In the kitchen of his Charleston, S.C. home, wearing a flower in his hair, life coach and entrepreneur JP Sears explains, in a recent video, that, “being gluten intolerant used to be limited only to those who are actually intolerant to gluten,” but that now anyone can try it as long as they have a “ravenous appetite for impossible standards and dogmatic feelings of victimization.” When I first watched “How to Become Gluten Intolerant,” just a day after its release, it had already racked up half a million views. As I write, the count is at 2.7 million, and growing.
Sears’ vacuous serenity is familiar to anyone who has been trapped in a conversation about gluten, chakras, and homemade kombucha. He captures the condescension and fuzzy logic of New Age grandstanding so well that, like all good satire, it could just as easily be the real thing.
Sears’ wildly popular YouTube series on the “Ultra Spiritual Life” focuses the individualistic, condescending, bourgeois elements of New Age culture; it’s all about looking spiritual by wearing hundred-dollar Lululemon pants and talking endlessly about intuition and energy. And it’s about inconsistencies, like this one from episode 3 “On How to Become a Vegetarian”:
As a spiritual seeker you don’t believe in death, [since] it’s only an illusion… But as a vegetarian you need to strategically forget this belief at times so you can get more emotionally charged at people who kill animals.
Were Sears simply a critic and comedian shattering New Age pieties his videos would still be clever and hilarious, but Sears is a full-time life coach whose work focuses on emotional healing. When Sears notes that he too is guilty of the behaviors he lampoons, he puts himself in the far more interesting tradition of those who criticize and question the beliefs they themselves hold.
I recently visited this New Age Stephen Colbert at his home in Charleston, South Carolina to find out, among other things, how he balances comic and spiritual concerns that appear to be at odds with one another.
Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What does it mean to be Ultra Spiritual?
Ultra Spiritual is the practice of looking spiritual and getting other people to notice how spiritual you look.
Does this reflect a cultural trend in contemporary American society?
It does. And I’ve been a part of that trend. Everything in the videos I’m guilty of in some way. Part of the human condition is we become very attached to practices and philosophies that work well for us. And when those practices and philosophies have reached their expiration date, we’re still attached to them.
The Ultra Spiritual video series is an invitation to go beyond the beliefs that have worked well for us as soon as they’ve stopped working well. You have a knee injury, break your leg, your crutch is going to help you really well for a while, but if you keep leaning on that crutch, eventually your leg will become weaker and weaker.
You satirize the way that Ultra Spiritual people can replace the anti-dogmatic pluralism of New Age with a kind of consumerist individualism. There’s a “truthiness” there, since they selectively appeal to religious and scientific facts. To push your metaphor further: if practices and philosophies necessarily become a crutch, doesn’t this just lead to the relativistic individualism you critique?
I love the wisdom of your question. Listening to what I’ve been saying you could ask, “Should we trash every tradition and belief every chance we get in the name of growth?” Well, no. That becomes a dogmatic practice in and of itself. The question [is whether a person] allows themselves to have a renewed perspective of their common traditional belief—if not then that’s where we’re challenged.
Ultra Spiritual Life highlights a version of “truthiness” more commonly found among liberals, including things like selective gluten intolerance and citing whatever science seems to support a vaguely spiritual worldview. How do Ultra Spiritual beliefs compare and contrast from those we’d see in the conservative right, and where do you stand in relation to that spectrum?
To me the Ultra Spiritual theme is the exact same, it’s just the opposite polarity—believing that [it’s] something greater when in fact the Ultra Spiritual theme is the same level of constriction, blind to the fact that we’re just like those who we think we’re better than. Our defiance keeps us at the same level. Me personally, I guess I do my best to be in the middle. Personally I love to question everything. For that matter I even question the idea, “Should we question everything,” but I do believe it works well for us to question everything and I do personally enjoy what for me is a token of humbleness: believing that our human minds are relative and we can’t comprehend what the truth is on any given matter.
How do you negotiate the line between comedy and critique?
It very much is a line I do try to be mindful of. Depending on a given person’s perspective, someone will always say, “JP you’re over the line.” Others will say, “You’ve got a lot of room to go before you’re over the line!” But of course I need to look at it through my perspective. The best I can say is I do my best to be mindful of it. I never intend to attack or criticize people. What I always intend to do is expose the shadow side that people are usually not aware of.
The type of comedy I enjoy is when the comedian delivers a line in such a way that it makes us become aware of something we previously weren’t aware of. The punch line is delivered and there’s this new perspective we’d never thought of before. I think that space in between is a very therapeutic dose of confusion, which evokes the emotional response, laughter being the emotional response, a form of weeping.