Spiritual Privilege

lake yoga

Throughout my life I have been interested in spiritual concepts, studying and experiencing through yoga, meditation, and reading.  For a time in the early 2000’s, there were various books written about someone living an unfilled life (although they appeared to be happy to the outside world) ‘giving it all up’ or at the very least taking some time off from their everyday lives to travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic ocean to underdeveloped countries in search of a spiritual awakening.  The common theme that I noticed in these experiences and stories was the seekers usually traveled to places where they were often bewildered by the peoples’ acceptance of their circumstances of living in poverty or living without running water, electricity, or heat.  The traveler equated acceptance of circumstance with being at peace, therefore their learning consisted of “be peaceful within regardless of external circumstances.”   Personally, I couldn’t stand these stories for a few reasons,  but mainly because this viewpoint came from a place of unintentional arrogance that I just wanted to puke.  Why? It is arrogance to suggest that since someone or a People are living in squalor that they are accepting of their circumstance much less have feelings of peace about it.  This line of thinking, albeit without the poverty, was reiterated last week by Iyanla Vanzant when she tweeted, “Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism have no power over you unless you believe they do.”  A people living in squalor, shacks, shanty towns or projects may have had little to no choice due to living in a caste-system, being born into poverty or systemic government ‘rules,’ limiting one’s options for power and advancement.  I would ask the seeker, “Do you think, the person/peoples you met,  given the opportunity, wouldn’t choose to have a better paying job, and live somewhere else with electricity, running water, surrounded with four solid walls and roof over their head? Or do you think the people would choose to stay in a life a poverty?”  Secondly, the traveling seeker, can leave and return to their normal lives in homes full of electricity, running water, and heat with no worry about food at any time.  The traveling seeker can turn the switch off and on, meaning they can go back into their lives and enjoy the comforts.  People living in poverty don’t have that option, so they have to eke out some way to find some kind of peace even if it’s momentary.

The seeker gets a momentary experience, an awakening and a shift in their perception, while the person/peoples continue to live a lifetime in poverty.  This is spiritual privilege.  It’s easier to see the ‘beauty in’ and accept a state of poverty or strife when you’re not really living in it.

Another form of spiritual privilege that I have seen grace the media recently, but has been a staple in the new thought prosperity teaching is the mind over matter, changing your perception of your situation. In an L.A. Times piece by Amy Kaufman Link Here a conversation ensued between actresses Jessica Williams, Salma Hayek and Shirley Maclaine in which Hayek posed a question to Williams, ‘Who are you when you’re not black and a woman?’  I understand what Hayek and Vanzant were attempting to say, but for some people and groups of people it’s not an option.  To ask “who am I (without my money, my job, my looks, my celebrity, my education, religion, culture and then list goes on and on…), beyond your humanness is a privilege that many people who are worried about or working multiple jobs just to put some food on the table don’t have.  People who are struggling to provide for themselves and their families don’t have the luxury of time, money or space to contemplate such questions and to do so is spiritual privilege.


Vanzant’s response to the experiences of numerous groups, especially given the recent political decisions and actions of our government is asking the people to go beyond their belief, even though their experience(s) have confirmed otherwise.  Agreed, I’m not a fan of the “Man keeping me down” frame of mind, and I’m all for accountability. But we cannot negate a person’s experiences by simply saying change your perception. You might as well just say, “You created it so you deal with it…I’ll be over here” no matter the circumstance.  Where is the compassion and Oneness, the Whole?   To tend to you is tending to myself.

How do you tell a woman who was passed over for a promotion by a man she trained that it’s best to change her belief or her perception of her situation?  Would you tell a child who has been relentlessly bullied to focus on the future of ‘this too shall pass” or do you tell the child to change his/her belief about the situation/circumstance, while continuing to be relentlessly bullied?  How about the person with cancer that has tried everything, including diligently and actively changing his beliefs about health and healing to no avail, or the person in chronic pain that finds it so difficult to believe in a pain free life because his body reminds him moment to moment?  Look, I am not devoid of this, I bought into this belief whole heartedly for many years, until I lost a friend to cancer.

Beliefs are an individual experience and to apply a belief to groups of people is a disservice to the collective reality. It is easier to tackle a belief when working with the individual, because the belief, although common, may express itself differently from person to person.  If you follow the ‘change your perception’ ideology, then you must do that individually, separately from the group, which diminishes the whole.  If everyone or most people did that,  we wouldn’t see systemic change throughout society.   Do we just close our eyes, go into prayer, change our perception of our situation and then have faith that the injustice will ‘at some point’ go away or be righted?  Who would do the work? Would we have had our Gloria Steinem’s, Martin Luther king Jr’s, or our Gandhi’s and Cesar Chavez’?  If we’ve settled for changing our perception to accept our situation to only worry about our Own standing within society, would these societal systems have changed?  I don’t think so.  If that were the case, then the Tibetans would have retrieved their nation back from China and experience less discord today about being occupied.

Individuals can lead but it’s the movements of the collective that bring about systemic change.