The Integrity of Commodities in Spiritual Businesses

[I had a debate/debacle about this post on Facebook the week of April 20, 2015. Because of that debate, I have made one edit to this post (noted in bold) and added some final thoughts at the end of the post. These edits are being made on April 24, 2015.]

[Your products need to both be and do good.]

There is an internet-famous person that I’ve been following for a while. She was not the first, but she is one of the biggest businesses to help women delve into their desires– and then make them come true. Her teachings on desire interest me, for sure.

She has a beautiful online presence and seems authentic about her work. In fact, I don’t think she could have gotten this far without being honest and authentic.

But, in the last 6 months or so, she has released some products that make me question just what she is selling.

You see, she (whether she likes it or  not, whether she claims it or not) is part of the spiritual and self development movement. The spiritual and self development movement is primarily about helping people heal from past trauma and/or become more authentic, more of who they really are. (I am part of this movement, as well.) But these products appear to be making a commodity out of authenticity.

Of course, this bothers me, because: authenticity is not something you can buy.
Neither is healing or spiritual development.



Shadows in DesireMapLand

So, the two big products this woman sells are something called The Desire Map and also the Firestarter Sessions. These have to do with embracing your desires (in life and business) and using your desired feelings to make life better.

I also like her TruthBombs (raw, honest, short phrases with deep impact).

I think these products are great, actually. They help people discover more of themselves and take control of their lives.

But I’m starting to draw a line at some of her new things.


A few months back, this woman shared a post on FB about some prayer beads (called malas) that she was selling.

The language of the offer was interesting. She wrote that only 160,000 of the malas were available.

‘Only’ is an interesting word. It implies limitation, scarcity.
This is all we have; there will be no more.

Why is this a problem? Because (as my coach helped me understand) scarcity among women is patriarchy.

And patriarchy is not really interested in authenticity or personal development or women getting free (from their own or others) oppression.

Patriarchy is interested in selling scarcity so it can oppress.

And I do not think you can have it both ways – imply scarcity and help free women from what oppresses them.


Let us turn now to the fake Tattoo collection this woman is currently offering.

I get tattoos are a form of self-expression. And the fact that they are removable means you get to play with who and what you want to be or express today. There’s freedom in that.

But I think this product also sits on the razor’s edge of making authenticity and freedom and self-expression a commodity.

The message is, “If I buy this, and put it on, I will be more myself.”

Again, I am willing to admit that this may be the case.
This product may help with self development.

But it walks rather close to the line.
(Too close to “If I buy this, and put it on, I will be like her. I will have what she has.“)


The last item I’ll mention, the one that bugs me the most, is a line of aromatherapy products that will launch this Fall.

As far as I can see, aromatherapy has nothing to do with self and spiritual development.

It is nice? Well, sure.
Does it help me be more authentic?
Does it make me a better person?
Does it help me know myself better?
Does it put me in touch with something important about my life?

I would say, ‘no.’

[Edited To Add: after talking to my dear friend, Maia Toll, I must change my stance on this. Of course plants – and their oils – can be used for spiritual and personal development. Anything can. All That Is is in all that is. What I have trouble with, still, is how this will be handled. Will it be clearly stated: ‘these are the ways in which this may help enhance your spiritual development’? Maia does that in her herbalism work. I trust her to do it because she is trained, practiced, and wise in the use of herbs. Herbs are her focus. I am still not sure I trust the leader I mention here to do that. Of course, the outcome remains to be seen, as of this writing.]

Here is what a product like this (or the tattoos, or the malas) does: it makes you believe you can be like the person selling them if you own them.

And that is not supporting self development.
That is supporting ego.

If people are creating products that support ego, or oppress through scarcity, or disguise imitation as authenticity, we are not following the most fundamental spiritual teachings.


Why Does This Even Matter?

Who gives a shit, Joanna?
(Because, yes, I know I am probably the only one who cares about this.)
Sales is sales, mamajama. Too bad if it gets sold to people who don’t know better.
It’s dollas. Don’t matter where they come from.

Except that it does.

There are three things that any product from a spiritual business/person should do:

1. Point the buyer back to themselves. The greatest lessons of personal development are the ones that come from being curious about ourselves. What do I desire? Why do I hate my mother? Why can’t I accept compliments? Spiritual products help people by learning about their light and their shadow and giving adequate support (and resources) to do so.

2. Point them to a higher Truth. The truth that love is probably the most important thing. Compassion for others. Letting go of pain. Desire is okay. Meditation will change your life for the better. This is what people need guidance and support on. Sell anything that points people towards these truths and I got no issues.

