Tools for Healing? “Buying” into Crystals and Gemstones
November 22, 2018
Points of Healing, Points of Mine is a series of posts discussing the interweavings of conversations of crystal therapy, alternative healing, science & conservation, and eco-consumerism.
We Must Have the Precious…At What Cost?
Have you fallen under the spell of crystals and gemstones yet?
Crystal healing is expanding in mainstream culture, and you don’t have to look far these days to be enticed by shimmering specimens with high price tags and a sales pitch that does its best to convince you that these stones will transform your life inside and out.
If you have discovered that gemstones help you balance your chakras, enhance your meditation practice, and clear the energies of your space, and you object to what you perceive as my sarcastic tone, let me hasten to add: this is not a witch hunt.
My involvement with crystals and minerals spans the years from childhood rock collecting and serious beach shell searching to working at jobs selling crystals and jewelry (from some perspectives, these were some of the better jobs I’ve found). I was probably less than 10 when I was given my first amethyst crystal (I almost immediately dropped it).
But I have reserves about the crystal consumerism that has exploded in recent years and the hype that sometimes accompanies it. For those of us who are conservation-oriented, it is challenging to ignore the complications of conscious consumerism when approaching a conversation of crystal sales. The sense of enchantment that crystals and stones can evoke often obstructs our ability to see the negative repercussions of the demands that we place on ourselves and the planet through the politics and economics of mining.
Crystals hold a unique and often conflicting place in conversations of economics, consumerism, alternative health, and the environment.
David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance and numerous other titles, demonstrates a common perception that working with crystals signifies elevated environmental, social, and spiritual consciousness, interpreting a growing interest in them as a “sign that our culture is starting to reconsider its drive to colonize and exploit the rest of the planet” (279). Many people who work with crystals are environmental and social justice advocates, but there is also a disconnect of thought regarding crystal consumerism. The reality is that only cursory research reveals the detrimental political and environmental effects of gemstone mining. The most prevalent example that has made its way into the popular news channels is lapis lazuli, a stone that has prompted activists to argue in favor of some sort of classification as a ‘conflict jewel’ due to estimates that fifty percent of revenue from Afghanistan’s mining funds the Taliban. In specialized publishing, articles such as Jennifer-Lynn Archuleta’s “The Color of Responsibility: Ethical Issues and Solutions in Colored Gemstones,” which appeared in Gems & Gemology shed light on the failure of the multimillion-dollar colored gemstone industry to implement protections for both the environment and the mining laborers (144), though efforts toward sustainable and ethical mining cooperation is evidenced through projects such as “The Madison Dialogue,” a conversation among activists and jewelry retail and wholesalers.
Suzuki also offers an analysis of some of the plights of consumerism in The Sacred Balance (though not directly in relation to crystals):
“Are we better off now that we’ve become professional consumers, driving economic growth endlessly ahead of us? It depends on what is considered “better”. . .Longer working hours, higher levels of stress, failing families, drug addiction, children at risk—these may be to some extent the pathologies of consumerism. Let loose in the world’s biggest store, people suffer from various ills: the plague of having too much, the rage and jealousy of those who cannot buy the merchandise. Nevertheless, governments of all countries continue to hold up economic growth, on which consumerism depends, as the key to their well-being” (41).
When taking these challenges into account, it is difficult to ignore the necessity for an assessment of to what degree and in what respect crystals can be said to ‘heal.’
Crystal Healing or Retail Therapy?
Do crystals and gemstones contain actual healing properties or is the benefit merely retail therapy?
There is, of course, no straightforward answer to this, and it’s too broad a question for the scope of this article. So instead of attempting to answer it here, I’ll offer and overview of several of the relevant approaches, questions, and dialogues pertaining to this conversation. The following video from The New Yorker touches on several aspects of how and why crystal speak to the popular, contemporary imagination:
Crystal healers frequently use gemstones to work with chakras—vibrational energy centers along the spine. They are also used in personal meditation practices or they are worn/carried on the body as protective amulets, but many skeptics assert they act only as placebos. The following Insider video traces the process of a crystal enthusiast coming to terms with the placebo effect.
Stuart McClean, a researcher of the sociocultural context of complementary health practices in the UK, refrains from using the term ‘placebo’ in his discussion of the effectiveness of crystal spiritual healing, instead focusing on the performative aspect of intuitive healing approaches. His exploration is based on Levi-Strauss’s study of the “efficacy” of “magical practice” or the shamanistic complex which “highlighted first the importance of the healer’s belief in his or her own techniques or ability, and second, the importance of the patient’s belief in the healer’s power. Third, crucial to this process, Levi-Strauss emphasized the faith and expectation of the group (i.e. the audience)” (62). The explanation of performativity allows us to set aside the question of an intrinsic healing ability of crystals, and to reclaim some of the suspended belief about how crystals could assist us to reach areas of our psyches that can help us through various conditions and ailments, but there are those who believe that particular stones carry an intrinsic predisposition to assist us with particular types of challenges.
While crystal sales increase, so does criticism of alternative practices. Comedy skits such as the Baroness Von Sketch Show poke fun (most of the crystal enthusiasts I know would laugh along–for a few minutes):
Less comedic resentful backlash toward the blindspots of “woo-woo” (see the above video by Asia Suler for a discussion of the origin of the word ‘woo’) New Age philosophies–including “the Crystal People”–which tend to appropriate cross-culturally, from those who represent a postcolonial perspective is evidenced though articles such as Anna Merlan’s “Manifest Destiny–Lite with Souveniers: Why Assholes in Turquoise are Flooding the Southwest” also demonstrate an attempt to resolve these binary contrasts within the gemstone community. She scathes at “The Crystal Capitalists’…participating in some warped, consumer-focused version of hippiedom…consuming too greedily, too obliviously,” though she also acknowledges, “The Crystal People are, I think, probably well-intentioned. Some of them are surely sincere spiritual seekers, looking for a different, less harried lifestyle, one that’s closer to the land, kinder to one’s own body and mind.”
Also common is hostility from those who are often more scientifically and evidence-based minded. Carl Sagan’s quote from The Demon-Haunted World has been adapted on social media by the March for Science and has been intermittently appearing in my Facebook newsfeed for a least a year:
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children or grandchildren’s time. . .when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas and knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media. . .credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
Unlike Merlan, Sagan reserves no defense for occult or metaphysical thought.
I won’t take the Lord of the Rings allusions in my subheadings to a full analogy–the harsh criticism overlooks the benefits crystal therapy can offer as alternatives to antidepressants or drugs and alcohol, for instance.
But setting aside the question of an intrinsic healing ability of crystals, we still need to somehow break the mesmeric trance of their enchanting qualities long enough to trace our tools/amulets/talismans/possessions back to their origins and assess whether our demands for them are causing more good than harm. If crystals are instruments of healing, there is all the more reason to think locally and globally when considering the provenance of the objects that we, as consumers, buy into.
Last year, I spoke with crystal expert and author Nicholas Pearson, and asked him about just that. I’ll publish our interview in the next post.
Archuleta, Jennifer-Lynn. “The Color of Responsibility: Ethical Issues and Solutions in Colored Gemstones.” Gems & Gemology, 52:2, pp.144-60.