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Photo by Ramille Soares

The Crisis of American Spirituality

by Catherine Liggett

The American, or americanized, spiritual practitioner is likely to feel as if she’s never quite “getting there”. She may meditate or practice yoga every day, and still feel a nagging sense of being not quite spiritual enough, as if there were a test for such a quality.


This is a problem because it negates the very nature of most Eastern spiritual teachings- the very teachings that are the source of most American spiritual practices. Most of these philosophies teach how to find peace in the moment, right now, letting go of attachments to outcomes. What I have observed is that it is almost completely impossible for someone raised in the americanized West to let go of attachment on her spiritual path and in the practices that belong to it. This tendency has nothing to do with original Eastern teachings, and everything to do with how we’ve come to see ourselves and the world in our modern cultural reality.


A concept like enlightenment or ascension becomes a goal that we inevitably fail to achieve, since most spiritual practices have their root in monastic traditions, which exist in laughable contrast to the frantic, distracted nature of modern life. The result is that we so often come to see our hectic lives as wrong and unspiritual, further reinforcing our self-judgments and sense of falling short of anything that could possibly constitute enlightenment.

Particularly in American culture (and increasingly, in americanized global culture), we are utterly steeped in competition with one another and in consumer capitalism, which rests on the assumption that we are always falling short because we have yet to procure what we really need to be happy. Whether we like it or not, we filter reality through this lens of not there yet, and not good enough. Because of this tendency, the path toward enlightenment in the americanized world often takes on a toxic, commodified distortion of its traditional meaning. Enlightenment, or some vague idea of it, becomes just another thing that we’re not measuring up to, no matter how often we, or our yoga teachers, tell us that it’s not really supposed to be that way. And when we hear this, we often feel ashamed that we can’t seem to let go of our attachment to getting there. This is the self-defeating paradox that defines the spiritual lives of so many, and also lies at the root of why many spiritual seekers in the West self-sabotage, become lazy in their practices, or give up entirely. It just doesn’t seem accessible to us, given how we’ve been inculturated to think and behave, to be on an enlightenment-based spiritual path in the way it’s been presented to us.   


Now, one thing I am most certainly not is a scholar of Eastern religious studies, and so I make no claim to know the most “correct” interpretation of enlightenment, or the thousands of variations of this path that have existed. What I do know beyond a doubt is my own experience as an American woman attempting, in imperfect ways, to live and practice on some version of a path to enlightenment. I also know the anecdotal experiences of hundreds of friends, spiritual community members, and clients who have similar struggles, though they so rarely admit that they do. For those who are aware, the seeming inability to escape goal-orientation in spirituality can be a source of shame. I know that for me, just when I think I’ve loosened up my attachment to an outcome for good, I hear the old, familiar sounds of barely audible internal voices that tell me I’m not spiritual or psychic enough, and furthermore, that it’s unspiritual to even want to be, since that means attaching to a goal. What an utterly horrible internal stalemate, especially since it comes in what is supposed to be the highest, most blissful aspect of my life- my spirituality.

The Perfect Coping Mechanism

Believe me, over the last 18 years, I’ve listened to many hundreds of hours of me internally coaching myself through “... This is the practice... It’s a practice... Just breathe... Just this breath... Right here...,” meditating or doing yoga for hours every single day, going on retreats with famous Buddhist and yoga teachers, fasting, being vegan, and completing multiple yoga teacher trainings.


All of this “practice” gave me a calm and non-reactive mind, a glowing complexion, a slender and athletic body, and a lot more. But it just wasn’t enough. I was still addicted to my drugs of choice, which were hyper-achievement and perfectionism, and all of this “practice” easily conformed to my purification mentality. It fit perfectly into my worldview that there was something inherently wrong with me, and that with rigid dedication to all these behaviors and ways of thinking (or non-thinking), I could make myself better. I could be calmer, more present, less reactive, more compassionate, and generally more blissful all the time. This was what enlightenment really meant for me on a daily basis.