3. Point them to your particular message or teaching. Beyond higher Truths, there are particular messages teachers sell that really do help people. In the case of this woman: using desire to live a great life. Awesome. I am down with that. Also, your intuition is a gift. Or, business can be heart-centered. Or, a million other things. But make your products match your message.

The biggest problem with the products I have mentioned is that, instead of doing one of these three things, they point back to the person. Not the lessons or the message, the person. And that is where we move from spirit to ego.


Compassion for the Big Business

Now, I can definitely have compassion for some of this.

Certainly her life and business are quite large; there’s a lot to handle, things slip through.
Maybe (probably) she doesn’t read all the sales copy that goes out the door.
Could be she just thought this stuff would be f-u-n (!!).
Maybe she forgot.
Perhaps she has lost her center a bit – too much to do, not enough meditation.

And, of course, mistakes happen. Nobody is perfect.

But here is the thing: that’s not good enough in the self and spiritual development realm.

We are not selling widgets that can simply be swapped out if someone gets hurt.

We are asking people to delve into the deepest (often difficult) parts of themselves.
We are asking people to use our wise guidance for their own lives.
And they are trusting us that we will not hurt or oppress them further.

That is not to be taken lightly.

Nor is it to be made into a less-than authentic commodity.


Does It Matter? I Think It Does.

As I write this, a friend is asking about this topic on FB. A reader commented that ‘every one is at their own level- they may need different things.’

And I agree, even knowing my agreement sort of makes this whole argument moot.

But I want to have this discussion. Because spiritual businesses have a deep impact on those they touch. And we need to be honored and humbled by the responsibility of that. Meaning that we need to give our best, point people towards truths, and help our clients and purchasers become more authentic (not attempt to buy it).

What do you think? Does this even matter?
Please, share your thoughts in the comments below.


Final Thoughts

I got called out about this post by someone on Facebook. It wasn’t particularly pleasant. The person who called me out was very much a fan of the woman I mention in this post. The post author thought this woman should not be questioned. And I learned a lot from that. Here is what I learned.

1. I own the clumsiness of this post. I intended this post to be a discussion-starter. I intended it to be an question that used examples. Is this okay in spiritual sales? Where is the line? When do we draw it? What causes harm and do we call attention to that (or just let people get harmed and learn the hard way)? I did not intend it to be an example of my own inviolate opinion. I am open to discussion and to changing my opinion (see edit, above). I could have done a better job of making this a question and opening the discussion. 

2. It is totally okay to question leaders, even spiritual ones. [Fuck. Yes.] Here’s why. If the leader is not doing anything wrong, this questioning will answer itself. If the leader is doing something wrong, they need to be questioned. This is true from preschool teachers on up to the president and leaders of the UN (myself included). Leaders have a responsibility and it is okay to question what leaders are doing and how they are doing it. If you don’t like having your leaders questioned, you need to think about why that bothers you. 

One of the women I talked with this week said that the TruthBombs discussed in this post are actually a subtle form of domination. They are meant to make the reader say, “oooohhh” (as if at a fireworks show) and then be silent. That is disempowering. I don’t know if that is the creators intention, but it is a perspective worth considering. I have another friend who worries about the masses who follow the Dalai Lama; many of them give over their power to him, and that’s not okay, either. (Do I think the Dalai Lama is a bad guy or would do bad things? No. But we must be aware of those who hand over their thinking to others so easily.)

As spiritual development and ideas reach a critical mass in our society, I believe we must question the validity and authenticity of leaders. 

3. I believe (<– I am owning that; you don’t have to agree) that spiritual leaders have a greater burden of duty than other leaders. If you purport (and sell) to work with someone’s mind, heart, spirit/soul, and/or emotions, you have a greater responsibility than other practitioners. You are holding someone’s deepest sense of themselves and if you fuck that up, you can hurt them more than a broken bone. This is serious business. 

4. I believe in spiritual obligation. The woman who called me out on Facebook said that the salesperson I mention in this post didn’t have to do anything but sell. The Facebooker was upset with my idea that the woman I mention had a spiritual obligation to consider the authenticity of her products before she put them out. The Facebook poster did not believe in such obligation. I do.

I believe that if I invite you on a spiritual journey, to which I purportedly know the route, then I am obligated to support you through it – not just drop you off at the company store and hope you pick out the right tools. Spiritual development is unlike any other trip, and it must be treated as such.  

