This is an interview with Eileen Dunn, a life coach who moved to Tulum in October 2020 with her partner Alba, to run a yoga studio. She tells me about her experience of living in Tulum, one of the New Age capitals on the global wellness circuit, during the COVID pandemic.
Tell me about your move to Tulum.
I’m an East Coast girl, New Englander, grew up in Maine, then lived in Boston. I moved to Denver, I was there for six months, met my partner Alba there. This opportunity to buy a yoga studio in Tulum fell into our laps. COVID had just hit. I had recently started my life coaching business. I have a background in social work then got a masters in organizational psychology. My girlfriend Alba is a wildly talented yoga instructor. We both had dreams of being a little nomadic for a while, travelling internationally, seeing if we could build our dreams elsewhere. It was a very serendipitous occurrence but it made sense. I’d never been to Tulum before. We arrived in October 2020.
What were your first impressions?
I’m very sensitive to my surroundings. Tulum is a breath-takingly beautiful place to be. It’s also very loud and noisy and dusty — it’s in a developing country. There were a lot of sounds and smells and sights that were really disturbing, especially in contrast to the bohemian-chic, uber-wealthy nomad tourists, using Tulum as a playground for experimental drug use and wandering around dressed like dream-catchers.
In terms of the social dynamics, my initial experience was fascination and excitement. I had never seen human behaviour like this. I’m from the North East, from Ivy League buttoned-up culture. It was really refreshing at first. You would have interactions with people, it would start to feel really intimate really quickly. There was a sense of vulnerability and intimacy. You would very quickly start talking about things that are ethereal, magical, spiritual. I’m not super-spiritual myself but got into it four years ago when my mother died. You’d be talking about things that are magical and interesting. People are very effusive and affectionate. It initially felt very welcoming. But when you stay a little longer, you start to realize there’s nothing behind the words they’re saying, or the clothes they’re wearing. All the layers of their performance are resting on air, and the air is the gap between who they are and who they think they are. Once you see through the veneer, you can’t unsee it.
Everyone is using the same words but don’t know what they mean. Like ‘abundance’, ‘divine power’, ‘the source’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘awakening’, ‘ascension’, ‘journey’, ‘aligned’, ‘vibrations’ — you say the words and they feel good, but then you realize it’s a very disjointed and disconnected way of communicating, because there’s nothing behind it. It’s just this robotic performance. It wasn’t until I started reading critical analysis of New Age spirituality that I understood how all of these phrases fit into a lexicon that can usually be traced back to The Secret and/or A Course in Miracles. I previously used some of these (naive to their roots) but avoid them now.
And all the love-bombing that goes on here. ‘My love’, ‘darling’, ‘babe’, ‘my sister’ — all this effusive language really spoke to me at first, but then I felt ‘this is too much!’ And it’s not backed up, it’s a performance.
Was there a particular moment when you thought, wait a minute, this is weird?
I have a couple specific memories: I was talking to a small group about shadow integration (which I believe has its merits, despite being very skeptical of Carl Jung, and the Jung cult that many New Age spiritualists subscribe to) and a woman said to me during discussion: ‘I don’t have an ego, I’m fully healed.’ And I just felt myself leave my body for a moment and think “well that’s not…right.” All our psyches have an ego, you can’t just choose to banish it or convince yourself that it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a very common sentiment down here, as part of the “Love & Light” lens that people who are actively spiritually bypassing view the world through. To me, it feels like the ultimate sign of destabilization — you’re convincing yourself by force and repetition that you’ve removed/denied a part of your mind. How is that a good thing?
The other moment was when a friend put me in touch with an acquaintance of hers who was traveling through Tulum. She’s a spiritual life coach. She was 30 minutes late to meet Alba and I at this cafe. She came in and sat down and said non-apologetically “Sorry I’m late, the spirit called me to do an Instagram Live.” A few minutes later when we were talking, she lowered her voice, leaned in closer, and breathlessly said “isn’t is so much better to be on the ‘awakened’ side of things?” I thought to myself “what are you talking about lady? The awakened side of what? Compared to what?” It was very weird. I’ve had many of these interactions with people down here, and every time I do, it feels like this crevasse opens up between me and them, like “oh yes, okay. You’re floating somewhere in the abyss, and I’m standing here on earth. Got it.”
I also had some projects I was pulled into that seemed very interesting, a possibility to do some good and also help my business. Once I got knee-deep I was, wait, this is fucking weird. One was a project, this guy is trying to put together a network of global conscious communities, where basically there are all these communities and they operate on a barter system, and you can stay for a couple of nights, or longer term. The idea is these communities are there to support people outside the monetary system. I thought it was an exciting way to think outside capitalism. But I realized the idea was to delineate Us and Them. Let’s collect all these higher people and put them in one place, and subject them to puritanical rules. It became clear to me that the driving mechanism was this operating mentality that ‘the whole system is broken, we are the chosen ones who can make a new community’.
