What does it mean to decolonize your spiritual life? I began to answer this question at the 2019 annual conference for SDI (Spiritual Directors International), surrounded by spiritual practitioners and leaders from around the world. I learned that decolonizing spirituality is for everyone, as it is more about creating authentic connection than about resurrecting ancient rituals that may or may not hold relevance for us. If you are looking to deepen your spiritual life from a decolonized perspective, join me in this 3-part blog series where I explore a process for spiritual decolonization.
COLONIZATION FROM A SPIRITUAL PERSPECTIVE
To understand spiritual decolonization, let’s first take a brief look at what colonization means. According to the dictionary definition, colonization appears to be primarily geographical, political, and military in scope. But what does it really mean to establish control over a people?
Colonization encompasses the physical, cultural, psychological, and spiritual domination of one people over another. I understand it as the attempt to take the core of what defines a people and forcefully replace it with something else – especially if it better serves the needs of empire.
Both colonized and colonizer are stripped of their humanity in the process of colonization. Colonized peoples lose access to traditional knowledge, cultural identity, connection with their history, and even their own families. Colonizers must close themselves off to the humanity of others and ultimately, themselves. The end result is a system of oppression that privileges certain groups over others and hides this disparity.
From a spiritual perspective, we can start by looking at the institutional history of organized religion and see its ties with colonization. In the history of my own people, the Catholic Jesuits eradicated many of our traditional cultural practices in the interest of establishing a European Christian colony. These colonial efforts have modern iterations, as in recent years we’ve learned of the Catholic boarding schools in Canada that ripped apart indigenous families and abused youth. Sadly, there are countless more such examples throughout history and in our present-day reality.
Even forms of spirituality unaffiliated with a religious tradition can be centered in perspectives of colonial privilege. I see this privilege in spiritualities that espouse a “mind over matter” dynamic, viewing the world as something to separate from or overcome. But a spiritual life that ignores the world’s deep disparities is inherently privileged. Focusing on becoming “good” or “enlightened” people without addressing oppression means our lives hold enough privilege to not be troubled by inequity.
It’s not enough to become enlightened for our own personal fulfillment. A decolonized spirituality goes beyond the comfort of being a “good” person and into the liberating space of authentic connection with the world. In one sense authentic connection requires waking up to our surroundings, our histories, our privileges, and our disadvantages. But then we must take that awareness to be in solidarity, in with-ness with each other.
Ultimately, I see spiritual decolonization as expanding ourselves enough to hold more than one narrative, more than one reality when we look at the world. This is deep and difficult work, as it is a painful process to embrace other truths that might threaten our realities and our very identities. Even then, this is not enough as we must expand ourselves even further to engage those differences with respect, empathy, and collaboration.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Is decolonization important for deepening your spirituality? If so, stay tuned for Part 2 where I will highlight five insights for decolonizing your spiritual life.