I (was and) am so cool it sometimes hurt to look at me.
The Spiritual Disciplines of Oprah Winfrey
“Live your best life—in every way, every day. O is more than a magazine. It’s an Owner’s Guide to your life. Through the magazine, you’ll learn to focus your energy, renew your passion for life and refresh your soul.” The pull-out subscription request card found in Oprah’s magazine says it all. For just 24 dollars a year, a person can find health, happiness, fulfillment and meaning in their lives. Or, if a person doesn’t want to subscribe to this publication, Oprah’s promises are also available on her syndicated talk show and “24 hours a day, on Oprah.com.” After seeing her claims month after month (as I subscribe to O magazine, watch her show and log on to Oprah.com myself), I began to wonder how exactly is it that Oprah teaches me, part of her loyal public, to focus my energy, renew my passion for life, etc. Likewise, I wondered what Oprah means by any of those goals in the first place. I have always believed that Oprah Winfrey is a guru to whom millions of women look for life guidance. Oprah responds to their tacit plea by appropriating various ideologies and religious beliefs and blends them into a novel, secular “spirituality.” However, I have also more recently come to believe that Oprah’s spirituality does have definite goals and spiritual disciplines to obtain these goals. The discussion presented here is my own attempt to understand these aims and disciplines and perhaps uncover what I (and many others) find so irresistible.
Part I Oprahism: a secular, consumer-friendly spirituality
The term “spirituality” has taken on an ambiguous character in recent years, with seemingly as many definitions as there are people trying to define it. However, there is some agreement among scholars in the academic study of Spirituality as to what it encompasses. A good definition for the purposes here comes from one such scholar, Sandra M. Schneiders. She writes that spirituality is the subject matter concerned with “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives.”[i] In other words, spirituality evidences that humans wish somehow to transcend the mundane and appeal to something “larger” than just themselves. Also, spirituality points to those means by which humans seek to incorporate this desire into their daily lives. Schneiders’ definition is broad enough to allow that “spirituality” can occur outside of an organized religion (though she does point out that the idea of spirituality as such started in early Christianity.)[ii] Likewise, spirituality need not necessarily have supernatural (or supra-natural) aspects to it per se—though usually the “ultimate value” and “transcendent” would fall into this category.
This is a good starting place to begin looking at why Oprah Winfrey does not merely promote a self help philosophy but her own secular spirituality and set of secular spiritual disciplines. Most of Oprah’s media in some way references a desire to look towards an “ultimate example one perceives.” More often, she encourages her viewers, readers, etc., to seek an experience of “conscious involvement in the project of life integration through self-transcendence.” Oprah is brilliant in her decision to do this. If the numerous polls that keep appearing in the news are to be believed, then most people in the United States want to believe in a God or some other power beyond themselves.[iii] Likewise, many people consider themselves “spiritual” though they do not necessarily attend church.[iv] Oprah’s spirituality capitalizes on this reality and she reframes Schneiders’ definition of spirituality in language that is not only accessible, but attractive as well. Instead of suggesting that women are hungry for ultimate meaning or bound in a life of sin, Oprah instead sells them “10 good reasons to have faith in the future.”[v] Instead of arguing that the world is fallen and in need of redemption (and that all people need salvation), Oprah says that the world is difficult. However, even difficulties may be overcome and “happiness” achieved. Oprah’s experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence is renamed “finding your spirit” and her ultimate value is given any number of warm, fuzzy names (happiness, passion, confidence, etc.).
There are particularities to Oprah’s ultimate values determined by each individual and some of them may include a faith life within a particular religious tradition. This is okay in Oprah’s spirituality—faith is a good and useful thing insofar that it is often a motivator in helping one reach their full potential and/or “happiness.” On the other side of the coin of Oprah’s spirituality, though, one need not believe in God or any religion to still pursue an ultimate value. So, in light of this, Oprah seeks to create a complimentary ultimate value (in the cases of those with a faith life) or an entirely new one (in the case of those who claim no religious background). Oprah ultimately uses new secular language to give a person what polls say he or she already believe in (an undefined “God”) but also successfully defines that god as the “happy” self.
