Spiritual Soup

With a little bit of this, a dash of that, and a sprinkling of something else, humans are customizing their own spiritual traditions. But when does it become less about spirituality and more about shopping?


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?



Increasingly, people are declaring themselves neither one religion or another. According to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, the religiously unaffiliated was one of the fastest growing groups in the U.S. Nearly 56 million adults, or 23% of the population, said their religion was “nothing in particular”—compared with 16% in 2007. These so-called “nones” fit into many different categories—atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc.—and sometimes several at once.

It’s basically impossible to catalog nones because there’s tremendous diversity in how they self-identify, writes SCU religious studies Associate Professor Elizabeth Drescher in her book Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of American Nones.


“Are Americans giving up on God? Is the United States becoming more fully secularized, along the lines of most Western European nations? Or, is something altogether different happening?” she asks. “Are the meanings of ‘religion’ and ‘religious affiliation’ themselves changing in profound and enduring ways?”

In her interviews with the unaffiliated, Drescher says that while many were uncomfortable subscribing to a specific religion, they nevertheless expressed interest in building spirituality. Some felt maintaining spirituality would help establish a code of ethics and morality for their families. Others craved the community that comes from people gathering to practice a belief system. Many desired a sense of meaning in their lives.

So what’s the difference between religion and spirituality?

“In the most basic or anthropological sense, spirituality, like personality, is a characteristic of the human being as such. It is the capacity of persons to transcend themselves through knowledge and love,” according to Sr. Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament studies and Christian spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology. In her essay “Religion vs. Spirituality: A Contemporary Conundrum,” Schneiders details the ways spirituality has grown in modern society—as a business pursuit via workshops, travel, and books, and as an academic discipline.

Traditionally, meanwhile, we tend to think of religion as an institutionalized system of relating with a higher being or beings, leading to some sort of salvation, nirvana, or eternal life. Religion and spirituality need not be mutually exclusive, Schneiders says, and thinking of them in that way is detrimental to building community and humans’ understanding of each other.


Following spiritual practices from different religious traditions is a relatively recent phenomenon in the U.S., according to Thomas Cattoi, associate professor of Christology and cultures at the Jesuit School of Theology, where he also serves as the Dwan Family endowed chair in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

Go East, and multiple religious belonging is nothing new nor is it frowned upon, Cattoi says. For example, in China, you may follow Confucianism to regulate your social relationships and address your worldly needs, as well as Buddhism to answer existential questions and find place in the universe. “Religions are not seen as mutually exclusive but complementary. Different traditions can address different aspects of your life.”

The same could be said for spiritual practices. Cattoi doesn’t see an issue incorporating traditions from cultures or religions outside of the ones you were raised in if they help fill your bucket of meaning. As long as it’s done with proper acknowledgment.

Can culture, or spirituality for that matter, really be owned? Is it not by its very nature meant to be shared, in community with others?

Paradoxically, it’s the people at opposite ends of the religious and political spectrum who tend to be uncomfortable with this picking and choosing. “Conservative people think that you’re being unfaithful to the tradition you come from,” he says. “Whereas more progressive people think that you are appropriating and disrespecting the tradition towards which you are moving.”

But that says “more about the way you conceptualize ownership of culture than anything else,” Cattoi says. Can culture, or spirituality for that matter, really be owned? Is it not by its very nature meant to be shared, in community with others? “It’s important to come with an attitude of humility—I’m very aware that I’m entering into someone else’s home. Entering into someone else’s culture, and taking advantage of what this culture has produced over time. And I’m grateful for what I can gain.”


Thinking of building spirituality in that way—entering others’ homes with curiosity and reverence—could help explain the rise in spiritual tourism. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates between 300 million and 600 million people visit a religious site every year. Daniel Olsen, a professor of geography at Brigham Young University who’s published on the intersections of religion, tourism, and pilgrimage for more than 20 years, says people have long traveled to religious sites or visited faith communities they do not belong to.

In Western society, “individual identity is becoming more based on consumption rather than communal structure, meaning that the focus is on individualization and choice rather than adhering to tradition and group belonging,” Olsen says. “As such, many people seek meaning and identity formation outside of organized religion and experiment with different faith traditions, indigenous beliefs, [etc.]”


Take the 12-day Landscapes of the Canadian Maritimes tour, one of four new Indigenous experiences offered under the Travel Corporation umbrella. While visiting Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, travelers will meet with spiritual leaders of the Abegweit First Nation and learn about their Seven Sacred Teachings, or guiding life principles.

“You’ll be met by your local Knowledge Keeper … and be among the select first to gain an insight into ceremony and teachings that have traditionally only been available to community members,” states the official tour itinerary.

The copywriting may strike some as othering: Be the first in line to witness how the outsiders do things!

But Tyler Gould, director of economic development for Abegweit First Nation, says his community is proud to be part of an experience that showcases their rich culture. “The best relationships almost always stem from a genuine understanding of who Abegweit is as a community and who we are not,” he said in a release.

And that’s the key, says Olsen: putting the power back into the hands of whatever community is being visited. “There’s also the question of interpretation—who gets to interpret or explain indigenous rituals and religious beliefs?” he says.

Because if you’re a thoughtful person, and you conduct a personal inventory of your spiritual shopping list, you very well might feel uncomfortable listing practices and beliefs that belong to groups who have been pushed out of the mainstream and into the margins for so long. (Go read up on the history of U.S. government-sponsored boarding schools forcing Native American children to convert to Christianity and abandon their cultures, religions, and spiritual practices, and report back on how you feel about that dreamcatcher above your bed.)

