Introduction:  The Business of Consciousness

The focus on spirituality has become so pervasive that it stands as today’s greatest megatrend. Its impact on personal lives is spreading into institutions. And spirituality in business is converging with other socioeconomic trends to foster a moral transformation in capitalism.”

—-Patricia Aburdene, coauthor of Megatrends; author of Megatrends 2010: Conscious Capitalism.


The futurist and author Peter Russell sat on the dais looking relaxed as he waited for the crowd filing into the seminar room to take their seats. He was the sole speaker at a special session entitled “Consciousness: The Next Frontier,” held at the 2007 LOHAS Forum, a business conference serving the international marketplace known as Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, LOHAS for short. It was a concurrent session, and clearly the conference organizers had underestimated Russell’s appeal. With the seventy-five chairs in the room taken, the overflow of attendees stood along the walls of the seminar room and sat in the aisles. When the room quieted at last, Russell said in a soft voice, “We are going through a global spiritual renaissance for the first time. Humans are now in an evolutionary period of consciousness, whereby we can move away from a narcissized consumer culture toward a more collective understanding of the nature of life, as self dissolves into a universal awareness.”

Narcissized consumer culture? Spiritual renaissance? Dissolution of the self?

Could Russell say that at a conference attracting some titans of American industry, including Intel, Dell, and Ford Motor Company, and a few of Hollywood’s more recognizable faces, including Raquel Welch’s and Daryl Hannah’s?

“Consciousness is our greatest untapped resource and it is never more in need than now because the world is undergoing a major worldview shift,” he said. “This is a shift that has been predicted for ages by many of the world’s religious faiths and metaphysical traditions.” The audience was hushed and intent upon his words. Russell had just linked consciousness with religion and spirituality, but he did not provide any references from world religions to illustrate his point. Instead he chuckled and said, “religion is what spirituality looks like when put into human hands; they are two different things.” People began to laugh and nod. Someone exclaimed, “Yes!” For a brief moment, the venue seemed more akin to a revival tent than an upscale business conference. Russell waited for the stir to subside before adding that the paradigm shift to a different, more spiritual consciousness was “a leaderless movement” attributable to the rise of the globalized media. “We’ve never had a global media before and now we can access traditions and information anywhere,” he said.

Russell seemed relaxed about his frequent juggling of the word “consciousness,” and the more he used it, the more it appeared to serve as a sort of code for a constellation of practices and beliefs on the “self,” the social world, and the natural world that were being ethicized and moralized.

A year later, at LOHAS Forum 2008, Russell was again speaking on consciousness. As he had the previous year, he spoke about the power of the free market to change the world for the good–and he called it “conscious capitalism.” As businesses develop “consciousness,” he said, they will cease to be just market entities, evolving into servants to the world and ushering in the new paradigm of health for the planet that Russell called sustainability. “The real root of unsustainability,” Russell declared, “is the unsustainability of consciousness. The old way of consciousness that has worked for a long time–that materialistic consciousness–doesn’t work any longer.”

The concept of consciousness in LOHAS is an overarching theme. It is used in that marketplace in ways that carry the deepest questions of the ages, about survival, quality of life, compassion, and duty. In fact, the words “spirituality” and “consciousness” are used so often in LOHAS that they are treated normatively–without much explanation as if the receivers of these messages understand at a deep level the inherent meanings. Testing this hypothesis, I recognized in Russell’s 2007 LOHAS Forum seminar an editor who had worked in the natural and organic products industry for more than twenty years. After the seminar, I asked him whether he had found it surprising to hear Russell marshal terms such as “consciousness” in a business setting. He shrugged. If anything, he said, he found Russell’s use of the word almost passé. “Everyone is tuned into the changing consciousness field,” he said. Later that evening at the event reception I posed the same question to a group of attendees and received much the same response.

It is surprising that these two terms that appear to be signposts to a new world vision of sustainability do not ignite livelier discussions about their definitions, if for no other reason than so we know when we’ve arrived at the goal of sustainability. Certainly no one in either of Russell’s seminars in 2007 and 2008 debated or argued with his notion of consciousness or even that of sustainability. And, clearly, his weaving of spirituality with consciousness within the sphere of business seemed to be well received. The crowd had been appreciative of his deliberate opposition of spirituality to religion.

Russell’s treatment of spirituality situated it as a universal, supra-categorical phenomenon. If it surprised them, the audience of Rust Belt manufacturers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and natural “foodies” didn’t show it. They seemed overwhelmingly supportive of the ideas, and this in itself is a bit astonishing because it wasn’t so long ago when the idea of “spirituality” conjured up images of chilled-out New Agers with crystals and incense. Just a decade earlier, it would have been tough to envision Ford Motor Company executives sitting through Russell’s talk on the dawn of a new age of consciousness, which was the provenance of the “alternative” lifestyle crowd and the butt of jokes for the “mainstream.” But the term “spirituality” has become pervasive, enough so to allow this diverse crowd to place themselves on the same map if even for just a few days of a conference. The term was being used by Russell to remonstrate religion, to give it a bit of a public flogging, and the audience loved it.