However, there was a putrid undercurrent underneath all of this emphasis on light and love. The fact remained that I was very successful in a line of work that wasn’t my truth, and deep down, I knew it. I was depressed, and my spiritual practices were the perfect coping mechanism that allowed me to continue living as someone I wasn’t. A coping mechanism is a strategy that we employ when we’ve lost hope that our lives can truly change. It was 2014 when I realized that I had been using my spiritual practice in this way for over a decade. When I had the courage to really look, I discovered hopelessness had anchored at the foundation of my perspective on life, despite- or perhaps in tandem with- my spiritual dedication. I knew that the work was realizing that I am already perfect, but I pursued this self-acceptance and non-attachment with the same rigor as I did everything else in my life. I didn’t know any other way, and because I was fully conscious of this paradox, I often laughed at myself about it. But under the laughter and the jokes of friends, that hopelessness remained and festered. My entire sense of self at that time was based on pursuing and achieving excellence, and I didn’t yet have the courage to explore another way.

Overwork as a Medal of Honor

Here’s the thing that’s key to understanding why achievement-oriented spiritual practice is so unavoidable and destructive to so many Americans and Americanized people: Even if we give lip service to non-attachment and complete self-acceptance where we are, for the vast majority of Americans, overwork is worn as a medal of honor.


The reasons behind this tendency have their roots in our history. To this day, American culture is permeated by our Puritan roots, and this makes embracing Eastern-influenced spiritual practices particularly challenging for us. We may seem to look and behave very differently from our colonial ancestors, but the influence is unmistakable. I highly recommend doing some research on colonial Puritanism to find out more, as this influence is not nearly talked about enough.


For one, American culture is steeped in the Puritan work ethic. We believe to this day that if we do not work hard, we are not enough- full stop. We see this in the myth of the American Dream, which defines personal success in terms of industrious self-sufficiency. Furthermore, for the Puritans, human beings were thought to be highly susceptible to the devil, especially through the natural desires of the body. This belief resulted in a paranoid society where mistrust and surveillance of one’s neighbors was common, because one never knew when someone else would be possessed by the devil. This is exactly the social climate that allowed the Salem Witch Trials to happen. In a nutshell, Puritans were obsessed with proving to themselves and to one another that they were virtuous and god fearing, because they feared their own humanity. They feared themselves, and especially the most natural aspects of themselves, and one only has to look to see these tendencies in American relationships to food, sex, and even enlightenment. The notion of "accept yourself as you are" just doesn’t compute to us, no matter how hard we try- and trying already misses the point.


It is impossible to overestimate how deep the currents of shame and insecurity run in American culture, and we seem to exist in a state of perpetual and unconscious self-loathing in which the only cures are overwork and buying something to allegedly make it better. Unfortunately, our imported spiritual practices far too often fall into one, the other, or both categories.

When spirituality, especially with the promise of enlightenment, arrives in this social context, it’s like a ritual fire innocently built in a parched forest. The thing that was meant as a beautiful tool for personal transformation becomes dangerous in ways that no one had anticipated.


No one intends to use a spiritual path to stoke the flames of perfectionism and overwork, but because of how we learn to define personal success and worthiness in America, this is almost invariably the result. American spiritual practitioners are desperately hungry to feel inner peace, belonging, and a sense of meaning in the universe, and these are the beautiful and innocent motivations that we all share. But in order to see the full picture through the lens of understanding and compassion, we also have to acknowledge the epidemic of spiritual achievement and purification mentality, which are culturally influenced. Generally speaking, the less a practitioner is aware of it, the more they are unconsciously motivated by shame and insecurity on their spiritual path. And because American culture governs world culture through the power of our media, what was once an American spiritual problem is now a global one. It’s time for a new spiritual way of being that comes to our parched forest like rain down to the roots, so that we can have our ritual fire without danger.

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