We are told it is ‘our’ problem, that ‘we’ are the broken ones, the ones that have to be cared for by non-disabled people or expensive equipment.
We have to ‘prove’ that we are ‘sick or disabled’ enough, to be able to access our basic needs (this often doesn’t take into account our pain or suffering, only to what extent the impairments render us economically inactive.)
If we can’t produce, then we are considered a ‘burden’ – with historic invalidity allowances. What does that mean? Invalid, without validity?
But we are valid, and the system is broken, not us.
In the US today, people are being denied opiates. Pain is increasingly being seen as moral, and that people should simply ‘accept’ their pain rather than demand relief from it. More details here.
We are asked to prove our pain, we pay the charge for their eyeing of our scars, (Plath, 1960). But it’s all us, our bodies, our brokenness.
I submit that the body of society itself is broken when we are so divorced from ourselves, our land, our communities, our resources, our compassion.
“When there is a criminal element I am of it, while there is an underclass I am in it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”Eugene Debs
The individualism we are pushed towards and promised is equated to independence. This independence is then conflated with courage, fortitude and worth.
Yet, I believe there is more strength in seeing our interconnectedness, in valuing all that we are a part of.
In recognising the constellations, linages, systems, communities and connections we are all interlinked within, we are, I believe, much closer to ourselves and much less likely to project our most painful parts onto another.
“Throughout human history there have been numerous examples of the ways in which the “other” has been projected out and demonized. Indeed, the history of madness—and sanity—is the history of the projection of people’s fear and society’s exclusion of the unknown.”– Marie Naughton and Keith Tudor
It’s convenient, isn’t it? If the issue, the problem actually exists in the one suffering. It isn’t anything to do with me!
How often have we heard – overtly or covertly – statements like:
Racism? Black problem. Inner cities. Urban. Not me.
Abelism and lack of access? Disabled people’s problem. Make better wheelchairs, ones that climb stairs. Try harder to walk.
Poverty? Change your lifestyle! Get on your bike. Find work. I found work.
These statements harm. They perpetuate. They betray.
In my work and teaching, I am careful to do my best to avoid locating issues of relational, systemic or oppression/social justice difficulties in a client’s own history, or childhood difficulties.
I don’t believe in theories that “make every problem a subjective, inner problem. And that’s not where the problems come from. They come from the environment, the cities, the economy, the racism. They come from architecture, school systems, capitalism, exploitation”(Hillman and London, 2012).
What happens to us impacts our lives, but that isn’t the whole story. Systemic injustice can play out in our families and personal relationships. Why wouldn’t they?
We live in an ideology that exists, but resists reflection. If someone is stressed at work, they may be sent on a mindfulness course – that’s so kind, isn’t it? Wait, isn’t it? Well, what if the issues in the organisation stay the same. The cuts, the austerity, the institutionalised prejudice all continue. But if we are given a one day course, apparently we should now be able to live unaffected by our environment.
This is how I am seeing mindfulness weaponised. It hurts.
It’s easy to believe that the individualism in our health, wellness and social systems in inevitable, the default, the norm. When actually it’s a specific social ideology with it’s own history and many alternatives.
I don’t believe the individualistic medical model, which says that the body is simply a machine that has broken down and needs parts replaced to keep the machine producing, contributing, independent.
It allows the status quo to be maintained, it still denies responsibility and hands all blame to those struggling.
The self-help, new age industry, also upholds unjust systems, but while wearing the badge of alternativism.
It’s sneaky, as along with total responsibility for our health and life, it hands to us a ray of possibility.
The new age industry tells us that we must try very, very hard and be very, very good.
We must do our absolute best and go to see our healers (who are often male, older and very much apart from our experience of current reality).
We must pay them well and follow all their directives (even and especially the ones that feel utterly wrong and dangerous – that’s just our resistance, we need to push through that).
If we do all that, then maybe, one day, a miracle will happen and we will be healed.
Our limbs will regrow, our organs will regenerate, we will finally look and be normal.
Now, this isn’t to say I don’t believe in sacred arts, healing or miracles because I absolutely do.
I don’t believe in shaming people into believing their current body/reality is so awful that their only hope of acceptance, happiness or a ‘life’ is a miracle. Life comes in lots of shapes, sizes and ways. I want to celebrate them all and stay open to what healing or shifts may appear through restoring responsibility to it’s appropriate quarters, building the basics, tailoring a sustainable healing plan and giving our bodies the best possible chance for healing potential while we live now.
When I first read critiques of new age healing methods, I threw the books across the room – I was fully invested in the new age method, buying into curing myself by purging my body of all that needed to ‘detox’. Which, it seemed, was pretty much everything. Including bodily functions like menstruation. Menstrual blood, I was told, was a symptom of my toxicity, if I was fully clean I wouldn’t bleed any longer. Uh, no firstly it’s not toxicity, it’s part of my body, secondly stopping bleeding may not be detox but amenorrhea, which can have a serious impact.
