Pop Spirit – the Commodification of Spirituality & Simulated Desires
the non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character.
the prevailing or typical quality, mood, or attitude of a person, group, or period of time.
“A moment of enlightenment is of no use to someone who needs a good week of it.” ~Idries Shah
We may need more than a week of enlightenment, yet in our modern cultures all we get are bite-sized Youtube-compatible fleeting moments. The prevailing mood of our times is one where the ‘spirit’ is like the radio-friendly three-minute pop song. It is a digestible burst that we can chew on without it giving us indigestion. We have literally thousands of online videos showing us how to improve almost every aspect of our lives by breathing, body postures, mental exercises, visualizations, and the good old self-to-mirror pep talks. We are told that we ‘create our own reality,’ despite the obvious fact that in many countries we have accepted sociopaths in power – or perhaps we voted them into office? If that is our reality, then what does it say about ourselves – that most of us are latent sociopaths with a hidden agenda for inflicting suffering upon others? If this is creating our own reality, then most of us must also be secretly longing for therapy.
It seems that the sublime has become lost or distorted within the grotesque spectacle of the spirit. That is, aspects of our soul nature have become commoditized and watered down so that they are shards or filaments of their real glory. And modern cultures worship these shards as if the fleeting reflections that fall from them are profound insights. Totems once considered sacred are splashed across social media and shared as if spreading them brings us amplified gratification. Phrases of some truth are gobbled rapidly as we scroll down the various quote-images that fill our media feeds. We breakfast on these handy spirit pop-tarts; yet we hardly have time to consume their words of wisdom. We yearn only for the quick fix, the morning shot of ‘feel good’ wisdom packaged with a pleasing image, be it nirvana, Samadhi, or some surreal bliss. Colorful figures in lotus positions with flowers blossoming from their chakras adorn our virtual walls and our desktops; we have their presence programmed as our screen images. Transcendence comes through the third eye as it sits in the center of the forehead awaiting patiently its activation through social-media triggers. And if the colorful chakras in the lotus position don’t get you, then there are countless videos of cute cats to make you go all fluffy and tingly inside. Whilst serious videos online only receive moderate viewing figures, the ones of cat compilations or a cute cat trying to do yoga will get in excess of ten million hits.
Popular cultures the world over have become saccharine playgrounds where fads and aspartame-coated famous-wannabes parade and trot like peacocks. We are in danger of becoming submerged in the sickly successes of such pop cultures, where the spirit is exposed as a short-cut trip to enlightenment. Of course, there is also ample room for those parodies that make light fun of such pseudo-spirit pretensions. And there are many of these humorous parodies out there in the world too. Thankfully they can make us laugh at the things we take so seriously.
Searching where the Light is
You may think that staring into a mirror, growling to yourself and saying, ‘You are a lion, rarrh!’ is sort of weird, in a surreal, onanistic sort of way. But we’ve been told to do it, or something similar, in a myriad of books on how to develop the spiritual self. We’ve also been urged to call out to the universe and order what we want to arrive in our lives, naming it as ‘cosmic ordering’ (with Amazon-style delivery). It’s all part of the new quantum reality we live in, or so we are told by ‘experts’ in the quantum field (which is more often people who have taught themselves Life Coaching from an online course). And yet here there is the question of what I term the ‘Quantum Dilemma – the understanding that our reality is energy-based and responsive to observation (the observer effect) should have torn down our walls of reality-construction. And yet instead what we got were new-agey fluffball books on the likes of ‘quantum-ordering’ and how to ask the cosmos for our own riches and fantasized lifestyles. We know there is something strange going on over there in the dark (dark energy, dark matter) but we don’t truly wish to look for it as it’s easier to stay in the mainstream light. There’s a story on this from the incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, and it goes like this:
Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground.
‘What have you lost, Mulla?’ he asked.
‘My key,’ said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it.
After a time the other man asked: ‘Where exactly did you drop it?’
