Jan 30, 2020

"Positive Vibes Only" Is Toxic: the Danger of New Age Spiritualism

“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” ~ Brené Brown
By Justice Bartlett / elephantjournal.com
"Positive Vibes Only" Is Toxic: the Danger of New Age Spiritualism

positive vibes only attitude is dangerous.

What we will not look at, will not feel—in ourselves, or in the world—we cannot address.

I think it’s safe to say that none of us likes drama—or at least we say we don’t—yet drama is part of the human condition.

When we meet the emotional reactivity in others with our own confusion and pain, pain and confusion escalate. Compassion is when we meet confusion and pain with rational thought and skillful means. It is not zoning out on our yoga mat, filling our houses with crystals, and burning sage while the world actually burns.

This is a spiritual bypass, and it is dangerous. The notion that we can simply focus on the positive and effect change is like trying to clean our bathroom blindfolded, while simultaneously convincing ourselves that it’s not dirty in the first place.

Too many New Age notions tout the idea that what we focus on expands, and while this it true to a certain degree, what we ignore does not shrink, either.

I recently saw a “light-worker” meme that basically said, 2020 is about high vibe. Don’t share news about political unrest; don’t share news about natural disasters—just keep your sparkle goggles on and keep your head buried in the proverbial, positivity-soaked sand. (Okay, so the last part is my commentary on that overall attitude.)

If we’re going to practice true compassion, we also need to be aware of the pain, fear, and instability of this world, and not use our spirituality to bypass our human accountability to life, each other, and the planet.

One of the things that is heartbreaking to me is the infiltration of sexual predation in too many of our spiritual organizations. One of the things that is infuriating to me is the way that this simply gets swept under the rug and victims get gaslit—their pain and stories disappear. 

One such incident is with allegations of sexual misconduct with a Buddhist teacher, Sakyong Mipham. He had stepped back from his duties, in the light of an open letter written by six of his former assistants, detailing 20 years of sexual misconduct and psychological abuse. 

Upon hearing that Mipham was to be reinstated to his position at Shambhala—the Buddhist teaching center—renowned teacher and author Pema Chödrön issued a statement that she herself will be stepping down as senior teacher.

Pema expresses the disheartening she feels with the resuming of business as usual, in this quote from Lion’s Roar magazine, Chödrön states:

“It feels unkind, unskillful and unwise for the Sakyong to just go forward as if nothing had happened without relating compassionately to all of those who have been hurt and without doing some deep inner work on himself.” 

Pema seems unwilling to bypass the pain and confusion that has not been addressed. This is integrity, and integrity—not comfort—is the core of compassion. 

Compassion is not convenient. It is not business as usual. 

When we are feeling hurt, confused, and frustrated, it helps to look to people (like Pema) who are choosing integrity over comfort, who are standing for what is right. It is in the grounded practice of human compassion that we find our way.

When we say no low vibes, we are cutting ourselves off from vital aspects of our humanity.

I tend people’s trauma for a living. They don’t come to me to pretend their pain is not there; they come to me to face it with compassion and skillful means. I have to stay open to it, and yet not get bogged down by it.

I have met people who—while in the depths of loss—were told by allegedly well-meaning spiritual folks (even healers!) that their grief was not spiritual. That they were bringing themselves down into dark energy, and that they should just focus on the good times and be grateful.

While there is nothing wrong with cultivating a consciously optimistic attitude, we need to be careful that our optimism does not become a blind positivity bypass. The way that we do this is we consistently encourage ourselves to remain open to the hard, the human, and the holy—this means willingly welcoming pain, anger, and grief, as well as joy. 

New Age spiritualism often has us thinking that by simply focusing on the positive, we can somehow heal our wounds and the wounds of the world. This is immature and ineffective. To grow, heal, and change, we need to face our discomfort.

As a hypnotherapist, I have learned that the nature of trance is twofold. When we experience trauma, we split in our psyche. We will either highlight (positive trance) or minimize or disappear (negative trance) information, emotions, and even memories that do not fit our story about ourselves. 

The parts deemed to be less valuable, or less acceptable, get relegated to the background of our psyche, where they become—what is often referred to as—the shadow, to use Carl Jung’s term. It is these parts that tend to kick up drama; it is these parts that tend to engage in ritual, compulsive comfort-seeking; it is these parts that entangle us in codependent dynamics. It is these parts that need our compassion.

In Buddhadharma, the befriending of these parts of ourselves is known as maitri. This is the practice of meeting our discomfort shame and guilt—the parts of ourselves we don’t like—with compassion. 

Life is beautiful; life is painful. If we close our hearts to the hard and human, then we're not truly open to the holy, either. We need to stay grounded in this world; stop trying to escape to another. Escape is what our traumatized inner child has done for years. Wholeness is not to be found in another form of dissociation.

We need to be here with the earth—with each other, with our pain—with her distress. Be here with the political unrest, with the world set afire. Be the presence-drenched balm that we all so desperately crave.

If we leave now—if we dissociate from this world, from our raw humanity, from our tender beating hearts in favor of glittering worlds, and spiritual philosophies that excuse us from feeling our grief, and dealing with the consequences of our actions that let us go on as if it is business as usual—none of us are going to make it.

We have a responsibility to life; each other; and this beautiful, brokenhearted world. Please stay. It’s okay if you’re hurting and afraid and don’t know what to do. Me too.

We will figure it out together. We will walk through the hard, the human, and the holy.


Justice Bartlett is a lover of love, and a lover of words, life, Nature and communication. As a healer and hypnotherapist, she does not put people into trance, she takes them out! And she does it with presence, deep kindness, hard-won wisdom, and what can be described as nothing less than shared—grace. Helping people rediscover their inherent innocence, courage and creativity, as they heal from pain and trauma, is her service to this tired, hungry world. And with her words, she hopes to tell stories and touch those deep core threads of being human, that let us all feel and heal, together.

May it be of benefit.

She maintains a global practice from her little mountain town, Bozeman, MT. For more, check out Justice’s website.

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