American Buddhism: The Art Of Self Deception.

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Jan 27, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

*Don’t have time to read this whole post..? Scroll down for a short video that covers all the points. ~ BR

Part One: the Art Of Self Deception.

So this post marks the beginning of a remarkable opportunity. An opportunity for us, as an online community, to come together and investigate the human condition. This is not a study, but an inquiry. So, I am not concerned with presenting a certain ideology and then defending it’s validity. I am concerned only with questioning myself, and creating an environment that invites you to question yourself. This is spirituality…

The first thing that needs to be drawn into question are our motives for being here. I think its safe to say, that suffering is what delivered us to the door step of spirituality. We begin to question ourselves and the world we live in only once we realize that we do not understand it. Its the recognition of confusion that inspires the search for understanding.

The evidence that suggests there is confusion or misunderstanding  is suffering. Discontentment is a symptom of confusion… It is our inability to arrange the world in such a way that we are comfortable or insulated from pain, which prompts our search for answers.

What’s the point? What is the meaning of life? Why do I suffer? These are the sorts of questions we ask once we have realized that our best efforts to prevent disappointment have failed yet again.

When the search for content or meaning assumes an internal emphasis we have stepped onto the spiritual path…

However, we must be realistic. It does us no good to fill our heads with all these lofty ideas about salvation or enlightenment. We must start where we are, which for most of is hell. Remember it is suffering that started this journey. So, it is with suffering that we must begin.

It has been the action of a rigid self-centered state of mind that has muddled the experience of reality. This state of mind is called ego-centricity. It is a dualistic form of consciousness that judges all available information on the basis of how it affects this static self-image— an image that appears to be at the center of the universe. When someone or something affects us in a negative way, or excites our fears, we push them away. When someone gets us all hopped up, or fulfills our expectations, we cling to them or take them as a prisoner. Since no one likes to be pushed away or held hostage there is always resistance. This resistance is an indication that we are unable to manage our situation… We are looking to create and maintain a sort of consistency that does not exist in the natural world.

We are never really in control. It is this lack of control that is the source of our on-going paranoia. We are always a bit suspicious or afraid that everything is on the verge of spinning out of control. So, we try even harder to force our agenda, but this ends in still less control. We repeatedly find ourselves right back where we started, but each time with an added element of frustration… Frustration with the fact that we are right back at square one.

It is at this point that many of us end up in therapy, buried in a self-help book, on a meditation cushion, or a yoga mat. The point of this first discussion is to question our motives… To raise the question, How is spirituality an different? Initially, are we not seeking relief or comfort— some sort of answer? Are we not looking for a more efficient means by which to control life? In the beginning, is our attraction to spirituality not a selfish infatuation?

When we developed an interest in spirituality we didn’t destroy the causes and conditions that give rise to our confusion. So, it seems reasonable to question whether or not this confusion has hijacked the spiritual path. It seems necessary to probe our intentions… When we come to the cushion or mat, are we looking for yet another technique to avoid our fears and cultivate out expectations?

It seems likely that the same self-centered mentality that drove us into spirituality would attempt to use spirituality as means to control the environment… As a way of creating a comfortable atmosphere.

First, the ego would seek to establish itself in this new “spiritual” environment by identifying with the environment— using the surroundings as reference points to establish a new and improved spiritual image. From the ego’s point of view this is a rich environment, as it enables the ego to relish in a situation that validates its position.

Then, using the intellect, the ego creates sophisticated censors that protect this comfortable situation from any possible threats. It establishes preconceived standards that judge all antagonistic information as invalid. This transforms us into spiritual fundamentalists…

Finally, using spirituality as a sort of technology, the ego begins to incubate this self image in its womb of reference points, safe and protected by its network of contrived ideas.

This movement illustrates the Three of Lords of Materialism.

Spiritual Materialism is a concept Chogyam Trungpa introduced to describe the contrived state of affairs produced by the ego kidnapping the spiritual path. From the ego’s point of view spirituality is not an inquiry, but a screen play that supplies it with identity and behavior to mimic… Through ego-centric eyes, spirituality is nothing more than means of identifying itself.

Trungpa Rinpoche wrote:

“(The Lord of Form) does not signify the psychically rich and secure life situations we create per se. Rather, it refers to the neurotic preoccupation that drives us to create them, to try to control nature…

The Lord of Speech refers to the use of concepts as filters to screen us from a direct perception of what is…

(The Lord of Mind refers to the) Use of spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding onto our sense of self.”

Here is a video of me briefly describing the concept of Spiritual Materialism

Today’s discussion is about discovering this movement within our own lives. The discussion is not therapy, nor is it an academic study. It is an opportunity to get honest with ourselves… To identify the movement of spiritual materialism in our own lives, and in the process, help others to identify this deception in their lives.

