The materialism of spirituality

If you expect rewards from your spirituality, may be you should think again

Woman praying

Chogyam Trungpa in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism wrote that there are three ‘Lords of Materialism’—physical, psychological, and spiritual. In each case, the Lord is an illusion. The illusion being that possessions, a way of understanding, or a belief system can, in any way, bring sustainable happiness.

Spiritual materialism is particularly insidious, because it’s pretty common to think that devoting oneself to a set of spiritual principles, or to a particular religious understanding, ‘ought to’ lead somewhere.

Myth: Spiritual Materialism is about getting something—some reward

I was on Facebook today, and saw a graphic go by. It read, “I am Buddhist. I am proud to say that. LIKE if you agree—and SHARE if you’re proud of it!” I almost did. But then I slowed down, and asked myself, “What’s going on inside me about this?” I realised that my reason for ‘clicking’ would be for gaining attention. There was no other reason I could come up with. I remembered that my practice, in and of itself, is enough.

My wife Darbella and I taught meditation to injured workers. They too wanted to know why we thought meditation, yoga, Qi Gong, and Zen living would help with their pain. Some of the workers did the exercises, and low and behold, their pain levels were reduced. Or, perhaps, their attention had shifted off of 24/7 focus on their pain. So, that’s a ‘reward’, right? They got something for their efforts, right?

Yes and no.

There is no question that the things we engage in ‘get us stuff.’ Our employment gets us money, which gets us stuff. Our belief systems provide a perspective for being in the world—and the recognition of our peers. And meditation certainly did help our students with their pain.

The problem with materialism, though, is that it’s actually an attempt to escape from the reality of living. You see, in all cases, the real issue is suffering, or better put, the choice to suffer.

Materialism says, “If I stack up enough stuff—possessions, degrees, time spent doing my spiritual practice—I’ll shield myself from pain, loss, and “nothingness.”

Or, to go back to the Facebook illustration, if I’m ‘proud’ enough, I’ll get noticed.

The problem with materialism, though, is that it’s actually an attempt to escape from the reality of living

We don’t like the idea that the things we commit to, or own, or do, don’t add up to some benefit. We think: “If I’m really good, God [universe, source—pick your favourite] will bless me, reward me.”

And if ‘stuff’ isn’t showing up, someone will sell you on a future reward—paradise or heaven, streets paved with virgins—to munge a few popular rewards together.

Since spiritual materialism is silly, is there an answer to why one might nevertheless walk a spiritual path?

Again, yes, and no.

Yes: the perspectives, practices, and the effort itself help to prepare us for actual living. In my own case, my practice helps me to maintain a certain steadiness when [not if] things go ‘off the rails.’

This is the point Trungpa Rinpoche was making—spiritual materialism is an attempt to escape from the inescapable. None of us live a crisis-free life, and if by some fluke we did, well, no one has gotten out of here alive. As the Buddha noted, we, at the least, will die, and most will confront illness and old age.

The true gift of a practice is that one gains the balance necessary to work with the suffering of living, and to sit patiently with whatever is occurring.

For example, our injured workers discovered that if they brought their attention to their breath, their pain seemed to recede. And when the pain came back [!] they did not whine about it—they focussed again on their breath.

None of us live a crisis-free life, and if by some fluke we did, well, no one has gotten out of here alive

The ‘No’ is the point of this article

Don’t waste your time with this article if you still believe that anything can buy you a pass from the reality of living.

Nothing can, nothing does. Your beliefs really don’t matter—what you choose to do with your life does. Your spiritual practices don’t matter—they are just tools for staying present and available as life does what it does. And that pile of stuff you’re accumulating to insulate yourself from life? It all goes to your relatives.

This is why I didn’t ‘like or share’ that Facebook post. I’m not proud of my spiritual practice. I don’t need to ‘honk if I love Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha.’ I don’t need the dubious pleasure of belonging to the ‘Zen club.’

I do, however, find something as I sit, as I remain present. It’s just not a reward!

The ‘spiritual’ games we play and fool ourselves

I once worked with a client who I would describe as ‘New Age.’ She liked to believe that she was deeply spiritual. She showed up to me with a problem. Said she: “My affirmations aren’t working, and your job is to fix them.”

Her belief was this: If she constructed the perfect statement, and repeated it ‘religiously,’ the cosmos or god or some magical system would give her what she asked for, in abundance. She wasn’t getting what she wanted, so she thought the system needed tweaking.

Here’s what she wanted: Her husband was building her an art studio, and she’d fallen in lust with the carpenter. She wanted to have an affair with him [a Spiritual Union, if I remember her language...] AND she wanted his wife and her husband and all their kids to approve and support the relationship. And, alas, no one was noticing and approving!

This is all three of the materialisms, rolled into one. She wanted the guy, she believed she deserved the guy, and she wanted everyone to be proud of her deep spirituality for having found her soul mate.

Now, we might laugh at this woman, but really, when we are trying so desperately to keep ourselves above the fray of living, when we are trying to avoid dealing with life as it is, when we are doing what we do for ‘show,’ we are acting just like her!

The trick is to keep our focus on what is right in front of us

Let me be clear. I have no problem with the woman falling into lust, and with her doing the horizontal mambo with the carpenter.

The thing I have a problem with is this: each of our actions has consequences. In her case, the likely consequence might be animosity, anger, and two divorces. What she was looking for, through her Spirituality, was ‘no consequences.’ Or better still, ‘only the consequences she thinks she should get.’ She was trying to game the system, and the system wasn’t cooperating. It doesn’t. There is no escape from the reality of living in a real world, where consequences abound. On the other hand, a deep, profound and abiding spiritual practice can be, and is, an anchor in the stormy seas of living.

The trick is to keep our focus on what is right in front of us—no drifting off into the fantasy that there is some other world than ‘this one.’

Every crisis or win gives us the opportunity to stop, to look, and to examine our ‘selves’ and our games. If you do stuff for reward or praise, just notice that there’s never enough of either. A noble venture might be to do what we do, because that is what we are doing.

And leave the games and the ‘materialisms’ for others.


A version of this was first published in the June 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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