Unpublished essay from my research on ceremonial cacao during postgraduate studies in anthropology.I share my essays to track my growth and evolution through my research process and writing but also to inspire other academics at different stages of the journey. I have currently completed my Bachelor of Arts double majoring in psych and social anthropology and am currently working on my Masters of Arts Social Anthropology.
Essay submitted: 2/2/2023
The consumption of food is more complex than just providing us with nourishment for survival, eating practices and the types of food we consume and how we consume them are strongly associated to our identities (Johnston et al, 2017). In this essay I will be discussing how I construct a spiritual identity through the consumption of ceremonial cacao. First, I look at how spiritualism identities are generated through self-seeking (James, 1892) and spirituality identifies differently in each individual whilst also being shared generally in a collective group. Then I look at how I manifest my own individual spiritual identity by my consumption of ceremonial cacao, I look at why the word ceremonial identifies me socially in society in the new age spiritual community as spiritual and alternative but also about my own understandings and meanings to my consumption of cacao, what I was seeking and how it connects my own understanding to the spiritual identity. I also look at how the COVID pandemics and worldwide lockdowns contributed to an increase in personal use of ceremonial due to my values and needs changing and connecting more in the online spiritual space and then how this shifts again when the lockdowns are over normal everyday life routine begins again and each scenario generates a different identity construct to spiritualism. Finally, I end on analysing the identity constructs of my spiritualism through Marx’s Commodity Fetishism theory and Durkheim's totemism theory.
How is spiritual identity generated?
The identity construction of spirituality is unique and changes depending on individual and local societal standards and practices, spiritualism identity is not a one size fits all identity that represents one identity globally, there is many differences. Spirituality and religion are described as the same thing but they different things. Religion is a set of organised beliefs in an institution that are shared by a group of people, whereas spiritualism is a more individual practice where one is connected to inner peace, purpose, and self-awareness (Brady, 2020). Often people feel connected to both the identity of religion and spirituality that they can become blurred into one identity, but the construction of spirituality is a unique process of individuals seeking to connect to and separate from others (Smith & Poll, 2003). There is no one path on the construction of the identity of spirituality but in broad terms and my own personal understanding it is usually a journey one takes to discover the self-more, personal development to develop psychological wellbeing and make sense of the external world. Some call it the journey of enlightenment, seeking inner peace and I suppose how you would generate this identity is to be committed to a journey of spiritual self-seeking ,(James, 1892) self-discovery and the identity of spiritual is a self-claim, not necessarily one gained through connection to others, but it also can be identified by others, it's all down to individual perceptions of spirituality, sometimes it may be an identity that obvious to the external world and at other times it might be an internal identity that others are not aware of.
How I manifest this identity via my consumption of cacao
Ceremonial Cacao has become more than just a food commodity, there is now mainstream spiritual meaning attached to it. Alot of spiritual connection to identity is identified through interactions with spiritual objects (Smith & Poll, 2003) the things you use, the foods you consume and items you collect as totems. Ceremonial cacao although is the same as pure cacao, identifies me as spiritual to those within the spiritual western new age spiritual community, an unspoken identification (Walsh, 2021). I also think to the more wider society that the word “ceremonial” would also identify me as alternative or spiritual, as the word ceremonial is often used and associated with rituals.
“The "spiritual me" is described as one's inner thinking and feeling self” (Smith & Poll, 2003) my own consumption of Ceremonial cacao is usually accompanied by a meditation, journaling session and a dedicated moment, an unspoken ritual where I connect with myself and build a deeper connection and awareness with my inner thoughts. This process of consuming cacao was taught to me during Cacao Ceremonies, which is when a group of women get together, sitting in ceremony to meditate alongside together after consuming ceremonial grade cacao together and go on a collective but individual spiritual journey. Usually in my experience those who frequent these cacao ceremonies are longing for connection not only to others but also to themselves, there is a great longing to make sense of the world and how things have come to be. The consumption of ceremonial cacao carries this identity because of the meaning that has been created and even if I am alone at home or I am in a ceremony the consuming of ceremonial cacao identifies me to me as spiritual.