This is not the end of the story, however. Oprah does not merely set the god of the happy self before her fans and expect them to pursue it uninstructed. Rather, she breaks down her ultimate values into recognizable subsets and then lays out sets of practices and disciplines that can (seemingly) lead any person to successful life-integration through self-transcendence towards the ultimate value of the happy self. Though Oprah would allow each person (in this case, each woman) the opportunity to practice her spiritual disciplines in myriad unique ways, I think there are some discernable “universal” practices that Oprah encourages her fans to embrace in her secular spirituality.
Part II: The Spiritual Disciplines of Oprah
Oprah’s spiritual disciplines focus on three main areas—the body, mind and “spirit.”[vi] All three of these things are equally important and one should not be elevated above another. Granted, at certain times a woman may have to focus her energies on one or two aspects and be less conscious of the other one or two, but overall women should seek “balance” between body, mind and spirit.[vii] Balance leads to wellness in these three areas or as Oprah would say, “leading your best life.”[viii] The first discipline Oprah mandates then is to take care of the body. For Oprah, the body is a sacred space, the dwelling place of the mind and the spirit. However, one should take care of the body for its own sake, not just because the mind and the spirit need it to interact with the world. The mandates of this spiritual discipline are not difficult. First, you have to (not should, but have to) exercise. It can be weight training, cardiovascular, yoga or a group or individual sport (ideally a mixture), but Oprah feels that without exercise, the body is a temple that is not being given proper maintenance—it is instead a building falling into disrepair.
Secondly, to properly pursue the body’s wellness, one must eat correctly. Oprah’s “correct” way of eating is both simple and complicated to define on the basis of her printed media. She has a panel of experts (the “Lluminari”) who review current medical research and make recommendations to Oprah’s fans about what current diet trends may or may not work. Also, Oprah seems to endorse the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health’s Food pyramid and guidelines for “healthy” eating. Finally, Oprah’s web page offers medical indicators of the body’s wellness, like a Body Mass Index calculator and other “tests” of how fit or well a person is by some medical standards.[ix] However, while promoting these dietary guidelines and suggestions, her magazine often features recipes that use a lot of sugar, butter or other high calorie ingredients (which goes against her own experts and the recommendation of the USDA). Likewise, during her talk show, commercials for everything from McDonalds to Jenny Craig endorse eating habits contradictory to those her experts seem to espouse. Another problem is that medical wisdom about nutrition is constantly changing. One day it might be considered healthy to completely eliminate carbohydrates from one’s diet, the next it might be considered dangerous.
Thus, a final aspect to the spiritual discipline of caring for the body is knowing that exercise and medically suggested nutritional guidelines are not the whole story. They are commandments, but ones that can and should be broken at times. Oprah’s spiritual discipline mandates that sometimes a woman must at some point acknowledge her imperfections and learn to pursue her body’s health in spite of them. A perfect body is not possible, but to admit this is not a failure. Instead, it is a huge step towards the ultimate value of the self’s happiness. Granted, a woman should try to treat her body like a temple and keep it medically well. However, if she does this to the best of her ability and still finds it imperfect (by whatever standard, but especially a society that holds up emaciated models at its ideal) then a woman has broken free of unrealistic expectations. In learning to be well and to see beauty in her physical self for what it is (whatever it is) she can continually master this first spiritual discipline and perhaps be happy. Oprah herself is the embodiment of this, since she proclaims happiness in her physical self, yet still submits to the challenges she has to face to maintain this happiness.[x]
The self’s ultimate happiness is not dependent on the wellness of the body alone, however. Instead, one must also care for the mind and spirit as well.[xi] These two can be dealt with simultaneously, since in Oprah’s secular spirituality it is often difficult to discern how she really differentiates the two. However, there are different disciplines to propel each towards the self’s happiness. First, just like a woman must come to term with an imperfect body, so too must she contend with an imperfect mind. That is to say, Oprah would propose that most people (if not all) have been emotionally damaged in some way or another in their lives. The best way to deal with this is the spiritual discipline of therapy. Now, therapy might appear in many forms; however, the most effective is sitting down with a trained professional and working through past and present problems. Many women cannot afford to meet with a psychologist or psychiatrist, so Oprah tries to make therapy available through her media. Her “Lluminari” team includes mental health professionals who write columns for her magazine and web page.[xii] Fans are able to write in with questions that are answered either by these two means or on the show.
