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Millennial wellness is spiritualism on speed: centuries of Indigenous practices simplified, condensed, and ground up into digestible, easy-to-access rituals and products, designed to deliver reassurance and instant connection to something bigger and all-knowing. Against a backdrop of financial insecurity, the climate crisis, and political instability, its popularity makes sense.
While there are people who take wellness practices seriously and know their stuff, millennial wellness refers more to the pick 'n' mix approach whereby people dabble in rituals and practices occasionally in a way that helps them to navigate and make sense of a world that increasingly feels mad and directionless.
Love life terrible? Perhaps carrying some rose quartz might attract a half-decent prospect. Need to dispel bad vibes caused by toxic pals or wonky life choices? Maybe try a bit of smudging (the burning of sacred herbs).
Coronavirus has only supercharged and intensified this pull towards spiritualism and wellness, partly because it appears to offer us a crumb of control.
The problem with millennial wellness, however, is that while millennials place a higher priority on sustainability than any generation before them, rarely does it sit alongside context and knowledge about why these practices exist. This matters because the popularity and uptake of certain wellness trends is starting to damage the communities from which the related practices originated, because they were never intended to be scaled up in such a big way. The impact can include the unsustainable way products are sourced, the boom-and-bust cycles they create for farmers, as well as the harm done to local communities.
But if we combine knowledge about sustainability with the huge popularity of spiritual wellness, it could have a massively positive impact on climate change. A 2017 study by Christine Wamsler, PhD, a professor at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, found that being mindful about what we consume and how we consume it could have a positive impact on sustainability at all levels, ranging from climate change to social activism.
At present, the problem is that in order to make something quickly accessible, proper knowledge about the complex and intricate connections between the environment and local communities gets stripped out and distilled into catchy buzzwords.
Palo Santo wood, for instance, is harvested from a tree that grows in Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Galápagos Islands, and Ecuador. The story around Palo Santo has been reduced to an overly simplistic take: Burn the fragrant wood like ancient shamans did and you, too, can ward off negative energy.
Now, the demand for Palo Santo wood is damaging its ecosystem.
Previously thought to be endangered, Palo Santo wood isn’t on a watch list but it comes from a habitat which is threatened: dry, tropical forest. The wood is harvested from dead trees but it’s important to make sure that your Palo Santo wood is being harvested by people who aren’t destroying the habitat, and that’s hard to control when demand has exponentially increased.
Palo Santo wood also highlights another big issue around millennial wellness: the impact of trendy, quick-fix spiritualism that culturally appropriates a practice and has unforeseen consequences.
According to an article on Forage and Sustain, some Indigenous people have said that the wood should actually be given to you by a shaman to make sure it’s being used in the right way. This makes sense not only to ensure that the ritual is practiced correctly but also — and crucially — to help manage the supply chain, given that it takes around 50 to 70 years for a tree to mature and then die.
Currently, you can buy Palo Santo wood on websites such as Goop and Etsy with cheery promises that it can 'cleanse' your space in the way it does for ancient shamans.
Tara Maitri, an ethical social media strategist who helps brands with consultancy, says that while we are all looking for answers spiritually, we have a major problem around convenience culture.
"This is a culture that is all about solving problems in your life as quickly and conveniently as possible," she says. "We shop for spiritual items in the same way that we shop for anything else we buy, because they are presented to us as 'problem-solving products' that can arrive quickly and need no surrounding practice to make them effective. You just buy it, pop it in your house, and all your problems are solved.
"The items become completely separated from any practice or culture around them because they become all about how they benefit the end consumer. In reality, so many 'spiritual items' or 'wellness products' are material aspects of deeper practice or specific cultures and it's the consistent practice or lived values of the culture of extraction that actually bring the benefit."
The issues surrounding white sage are the perfect example of this. White sage is one of the plants used in smudging, which is a ceremony rooted in Indigenous communities in North America, using sacred smoke to purify or cleanse a person or a place. Due to the trendiness of the practice (117,416 posts and counting for #whitesage on Instagram), demand for white sage has increased.
It only grows naturally in parts of north Mexico and southern California, and it’s harvested from nature. The demand means that people are poaching it, and it is being over-harvested. Worse, it is being harvested in a way that is not sustainable and goes against the practices of the culture it originates from.
Indigenous communities leave the root and say a prayer of thanks for being able to harvest the plant. That exchange connects the person to the land and completes the circle of understanding that what we take from the ground must be done in the right way to ensure that it is sustainable and leaves plenty behind for the generation to come.
