May is mental health awareness month, and as a professional spiritual practitioner I am concerned about the ways in which spirituality is used to undermine psychological wellbeing. Psychology and spirituality should ideally work together for the benefit of all humanity, but it’s not as common in experience as one would hope. While I am not a new age practitioner (I am a witch but I am not new age), I encounter many people who have been harmed by new age teachings about what it means to be spiritual, the most prevalent of which is the ideal of being “positive,” “fully in the light,” and “high vibration.” The harm done often takes the form of shaming, censorship, rejection, and ostracizing for those who are considered not “in the light” or “low vibration” or “toxic” or “negative” – many of whom are people living with mental illness.
The harmful effects of the “love and light” culture aren’t always easy to spot unless you’re on the receiving end and being told to hide your pain, or having your experiences invalidated, or being encouraged to “think positively” when it’s a scenario in which it is unhealthy to do so, when you’re being told that you have “negative energy” (an effort to silence and shame). You may have been on the receiving end of someone cutting you out of their life for being “toxic” but what that really equated to was, not that you were abusive, but that they didn’t like your point of view. Your humor was too dark, or you’re cynical, or pessimistic, or just telling them things they don’t want to hear.
Believing that you must be “in the light” at all times is a denial of authentic human experience, and trying to force others to do so through psychological warfare is a denial of the collectively authentic and is incredibly damaging to individuals. The truly spiritual person knows that depression has just an important a place in the human experience as happiness does. At one point in history, those who we would consider depressed today were sought after for their wisdom. What if people living with mental illness were seen and accepted for the unique gifts they offer, instead of ostracized for being different?
The ideal of being a “positive” person of high vibration, living in the light, is the same principle espoused in Christian theology about getting rid of the ‘sin nature’ (the less socially acceptable aspects of our humanity) and being totally holy playing out in a different format and creating division and victims, except it’s more sinister because there is truly no space for the depressed, anxious, schizophrenic, bipolar, PTSD suffering, and those living with other forms of mental illness to find solace. At least Christians agree in theory (if not always in practice) that Jesus is solace for those living with mental illness. Any form of grace is absent from many new age teachings and actions. What’s worse is that new age teachings take it a step further and encourage the complete denial of emotions such as sorrow, fear, doubt, and anger- natural human emotions we need.
The concept of “getting rid of” a part of our natures no matter what theological paradigm it’s being peddled is self-destructive and unhealthy. We need these aspects of our nature. They are valuable, they are where strength and protection bubble up from. What is considered “negative” or “toxic” within is speaking to us about who we are, what we need, and what needs aren’t being met. This aspect of our nature is the part of us that will protect us against our conscious will when we are making choices that consistently deny our inner boundaries and needs. And it’s usually not pretty when we act from this place, but that doesn’t mean this place should be denied. It means we should look closer at what we are ignoring within ourselves.
This darkness that so many want to be rid of completely is where the sacred lives, where the mystery resides, where the fount of creativity springs forth from, where power pulsates, and it contains a cornucopia of wisdom. How much healing could occur if people were encouraged to explore and understand the darkness within instead of encouraged to deny it because it causes discomfort for others?
The last point I want to touch on is the shame regarding medication in spiritual community. I take a holistic view of everything including the human experience, meaning I believe that the mind and body and spirit all act upon each other and are inextricably intertwined. If a person needs medication for mental illness, there should be no shame from the spiritual community for this, only support and encouragement.
Any group of people or individuals who try to force conformity through shame and suppression and subtle (or overt) ostracizing, discouraging the sharing of true thoughts and feelings, are not spiritually enlightened. They are acting from the darkness within and they don’t even know it.
Not one of us is without issues, and that’s really the point. We can’t “spiritualize” our way out of our humanity. We are human. We can label what we don’t like as “faults” if we want, but we’re just creating cracks in ourselves when we do. Wholeness requires total acceptance and love of all the aspects of ourselves, and healing requires compassion. Spirituality is not an escape from ourselves, it is a road map to understanding ourselves. It requires facing and embracing the dark.