Some of Oprah’s team have gained a following of their own. The strongest symbol of Oprah’s spiritual discipline of therapy is Dr. Phil McGraw (usually just called Dr. Phil). Dr. Phil does have a doctorate in psychology, but his simple, no-nonsense way of telling people to deal with their problems is very attractive to the masses (if his ratings and book sales figures are to be believed). He has even inspired Sesame Street to create a Muppet named “Dr. Feel,” an orange-skinned character (who bears a striking resemblance to the real Dr. Phil) who teaches children the importance of talking about their feelings. Dr. Phil’s therapeutic advice mainly centers on the premise that “the winners of this life know the rules of the game and have a plan.”[xiii] He holds that people should not blame others for their problems and that only they hold the power to change whatever in their lives is causing unhappiness. However, he does admit that people often need help in finding exactly what it is that is holding them back mentally or emotionally. This is where therapy comes in, or at least following the therapy-like exercises and advice found in his media (or other media advertised on shows like Oprah’s).[xiv]
I mentioned before that therapy comes in many forms. While visiting a psychologist (or trying to use psychology’s premises on one’s own using a book, video series, etc.) is the best way to mine through the emotional or mental blocks to one’s happiness, there are other more tangible means to better one’s situation in life. Here, Oprah gives people the option of consumer therapy. For, after all, Oprah often argues that one’s mental and emotional state is affected by the physical state of their life. Put another way—economics and material well-being play an integral role in a person’s happiness. Though Oprah would definitely say some people may be happy without material wealth or well-being, she would also give equal credit to a person who would not be happy poor.
One of the most popular means of pursuing consumer therapy is “Oprah’s favorite things,” a segment on her show (and reoccurring feature in her magazine) that highlights things that make Oprah happy. These possessions might be anything from a scented candle to an outfit worth thousands of dollars.[xv] Or, if a person’s economic situation is in too much trouble to be cured by small time consumer therapy (i.e. shopping), then again Oprah employs a team of experts to work with fans in that area too. Dr. Phil’s equivalent in this area is Suze Orman. Oprah really admired Suze Orman’s advice because she blends money seamlessly into a secular spirituality. Oprah muses,
“ . . . What I really do admire about [Orman’s] advice is that she is able to get to the root of what is really blocking you from having the money you want and deserve, because this is a big old universe. I swear to you people, it’s a big old universe. Go—created to have abundance for all of us, especially those of us living in America. You can have it . . . the same force that causes the sun to rise every morning can get you a BMW if that’s what you want. Really. It’s all much bigger than that . . . “[xvi]
Here Oprah seems to acknowledge that she does believe in a power that is not human, one that controls the universe. However, at the same time, she ascribes the same power (the ability to earn enough for a BMW) to a human as she does to God. She is both acknowledging a power beyond humans while at the same time reaffirming a person’s own ultimate power over their (in this case financial) fate.[xvii]
Oprah gives fans a third option in her spiritual discipline of therapy. Here, psychology based and consumer therapy are wed into a kind of self directed intellectual therapy. This is manifested in several ways. Oprah often speaks of her ultimate value of happiness in terms of finding one’s life passion or “destiny.” Often times, people get sidetracked in their sub-conscious pursuit of this. Oprah gives them intellectual means to get back on the correct path. The first way she does this is by encouraging people to read. While people should read anything that speaks to their situation and inspires them, Oprah feels particularly confident in her own literary choices. This is why Oprah’s book club was born. Every month, Oprah picks a book that kindles within her a passion to pursue excellence (in her work, in her efforts at caring for her body, etc.). The book club is really just a manifestation of the kind of self-directed intellectual therapy Oprah offers throughout her media.[xviii] Oprah likewise offers her recommendations on movies people should see, topics people should discuss and think about for themselves (gleaned from her daily talk show topics), public figures people should admire and perhaps emulate, ways people can improve their homes and even hobbies and jobs people should pursue. These recommendations are offered time and time again—and people are willing to buy en masse. I think this is due mainly in part to the fact that it is an easily accessed, fun form of therapy that takes place in a group dynamic (albeit an often anonymous one, like being part of the at-home television audience or participating in an online chat).[xix] Here psychology and consumerism are seamlessly blended—people are given a chance to “shop” for something that appeals to them (like a book or hobby) and then use this as a means to “live more passionately” or “remember their spirit.” In other words, it allows them still another means to experience the conscious involvement of life-integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value of self happiness.