How has the New Age community in Tulum dealt with the pandemic?
One of the huge friction points for us here is the reaction to the pandemic. It’s a thread that has helped us unravel toxic spirituality. At the least bad end of the continuum are people who act like the pandemic doesn’t exist and just ignore it, and at the worst end are conspiracy-theory spreaders. People like Alba and I, who trust vaccines and have some belief in public health officials, we’re in the tiny minority. We’ve lost friends over it. There’s a high concentration of woo-woo, magical thinking, pseudo-science and conspiracy theories.
People readily offer ‘healing circles’ here and the methods I’ve seen are disturbing. People are offering themselves as alternatives to western medicine cures for everything. I’ve seen healing circles that propose water cleanses, heavy metal detox, sound healing and chanting to cure cancer. It’s this blanket promise of safety, security, sovereignty, your own body, your own health.
One of the most disturbing things I’ve seen down here is the number of “healers” luring people to group workshops/ceremonies with promises of unlocking + healing their trauma using breath work, sound healing, and energy work, among other things. At best, it’s snake oil and does nothing. At worst, these are ripe settings for trauma coming to the surface and wreaking havoc in someone’s mind and body (either in this group context with strangers, or later after the workshop — I don’t know what’s worse) with nobody there to support them. These people never list credentials, so I reached out to one woman once to ask her what her training and education background was. She responded “Transformational speaker for 20 years, NLP, and reiki” and sent me a link to a TED talk she gave titled “You’re only as sick as your secrets”, and sent me a long list of testimonials from people that were so untethered I felt uncomfortable reading them. Even more disturbing is the tantra workshops run by equally unqualified practitioners promising to unlock sexual trauma (and also infinite abundance!). It’s maddening to know how many people could be harmed by these.
You describe New Age seekers in Tulum as ‘untethered’ — could you unpack that word.
A lot of people are seeking something, they don’t know what. They can be so disconnected from themselves that they’re just escaping, they’re just lost. People say ‘I was called to Tulum’ — they have no plans, nothing to do. People come to Tulum seeking altered states and special experiences. Sometimes they’re New Age untethered seekers, sometimes they’re digital nomads who are making a lot of money and want to party and go to fancy beach clubs and jungle raves and do a shit-load of drugs.
It’s a big place for getting high?
Absolutely. I’ve met people who do mind-altering substances every day, for weeks — LSD, MDMA, kampo frog…The level of chaos and instability that you see in some people here, chasing the next high, the next spiritual experience is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
What’s the sex scene like?
It’s been hard for us to meet and connect with people meaningfully down here. We don’t go out that much. But the women and men we know and the scene we see unfold on Instagram and Facebook…there’s a lot of thirsty, lost, panicked, horny people down here, they try to make things spiritual by talking about tantra, but it’s really just a circle jerk.
Has it impacted your own spirituality? Being there I mean.
I have come at warp speed back into intimate reunion with my critical thinking faculties. It’s really important for me as an individual living in this sphere right now. The critical thinking capacity is a protective shield for me. It’s really important for me as a practitioner and life coach — that’s another topic, the unregulated field of life coaching. It’s an absolute wild west. It’s also a really important field and operates in beautiful concert with traditional therapy. It’s a beneficial supplement. But I hold myself to ethical account, and I think I might be in the minority to do that. It’s important to try and ground myself in critical thinking.
Will you stay in Tulum?
We have known for months that we could never live here long-term, we would go absolutely insane. But it’s a really magical place. There is a je ne sais quoi about the energy down here.
Alba and I are incredibly grateful to be here. We have had a lot of challenges acclimating — in part due to being in a community we feel disconnected from, and the stress of our three businesses being in building mode. But we do truly feel like we’re in the right place to be learning and growing, as individuals and entrepreneurs. We both believe very strongly in the positive impact of our respective crafts, and are passionate about what we do.
We also feel a growing responsibility to remain steadfast in what we’re building and how we’re crafting our approaches in the life coaching, yoga, and wellness spheres. There are toxic threads running through all of them, so we feel it’s important to carve out space within these spheres for grounded, honest, human experiences — as a contrast to existing practitioners, as a statement against the manipulation/exploitation/abuse that exists within them, and as an alternative option to those who seek to benefit from these spaces but are feeling increasingly isolated by them.
When India was in crisis in May, we reached out to see if any other local studios wanted to partner with us on an event to raise money to assist, and we posted our intentions to hold such an event on Instagram — one woman who runs a yoga business down here replied and told us “you know that’s all propaganda right?” And it just really bothered us. We want to be practitioners and business owners who are grounded in reality, and connected to our local communities and the traditions we benefit from. Full stop. Despite the challenges, we’re committed to Tulum for the foreseeable future — it’s a beautiful and inspiring place, and we’re here to help people experience it in a way that’s grounded, honest, and safe.