He could do that because the word “spirituality” is malleable, readily adopted, and adapted by individuals to fit in with any manner of values they might hold. Its fluidity allows it to be attached variously to different artifacts, practices, people, or beliefs without causing much of a stir, because while it is understood that even though it is customizable it denotes some sort of common human experience (U. King 7). Sutcliffe and Bowman say its pliability “represents not only a pragmatic, but also a strategically powerful resource for mobile individuals in the modern world,” and that it operates as a sort of “halfway house” between formal religion and the “variegated lifestyles and niche cultures of modernity” (10). This certainly seems to fit the manner in which it operates in LOHAS.

The word “spirituality” as it is used in LOHAS is interchangeable with “consciousness. I’ve questioned my informants about how they interpret both words, and I’ve analyzed LOHAS texts with the same question in mind. In both cases, the terms serve as metonyms for righteousness, truthfulness, and “natural” ways of being. As adjectives, they are the identifying marks of change-agents–those people such as “conscious consumers” whom my informants believe will lead the charge toward planetary sustainability, and for whom the phrase “conscious capitalism” is their rallying cry, indicative of the assumption in LOHAS that a new worldview is being birthed through a reformed capitalism. And, those who see this transformation are people who have somehow awakened from the stupor of consumerism.

To that, Russell said in his 2008 seminar, “deep within us we know it is not true, this belief that having more will make us feel better.” This might be considered a surprising statement in a conference held in a hotel where rooms go for four hundred dollars a night and where no one would be sitting if their companies weren’t successfully selling more of something, be it hybrid cars, energy bars, or yoga mats. But Russell went on to say, “This is where the shift to spirit comes in–all teachings question that material mind set and show we have choice about how we feel. In LOHAS, we see a shift in values and a shift in caring and questioning of the materialistic attitudes hypnotized into us from birth.”

Consciousness in LOHAS is both a state of existence and a process, whereby we come to recognize the very essence of our humanity, a nugget lying dormant within us despite being silenced by the cacophony of late modernity, late capitalism, globalization, and more. This essence is uncorrupted and incorruptible, almost as if it has somehow been lying outside the mundane world all this time just waiting to be rediscovered by LOHAS. It’s an ethical, moral place that answers to a higher authority that isn’t called God in LOHAS texts but which certainly points to something beyond our sensory cognition, something like God.

And through all of this, through the silencing of our essential conscious through the decades, through our rediscovery of it and our subsequent enlightenment, the media and the market are showing us the way. The print, digital, broadcast, and visual media have always had a strong presence in the LOHAS phenomenon. They’ve been solemnly charged with sowing the seeds of “consciousness” into public culture. Utne Reader CEO Nina Utne, at her panel presentation at LOHAS Forum 2007, described the role of the media as “acupuncturists, trying to douse and scan what is important to the future of society and what is happening now.”

This is the essence of LOHAS: the manner in which it has brought spirituality into dialogue with business and sustainability. The mere existence of LOHAS is revealing of the creative ways in which people can transfer ideas that are normally assigned to the sphere of “sacred” to the materials and environments at hand, including to those relegated to the “profane” side of the equation, particularly pertinent here, to markets and to media (see Einstein; Hanegraaff, “New Age”; Heelas and Woodhead; and Pike).

Created by two market organizations, one a retailer and one a publisher, and embraced by many of the entities it seeks to describe as a way to reorder the marketplace for alternative, natural and environmentally friendly goods and services, LOHAS continues to take shape through market and media through various “texts.” By texts I refer to commodities, advertising, events, regulatory policies, marketing efforts, market organizations, lectures, conversations, and agencies that align with the term (see Murphy 399).

LOHAS bridges the alternative and mainstream, the sacred and profane, capitalism and sustainability by using the power of the media and the marketplace. At LOHAS Forum 2006, Barbara Harris, executive editor of Weider Publications, then the publisher of Natural Health magazine, said in her presentation on the role of media in LOHAS: “Media is a dialogue that reflects society.” Indeed media are involved in the “dialogue” of culture, but that’s only half of the story. Harris’s comment leaves out the very generative role that media play in making culture, but those I interviewed who work in the media did not want to go that far even though they accepted that media should reveal truths and provide leadership in ways other institutions could not.

One way in which to think about this productive role of media is to reflect on media as dealers in symbols. They form a sort of global cultural bazaar, where the world’s symbols, rituals, traditions, people, goods, and practices are arrayed. As users of media, we shop there for symbolic resources in order to construct identities, values, opinions, and goals. But the selection and presentation of symbols is just part of the media’s work. The media can also re-sort these symbols into new arrangements, taking them out of one context and reinserting them into another, changing their meanings in the process. By doing so, the media create competencies. One example of this is the ways in which we access mediated knowledge and which requires we learn the vagaries of media technologies. These competencies, in turn, have their own structuring effects on the realm of culture. Both of these processes deeply engage media in the acts of meaning making, and “[a] focus on meaning,” says Stewart Hoover, “gets to the heart of the relationship of media to culture” (Religion p. 36).

Religion, one of the central sites and forces of meaning making for humans, hasn’t stayed immune to  media influence. Those symbols and those “competencies” are also included in the work of media and market. Spirituality is part of the ordering and locating work we humans do to situate and understand ourselves and others, but we can only engage in constructing our various spiritualities because we’re to some degree autonomous, that is, we regard ourselves as individuals who are legitimate sources of information and meaning making. “If the purpose of spiritual seeking is the development of an evolved sense of identity and selfhood, media provide a major resource that grounds the individual rather concretely and directly in contemporary lived culture,” Hoover says (“Visual” 154).