September 5, 2012

Spiritual Pretense Isn’t Spiritual. ~ James Carpenter

I Am a Spiritual Performer.

My friend says to the cashier, “I can feel your aura. I can see it. You’re a practitioner, aren’t you?”

“Paper or plastic?”

My friend wears dirty clothes on purpose, but takes immaculate care of her hair.

She tells the cashier that her guru is a Jain, and can be found only once a year, on the top of a mountain somewhere in Southern India. He sweeps the temple there, and that’s when you can find him.

He doesn’t find you.

“Or does he?” my friend asks.


The cashier has a lot to do, and we’re slowing up his line. My friend looks at him with a practiced intensity.

“Oh gee Miss, I really have no idea,” he says.

My friend snaps her fingers under his nose and says, “Exactly!”

The cashier laughs nervously, “Your receipt?”

“Thank you.”

I carry the bags for her out to the car.

“Gotta plant good karma,” she says to me. “Gotta plant seeds. Gotta plant seeds.”


“Just went home last week. Like home home. The house I grew up in,” she says.

“How was it?”

“Not great.”

“Well…” I say, awkward and distant—struggling with the false, spiritual voice that I use whenever I’m in town.

“The guru shines within,” she says to me. “He is all around us. A lamp in this dark place.”

I look around the parking lot and sigh in a way that I hope sounds sufficiently moved by her statement.

I ask something innocuous: “How’s your mom?”

“We don’t speak,” she says loudly.

We drive away.

Here’s the rub: I am a spiritual performer. I parody what I imagine to be outward signs of spiritual attainment—my voice is deeper than my real voice, and I hold my eyes in a way that I imagine to be something like liquid soap.

When I’m with other spiritual performers there is a tension—a question of “who has realized more than whom?”

But when I’m with people unconnected with the so-called spiritual scenes in my life—the Sam’s and Sally’s spinning their wheels in samsara (cycles of suffering)—then shit comes off all right.

It works.

People tell me I have a calming presence, a depth of wisdom, and etcetera.

And then I go home.

The home home my friend talked about.

The home where people remember the bed I used to pee in, maybe? Or the awkward preludes to school dances? Or that one time all my friends had a sleep over, and didn’t invite me, and I cried and cried?

We all know these stories.

They’re the stories most of us wish people would just shut the hell up about.

I could be so friggin’ enlightened if there was no one to remind me of all those moments, stretched over pretty much my entire life, that make me want to scream at one or both of my parents, “you’re doing it again.”

I’d rather just forget whatever it is.

And, for instance, just do the asana. Or meditate. Or something.

But that’s not going to change anything.

I heard a story once.

A guy asks an Indian saint, “Where are all the babas (holy teachers)?”

The saint replies, “When was the last time you were home?”

Maybe there’s a practice worth doing?


James Carpenter is grateful to his many teachers for the gifts they’ve given him–most specifically to steal their best ideas and pass them off as his own. For their sake, he won’t list any names.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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