedanta sentiments like “everything is perfect,” it’s supplying people with a new hip identity that allows them to avoid, gloss over, or bury the reality of their particular circumstances. I’m over it.
So please don’t call me spiritual, I’d rather go with “interesting.”
Kimberly Johnson is a yogini nomad who recently put the earth boots on for motherhood. After a lengthy love affair with India, she was relieved to fall in love with Brazil—and a Brazilian—and now lives in Rio de Janeiro with her 3-year-old Brazilian daughter. She leads retreats on the most beautiful place on earth: Ilha Grande, an island with 100 beaches and no cars; leads teacher trainings; and tries not to pronounce Sanskrit with a Portuguese accent. Rearranged by childbirth in every way, she travels, teaches, and learns about what yoga has to do with womanhood.