Still, Oprah has one more final spiritual discipline that allows a person to move towards complete happiness. For while taking care of the body and seeking various forms of therapy may take care of most of the needs of the mind, body and spirit, sometimes that just isn’t enough. Sometimes, one must look and work outside of the self to truly be happy. This is best encapsulated in Oprah’s “Use your Life” movement and in her mobilization of an “Angel Network.”[xx] The first project, her call for people to “use their life,” mandates that people are not solitary creatures. They can and must reach out to the other so that they themselves may be made whole. For example—a carpenter is not really a carpenter (or at least a truly happy, self-actualized carpenter) unless she uses her skill to build sometimes for a person in need. Likewise, a person who is financially well-off suffers somewhere within them (even if they can’t consciously recognize this) if they do not share their wealth with others. Oprah lives this philosophy. Though she maintains much of her wealth (indeed, it makes her happy and she feels no guilt about this), she also gives a lot of it away to various charitable organizations. Oprah’s own charity, the Angel Network, is a manifestation of her belief that giving benefits the giver as much as those who receive (if not more). After all, Oprah defines the spirit as that which gives a person’s life value (though determined by each individual herself). Oprah tells her fans time and time again that they will never really be happy unless they give to others. She says this is true for the rich and poor alike (though she acknowledges that it is usually not the poor who need to be reminded of this). Perhaps more than through taking care of the body and pursuing therapy, in following the spiritual discipline of giving of one’s self (or using their life), a person is most likely to encounter the ultimate value of true happiness.
Happiness. This is a word I use throughout this paper, and don’t really define. Yet, it’s so essential to my argument that Oprah’s cult of personality actually qualifies as a secular spirituality and to the fact that her suggestions are not merely aspects of a self help movement, but instead secular spiritual disciplines. This is due mostly to the reality that Oprah doesn’t really define happiness herself. Or actually she does, time and time again, but the definition changes with such frequency that it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. But then, I would argue, who needs Oprah to tell you what happiness is? Sure, she does have her own version of it manifested in her magazine, her web page, her television talk show. But I also think Oprah would be the first one to tell you that it is you—and you alone—who determines what happiness really is. So that takes the burden off of me of having to define the term—but it does not take away from the argument that “the happy self” is in fact Oprah’s ultimate value, her god. Furthermore, what makes Oprah’s ultimate value of happiness a spiritual pursuit is the fact that this “happiness” while individualistic, is transcendent. It is something that lays both within the human psyche, moves within society as a motivator for human life and perhaps still somehow causes the sun to rise and set (or get people the BMW they’ve always wanted—whatever). The means Oprah sets out before people to acknowledge the ideal of happiness, the possibility of harnessing it themselves and incorporating it into their daily lives, fits Schneiders’ definition of“spirituality” perfectly. Thus, when enacted, Oprah’s spiritual disciplines are Oprah’s secular spirituality actually manifested, actualized into existence. In other words, even if a person were to argue that Oprah’s media doesn’t present a spirituality per se, the moment a person chooses to actually follow her advice with the goal of achieving “happiness” (even if using other language, but meaning the same thing) they are in fact moving Oprah’s secular spiritual theory into practice. Even if it hadn’t existed as spirituality before, it does the second a person starts enacting it.