However much I tried, I couldn’t be a perfect new-age goddess. It hurt me to even try. I didn’t want to, but I saw so few other options. The individualistic way of healing dominates western wellness. Yet outside these narrow confines, it’s not a universally popular concept. The myth of the autonomous/independent person is less emphasised in many cultures where interconnectedness is valued. These aren’t my cultures, so I can’t speak to them here, but I want to acknowledge them here.
These feel like a counter-cultural statements in the self-help/new age industry but I need to say;
Your pain, your difficulties, your diagnosis – maybe it’s not “just an upper limit problem”.
Instead of “you manifested this” what if there is a nuanced, complex web of factors from genetic to environmental that impacts your symptoms?
Because what is really being said in these statements?
When I hear “heal yourself through affirmations”, I question whether what’s really being said is “we can fix your body and make you normal, it’s your fault and that won’t happen to me because I’m good and have lots of crystals”.
To me, the New Age Industry/Self-Help Complex is peddling an updated version of “God is punishing you by crippling you, you must have sinned”. It’s not a concept I believe in or recognise and it’s something I am working to provide an alternative to.
My background is in activism, including advocacy work and this informs my belief that as humans we are making creative adjustments to survive, but are not ‘broken’ and don’t need an expert to fix us.
I believe that human life can be dark and deep, we can need someone alongside us, while we explore our worlds and w(holy) places.
Yes, I believe there are complex interplays between our minds and bodies (which I don’t see as indefinitely split). Of course, if we have a chronic illness, the pain or struggle may affect our mood and if we have depression, it’s going to impact our bodies.
If we have experienced trauma and live in a world that we experience as utterly unsafe (because it has been and still may be) then that is going to impact our bodies as we never feel safe/off guard/able to rest and restore.
Of course, in questioning how we conceptualise illness, identity and difference, the inevitable challenge of things being ‘just psychosomatic’ arises. I believe that psychosomatic illness is something significant in itself if doesn’t mean ‘not real’ or ‘not serious’ or ‘not painful’ or ‘malingering’ and even ‘malingering’ means something isn’t wrong – why would someone assume illness, if they were happy and well?
“Since all physical symptoms contain both somatic and psychological components, the distinction between “organic” and “functional” symptoms is theoretically unsound, arbitrary, and clinically impossible to establish.”Barsky et al, 2001
To me, these promises of a cure land as particularity predatory, as many people end up in contact with the New Age Industry/Self-Help Complex because they couldn’t find the support or help they needed in orthodox medicine.
So they start to look in other places, more unorthodox places. The promises and prices grow and grow, along with our desperation and suffering.
The narrative in this industry is incredibly individualistic, it tells us we can heal all on our own, if we try hard enough. It shows us photographs of people who were ‘awful’ like us, and now they are ‘perfect’.
It’s hard when my best, happiest life is someone else’s plan Z.
The promises are so tempting and backed up by professional pictures and rags to riches stories that tap into our deepest fears around worth, inclusion and what it means to succeed.
Personally, I felt guilty for years; I tried to heal, I did it all; the green juice, the raw food, the colonics, the spiritual stuff, all of it. While many of those things are valuable, from too many quarters, the guilt and judgement that comes with the practices is poisonous itself.
This ’empowerment’ blames me for not healing.
Many years ago, I was with a Reiki teacher one day and she said casually,
‘Oh, of course you can’t walk because of something you did in a past life’.
This convenient, it locates the challenge of her inaccessible treatment room in my body, my problem. It allowed her to tell me that if I were ‘clean, light, spiritually, energetically’ etc then I might not be so awkwardly and inconveniently disabled.
(Of course, her arm pain was from this life, not a past life. I’m sure she was a priestess in her past life. I wonder what she believes I was?)
This way of thinking ’empowers’ by seemingly giving us all the power. For us to finally have power, after the often disempowering medical system, the demeaning benefits system, the powerlessness of pain that wracks our bodies, empowerment feels amazing.
Finally, we think, we have the tools. Now, suddenly, we own the factory…but it’s still a factory. This doesn’t challenge the systemic issues, it maintains the system.
Many people don’t want to challenge the whole structure. Some people with privilege are used to experiencing unearned privilege and centring themselves without being aware of it and they don’t want to give it up (this is something I consider and challenge myself on daily).
Some people find the idea of facing a whole social system overwhelming and would rather try to change on a personal level. I get that. Who wants to have to incite a revolution to get some healthcare?
Others may want to maintain their existing relationships with loved ones who are very invested in the system. You may rely on those people to survive.
It might feel easier to believe we are the ones who are wrong and need fixing, rather than confronting the possibility that the the whole system might be flawed and our loved ones might be (consciously or unconsciously) upholding it. Or be perpetrators, perpetuating the damage.
And, of course, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”– Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked.
(Apologies for the binary, male-centric language but I believe the point of the quote still has value).
There’s a lot more on this topic than I can say here, but we will go into more details in future essays and The Phoenix Fire Academy.
I own that I have been part of the Self-Help/New Age industry as a consumer and as a practitioner. Although my practice is based in anti-establishment principals and I work hard to reduce my perpetuation of white supremacy, racism, abelism, hetrociscentricness and all forms of prejudice, I am aware that I am always learning and have a long way to go.
