‘Spiritual materialism’ is a term first used by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who came to the United States in the early seventies. In his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa expounded on his theories of how the ego likes to use the spiritual path for its own ends, and the mistakes seekers easily fall into in their quest for enlightenment.
The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use… even spirituality. ~ Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
In the west, we have come to think of our spiritual quest as ‘self-improvement,’ which is all well and good, except what is the self? Ego.
Especially in the west, where we are conditioned from an early age into individualism and material accruement, it is easy to impose these ingrained structures of understanding onto spirituality as well. We can collect courses and retreats and practices like medals, or childhood sports trophies, feeding our ever-hungry egos. “Look at me! Look how much I’ve given up, read, invested in my spiritual life!” As if this spiritual search somehow makes us better than the person beside us; who feels no need to meditate every day or do an hour’s asana practice or sit at the feet of a guru. But in all of us, the spiritual path unfolds.
Whether we are aware of it or not – our soul is growing and finding its way. It is only when the ego grasps hold of this search and uses it to feed itself that we are in danger of falling into the trap of spiritual materialism.
The Three Lords of Materialism
Trungpa discussed how these spiritual errors fall into three misunderstandings, stemming from the materialism inherent in Western cultures. He called these the ‘Three Lords of Materialism.’ The first of these is ‘physical materialism’, where the belief that owning and accumulating more and more will bring us happiness. Yet, even when we attain what we first desired, we always yearn for more. In this sense, dissatisfaction accompanies every purchase. It is the yearning that must be addressed.
The second Lord is ‘psychological materialism’, where we believe that a certain faith or belief system will be the cure to all our ills. We fall in love with Buddhism, for instance, and think that if we throw ourselves into the practices with enough vigor, we will be able to evade suffering. Yet, we still suffer. We may strike upon an idea or a political party or cause that momentarily seems to relieve our burdens. But this relief is only momentary. We are still living in the world and the religion or idea, or whatever it is we’ve latched onto so enthusiastically, doesn’t stop challenges from arising.
The third Lord is ‘spiritual materialism’, the belief that a certain state of mind or spiritual practice will set us free from our daily troubles. We may seek to remove ourselves from the world through overusing meditation or breathing techniques, or by living in a drugged-out haze. Escaping. However, at some point we have to stop meditating or the drugs run out and the world again intrudes and the suffering we sought so hard to evade is back in our faces, louder and harder than ever. Life keeps on happening, no matter how hard we try to block it out. Shit still happens.
The Ego – A Projection of the Mind
Trungpa taught that these three Lords are based on the idea that the ego is real, that it is something to be tamed or trained, when in fact, it is constantly changing and does not exist in itself, only as a projection of the mind. If we feed it and build our sense of self around our spiritual practices for instance, then we are only feeding what doesn’t exist. Anything that feeds into this false self of ego will ultimately cause us only more suffering.
So what are the warning signs and how do we find our joy and relieve our suffering, without falling into the trap of feeding the ravenous ego? God knows!
Navel gazing has often been derided, though of course, it is necessary to examine one’s mind and motivations, but when the focus becomes one of boosting the self, narcissistic or self-aggrandising, then we know perhaps it’s time to stop looking inwards and turn our attention out into the world and set an intention to serve the good of others. Though, that too, can feed the ego – look at me, being so good giving up Christmas with my family (which I really hate anyway) to serve food to the homeless – aren’t I a good person? Just bringing an awareness of our true motivations is enough.
If we find ourselves jumping from one fad, one teacher, one book or idea to the next, hoping for instant enlightenment, or healing, that’s another trap. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way out; the work of living continues as long as we live. We can find ways of being that help us to embrace all of it more completely, without judgment, but there is no cure for life except death. Even enlightened beings grieve when someone they love dies. We all feel pain.
The Trap of Competing
That leads me to another trap on the spiritual path, one that I recognize as my ego’s favorite – my suffering is worse than your suffering, my bliss is greater than your bliss — comparison and competition, inherent in capitalism but of no use whatsoever in the quest for living more peacefully. We all suffer, we all find our bliss. Be aware of the ego grasping for fuel. If you find yourself dwelling on your own sainthood, then perhaps it’s time for a reality check. Sooner or later it will come to you anyway. If you catch yourself talking only about your latest spiritual teacher, book or practice, trying to enlist others to the cause – look closely at yourself – are you ‘selling’ it? If we’re selling something, then we’ve probably tipped over into spiritual materialism.
That’s not to say you can’t write a great book about the search for happiness, or provide healing services for a fee, it’s only a caution to ensure that the heart of your practice remains centred in being of service, not of serving your own need for a big fancy house and a brand new car.
Be aware also of buying into quick fixes, super-gurus and anything that promises instant enlightenment or a cure for what is missing in our lives. Perhaps these things do happen but the reality is, we each have our own path unfolding within us for the entirety of our lives. Even when we reach some kind of peace, events will still happen that shake us to the core and strip away all we’d fought so hard to attain.
In the West, we have a bad habit of appropriating the spirituality of other cultures, borrowing the rituals or practices we enjoy, mixing and matching without really thinking about the culture or history that shaped the path. Picking a little of this and a little of that, like a pick-and-mix lolly bag, collecting without due consideration. Accumulating. Treating the practices of other cultures with respect and care is important.
The words we use when referring to our spiritual paths give us clues as to whether we’re falling into the trap of ego identification through spirituality – spiritual materialism. If we’re using words like buy and sell, attain and lose, and win, and more and greater than, less than – words of judgment, separation, and acquisition, then we’re probably in need of a wake-up call.
Chögyam Trungpa said:
[Spiritual materialism is to] deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.
What Then is Spirituality?
How can we approach our spiritual paths without falling into these traps? Awareness is key, and then once we are aware, focusing not only on ourselves and our own healing but on somehow serving the greater good. True spirituality, for me, means experiencing life as it is, while at the same time experiencing that part of ourselves, and of others and the universe itself, that comes from a higher source and connecting with that source in whatever way works for us.
Trungpa’s writings about spiritual materialism serve to wake us up from the trick we all play on ourselves of feeding the ego through self-improvement. Instead, he shows us a far brighter reality, the true joy that involves letting go of the ego and just being, here in the moment, riding the waves of life as they rise and fall.
We use our spiritual search to build a sense of self as a ‘spiritual person,’ a falsehood and deception, or the seeking of enlightenment as a means of escape. We’ve all met people who are hooked on Vipassana retreats, come out from each one glowing, but then a few weeks later are stumbling and lost once more, searching for another fix of their spiritual drug.