‘In my own house.’
‘Then why are you looking here?’
‘There is more light here than inside my own house.’1
Inside of our own house is often where we choose not to look. It is too dark, and the discoveries, should they come, are bound to be too close to home – quite literally! Perhaps it would help us if we adorned the house a little. Maybe a talisman here, a crystal there, or any other number of paid-for objects and trinkets that have been imported from elsewhere and now peddled in western markets and online stores.
What is less well-known is the concept that spiritual practices that were once legitimate can lose their functionality if they are taken out of their original context of time and place. Then, even worse, is when such precise tools are used in a haphazard way, such as combining different elements into a new and modern groovy pop-spirit assemblage. When symbols of ‘higher learning’ become atrophied – meaning they are no longer adapted to the culture, the time, and the people – they often incite a ‘Pavlovian’ dog response on the part of the practitioners. Pop spirit emblems, symbols, and trinkets are easily transferred into fetish totems; such as the religion of Rastafari came to be symbolized by the trendy poster of Bob Marley smoking a fat reefa that was sticky-taped onto tens of thousands of student’s bedsit walls. The two things are just not the same: emotional totems do not constitute the real thing. Popular spirituality – today’s pop spirit – has become its own marketplace in the modern world. An old saying comes to mind here – The bird which knows not of sweet water has his beak in salt water all the year.
The pop spirit marketplace is hot – it offers exorbitant choice in the belief that more is good. This encourages some people to take, experiment, taste, and dabble with a rag-bag bunch of spiritual goodies in the hope that the resulting fusion will develop their ‘essential self.’ Whilst there are sincere and genuine developmental tools and practices in the world, the online social media-sphere becomes the window-displays for attractive quotations, phrases, and slogans that are hungrily consumed by a fast-paced crowd. It is easier to ‘like’ and ‘share’ a spiritual tool these days than to consider its use. Pop spirit, like breakfast pop tarts, are tastily consumable, although high in sugary fats. The modern media marketplace delivers an easy ‘on-demand’ lifestyle which is making us lazy and complacent in that we are used to receiving what we request; and either immediately or within 24-hours. Pop spirit fits nicely onto this conveyor belt of spiritual-supply goodies. There are plentiful videos of some young, attractive person telling us how to reach inside for that ‘something higher’ as they have a clean beach and rolling waves in the background. The commodity spirit tells us that having one hundred thousand subscribers is a good sign of the health of the soul. Spreading the Holy Spirit these days gets rated by rising subscribers and on how many people click the thumbs up.
The contemporary world of pop spirit is mainly a material one as it is based in terms of transaction. That is, those involved usually want to get something in exchange for something else. It’s a trade-off, and a commercial one at that. It is a form of seeking that has yet to learn the fundamentals. There is a story which tells of a spiritual seeker who after some time comes upon a spiritual master that she feels is genuine and whom she wishes to learn from. The seeker asks the master if he will accept her as a pupil.
‘Why do you seek a spiritual path?’ asks the teacher.
‘Because I wish to be a generous and virtuous person; I wish to be balanced, mindful, caring, and to be in service for humanity. This is my goal’ said the seeker.
‘Well’, replied the teacher, ‘these are not goals on the spiritual path; these are the very basics of being human which we need before we even begin to learn’.
Pop spirit may make us feel better as we scroll down the feel-good quotes over breakfast – but will it last until lunch time? Our daily fix of uplifting quotes and video blessings may not be an antidote to the missing essentials. Contemporary societies with their surface acquisitions and quick-fix remedies may only be glossing over a very real emptiness.
The resurrection of novel, intriguing, and peripheral ideologies and trends in the online world has brought about a new celebration of ‘consumer curiosities’ that range from acquired happiness, sexual fetishes, to extra-terrestrials. With previous restraints of access now thawed out we are seeing a reappearance of these various spectacles that are being celebrated in whatever form online surfers desire. And desire, it seems, is highly sought after.