So where does this leave me? I started this paper with the intent to find what Oprah was teaching me to look for and how I could go about finding that thing. Well, now I know Oprah wants me to find happiness (which I may define for myself) and that I can pursue said happiness through taking care of my body, seeking various types of therapy and by giving to others. Well, all of this sounds nice enough on some level I suppose. I’m all for being happy. And I hear that life is generally better when you exercise, eat right, talk about your problems, occupy your time with worthwhile intellectual pursuits and try to help other people. And Oprah’s media does a lot of good—it helps a lot of charities and really seems to change a lot of lives for the better. But, at its heart, Oprah’s spirituality also frightens me. I mean, I am one of millions who hang on her every word. I, along with my millions of sisters, buy the books Oprah loves, consider the fashions she endorses and even tolerate Dr. Phil’s advice simply because Oprah suggests we should. And if I am willing to care about her every move, hang on her every word—shouldn’t I be getting something with more . . . more substance? I mean, is it really healthy that Oprah’s fans should pursue a spirituality that holds “happiness” as its ultimate value? That’s so small, so insignificant. God, as the ultimate value in Christian spirituality, is not just more substantive, God is so much more ultimate. The God I’ve come to know doesn’t seem to give a hoot if a person gets a BMW. Indeed simplicity is key. Oprah’s spirituality is one of indulgence and for the most part ease. This is why it is so popular. This is why I like it so much—at heart I am just a hedonist like everyone else. I consume and think and help people for my own edification. Now, Christian spirituality gives a way to sublimate (imagine—redeem!) these impulses. But, alas, I see Oprah’s spirituality as a trap for people to remain satisfied in their own web of sin and ultimately, estrangement. Then again, I feel like I’m being too hard on Oprah. I mean, she does seem to do so much good. But there it is again—she seems to do so much good. And maybe she does do some, as much as any other person can do. But is this enough? Is this what a spirituality, at its best, should be? Something that seems to do some good in this world? No, I don’t think it is. But I will keep watching Oprah’s show . . . renew my subscription to her magazine . . . log on to Oprah.com. But I think I’ll stick with Christianity to define my life’s ultimate values and see Oprah’s spiritual disciplines are peripheral to what I should do to try to integrate my search for the transcendent into my daily life.
[vi] Oprah.com Spirit and Self. <http://www.oprah.com/spiritself/ss_landing.jhtml;jsessionid=BRV3E0CGNGQBLLARAYIB3KQ> April 14, 2004. Oprah believes that humans have “a spirit,” or a force that propels them to ask, “How am I of value?” Their spirit is something inside a person that drives them to find “their destiny
< http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/200304/omag_200304_mission.jhtml > and
< http://www.oprah.com/spiritself/lybl/well/ss_lybl_well_balance.jhtml> April 14, 2004. Here, balance is basically defined as not over-eating, over-spending, over-working, over-exerting any sort of physical or mental resource, etc.
<http://www.oprah.com/presents/2003/lybl/pres_2003_lybl_home.jhtml?_requestid=944029> This is a link to Oprah’s online course and only accessible to people who sign up for the free trial or pay for the full course for $24.95. In the course, Oprah teaches fans disciplines very similar to the ones discussed in this paper.
< http://www.oprah.com/health/weight/health_weight_main.jhtml> April 14, 2004. There are numerous other pages on her web site that offer similar tests and advice.
< http://www.oprah.com/spiritself/lybl/ss_lybl_well_main.jhtml>, and <http://www.oprah.com/spiritself/lybl/ss_lybl_control_main.jhtml> April 14, 2004 are good examples of this.
<http://www.drphil.com/advice/advice.jhtml?contentId=082802_lifestrategies_formulaforsuccess.xml§ion=Life%20Strategies> April 14, 2004
[xv] One example of this, though her show, web site and magazine are full of them, can be seen on the cover of the March 2004 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine. A headline for a feature highlight reads How to be happier: Life-changing tools, tricks, shortcuts, breakthroughs—and, of course, shoes. This whole issue of the magazine has a theme about how buying new shoes really is a road towards happiness.