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Cutting through Spiritual Materialism

Spiritual materialism: How your ego gets in your way.

A reader asked me to expand on the notion of spiritual materialism.

Spiritual materialism is a phrase originally coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche that he used to describe the grasping after material accomplishment within the context of spiritual pursuit. His characterization is not novel; rather, it echoes a sentiment that has been addressed by spiritual teachers and the wisdom teachings for centuries.

One of the shortcomings of modern psychology, in its migration from a study of the spirit to a pseudoscientific study of the mind (1, 2), is that it focuses on the development of identity, as well as the self as an object. Even Carl Jung -- the mystic, where Freud was the scientist, Adler the humanist, and James the philosopher -- spoke of individuation as a key component of human development; a notion that demands that the "I" be regarded as a thing. This perspective is also evident even when discussing such highflown ideas as self-actualization, which, at its core, is simply a material characterization of Self-realization and/or God-realization.

Ego is what defines our roles in the material world; we are a mother, a daughter, a brother -- rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. By defining our roles in the conscious realm, the ego is hell-bent on drawing us off our sense of the Self within the superconscious realm. The more we identify ourselves with the "I", the less we are able to identify with the Witness.

The Witness, the Dweller, Thoughts without a Thinker, the One Mind --- these are all descriptors for this superconscious state, that state which keeps us connected to the higher Self and, in this way, to our spiritual experience of whatever it is that we define as God. If we are atheistic, and do not believe in God as such, then we can consider this a description of our connection to our higher humanity, which includes our moral compass, our personal and social ethos and our altruistic investment in community.

The ego dwells in the material realm, the conscious realm. In doing so it identifies with the objects, items, relationships, trials, tribulations and triumphs of the material world. The more we are invested in This, the less we are invested in That. Here's the dilemma -- This Is That.

Spiritual materialism is that process by which the ego grasps at the accomplishments and progress of the self upon the spiritual path; an act by which its very nature denies the Self. As soon as you claim it, it is no longer yours. I had a conversation with a friend the other day who asked me,

"When you're meditating, do you ever just stop thinking?"

My initial response was, "No, we can never stop thinking."

She replied by saying, "I mean those moments when it all just stops --- that it's all just empty -- have you ever had that happen?"

And I replied, "I misspoke. Yes, those moments do happen, and that is satori or samadhi or nirvana...and that is an experience of the enlightened state."

She then said, "I get so excited when that happens."

And I responded, "Ego."

My point was not to "one down" or denigrate her taste of satori or samadhi in those moments, but rather to point out that, while this is a clear milestone toward a state of enlightenment, if you own it you lose it.

The whole conversation of material spiritualism very much hinges on what is written in the first line of the Tao Te Ch'ing --- "the Tao is that which is Nameless..." or "the Tao is that which cannot be named...". Enlightenment is like a wisp of smoke. Spiritual materialism is the ego trying to clutch at that smoke.

As soon as we cast something into a role, as soon as we put a label on it, as soon as we name it and give it life by virtue of our investment (read: ego), we take away all its power and it is nothing more than an event -- it is no longer a spiritual revelation, but simply a material experience. That is spiritual materialism at its peak.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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