Over the past few years, I have noticed an increasing trend of the practice of spirituality being downgraded to a self-improvement project or, worse, an instrument to fulfil one’s desires. Spirituality is increasingly being seen as a path to attract ephemeral pleasures—attracting abundance, a happy relationship, fame, success and even “enlightenment”. At the very least, it has become the ‘feel good’ factor, a relief from the daily travails of life.
This kind of hedonistic pursuit of pleasure under the garb of spirituality is a worldwide phenomenon that has brought millions into its fold. There are countless “gurus”, masters, experts and so on who promote this kind of acquisitive spirituality through their discourses, workshops, retreats and books. For practitioners of this faux spirituality, enlightenment is a lofty idea that promises the beneficiary great insights, esoteric power and even otherworldly gains, besides all the material goodies.
Mindless and transactional
I must confess that, for a brief time in my life, I too was drawn towards this “egocentric spirituality”. So I understand why so many fall for its lure. I guess it happens because we are incessantly surrounded by conflicting messages of a decadent culture that is infected with the what’s-in-it-for-me virus. This nearly all-pervasive consumerist culture, fuelled by ever-growing tentacles of the internet, reduces everything to a means to a selfish end. It’s automatic, mindless—no wonder it colours most of our pursuits.
But something about this ethos never felt right to me. It is pretentious, phoney.
Being spiritual in order to gain something—whether it’s a material object, someone’s love and affection, a professional achievement or simply an emotional reward—seems to me to be rather transactional. It is the antithesis of what authentic spirituality is all about. I wonder how different is this paradigm of spirituality than the traditional god of religion who is viewed simply as a personal wish-granter—never mind that we give this spiritual god secular names like the “universe” or “consciousness”?
In his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism Chögyam Trungpa, the controversial Tibetan monk and teacher, explains this phenomenon thus: “Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”
To be sure, there are often many worldly benefits that may accompany a spiritual pursuit and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying those benefits. What’s disconcerting is when the primary reason for walking the “spiritual” path is for material ends. This is akin to putting the cart before the horse.
How I see authentic spirituality
As I understand it, authentic spirituality has nothing to do with the outer world. It isn’t practised for personal gains; on the contrary it is about losing the false sense of identity that we acquire due to years of programming. Authentic spirituality is about living with greater awareness of self and the world. The true spiritual path is not a “search” in the conventional sense of the word, because there’s nothing [and no one] to find. Instead, it has to do with learning to see reality as it is, and to recognise the truth beyond all concepts.
The thing about authentic spirituality is that I can continue to interact with the world and pursue material goals simultaneously. There is no conflict. The process of discovering who I am is an inner phenomenon. Worldly gains may flow in as a result of such self-inquiry. But all these benefits can be called the happy side-effects of spirituality.
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Very authentic reflection. Much needed.