How did covid impact my enactment of this identity construct
During the covid pandemics I found that my consumption of ceremonial cacao increased and so did my identity and attachment to spirituality, just prior to the pandemics I had just discovered ceremonial cacao and the rituals involved attending my first ceremony just before the first lockdown. During the pandemic, my desire to connect with others increased as I was a single Mum during the lockdowns and feeling lonely. I turned to the online space of Instagram to connect with other likeminded alternative people. I believe that had the covid pandemics not happened I do not know for sure if I would have engaged as heavily as I did in the online spiritual community. Due to COVID and my desire to connect specifically with other women I started participating in online cacao ceremonies which were much similar to the in-person events just held via zoom instead. Covid had a direct impact to my increase of ceremonial cacao consumption as an attempt to connect with others and also creating a deeper connection with the spiritual identity. I also think covid created that space where I was not in such a rush through life in the usual hustle mode of living and working, where I began to really create a deeper connection to myself, as the busiest slowed and I was able to interact with others I began to really explore my own life values and feeling powerful in that connection (James, 1892).
How are my experiences with the identity construct commodity currently
My current experience with spirituality as an identity constructed through ceremonial cacao I feel is pretty non-existent, from what was a daily ritual and practice throughout the last few years in the pandemic has since reduced for me as I return to the normal and mundane it seems, well my current justification is that a ritual like this cannot fit into my everyday daily routine when the kids need to be at school and I have work or study to do it doesn’t fit in, I feel stretched and a spiritual practice that once took importance over everything else no longer really crosses my mind. Our food choices relate to collective norms and values (Johnston et al, 2017) and I see that when I was in the lockdown and craving connection my food consumption was creating that by consuming ceremonial cacao as a way to construct that spiritual connection within myself but also with others, also in current reflection my values don’t currently put ceremonial cacao as my current norm as my needs have shifted from connection to going to work and foods that are easy and mindless to consume without a ritual like cereal or smoothies connect me to that identity and the society I’m currently identifying with. I do sometimes think to myself I should make time because the longer I go without the ceremonial cacao practice the less spiritual I feel and the less connected to myself, so even without consuming the ceremonial cacao that also creates an identity construct of non-spiritual as I have associated ceremonial cacao with my identity of spirituality.
Commodity fetishism and totemism of ceremonial cacao
In a capitalist society the productive origins of commodities are often forgotten (Billig, 1999), what I noticed most commonly in my experiences of consuming cacao in ceremony with others that more often those who attended were white and middle – upper class women. The routine of consuming ceremonial cacao here to construct the spiritual identity, creates a routine of repression (Billig, 1999) for marginalized indigenous farmers in remote islands like the Solomon Islands where ceremonial cacao is grown, the process of consuming the cacao requires the process of forgetting about the farmers, without a thought, it happens naturally because as Marx theorises as Commodity Fetishism the commodity form of ceremonial cacao is directly focused and fetishised on so soley that most other aspects of social context are ignored (Johnston et al, 2017) in the process of creating meaning and identity.
Emile Durkheim’s theory Totemism also offers insight when analysing the spiritual identity when constructed through ceremonial cacao, totemism is the processes of interactions with spiritual objects (Smith & Poll, 2003) totems create social cohesion (Johnston et al, 2017) unifying groups of people through on object or commodity. Group identities are often singled by specific food totems (Johnston et al, 2017) the ceremonial aspect of ceremonial cacao consumption helps us to find others who are connecting with the commodity spiritually, items defined through totemism have a social aspects that create both collective and individual totemism, involving a ritual and a belief in the soul (Goldenweiser, 1917), the ceremonies that cacao is being consumed at offers that connected collective group totemism using the ceremonial cacao but the individual still has an individual unique experience each time.
In this essay I have discussed how the construction of identity is unique to each individual and changes meaning and values depending on local societal standards but also the meaning that individual creates from it. Spirituality is generated through creating a deep discovery of self-first through spiritual practices and rituals and then this identifies collectively in groups within society by these individual processes. The consumption of ceremonial cacao is the process and ritual in which I participate in which manifests my understanding of spirituality but also aligns me with others who consume ceremonial cacao for self-discovery. The lockdowns played a huge part not only globally in encouraging everyone to head online as a tool to maintain connection with not only family but still fulfil a social need and creating new connections, this particularly increased my use and participation in cacao ceremonies both personally and within spaces with others as a form to not only learn about myself deeper in a mindful manner but also to connect with others as I lived alone in the pandemic. It was particularly interesting to reflect on my connection to spirituality by my use of cacao and how when it became less frequent, I associated myself as less spiritual and less connected to myself because I was not using the commodity. Finally, I ended on analysing my use using the theories commodity fetishism and totemism, both offered very valuable insights to how ceremonial cacao contributes to repression of indigenous by the fetishism and totemism of the cacao plant whilst seeking a spiritual identity.
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Walsh, A. (2021) The problematic elements behind uncritically embracing cacao ceremonies. RTE website. Retrieved from https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2021/0408/1208610-uncritical-embrace-cacao-ceremonies-problematic/