5. You get to have your truth, even if it is different from mine. I am glad the woman on Facebook felt so passionately about her leader. That is wonderful. It was painful to see her vehemently negate my opinion/clumsy questions. I want to have a safe place to ask questions out of my own ignorance, bias, and perspectives- even if those questions are painful to others. How will we grow if we can only ask ‘safe’ questions? How can we question if we know we will be shut down? No…here (in my space) we can ask questions. Even crazy ones. Even silly ones. Even ignorant or biased ones. Because that is how transformation begins.

What an interesting journey this week has been. I am glad I learned these things about myself. I am grateful to the woman who helped me develop this understanding. And I am glad to share these things with you. Please, hold them as questions if it helps. Ponder them in your own heart.



9 Responses to The Integrity of Commodities in Spiritual Businesses

  1. Kimberley Jones April 19, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    Glad you said it sister. Every new emerging field needs to grow, evolve and check in with itself. I call it the ‘I-Spot’ (integrity spot). You know when someone hits it and when they don’t. And as we grow we need to constantly check back in. I’m sure I’ll slip up at times of overwhelm and am glad I have good women around me to bring me back if I need it.
    Love ya! x

    • Joanna M. April 30, 2015 at 10:44 pm #

      Kimberley – thank you. That is a lovely way to think of it: the “I-Spot.” I shall be keeping myself aware of my own I-Spot and also be checking in with my soul sisters (who can call me on my sh!t) and keep me in alignment. Thank you for sharing this! Much love, Joanna

  2. Heather Mulcahey April 19, 2015 at 10:19 pm #

    Hi Joanna. This is an extremely important topic. Just within my own circle of friends/ colleagues I can tell you that you are far from being the only person interested in this idea. I could pretty much write a book about all of this. Even so, one of the pieces I come back to is that every person must be responsible for their own journey. There is no way for me to express everything this brings up. But, I wanted to give you some feedback and support. Thanks!

    • Joanna M. April 30, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

      Heather, Thank you so much for writing! I really appreciate the support. Yes, I do believe we are all responsible for our own journey. I would rather people learn that in a nice way than in a ‘hard’ way (I know it’s not possible, but I hope!). I would love to know more about your perspectives and the book you could write! I’ll be contacting you. ;o) Take care, Joanna

  3. Heather May 3, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    I came across this post via Maia and have been a long follower of the leader you speak of in this post…the thing is I don’t look at her as a ‘spiritual leader’. I’ve read both her books and I don’t consider either as spiritual guide books, more “self help”. I see this leader as developing her spiritual voice and I don’t particularly love all of her new products so I just don’t buy them. Is her ego getting in the way of her divine message, perhaps but she’s not the Dali Lama and she has from the beginning made it clear that she’s a BUSINESS woman with a message to share. I think anytime you mix business and spirit there is a HUGE risk of distorting the message with the ego’s influence (a very slippery slope for many service providers). I think anytime people look to one individual or organization (organized religion is not spirituality) as such an influential leader that they “Buy into” the messaging being sold…then there lies the risk of corruption.This post and your questions lead to much bigger questions that I know the world does not yet have then answers for but women might just be able to make the conversation louder!

    • Joanna M. May 3, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

      Heather- Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and share your opinion. I think this is definitely something that needs to be talked about more- and your distinctions between ‘spiritual leader’ and ‘self help’ are a valuable addition (I lump them together, sort of, in my head as ‘people who work with other people’s core constructs’). And I could not agree more that the mixing of ‘spiritual’ and ‘business’ can lead to slippery slopes. My questions are really about those slopes – where are they? how do we avoid them? (is that even possible?) what happens when someone does go over the line? I really appreciate you adding your voice and making this conversation louder. :o) Thank you!

  4. rachael maddox January 4, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

    totally appreciate a lot of this post. the pieces about patriarchy. the pieces about the burden of spiritual leaders. i’m stepping into a bigger role in this realm than ever before, and it is wildly vulnerable. i’ve got a lot of pressure on myself to lead with integrity. i think it’s correct.

    my only wish from this post is that you’d just come out and said danielle laporte. 🙂 i mean, we all know who you’re talking about 😉

    thanks for your courage to question. i admire, respect and appreciate it. xo

    • Joanna M. January 5, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

      Hi Rachael- Thanks so much for the comment. It means a lot that you appreciate what I’ve shared and are thinking about your integrity and the burden of spiritual leaders. Really, a lot.

      Ha! Yeah, I think about that particular piece- not naming Danielle LaPorte- a lot. I did think about adding her name, after the fact, but I wanted to have the post remain as true to where I was at this point as I could. What can I say? I was afraid. But as I am finding community and other questioners, I am less afraid.

      Thanks so much for reaching out! -Joanna xoxo


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