The Simulation of Desire
There is no doubt that modern life, and its institutions, attempt to seduce us. We are breaking down as well as digitizing our boundaries of longing. Modern cultural landscapes and digital realms are de-territorializing the reach of the voyeur. There is now a shift in how desires are being redirected into new stimulated sensibilities and customized indulgences. We are being drawn into new modes of seduction – a form of ‘always available’ easy access. Seductions no longer tease us with waiting but can be instantaneously ‘streamed’ in the ever-present now. We are entering saturation point of the sexually explicit – online pornography raises its head as the new ‘desire of despair’ at the same time as children are being groomed, pedophiles are virtually gathering, and the beast within us licks its hideous lips.
Our modern cultures are more highly sexualized than ever as pornography has gone mainstream. Our advertising allures us with sexual imagery, references, and innuendoes. We are getting turned on from music videos that are filling up with scantily clad and booty-shaking extras that gyrate to the groove. Porn stars are making cameos in music videos and porn scenes are pantomimed and mimicked across the wide cultural scene. Fitness clubs offer pole-dancing and strip classes, and porn star memoirs are sold by top publishers and given table space in the big corporate bookshops. The once-peripheral world of pornography has now fused with the commercial mainstream. The moral bankruptcy of porn now shapes much of our western popular culture. Sex has always been big business. Sex sells better than bearded gurus and pop spirit combined. And many people see sex as a ticket to fame.
Sex tapes are famously ‘leaked’ online in a new twisted route to celebrity cultdom. These private performances are ‘accidentally’ made public in a bid for publicity and fame that represents a new and odd kind of fetishism, soaked in libidinal online viral flows. The simulation of desire is central to the digital realms, where arousal, demand, and creation co-exist. Almost any desires can be downloaded for instant gratification and viewer deflowering. Online pornography is a form of virus that absorbs endless amounts of libidinal energy that greases the cogs of digitized desire. These desires are soon to be projected into ‘false bodies’ as the robot sex toy becomes the next must-have gadget. Soon, Barbie will seem, well – quite timid. A recent report from futurologist Dr. Ian Pearson predicts that:
- By 2030, most people will have some form of virtual sex as casually as they browse porn today.
- By 2035 the majority of people will own sex toys that interact with virtual reality sex.
- We will start to see some forms of robot sex appearing in high-income, very wealthy households as soon as 2025.
- We will start to see robot sex overtaking human-human in 2050.2
Suddenly those closet-hidden doll inflatables will look like relics from the past. The experience of desire will soon be mediatized in a totally new way, with virtual reality and robot sex becoming a new and crowded playground. Yet this new experience is also likely to lead to an over-abundance of quick desire that may ultimately leave us unfulfilled – possibly leading to not sexual repression but rather a form of sexual depression. An over-plentiful supply of substitute sex may create a real wound of longing that a hyperreal world will be incapable, and unqualified, to cater for.
The spirit that dwells within us, that makes us a soulful species, is far away from the popular spirituality that invades our news feeds and social media. It is not a collection of colorful pixels or groovy 10-minute videos. I’m positive about the great future awaiting us, yet getting there entails moving beyond the immaturity of our commoditized desires.
About the Author
Kingsley L. Dennis is the author of Bardo Times: hyperreality, high-velocity, simulation, automation, mutation – a hoax?, The Phoenix Generation: A New Era of Connection, Compassion, and Consciousness, and The Sacred Revival: Magic, Mind & Meaning in a Technological Age, available at Amazon. Visit him on the web at http://www.kingsleydennis.com/.
1 Shah, I. 1985. The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. London: Octagon Press, p9.
2 ‘By 2050, human-on-robot sex will be more common than human-on-human sex, says report,’ The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/11898241/By-2050-human-on-robot-sex-will-be-more-common-than-human-on-human-sex-says-report.html, 29th September 2015 (accessed 20th June 2017)