The Spectacle of Self-Improvement

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

— Mark 8:34

It wasn’t until after downloading the Insight Timer that I realised how vast the spiritual marketplace has become. I discovered the popular mindfulness app while searching for something to use to time my meditation sessions. Happily, the app did meet my needs, transforming my phone into a customisable singing bowl. What I didn’t expect was that with a couple of taps, I’d be ushered into a virtual bazaar filled with alluring programs that promised self-realisation, peace, and spiritual empowerment. Searching through the Insight Timer, I found a multitude of self-help coaches and supposed experts offering methods to achieve emotional well-being, stress reduction, and alignment with one’s “authentic” purpose. But the sheer number of people claiming authority led me to question the genuine depth of the spirituality being presented. Who were these people, I wondered, and what achievements had qualified them to be mentors or guides, anyway?

Equipped with this healthy dose of scepticism, it didn’t take long for me to recognise that the common thread binding the Insight Timer’s plethora of audios and videos together was a compulsive emphasis on self.

I identify this commercialisation of mindfulness with yoga. Rooted in ancient Indian traditions and philosophies, yoga was gradually integrated into mainstream American culture as a fitness phenomenon, now advertised everywhere in ways that make it look sexy. Severed from its spiritual context, yoga is promoted as a trendy method to help the individual adapt to the demands of society. As with modern yoga, so too with mindfulness courses. Both tend towards a commodification and dilution of genuine spiritual practice, which is something that takes years to cultivate. In other words, spiritual practice is transformed into a marketable product or service, with an emphasis on material gain or consumerism over genuine spiritual growth. Here, aesthetics play a pivotal role, as the visual presentation of spiritual practices through captivating imagery and sleek design influences their perceived value and appeal. It was amusing to discover that the Insight Timer even boasts its own ‘Marketplace’, featuring courses that can be purchased to help individuals and teams achieve resilience and greater productivity. Others promise to teach participants strategies to defend against the most formidable threat to corporate culture, burnout.

But I also found it telling that the interface of the Insight Timer mimics the aesthetics of the larger social media landscape. And I developed an interest in how the spiritual marketplace actively participates in and capitalises on the digital realm of social and economic exchange.

The spiritual marketplace has generated a visual culture that attracts people to mindfulness as a lifestyle choice that is fashionable, desirable and in line with current trends. Images of fit models in well-designed yoga studios, serene natural settings, modern wellness centres or spa-like environments are used to sell products and services that offer self-improvement solutions for the sophisticated consumer.

Many of us know firsthand the benefits of practising mindfulness for its own sake. The problem is that it’s marketed as a means to an end. That is, to foster individual success. It’s become an industry that’s intertwined with the objectives of consumer capitalism industries at large; to generate profit by satisfying individual desires and preferences. And images are just as important for selling programs and courses in mindfulness as they are for selling other goods and services. Branding and identity must evoke a sense of trust, professionalism and expertise—crucial factors for selling in the spiritual marketplace.

The mindfulness industry has become an extremely profitable subset of the spiritual marketplace. It has particularly flourished among those who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’. To be sure, the commercialisation of spirituality has garnered its share of criticism. It’s been argued, for example, that the widespread adoption of mindfulness is geared to greater efficiency in the workplace, that it simplifies and commodifies complex traditions, and that it masquerades as subversion but provides no substantive challenge to the prevailing socioeconomic order. But how much of this matters to a public consumed by media spectacle and self-obsession?

The appeal of creating an individualised lifestyle by borrowing freely from various cultural and religious traditions is widespread, but ultimately the commodification of spiritual life is like a religious practice that places excessive importance on the individual self. This phenomenon is in stark contrast to the aspirations of great mystics in all the major traditions which taught how to let go of this individual self and its boundaries.

Those who contend that mindfulness results in passivity and disengagement from the world are correct to say so when the practice leads to self-absorption. When the illusory self, conditioned by the passing phenomena of cultural and societal externalities, is reified, which is to say treated as if it were concrete, it leads us away from our true nature. We adopt a spiritual persona (another self) and continue to overly identify with external validation and superficial achievements to bolster a fragile sense of self-worth. We crave recognition for this new supplement to our identity, lost in ourselves and cut off from others.

However, as Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart have written, in describing the “birth of the Word” within the soul, when our spiritual practice guides us back to the Holy Spirit, and we recognise God within us, we begin to participate in the Divine Essence. We transcend the limited perspective of the false self and enter the realm of contemplative action, the fruit of prayer and meditative practice spontaneously flowing into our daily actions. Genuine spiritual discipline leads us away from the ego towards inner stillness, discernment, and a deep sense of interconnectedness. Out of this springs conscious and intentional engagement with the world. Indeed, our surrender of the small self—the limited and ego-centred identity that is shaped by societal conditioning, attachments and self-centred desires, is fundamental to spiritual transformation.

