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.”