It is an ethos seen in Indigenous communities all over the world. Aboriginal Australians, for instance, have one of the oldest and most beautiful relationships between people and the Earth. They moved to areas depending on the seasons and how plentifully things grew so that they didn’t interrupt the ecosystem. To be a person who took too much was considered an act against nature.
The idea of collective responsibility is at the heart of everything the Aboriginals do, and so millennial wellness has to ask itself: Is the way things are being practiced collectively responsible, or are we taking too much without considering the consequences?
The destruction of the planet cannot be ignored but it doesn’t mean that people can’t practice rituals from other cultures. Wellness — particularly white wellness — has a bad reputation for taking on other cultures, repackaging them with whiteness alongside pretty pictures and hashtags, and booting the original culture out of the process.
Knowing the history of whichever wellness ritual we are engaging with is important because it enables us to be more considered about how we make use of it. For instance, the overuse of white sage now means that Indigenous communities might not have access to it. Given that prior to a religious freedom act passed in 1978, the U.S. government has upheld policies that inhibited Native Americans' access to sacred sites and objects, interfering with their ability to practice their religions, and given the brutal treatment of Indigenous people by the Canadian government, it’s vital for white wellness to respect that part of history in order not to inflict further damage.
It doesn’t mean that white people can’t smudge or be interested in practices belonging to other cultures but it’s about completing the circle and asking questions, and not just environment-specific ones. Of course these are important but asking whether the company that profits off selling you white sage or Palo Santo gives back to the community it is taking from is critical.
Another current wellness trend is ayahuasca, a bitter, dark brown liquid made from a mixture of plants including an Amazonian vine called Banisteriopsis caapi, which can cause you to have mind-altering visions (and often throw up profusely). Years ago, you’d have to know someone deeply embedded in the wellness world to be able to go into the middle of the forest and have this unique experience. It’s said to be incredible (despite the vomiting), life-altering and particularly helpful with trauma, but it has to be handled with care.
"It has become a sort of 'spiritual tourism'," says Natasha Piette-Basheer, campaign manager at Women’s Environmental Network, "with people flying to South America for a packaged product – to drink the brew and get an experience of traditional Indigenous practices associated with the plant."
Carbon footprints aside — people might not be flying long-distance for pleasure any time soon — the popularity of ayahuasca means that the plant is being grown in quantities that were not meant to occur naturally in nature.
"Use of the plant originates from Indigenous ceremonial practices," adds Piette-Basheer, "with the plant only being consumed by the shaman themselves — it was not originally intended for mass consumption. Now with the boom in the popularity of ayahuasca and its consequent tourism, the plant faces short supply and commercial planting has led to dangerous alternatives and deforestation."
Most of us want to connect to a culture for the best possible reasons but it’s important to question how a company operates and be aware that we already have a positive, slightly unquestioning bias towards anything connected with wellness.
"I think there's an automatic assumption that because it's a 'wellness product' or it's 'spiritual' that it is ethical," says Maitri. "I'd suggest that this is because they are presented to us in an aesthetic that feels very different from more corporate products."
Take healing crystals. While the intention behind them is good, crystals have become a multibillion-dollar business. They are used to purify water, encourage serenity, attract love — there is a crystal for almost every aspect of life. But crystals are not a renewable source and when they are sold everywhere, from your local supermarket to yoga studios, how consistently sustainable are they?
"As with most minerals, it is difficult to know the exact human and environmental cost of the individual crystal in your hand — but we know it is not insignificant," says Payal Sampat, mining program director for Earthworks, a nonprofit organization that works towards protecting the environment and local communities. "Mining has an environmental impact... These crystals aren’t lying around waiting to be plucked up. They must be extracted from the earth, sometimes with significant environmental impacts and often with serious labor violations — including child labor. They would be far more healing to the earth if they were left in the ground."
If we are seeking healing through wellness, we have to ensure that by doing so we aren't harming the planet or other human beings in the process. We definitely have to make sure that what and how we practice aligns with feminism, given that climate change often hits women of color and Indigenous women hardest.
Millennial wellness has the unfortunate reputation for quick gratification but that doesn’t mean it can’t change. As we head into uncertain times, many of us will need and want spirituality more than ever. How we choose to engage, educate and practice it will be the making of us. The communities that live most in harmony with the environment are among the oldest on Earth; they are thoughtful, kind and take only what they need. Trends come and go but it is a lesson that is timeless for a reason.