I have a written extensively about my personal experiences with spiritual materialism here on Elephant Journal. I think reading this article would be of great help in understanding spiritual materialism. So if you have not read, “Confessions of Buddhist Dumb-Ass,” you may do so by clicking here.

In the comment section below I encourage everyone to share their experiences with spiritual materialism… Reluctance to do so is just another form of spiritual materialism! Haha! Just kidding… But seriously, share!

Here are some questions to help start the discussion:

Have I fallen in love with a romantic idea about spirituality? What does this relationship look like?

When I come to the cushion or mat am I looking for yet another technique to avoid my fears and cultivate my expectations?

Do I read spiritual books in search of the great answer or philosophy to my current problems? Do I then commit this ideology to memory and use it to judge the value of others? of myself???

Do I expect meditation and/or yoga to solve my problems? To be a solution to my suffering?

Do I attempt to identify with yoga and/or meditation? Symptoms include: sudden change of wardrobe, spontaneous and fervent disdain towards all things not “spiritual,” the overnight acquisition of a God-voice or soft spoken spiritual voice, spiritual tattoos, a mala but not a mantra, etc…

Do I find ourselves attracted to meditation because I want to visit the places within me that scare the hell out of me… Or because it is a practice that enables me to withdrawal from life in a socially acceptable way?

I encourage everyone to ask themselves these and other questions about their intentions with spirituality, and share their insights below. It is only by getting honest with ourselves at the outset of the spiritual journey, that we can engage the spiritual path directly… In seeing and accepting our deception it is immediately transformed into honesty! As Trugpa Rinpoche pointed out in Orderly Chaos, “Meditation practice right at the beginning is acceptance of being a fool.”

Thank you!


About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


28 Responses to “American Buddhism: The Art Of Self Deception.”

  1. BenRiggs says:

    When I was first introduced to Buddhism it was nothing more than a fashion statement. I was 17 years old, and incredibly immature. I had just moved from Keithville, LA to South Florida. The only Buddhist I had ever seen was the Dalai Lama. So… I shaved my head, and began to wear a maroon bathrobe and flip-flops. I remembered reading that the Dalai Lama was a vegetarian. So, I gave up meat immediately. I would step over bugs on the sidewalk, and maybe swoop in from time-to-time to remove a bug from the path of a less mindful pedestrian! It isn’t that there is anything intrinsically wrong with this per se; although a 6’8 redneck walking the streets of South Florida in a bathrobe is quite the site! The problem rested in the fact that I was acting out. I was playing a part, and someone else’s life was the screenplay.

  2. yoga freedom says:

    Ben, thanks for starting this series. Yes, I fell in love at first practice with yoga as a teenager and with meditation in my early 20s. I am definitely addicted to both. I spent quite a few years as a yoga fundamentalist. It was my way of dealing with other (namely Chrstian) fundamentalists. But, more and more, I'm moving away from the mindset of, "Now it's time for my spiritual practice" and integrating mindfulness into my activities, day by day, moment by moment. This is so liberating! Still, I find it is essential to sit daily. Just having the intention and sitting on my cushion for as little as five minutes give me such a sense of self-discipline and balance.
    With metta,
    p.s. I have had "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" on my bookshelf for a good 6 years… This (and your "confessions" post) is compelling me to finally read it!

  3. Chris Randall says:

    I most definitely identify with the lord of speech and intellect ideas. I used Buddhism in prison as a tool and it was a very attractive idea that allowed me to discount more easily the religious fervor that surrounded me and it took me away from the violence and negativity that i was witnessing and even taking part in. I didnt realize that instead of accepting life and my reality there that i was stuffing my reality deeper i just added some confusion and ego to the mix , and my uniqueness was just a fear that i needed something to change the way i felt which was a major reason for me being in prison in the first place. I had just found a less chemical way to do it in prison. It wasnt til i got out and realized that i hadnt addressed any of my issues or my relation to the outside world that i was able to see anything clearly and now i am just beginning to see some progress in my life and its not because i claimed Buddhism Taoism or any other ism its because im just allowing life to work its magic a little more everyday and its way more effective for me than any specific religion, person, or politics has ever been. Thanks Ben this is very informative and i am blessed to be present for it.

  4. Well done, Ben. What a great idea. And I'm so happy that someone else has created a new discussion series on Elephant. It will do very well, I'm sure. Thanks.

