4 Reasons Not To Be "Spiritual"
And why some mountains aren't sacred.
Inside: A discussion of the words spirit, spiritual, and sacred in relationship to witchcraft, and an introduction to the reading group text, “Spirituality” by David Delgado Shorter, and an invitation to join the reading group on Tuesday.
Honestly, I’m finding it hard to care about “spirituality” right now.
The word “spiritual” feels so weak, so inconsequential. Like it’s all about meditating with scented candles and polished crystals in novelty shops. I need something more robust than “spirituality” right now.
The English language is a colonial mishmash of a language that evolved in order to sell merchandise; it’s a merchant language. It doesn’t give us many good language options for the kind of practice I want now.
One of the reasons “witchcraft” feels right to me now, and has always felt right, is because witchcraft is not “spiritual”, it’s carnal. It’s got mud on its feet, snakes in its hair, wind in its lungs, and fire in the brain.
Witchcraft is a poison we drink to kill off the parasite of capitalist colonialism feeding on our hearts and minds. It is not spiritual, its visceral, it is rooted in land and kinship.
In his essay, “Spirituality,” David Delgado Shorter, an Indigenous Studies scholar (and my current PhD advisor!) argues that using the term “spiritual” to describe Native American traditions imposes a colonial worldview onto practices already resisting centuries of erasure and assault.
But why is the term “spiritual” colonial?
The word spiritual is so vague that it doesn’t really mean anything. Spirit in the West can mean “vital essence”; alcoholic intoxicants; mind or intelligence; a ghost; an emotional state (i.e. in “high spirits”); something supernatural, non-physical, or irrational; part of the triple nature of God (the Holy Spirit); etc. etc. If we call Indigenous traditions “spiritual” what do we mean by that? What do we mean if we call ourselves spiritual?
Using the words spirit and spiritual sets us up to see ourselves as separate from “nature”. In the Western world, the word spirit evokes the binary between spirit and nature, matter and mind, sacred and profane, subjective experience (feelings) and objective truth (facts). But most indigenous languages don’t even have words for “nature” or “religion” since nature is everything, religion is how you live your life, and spirit and the body are one, there is no separation between the body and mind, or the realm of humans and the realm of the gods.
To say something is “spiritual” implies that it’s better than something merely “physical”. In Western culture, where we find binaries (like spirit vs. matter) we find hierarchies. Take for example male vs. female. Black vs. white. Earth vs. heaven. The word spirit suggests not only that it’s separate from matter, but that matter is subordinate to the lofty intellectual realm of spirit, reason, and the mind. Because of the way the English language is constructed, it’s difficult for us to even conceive of the mind and body as part of the same process. What we see as subordinate in colonial culture, we feel free to destroy.
Words like “spiritual” and “sacred” imply that there are some aspects of our life are NOT spiritual or sacred. If we say a certain mountain is “sacred”, that implies that there are other mountains that are profane (i.e. not sacred). When a thing is profane, it doesn’t matter. We can destroy it, exploit it, do what we want with it. But how would it change us if our language described everything as alive, and all life as sacred? Indeed everything IS alive, all mountains, all oceans, all stars and moons, all people, all toads squatting in the moss. They all matter and deserve our care.
For me, what’s so important about this idea now is that during of times of great intensity, like the one we’re currently living through, we can feel like we are abandoning our spiritual practice when we scroll on our phones looking for news about what’s going on in Palestine.
We can feel like we’re neglecting our spiritual practice when we don’t make time for a ritual bath.
But if our religion, our “spirituality”, is the way we live, then worrying over the genocide IS our spiritual practice. Watering our plants so they don’t die IS our spiritual practice. READING and learning how to divest from capitalist colonialism IS our spiritual practice. Connecting with one another and loving one another IS our spiritual practice.
But, how do we say that? What language can we use?
I’ve been thinking that instead of using the term “spiritual” to describe my practice, I’d like to try using the word “embodied.” Embodied enchantment. That’s me.
David Shorter argues that instead of using the word spiritual, Indigenous Studies scholars should use the words “related” and “relatedness.” He talks about how some Native Americans use the term “all my relations,” to refer to the interconnected web of life unto whom they are responsible. For them, the spiritual is not a heaven to escape to once we’ve trashed the earth, it’s a web of relations to participate in, enjoy, care for and protect right here and now.
Another thing I love about this essay is how Shorter discusses how fascinated non-Indigenous people are with Native American “spirituality,” when it means talking about their legends, myths, ceremonial dresses and plant medicines, but when it comes to participating in Indigenous struggles for self-sovereignty or water rights, those people are nowhere to be found.
But if we listened more respectfully to what Native American “spirituality” is ACTUALLY about in practice, we’d discover for instance, that water is holy, and the way you can most honor that holiness is to protect it, the people that care for it, and the life cycles that go into its movements. THAT is true religion.
We’ll be talking about David Shorter’s essay, and all of these ideas, tomorrow night (Tuesday 11/21/26) at our Reading Group, at 6pm PST. Hope you can join us! More info plus a link to the text below.
With offerings of wine and salt,
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P. S. Here’s a link to an interview with David Shorter I did on my podcast (with producer Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs), Between the Worlds. It’s one of my favorite episodes! I think you’ll love it.