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If you don’t know the author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson by name, you may have seen her most famous quotation posted on an office bulletin board or refrigerator door. Taken from her best-selling book A Return to Love, the passage begins: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? …. Your playing small does not serve the world…”

Marianne herself is not one to play small. Despite her petite build, she’s a dynamic speaker who frequently commands the attention of large audiences around the world. Unlike some rock star gurus, she’s not afraid to mix spirituality with politics and display her vibrant liberal plumage in her ongoing crusade to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Indeed it was this well-known phrase that Marianne invoked at Wisdom 2.0 this year as she schooled participants about true wisdom and global responsibility in a show-stealing speech that included her refusal to be a “dancing monkey for a bunch of rich capitalists,” a line that quickly turned my longstanding indifference to deep respect. Inspired to look into Marianne’s life and work, I learned that her fierceness is even more apparent offstage, at least to those who describe her as harsh, demanding, and controlling, a reputation that she seems keen to perpetuate by calling herself “the bitch of God.”

Thus I was a bit nervous as I queued up to question Marianne in front of hundreds of faithful fans packing the pews at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco. It was here that the public programs department of my alma mater, the California Institute of Integral Studies, had booked Marianne to speak, with a specific request that she put her progressive foot forward. She was even presented with a title: “Speaking Truth to Power: A Spirituality That Inspires Social Change,” to which she did justice by preaching passionately on poverty, civil and human rights, feminism, the Occupy movement, corporate corruption, and the addictive nature of American culture, among other things.

Her speech was quite inspiring, actually. Yet she failed to address a question that has been on my mind for quite awhile, namely: How to cultivate an attitude of abundance, universal love, and generosity while living under the soul-crushing heel an economic system predicated on scarcity, competition, and exploitation? I believe that individual awakening is impossible without cultural awakening, which is impossible without a radical restructuring of our systems of finance and governance to more accurately reflect the interconnected nature of reality. Surely many spiritual leaders would agree, yet none that I know—except the Dalai Lama, who calls himself a socialist—have dared to directly challenge the status quo, perhaps reluctant to bite the hand that feeds. In fact many of them continue peddling the old “law of attraction” snake oil that keeps people focused on personal gain rather than collective transformation.

Marianne Williamson is no exception. Her latest book, The Law of Divine Compensation, is essentially a rewrite of The Secret, itself a mash-up of dozens of “think and grow rich” books that had come before. Since Marianne’s new book was handed out to all attendees, I had a chance to skim through it before her appearance, hoping to find some truly radical gem buried within. Finding nothing of the sort, I decided to compassionately call her out, and immediately started scribbling my thoughts on the book’s back page, for reference in case of brain freeze. This would prove to be a mistake.

I was the last questioner in the queue. Book in hand and butterflies in stomach, I stepped up to the mic and said something like this:

“First of all, thank you for your talk, and for bringing such fire into the otherwise watery realm of spirituality. I especially want to thank you for bringing up the addiction piece, which I find to be totally spot on. But I don’t think we can talk about addiction without talking about our economic system, which is based on addiction, on the endless drive for more and more. And we can’t really talk about abundance without addressing an economic system that is based on scarcity, and that forces us into competition with one another, no matter how loving we’d like to be. This is the conversation I’d like to see happening in our public spaces. It’s the elephant in the room; it’s the third rail…nobody wants to talk about it. So my hope, my prayer, is that people with spiritual authority and wisdom like you will start to discuss our economic system and its fatal flaws, to at least get the conversation started.”

I can’t remember if anyone clapped, but I was pleased with myself for speaking truth to spiritual power—in a relatively calm and coherent manner even. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been more explicit by uttering if not emphasizing the unspeakable C-word—capitalism—but I didn’t want to sound like a myopic Marxist when the problem as I see it runs deeper and wider, to the monetary system itself and the outdated assumptions upon which it rests. At any rate, my basic point was unequivocal enough. Or so I thought.

My pride quickly turned to dismay as Marianne artfully dodged—no, completely subverted—my subtly subversive question, turning it into a pitch for the little blue book I happened to be carrying. She even joked about me being planted by her publisher so that she could finally get down to business and share with us the keys to wealth and prosperity that she had learned on her journey to New Age notoriety.
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Apparently, in the world of pop spirituality no less than business, it helps to be an egomaniac. I later learned that Marianne lived up to her reputation that night, bossing and berating her backstage point people to the brink of tears. The experience served as a powerful reminder that spiritual celebrities like Marianne, Deepak Chopra, and Wayne Dyer are—first and foremost perhaps—expert entertainers. This is not to say that their books and lectures are devoid of powerful truths and potentially transformative ideas, but that behind the wise words lie beautifully flawed humans seeking power, recognition, and yes, even money. Another, more cynical notion is that our teachers, like all of us, often behave more like monkeys, dancing for a bunch of rich capitalists to a tune that nobody can even imagine ending.