Chattering Mind

Chattering Mind

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Part of one’s spiritual journey involves confronting spiritual materialism. What is that, you may ask? Is it acquiring the hottest mat and outfit for your yoga practice? Lusting for a fancy spa in California? Festooning your neck and wrists with cool–and medicinal!–jewelry?

Yes, all those preoccupations involve materialism, but spiritual materialism–as the term was used by the late meditation master Chogyam Trungpa–is more subtle, more common, and more insidious, though I’m not sure I’m supposed to label it “insidious” because spiritual materialism is just part of the path, something to be beheld without judgment.


Spiritual materialism relates to a different kind of possessiveness. It is the impetus to get healthier, improve relationships, or attain results (like being better respected by others) through your spiritual practice. Spiritual materialism is when you strive to own a better life–with fewer complications, more happiness, and less stress–through your hard-earned spiritual enlightenment. Huh? What’s so wrong with that? Doesn’t everyone see religious practice as a way to let their light shine and improve themselves as people? Well, it shouldn’t be entirely about that.

An anecdote: Years ago, I regularly attended meditation classes in Dallas at a yoga center run by a lovely man who once worked as a carnival acrobat back in India. His name was Kumar. How he landed in Dallas, I’ll never know. But he taught yoga, meditation, and ran a bulk foods grocery store in front of his studio. And after meditation practice one evening, I remember chasing Kumar around the wooden counters of his shop, describing to him something I’d vividly seen in my mind’s eye as I was meditating. It was like a lotus seen from above, vibrantly colored, purple foam around the center–“a real vision, fabulous!” I kept telling him with great enthusiasm. I cheered myself on by continuing, “I didn’t make this up! This vision just came to me!”


Kumar nodded, experimented with smiling slightly, but mostly he seemed to want to escape me. I longed for him to say: “Oh good, you are really advancing now. What an excellent meditator you’ve become!” But as my teacher, he had no interest in encouraging me to run down this lotus questing path (cool as it was). Years later, after more practice and reading, it hit me that Kumar knew not to label my “vision” any kind of advancement. There was no meaning to it really. It just was. I remember he bought me off by saying, “Yes. Yes.” and nodding somewhat optimistically.

I’ve bitten off a big topic, and it’s late Friday afternoon; I must pick up the Chattering children soon. But perhaps we can talk here as the days go by about how much we invest in the notion of our spiritual progress. We throw all our ambitions into this spiritual course, and when we’re doing that, we’re not just “being.” We’re pursuing something else. We’re not accepting ourselves or the moment. We’re striving for the vast beyond. Here’s an Ösel Tendzin quote on the subject that I lifted from the wonderful Buddhist blog Woodmoor Village:


“Spiritual materialism is based on trying to possess the highest spiritual state, trying to have the best meditative experience. We adopt a spiritual disguise in order to mask our own fear and clinging; we convert spiritual teachings into personal territory. We smother any spark of intelligence, and in the process, we deceive ourselves and produce spiritual fraud.”

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posted October 1, 2006 at 11:58 pm

When I read “Spiritual materialism is when you strive to own a better life–with fewer complications, more happiness, and less stress–through your hard-earned spiritual enlightenment” it sounded similar to the prosperity gospel preached by Joel Osteen, et al. (less the “hard-earned” perhaps)Also, you quoted “Spiritual materialism is based on trying to possess the highest spiritual state, trying to have the best meditative experience.” Isn’t it common for someone new to a spiritual practice – meditation, prayer, fasting – to mistake the practice for the goal? This is intriguing; I’m eager to see where you take us…

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posted October 3, 2006 at 8:58 am

Yoga?! Where is Jesus? The practice of yoga is antithesis of Jesus Christ in His virgin birth, miracles, death on the cross as prophecized throughout the Old Testament (Isaiah 53, for example), his burial and resurrection from the tomb, and soon coming King who will descend from the throne of God to take ONLY His people into heaven. We don’t work ourselves into salvation or heaven nor do we reincarnate. Do you need to know more about the dangers of yoga and Buddism? Pick up His Book, the Holy Bible, and look it up for yourself. Find a good Concordance to show you where to look. If you don’t have one, go to a Family Christian Book Store and buy one. You can ask the sales person to show you books, booklets, and tracts about cults and specifically about Yoga. The truth shall set you free.

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posted October 3, 2006 at 10:12 pm

“because spiritual materialism is just part of the path, something to be beheld without judgment.” Not really no. And yes, it is insidious.

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posted October 4, 2006 at 7:50 am

Amy, thank you for the kind words — and thanks for raising this issue again of spiritual materialism. I think Dee highlights another difficulty with practice: that of spiritual orthodoxy turned dogmatic. That can turn so easily also into a materialism that leaves little room for that which many religious folks are trying to cultivate: the spirit. Thanks again, and all the best, Nacho

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