Think of soup. Chicken noodle, to be more specific.
Its origins are hazy but we can mostly agree that some form of broth, poultry, and carbs first came together in a bowl many centuries ago in China. Chicken was declared a yang, or warming, food to be used in conjunction with therapeutic herbs to cure various ailments in the Huangdi Neijing, a treatise on medicine from around 300 B.C.E. based in Taoism—an ancient philosophy and religion that essentially instructs us to live in balance with the universe, the Tao, the source of everything.
In the ensuing centuries, humans exchanged and modified the mythology around the healing powers of chicken soup, spreading it to nearly every corner of the globe. The Greeks have lemony, rice-filled avgolemono, which they may have adapted from the soup Sephardic Jews brought to Greece when fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Throughout Africa, iterations of pepper soup are given to women for post-childbirth recuperation. In Peru, aguadito de pollo proverbially has the ability to raise the dead. Then, at the height of the Great Depression, Campbell’s debuted condensed Noodle with Chicken soup at 10 cents a can, filling the bellies of the downtrodden masses.
About 60 years later, the first Chicken Soup for the Soul book was published, its tear-jerker stories on the triumphs of the human spirit landing on international best-seller lists. One of the founders of the Chicken Soup brand reportedly said the title appeared to him in a dream, “in which the hand of God scrawled the words across a chalkboard.” Over millennia, humble chicken soup has transformed into more than its parts. Slurping that hot broth has become a spiritual experience, if not an outright religious one. We understand it as an attempt to heal not only our sickened bodies but also our souls. The Tao of soup, indeed.
Soup is as good a metaphor as any to describe the ways in which humans have learned about spiritual traditions, practices, and items from cultures outside of their own, then altered and refined them to fit their personal circumstances. But as connection has become so much easier and faster through the internet and social media and the 24-hour news cycle, we must contend with how these modifications and makeovers add up.
Some spiritual traditions like mindfulness meditation and yoga have been folded more or less neatly into American culture—Buddha statues in Napa wineries notwithstanding—while others such as psychedelic use are just now emerging. When does appropriate adoption of such traditions veer into appropriation?
If we imagine our spiritual lives as a grocery store, then the practices and traditions that support the way we think about ourselves and our relation to the universe are the items on the shelves. Today, we have the ability to pick and choose items at random—an orange from the produce section, bread from the bakery, a sauce from the “international” aisle. Since we are no longer bound by geography to one organized religion or another, our creeds can be totally customized.
This customization is thrilling—it hints at a level of acceptance and curiosity likely not seen before among humans—but it’s also tentative. Because when we shop around for spirituality in this way, when does it stop being about faith and become, well, shopping?