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Waylon Lewis, Bob Weisenberg. Bob Weisenberg said: RT @Benjamin_Riggs Part 1 of a #free 10 week online study of #Buddhist #Meditation i'm doing on Elephant Journal #elej- […]

  6. Hi, Laurie. Thanks for your very touching and personal story.

  7. i and I says:

    Great writing except for the incessant use of the word ~we~ I don't think you are the worst offender but I have felt moved to direct my dis-satisfaction with the use of that word; which as I read it takes me prisoner and subjects me to whatever fantasy of universality you and the others are under. Stop it. You are not us and we do not want you having your way with us without our consent. See how easily I just pretended that everyone was on my side and you were alone. I believe that I and most people immediately disconnect from whatever we are reading when someone forces a "we" upon them. Speak for your self and invite me to do the same or to intentional project myself into your thought stream. If you say i then i hear and visualize "I" and i can really put myself into your vision. Now I am much more invested and interested to hear what you may have to say.

  8. Been Buddhist about 27 years, but not until my son was born 15 years ago did it really sink in. I had to pack away all of my stuff…no more candles or incense, no bowls of rice & water. No time to meditate. Meditation room now storage area. You pack up all this stuff and stay up all night and day feeding a baby and changing diapers and cooking and cleaning, then where is your real dharma practice? What is your original face? I can't speak for others. For me, dharma practice had to become totally internalized, like one's own blood. Milrapepa would have saved a lot of time by getting married and having a kid.

  9. BenRiggs says:

    I did the same thing…. Within 15 minutes of becoming a Buddhist I had an alter! I had no idea what any of the stuff on the alter represented, but there it was! Thanks for sharing…

  10. BenRiggs says:

    Thank you very much Cindy… This is exactly the type of stuff I hope to continue hearing throughout the course of this exploration. Seeing in our own lives the causes and conditions that give rise to our dissatisfaction.

  11. BenRiggs says:

    Yeah… I think going into a cave for a while is how those without children compensate. Of course his teacher, with who I greatly admire, took a different path. If America can relate to any Tibetan master I would suspect Marpa is the one!

  12. Tangled Macrame says:

    As the mother of two preschoolers, I agree completely.

  13. TamingAuthor says:

    Congratulations on the new start. Thank you for all your hard work preparing material and launching a discussion.

    This first topic is a favorite of mine, as I had the opportunity to watch Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it into practice when he first came to Boulder. The crowd gathered for one of his first talks was the epitome of spiritual materialism, all more than ready to play an ego game…. and ready to see a stereotype Tibetan Buddhist. So he appeared in jeans, a plaid shirt, and sipped from a bottle of Jack Daniels. He was clearly out to trash their idea of what a Tibetan spiritual leader should be. Fun stuff. Crazy wisdom.

  14. BenRiggs says:

    Oh wow! I have never heard that story… That is great.

  15. TamingAuthor says:

    Picking up on one of your themes… the filters we use to monitor reality.

    On the one hand, it is accurate to note the presence of karmic imprints that obfuscate and color and distort the reality we perceive. These perception modifiers are powerful. After purifying these karmic imprints we often realize we've been living in delusion. The depth of the delusion (illusion) can be stunning, as we might realize after layer upon layer of filters are set aside.

    Yet there also exists a useful set of filters one can "put on" as part of the practice. These filters are teachings that help us view reality in very specific ways. When we study the Buddha and put in place one of his "training filters" we see the world differently. For example, there is the filter that focuses our attention on the fact that all things, all arisen conditions, are constantly changing.

    As a result of using these "training filters," we come to appreciate the power of selective viewing and the malleable nature of reality. We begin to realize our mental or spiritual condition determines how we perceive, and that condition can be intentionally modified by the practice.

    Do you agree that we can sometimes make the mistake of confusing the two types of filters? Are there times when we reject valid teachings because we mistake those teachings for ideology or "views" when we seek to live without ideology or views? (Zen students often advocate this totally stripping of all views, always.)

    Have you also found that the unhelpful karmic imprint filters can distort the teachings so that we have difficulty accessing the teachings? (For example, we may think we are practicing Buddhism but we are doing something very different.)

    This last situation appears to be a catch-22 situation. We cannot practice Buddhism because we cannot perceive its nature clearly, but we need the practice of Buddhism in order to perceive clearly. In your view, how does one solve this conundrum?

    What has been your experience regarding the best way to address the problem of self-deception arising from karmic imprint filters?

  16. Bob Miller says:

    Mindfulness is a way of experiencing my life moment by moment and thought by thought as it is happening without getting caught up in the experience. Don't get me wrong, I do have emotional flare ups and do get swept away by them, but not lost in them for longer than necessary. These are aways teaching lessons that are more evident after the fact than during it and I am always grateful for them. Without mediation the tendency to slip into the mind is much greater and I am more vulnerable to it and have come to know when I must just let everything go and "just sit" for a while. The teachings of Buddhism have been a real blessing to me and it has opened the door to other non-dualist teachings. I'm happy you started this discussion and look forward to where it goes and where it brings me. You do good things!

