Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
In this unprecedented climate, an interesting symptom is the rise in self-help products and trends including tidying, skincare, remodelling and fitness; all, by my books, great things.
However, over the past months we’ve seen a growing trend of new consumerism and faux-spiritualism that is perpetuated by Marie Kondo, Goop (Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand) and Queer-eye. Examples including “ten products that spark joy” on my timeline followed by “a minimalist’s makeup bag and how to create one.”
Kondo has taught us that our home informs our wellbeing, and Queer-eye showed a nation that if you give yourself and your home a makeover you’ll be happier. Not only do you need to fold your socks with care, you need to buy a new Muji drawer-organiser, and maybe some new socks while you’re at it. Many of us, myself included, are turning to this same commercialised spiritualism in this global moment as a comfort.
When cleaning my room, I find myself thinking: I should buy some hangers that look nicer in my cupboard, my space would feel more zen if I could fill it with plants, I would exercise more if I bought matching fit-wear. Because won’t that make me feel better?
The anthropomorphic idea that objects contain spiritual qualities and can impact our state of mind is in fact an ancient sentiment. A combination of Shinto, Zen and Daoism, form the foundations of modern minimalism.
Shinto brings the idea of emptiness as making space for deity, and Zen teachings show us to rid ourselves of attachment. Culling the material to open up the spiritual, is a keystone in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the Second Truth (Tanha) focusing on how cravings and ignorance are the cause of suffering. The Third Truth outlines that the removal of this desire is the cure to suffering.
Marie Kondo, kneeling in the house of her clients to ‘thank’ the space, and seeing cleaning and owning objects as an act of care, is by all means an authentic practise. At its essence, Kondo’s minimalism is more to do with living life more mindfully and making the things we own serve our own spiritual path instead of us serving them.
It is no surprise that despite these ideas being the most removed from consumer logic, business has capitalised on the spreading popularity. Kondo has a self-care section in her online shop, including subcategories in Apparel, Bath and Beauty, and Mindfulness. It’s hard not to imagine the people who feel lost, unhappy, all their old belongings in a box marked ‘no joy’, seeing Kondo’s ‘Unconditional Love, Tuning Fork & Rose Quartz Crystal’ and dishing out the $75 to enlighten their newly cleaned shelf.
What used to be an ancient ritual, its roots in Asian mythology, that spiritualism is all around us, and we must move through this material world with transient grace, has now morphed into ritual buying. The western consumer machine has taken some of the values of Asian cultures, to make their products mean something to you spiritually. What has been conveniently left behind is the teaching to rid yourself of material attachments. They have failed to translate that what is more zen than, for example, owning a brass incense holder, is not owning a brass incense holder at all.
The decontextualization and simplification of Eastern practices would constitute cultural appropriation. After all, businesses are using Asian spiritualism and the language of ancient rituals for their own gain. However, I would argue this is capitalist manipulation with the thin veneer of Eastern teachings, rather than appropriation. The mechanisms behind new zen consumerism is not as much neo colonialism but rather simple marketing. Does it degrade, isolate and fetishize Asian teachings? Absolutely. However, the leading hand in play remains the allure of objects equating happiness, which is sadly universal.
In a time like this, where care-free happiness is hard to come by, self-care products look increasingly seductive. I’m against the idea that this time needs to be handled “right” on a personal or spiritual level, so I encourage you to do whatever you need to do to stay afloat.
However, as always, institutionalised racism and capitalism continue to influence our society, and there is immense power in simply recognising where they lay, however dormant. Perhaps we all need a reminder of what has always been true, that your spiritualism and happiness comes from you, not in the post.