How do we process that discomfort? Must we reject all traditions that were not handed down by our specific ancestry for fear of appropriating or tarnishing another’s spirituality? Or should we rejoice in our capacity for curiosity, for exploring different ways to find meaning and fulfillment? Perhaps, the only way to overcome that uneasiness is to sit with it: Acknowledge the awkwardness inherent in figuring out your place in the universe.


The habit of shopping for spiritual experiences makes it difficult to work through that unease—and can lead to opportunities for misuse. Just look at yoga. The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library of India catalogued yoga poses for international patent offices to combat misappropriation after a problematic yogi attempted to copyright the series of postures used in his classes.

“Yoga is collective knowledge and is available for use by everybody no matter what the interpretation,” the head of the digital library told the Washington Post. “We wanted to ensure that, in the future, nobody will be able to claim that he has created a yoga posture which was actually already created in 2500 B.C. in India.”

These days, Westerners are flocking to training programs to become yoga teachers. Sure, for many, it might be about the exercise. But for others, it’s spiritual—a strengthening of the connection between mind, body, and soul. Besides, who gets to interpret the release and liberation one feels during a particularly good yoga practice? Who has the right to dictate what a feeling means?

Must we reject all traditions that were not handed down by our specific ancestry for fear of appropriation?

This cycle of rejection and acceptance and, yes, appropriation is something we’re now seeing with certain medical practices, including the use of psychedelics.

Take peyote—a cactus containing the hallucinogen mescaline that, when ingested, alters one’s state of mind. For thousands of years, Native American tribes used peyote in religious ceremonies before Spanish settlers demonized the psychedelic, and the U.S. government declared it a Schedule I substance, along with heroin and LSD. In 1994, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was amended to allow for “the use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes.” Though stigma around the drug long contributed to the marginalization of Native American cultures, in recent years, some studies have hinted at an association between mescaline use and improvements in mental health. Today, you can book peyote retreats in Mexico to try for yourself.

As we’re entering a period of so-called psychedelic renaissance, scientists and civilians alike are exploring the role of psychoactive plants and chemicals in human culture from prehistory to modern times. Retreats and tours to places like Peru or Costa Rica to take the ayahuasca plant with an Indigenous shaman go for thousands of dollars a pop. New mothers are microdosing psilocybin mushrooms to treat postpartum anxiety and depression. U.C. Berkeley launched a center for psychedelic science and education in 2020.

“We owe it to the resilience of many native indigenous communities across the Americas that their cultural traditions and practices have survived, even in the face of legal discrimination and political persecution,” says Alberto Ribas-Casasayas, associate professor of Spanish and Latin American studies in SCU’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.

Ribas is somewhat critical of the psychedelic renaissance and hesitates to speak much on the link between psychedelic use and the quest for spiritual fulfillment specifically, but he’s clear that we must be so, so careful about overhyping the potential benefits of these substances. “There’s a lot of hope being placed on psychedelics as medicine, and they can have a healing effect, but we’re missing a big part of the point,” Ribas says. “In the psychedelic experience, context is essential: how do you take it, who do you take it with, how do you prepare it, what do you do upon your return to your normal life. It’s a very complex process.”

It’s also worth asking, Ribas continues, about your environmental footprint when going on psychedelic trips. “How often are you traveling to do this? Are you or your providers invading delicate natural environments? The Western person’s footprint is much bigger than a local’s. You require accommodations, transportation, entertainment,” he says. “Even the most respectful tourist you can find, they’re still driving up demand, increasing the price, or otherwise preventing access to plants essential to some ceremonial practice, or that are a staple medicine for people who do not have access to other forms of care.”

Because if we are to break this endless boom and bust cycle of cultural, medicinal, spiritual appropriation, shouldn’t we give credit where credit’s due?

When asked about the potential impacts of the psychedelic renaissance, associate professor of environmental studies Chris Bacon says he can draw parallels from his research on coffee farms in Latin America. “Coffee production expands when prices and demand are high, replacing subsistence crops that the farmers can actually eat like corn and beans. And this demand is driven by consumers in northern countries,” he says. This boom-and-bust cycle can lead to food insecurity and displacement among small farmers. “When we look at something like psychedelic plants, we can see something similar happening—small communities being priced out of their own crops, rapid expansion with poor planning.”

Over generations, Bacon says, coffee farming has been incorporated into diversified, more sustainable production systems. The Fairtrade stamp is not a panacea, but it helps provide a safety net for vulnerable farmers. It’s also important, he says, to properly compensate communities to recognize their original ownership of land used to produce exports.

Similar systems of ethical regulations could be set up for the production of psychedelic plants, to help protect the people who first harnessed their benefits. Because if we are to break this endless boom and bust cycle of cultural, medicinal, spiritual appropriation, shouldn’t we give credit where credit’s due?

But surely, you might be saying, coffee is not equivalent to peyote or yoga or whatever else is on your personal spiritual inventory. Why not? In 15th-century Yemen, Sufi mystics would drink coffee as a spiritual stimulant at their all-night gatherings, chanting over and over the name of God. Today, coffee is something people the world over use every morning, an aid to end sleep and begin the process of living another day. It is a ritual we’ve adopted and adapted. And it’s one we conveniently pluck off supermarket shelves a few aisles over from the chicken noodle soup—another item on our shopping lists in the quest to become our highest selves.

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