Cultural Appropriation and the Spiritual Traveler

Anyone who is interested in leaving home to find yourself and deepen your spirituality has got to have a conversation about cultural appropriation and the spiritual traveler at some point. Am I right?

So let’s start with a definition. “Cultural” means of or relating to a culture. “Appropriation” means to take. So “cultural appropriation” means the use or adoption of cultural elements of one culture by another. For example, if an American woman were to wear a sari (the traditional dress of women in India), this could be called cultural appropriation.

Now usually this is a derogatory term used to accuse the “taker” of a misdeed, but cultural trends are always evolving. Sometimes thing change with time. For example, early Christianity isn’t the same as modern Christianity. Sometimes things change with distance or local influences. For example, Roman Catholics aren’t the same as Greek Orthodox Catholics. Not by a long shot.

So the idea of “stealing” someone’s culture is a bit absurd. To try and stop the natural evolution of ideas is impossible. Borrowing from other cultures is natural, inevitable, unifying, and flattering. Labeling it “cultural appropriation” to try and stop it or demonize it just leads to separation and segregation.

And isn’t there only one God and one spiritual family? Isn’t spirituality meant to be shared? How can one “steal” God? And if you are a spiritual traveler, isn’t that one of the reasons for journeying? To see how others experience the divine?

On the other hand, what is sacred can be diluted or lost if traditions are not known or respected. So where do we draw the line? I suppose this is an individual question that requires an individual answer. I will share how I deal with this and maybe it will help you figure out a way to handle this in a way that works for you.

  • Learn as much as possible about the people, history, and culture of any spiritual tradition, practice or ritual. All these things are more than words and actions done at a certain time in a certain way. There are reasons for everything. If you don’t know them, you could inadvertently misinterpret or pass on wrong information that changes the whole thing. You could miss out on the whole “special sauce” that makes any of it meaningful.
  • If you are going to do a ritual or practice for yourself or someone else, get permission to do this from someone with the authority to give it. Receiving permission is done out of respect for the practice and the culture. This is a spiritual ritual. It’s loaded with meaning and power. If you don’t have the reverence that it deserves, should you be doing it?
  • If you are going to participate in a ritual, ceremony or practice, do it with someone who has the experience and  authority to lead it. Would you ask your babysitter to baptize you? How about asking your neighbor to conduct the funeral for your uncle? Would you ask a friend of a friend who has dabbled in fortune telling to hold an exorcism? Probably not, right? If you take your spirituality seriously, allow yourself to be guided by those who know what they are doing.
  • Don’t mix and match. The more I learn about the spiritual practices of different traditions, the more similar they all appear. However, this is not a reason to start blending. The differences matter! In order to keep the cultural integrity intact, I don’t mix and match.
  • If you are not of the culture that the practice comes from, call what you borrow from this practice of it something else. Why? Because there are nuances that only someone who grew up in that culture will know. If you don’t know them, you will always do whatever it is with an “accent.” For example, I am an Egyptian style belly dancer. I look Egyptian and can pass for a native most of the time, but whenever I get too confident, I am inevitably tripped up by some cultural error that gives me away. It doesn’t matter how intimate I get with the culture, I will never be Egyptian. Truth in labeling is an act of respect.

My bottom line is, enjoy yourself. Learn what you can from foreign lands and people. If you see something that touches your heart or enriches your life, take it! Make it your own. But be respectful. Liking something enough to adopt it is a compliment. So honor that by not watering it down, changing it, or making it less than it was when you found it.

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