Much of the New Age Industry/Self-Help Complex is colonialist, culturally misappropriating, built on flawed premise and negates input of and pushes out BIPOC. Many genderqueer, transgender, LGBTIAQ+ people have historically been excluded and still are. I know I am a part of this, I have done this myself and may be doing it here in ways I am unaware of. I am learning, open to feedback, and will compensate your labour monetarily, recognising its value. My thinking on this topic has been influenced by many amazing teachers, including Layla Saad and Tada at Selfish Activist.
“Somehow, community practices of collective healing have been commodified into individualistic status symbols, the “dangerous trend of many of our ancestral truths being stolen, co-opted, commercialized and the subsequent infiltration of poison into what was once medicinal. For instance… the weaponization of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘compassion’ against our movements as a form of gas-lighting par excellence”.– Dr. Illouz
Empowerment as perpetuation.
What’s marketed to us as empowerment then, is a practice that actually maintains the broken system. The individualisation of empowerment is used to prop up the broken system; it’s so much easier for people if illness is ‘our’ fault. Empowerment is not empowering in this instance, it’s pressurising, it’s perpetuation. We are given ‘tools’ for healing but much is hidden and denied.
There are crip pride activists, who embrace their difference rather than reassure that the difference is, in fact, fixable, unnoticeable or inoffensive…
“in the way society anxiously reassures happily fat-identifying women that they’re just “curvy,” or tell some black women that they don’t “act black,” or tell disabled women that they’re “still beautiful” smacks of condescension and robs us of crucial parts of our identities….One thing we talk a lot about in disability studies is how, for most of human history, disabled people were either monsters, or they were gods or representations of gods: they were wonderful beings, or they were terrifying beings, or they were beings to be pitied.”– Kim Kelly
I am aware this is a powerful, challenging and nuanced topic and it may threaten lots of our preconceived ideas. I appreciate you sticking with me through this piece.
The lens through which we see ourselves is to a greater or lesser extent socially constructed and subjective. It’s easy to internalise these views and they can be traumatic or re-traumatising.
However for many of us, on the margins, not served by the medical model, these new age narratives are all we have had. We are dealing with so much pain, so much’s that inexplicable and unbearable. We are searching for a miracle.
But what if there is another option? What if another way is possible?
A way that is collective, focussing on empathy, respect and social change.
I am working on co-creating this, along with thousands of others. I can’t say it’s not difficult, I can’t say there are pots of gold at the end of it, but I am here, I welcome co-travellers and supporting each other on our journeys.
Seeing the Frames, Seeking Our Sieve Exercise
So much is presented as ‘true’ and fixed, unquestionable and so unquestioned.
While I don’t want to destabilise your reality, I do want to upset the systems of oppression.
How can we practice approaching anyone who tries to define us with self-stability and questioning?
Can we make a habit of considering what’s presented before us? To chew it, spit out what doesn’t work for us and only assimilate what does.
We need to notice not just the content, but the frames.
Let’s notice context, like in history:
Who is the source?
What is their bias, their world-view?
Why might they see it that way?
What benefit do they get from saying what they are saying?
What might it mean for them if we do/don’t believe it?
I’m not saying everyone means to be biased, we all approach life from our own compass points. I, for example, am a feminist, anti-capitalist, vegan. I run a business and part of earning money to live, eat, meet my needs, comes from selling my services and goods.
Questioning can support us. Of course, question me too.
Can we approach new ideas from a spirit of enquiry and exploration? We are moving in new ways, all trailblazing is a process of (sometimes difficult, sometimes wonderful, sometimes slogging) adventure.
Can we practice having a sieve, a shield and not swallowing things whole?
This practice can be life-saving, especially as so many concepts are shaped to slip past our defences, through the wounds left by our traumas and systematic woundings, to jump right into our hearts.
There they can sit, introjected, below our conscious awareness, not our own but invading our sense of self, our cells, our souls with their biased viewpoints. These viewpoints impact our sense-making, our discernment, our own lens.
What will be you shield, your tool for sieving?
Maybe a practice of reflecting on a new concept for 24 hours before acting upon it?
Or taking time to talk through a new concept or commercial offering with a trusted friend before making a purchase?
How about checking in to see if you feel respected, accepted and addressed as a peer when consuming information or opinions? Or do you feel triggered, desperate, less-than, fearful or not enough? And what does that tell you about the material and your engagement with it?
Practice: Reading/listening to this, do you get a felt sense, an image, a metaphor or experience of what your shield or sieve might look or feel like? Can you create a reminder to check in with it? This could be a reminder on your phone, a weekly note in a diary, a time each day journalling, a note around your bank cards to check in with your sieving process before making a purchase, or whatever feels more useful to you.
Reading/listening to this, do you get a felt sense, an image, a metaphor or experience of what your shield or sieve might look or feel like? Can you create a reminder to check in with it? This could be a reminder on your phone, a weekly note in a diary, a time each day journalling, a note around your bank cards to check in with your sieving process before making a purchase, or whatever feels more useful to you.
N.B: This essay series is to introduce some of the topics we will be working with this Autumn in my flagship programme The Phoenix Fire Academy. You can get more info here. Sign up to the newsletter to be notified when the next essays in the series are published.