Spiritual Materialism

materialism-yogaA friend I met yesterday told me she was going to a retreat with a teacher who spent many years learning from the Buddhist tradition and who later went into business and was using the knowledge he had taken from Buddhism to help people find, in his own words, “true spiritual business”. She said there were going to be lots of meditations and yoga and mindfulness talks and several other related things. Definitely a very interesting approach to business.

It reminded me a bit about The Secret, an amazingly popular book and movie from a few years back. The Secret also uses a “spiritual” approach that helps people get what they desire by using certain techniques.

Just like the approach of the Buddhist turned businessman or The Secret, there are many methods (and more and more keep appearing) that use very powerful spiritual ideas to help people improve their lives. These methods can be really useful for people, because they present the possibility to do things with our lives in a way that includes awareness, mindfulness and high values as opposed to competition, struggle and fear, which lead to cheating, lying and depression.

The difficulty I find with these methods is that they are often sold as “spiritual”, when in reality they should be referred to as “spiritual materialism”*, a contradictory term which can also be applied to these kind of techniques. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with them, except that they are not spirituality.

The unspoken essence of these so called “spiritual” methods is that I am a person that is neither fulfilled, nor happy but by improving my life, by getting what I desire and what I am lacking, in some later future, I will be happier. The idea is that I am not good enough the way I am right now, but, if I get more things, one day I might be.

The real problem with these methods being mistakenly used as spiritual is that behind the idea of spirituality lies the sense that by following these methods I will find the missing link that will finally bring me to that state of peace and happiness that we all desire. But this will never happen because no matter what I get, no matter how many desires I satisfy, there will always be more and more and more desires emerging.

There is no problem in satisfying desires. The problem is the hope that satisfying desires will one day make me feel complete and in peace and happy; but this is not the way it works.

When we get what we want, we reach a moment of peace and satisfaction. But a minute later, or a day, or a week, or a year later, whatever I got will no longer be enough and I will look for the next thing. And there will never be an end. This is often referred to as the “wheel of samsara”. The more I get, the more I want, which will lead me to get more which will make me want more and to get more and on and on and on without an end. Although it does not seem so, the eternal search to satisfy our desires is a very painful never ending activity.

The essence of true spirituality is not satisfying desires but freedom, freedom from becoming. It is the recognition that I am complete in myself, as I am. It is the freedom that I don’t need things to make me happy because what I really am – this aware, silent, open space of presence – is full in itself.

Spirituality is centered on the importance of understanding the essence of who you really are and realizing that you are complete in yourself, that you are free. Desires may still be there, but they will always limit themselves to ethical desires (the force pushing me to go against my own principles will not be there anymore) and also the fulfillment of those desires will no longer carry with it the sting – the pressure – to attain my long-desired happiness. Spirituality is the recognition that I am fine and free and in peace even before the gratification of a desire happens, which will create a sense of detachment to the satisfaction of desires. If the desire is satisfied, I will enjoy what comes, but if the desire is not satisfied, I will be fine with it too, because I already feel in peace with myself.

Again, there is nothing wrong with these “spiritual” methods, except that at THEIR VERY ESSENCE lies a misconception; it keeps feeding into our minds that we don’t have enough, that the more we get, the happier we will become. What these “spiritual” methods transpire is that I am a person that needs the things of the world to be satisfied. But as long as I need anything, I am not free. Instead, the essence of spirituality is the understanding that I am already free. That freedom exists, not far away, not tomorrow, not after I’ve fulfilled a desire, but right here and now. That freedom, peace and happiness are synonymous, and that they are the essence of what I really am.


*Spiritual materialism is a term coined by Chogyam Trungpa in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. For example, the effort to build up a list of credentials or accumulate teachings in order to present oneself as a more realized or holy person. Or the belief that a certain temporary state of mind can be used as a refuge from suffering, like for example using meditation practices to create a peaceful, numbed or euphoric state of mind. According to Trungpa, these states are temporary and merely heighten the suffering when they cease.




Categories: Reflections

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