We have to be cautious because a tailored adaptation of ancient practices fits only too well with a commodified self. This results in the desire to showcase our spiritual depth through the act of self-branding on social media and other types of image-driven communication. By choosing attire, presenting ourselves in stylish settings, or displaying symbolic objects, we enhance our self-image for marketing and consumption. And recent technologies have assisted in magnifying the worship of self, satisfying our need for constant attention and validation. Regardless of whether our intention is to deepen our spirituality or connect with others, preoccupation with our image remains a constant factor.

***

As an avid student of visual culture, I was fascinated to observe how this self-absorption finds expression in the spiritual marketplace as another manifestation of the tendencies most prevalent in social media. The spiritual marketplace, much like social media, often emphasises the cultivation of a certain image or identity, in this case, one that is associated with spiritual growth, wisdom and enlightenment. If we don’t approach it introspectively, or lack thoughtful selectivity and internal guidance, we may find that rather than being resources for inner transformation its products and services become tools for curating our image. In the capitalist spiritual marketplace, the abundance of offerings fuels the desire to craft and exhibit an attractive spiritual identity to the public.

The most common visual representation of our self-idolatry is the social media profile. With their scrupulously crafted images and narratives, social media profiles are the iconography through which we venerate the commodified self. Through this medium, the individual is transformed into a spectacle for public consumption. This self-commodification entails restructuring our personal lives and relationships to align with market principles. We do this through the practice of ‘personal branding,’ where we strategically cultivate our image for financial or social prestige, becoming the chief executives of our own ventures. Effective communication in this context requires skilful design if one hopes to captivate and engage others.

In order to better understand how we shape and project our identities in the digital world, I began to look at the principles of effective social media profile design. Not surprisingly, given how neoliberalism has infiltrated Western social life through its influence on economic policies, cultural values and individual behaviors to prioritize market forces, these principles apply equally to the promotion of product and personal identity.

Let’s now consider the various elements of the social media profile. Firstly, like any effective logo, it should be simple and attention-grabbing. The cover image serves as an advertisement, highlighting what sets the product or personal brand apart while also providing additional contact information. The layout and organisation of the profile page should prioritise the most important content and ensure visual consistency. Different social media platforms have unique design elements, and the articles that I found on the subject also stressed that content variety is essential, as is maintaining a balance between individual content and collective visual cohesion. Consistency through the use of templates is also advised, as are appropriate choices such as flat design for infographics, hand-lettered typography for inspirational content and personalized (as opposed to stock) photography.

So, what is the lesson? That just like any good advertisement, a well-executed profile design, which is the homepage to your online presence, conveys who you are visually through colour, shape, typography and imagery. Your graphics should align with your brand identity to offer a consistent message about yourself. This parallels the careful selection and composition of images found in the spiritual marketplace, where the goal is often to convey serenity or wisdom.

Based on a shared emphasis on the aesthetics of self-presentation, I would suggest that the spiritual marketplace is an extension of the idolisation of self in social media more generally. This applies to the teachers and coaches who sell courses for spiritual growth as well as the consumers who purchase them for self-improvement, often with an eye to increasing their social capital. Though self-aggrandisement is veiled under different contexts in the spiritual marketplace, it is driven by the underlying me-centeredness of our culture.

The more I examined the form and function of the social media profile, the more it became clear how conspicuously similar it is to the advertising of goods and services. Once we have recognised such commodification of the self, we can follow the impulse upwards, out of the quotidian morass of social media and into the high-minded ideals of the spiritual marketplace. It is actually an unbroken thread. Our attention shifts in a moment from posting a comment on a friend’s newsfeed to a menu of inspirational quotes. And we find yet another invitation to boost our ego through commodified versions of yoga, mindfulness and other derivations of religious tradition. Intertwined with the quest for validation so explicit in social media, consumer spiritualism is a reminder of the pervasive influence of capitalism’s neoliberal order. An ideology that promotes individualism as it reaches into every aspect of contemporary life.

***

It is worth noting that online spirituality courses emphasise the importance of self-discovery. They claim to be able to guide the participant through introspective practices and teachings that encourage self-reflection, self-awareness and personal growth. But what is the nature of this self?

As long as we see mindfulness and meditation as lifestyle choices, we are caught in the illusion of the false self. This is the identity we create based on societal norms and our ego-driven desire for external validation. It is an identity imprisoned by the seductions of consumer culture and a product of neoliberalism, which transforms individuals into commodities. Neoliberal ideology stresses the importance of personal success, competition and the monetisation of human value. This tendency is reinforced in the visual culture of the social media profile, which inflates the ego by providing a platform for us to present idealised versions of ourselves.