  17. […] transforming meditation into an obsessive attempt to grow your gray matter is counter productive. Such a pursuit is a selfish pursuit… Materialism in a spiritual wardrobe! It is like the man who has got to lower his blood pressure… He sits down to meditate with the […]

  18. BenRiggs says:

    Do you agree that we can sometimes make the mistake of confusing the two types of filters?
    I would agree, and would suggest that is the main point above, as far as the Lord of the Intellect is concerned.

    But as you say…
    Are there times when we reject valid teachings because we mistake those teachings for ideology or "views" when we seek to live without ideology or views? When we are the guy who is "label-less" or the woman free of any ideology, and we cling to this nothingness we have transformed nothingness into a static-slid image, and this is every bit as dangerous as clinging to a particular system of thought… Maybe more dangerous, as we all know how difficult it is to talk with the person who is above words!

    In your view, how does one solve this conundrum?
    I am not suggesting that now or ever we must render ourselves CONFUSIONLESS; rather I am suggesting we must observe and accept our confusion… In such a moment a remarkable transformation takes place!

  19. BenRiggs says:

    Glad you are enjoying it thus far… Thank you for sharing your input Bob.

  20. BenRiggs says:

    Thank you very much for sharing you thought Yoga Freedom… I look forward to hearing more from you as this discussion evolves!

  21. TamingAuthor says:

    Yes, the need for discernment comes forth as vital. The Diamond Sutra is a good source for starting to appreciate the role of discernment.

  22. Perhaps I misunderstand what you are saying, but I think the idea of filters is incorrect. Your statement, "we may think we are practicing Buddhism but we are doing something very different" misses the point of dharma. There is really no separate activity of "practicing Buddhism" by itself. Every misinterpretation and mistake is part of the path, and you just get through them.

    It sounds to me that you are making a comparison between seeing reality in the ordinary confused way, and looking at things from a point of view which is not rooted in dualistic thinking, ego-clinging, emotional confusion and so forth, as though one way is not Buddhist and the other way is Buddhist.

    This view is still dualistic. It presents enlightened mind as somewhere else. Really, it is all the same. When you practice dharma, everything is dharma practice, even mistaken view. A zen teacher once told me that dharma practice is like water boiling: there is the water, and there are the air bubbles in the water, and they seem like separate things but all together they are both part of the boiling.

  23. BenRiggs says:

    Thanks for joining in Pamela… I hope you will pop in this coming week for the second topic.

  24. TamingAuthor says:

    Tungsten, perhaps it can be expressed simply as the difference between skillful practice that results in enlightenment and unskillful practice that results in continual circling around afflicted with the same ignorance.

    When one views with the filters the Buddha designed to help us see things clearly, one moves ahead. When one has other filters, one experiences only obfuscation. One way is Buddhism, the other is not.

    I disagree fairly strongly with the idea that it is all Dharma and one cannot go wrong. There is ample evidence that one can go about it all wrong and continue to cycle lifetime after lifetime riding the wheel of birth and death in ignorance. Most people, including most Buddhists, are terribly entangled with samsara, with not the faintest idea of their condition. Their assessment of "what is" contains serious errors.

    Over thousands of trillions of years there has been a continuous decline into attachment and obfuscation. Very few have even touched upon the path. Very few have even glimpsed the outskirts of enlightenment. Most are dancing with delusion. Most are drunk on samsara and have not begun to cross the stream. The path the Buddha marked is remarkably narrow, a tightrope leading across a very deep chasm.

    It is a mistake, in my opinion, to fail to recognize the precision required, and an even greater mistake to assume an "all the same" view. Maybe I'm wrong but so far I have not seen evidence that tells me it is otherwise.

  25. […] Last week I spoke on the subject of Spiritual Materialism. Spiritual Materialism is a specific example of a general dynamic. It describes the ego’s tendency to own its environment within the context of spirituality. When the ego takes hold of the spiritual path, we start trying to be spiritual, religious, contemplative, philosophical, and what have you. We dress up in spiritual costumes, acquire a fancy new spiritual name, and begin to speak the spiritual language. We start engaging in highly intellectual discussions regarding the quantum nature of the soul or some non-sense like that. Simply put we are playing the part. This sort of self-deception has nothing to do with the practice of meditation. In such cases, we are using meditation as a prop, something that enables us to project a certain self-image. However, this may give rise to the sort of dissatisfaction that leads us to the cushion… […]

  26. […] can exist in the form of frustration or preoccupation. Pressure can be something as simple as forcing yourself to complete that workout (which […]