It was quite something to discover, as I delved deeper into the Insight Timer, that the idolatry of self within this realm represents a more subtle form of self-aggrandisement than a social media profile page because it is partially hidden under the guise of genuine spirituality. My realisation was a reminder of the tenacity of our narcissistic tendencies.

However, amidst these observations, I also believe the Insight Timer can be a valuable tool for spiritual growth, offering a diverse range of guided meditations, introduction to different mindfulness practices and valuable teachings from around the world. The platform has the potential to support individuals in their pursuit of genuine spirituality and foster a deeper understanding of themselves and their connection to the divine. But as with social media, it is essential to exercise caution and avoid excessive reliance or dependency. In an era of digital platforms that constantly tempt us to create altars for ourselves, the only remedy is to first exercise discernment and then apply self-discipline. We know we are making our own image an idol when we spend the majority of our time thinking about and displaying various aspects of our lives, whether it be social success, status or even spiritual accomplishments. As we have seen, the latter can easily be reduced to a mere lifestyle choice that complements our other pursuits. And then it has the added benefit of making us look and mistakenly believe, we have overcome materialism.

The epigraph with which I began this essay addresses the true self. It is the self aligned with God’s will and characterised by virtues such as love, compassion and righteousness. According to the Christian tradition, the true self is found when we surrender to Christ and allow His teachings and presence to transform and guide our life. The spectacular self that capitalism promotes is ego-inflating, not ego-surrendering, and recognising this form of idolatry in the aesthetics of social media can promote a healthy detachment and shatter the illusion of appearances. To truly see how commodity culture dehumanises us, it is essential that we inquire into how it supports the idolatry of self.

By studying visual culture, we gain insight into the underlying meanings and messages embedded in images. We can discern the values and priorities of our society, observing how they are conveyed while examining the impact of these expressions on our beliefs and perceptions. Further, we need to recognise the extent to which free-market capitalism has penetrated into our innermost lives, moulding our understanding of who we are as individuals. At the same time, we would do well to consider how we got here. How the corrupting influences in our economic system are the manifestation of our own failings.

Let us not underestimate the profound influence of market-driven principles and the extent to which our pursuit of validation is entangled with consumerist values. Liberation from this conditioning does not happen through attempts to assert ourselves outside of the system (e.g., a countercultural lifestyle). Capitalism adapts by absorbing and repackaging potentially subversive ideas, aesthetics and practices. These wind up becoming marketable products or trends through co-option and commodification. Putting God before ourselves means renouncing a world that would have us believe we are separate and incomplete. The Gospel of Jesus teaches us to know better.

Author

  • Arthur Aghajanian is a Christian contemplative, essayist, and educator. His work explores visual culture through a spiritual lens. His essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including Ekstasis, Tiferet Journal, Genealogies of Modernity, Dappled Things, and many others. His podcast, “Visually Sacred: Conversations on the Power of Images” explores how images influence our understanding of reality and the sacred. Arthur holds an M.F.A. from Otis College of Art and Design. Visit him at https://www.imageandfaith.com/

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3 Comments

  1. says: WILLIAM BRINKHAUS

    True Christian values inevitably create a free society, and with this freedom comes the desires. Spirituality is the navigation of our lives with our eyes on Christ, the journey is filled with obstacles and pitfalls. It is why we pray. Your warning is justified. Adams sin was to put his own will above Gods. we continue this sin. May the Spirit guide us always in truth.

  2. says: Daniele Bendandi

    Very well said! Very clear and yet so hard to discern in our present cultural paradigm. It is especially hard for those who have made spirituality or self-improvement a career. The need to monetize their “expertise” is so pressing that they can’t afford to skip the marketing loops you just described. But perhaps the times comes for all to gain that discernment and “know better”.

  3. says: Adrienne Keller

    Thought-provoking. I do agree with much of it, but then I too follow a contemplative prayer Buddhist/Christian tradition of understanding of release of the false, egoic, dualistic self. However, that very tradition leads me to be cautious about criticisms of a way that does not appeal to me. I have practiced yoga – including pranayama and yoga nidra for half a century now and have been known to loudly lament the commercialization of yoga into the Western body exercise culture – while being grateful for the many yoga classes offered at my very convenient local gym. Similarly and more recently, mindfulness and meditation practices have been absorbed into the Western quest for betterment, and into pop psychology – especially as represented on social media platforms. Nonetheless, I have several friends who have found significant help in dealing with difficult life challenges (troubled children, troubled or ended marriages, aging & needy parents) by using one or more of these hyped mindfulness, connect-to-your-true-self techniques/teachers/programs/apps/whatever. And so I remind myself to withhold judgment on the different, the other, as I follow my own unique path to divine oneness.

    Thank you. As always, your essay led me to explore an idea more deeply.

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