We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Dancing with Hope and Fear
Spiritual materialism is the last and most subtle form. Spiritual materialism is your effort to use spiritual practice—as opposed to religious, political, or philosophical belief—as a way to create a sense of ultimate security, certainty, and permanence.
The life of the Buddha, and the inner journey he made in order to become “buddha”—completely awakened—is a vivid example of the power of spiritual materialism, and the courage required to go beyond it.
The Indian society into which he was born had a highly developed spiritual culture based on several thousand years of tradition and practice. In his search for inner knowledge, he was faced constantly with this question: Should I become part of this tradition, or is the truth that I’m looking for somewhere else? Along the way, he encountered three approaches.
Trying to Become Higher
The first materialistic approach to meditation that the Buddha encountered was trying to become higher. In this approach, you imagine that you are uniting yourself with a divine principle, a higher being that is going to elevate you from ordinariness into sacredness. Ultimately you are trying to unite yourself with an ideal that you created to begin with and then projected externally. Having created this sacred projection, you then tell yourself that it is really separate from you and you strive to unite yourself with it.
Beyond the self-deception involved in creating something that you then regard as an independent reality, you are also practicing with the assumption that you are not already complete as you are and that there’s something higher that is going to rescue you from your debased condition. So the whole psychological posture of this kind of practice reinforces your hope that you could become enlightened and your fear that you won’t.
The second approach the Buddha encountered was centralizing inwards. This involves using an object of meditation—such as a flame, sounds, a visualized image, or the breath—to bring the mind to a state of complete focus and absorption, and then dwelling there as long as possible.
By doing this, the fickle and unpredictable energy of both the outer world and the inner world is excluded from the realm of meditation. Because you can sustain a state of absorption for very long periods of time, once again, there is a subtle hope that you can sustain it indefinitely, and a fear that you will not be able to do so.
What the Buddha discovered in these two forms of spiritual materialism is that, like everything else in the universe, these states are subject to impermanence and sooner or later they will fall apart. Whether your effort is to unite yourself with something higher, or to absorb yourself by centralizing inwards, the power of the fickleness of impermanence is always present. It will undermine your attempts to achieve a permanent inner state of any kind.
Completely Identifying with Nowness
The meditation that the Buddha finally explored in his courageous journey to free himself from any trace of spiritual materialism, is completely identifying with nowness. This approach involves resting continuously in the experience of the present moment, whatever it may bring. In this practice there is no aim to become higher, and no attempt to create a special meditative cocoon through absorption. This is not to say that these methods or techniques cannot be used, but they are used with a very different attitude. That is, they are used only in the service of identifying the mind with the present moment.
As the practice of meditation has gained more of a foothold in the West, it has become almost a cliché for people to talk about the importance of “being in the present moment”, as if it is some magical and quick path to understanding the true meaning of life and making it as painless as possible. But Westerners often don’t have much genuine understanding of what their words actually mean.
According to the Buddha, “being in the present moment” means that whatever life is offering in the moment—whether hope or fear, pleasure or pain, joy or sadness, success or failure or anything in between—that is your object of practice. Your present moment may not always be a glass of cabernet; it may be a dose of chemotherapy.
Cut Off From the Living World
The underlying promise of materialism is that it can fulfill all your longing and banish all your anxiety. But it cannot ultimately keep that promise. By putting your faith in the “lords” of materialism, you agree to be enslaved by them in a cycle of promise and disappointment that is never ending. As a slave, what is it that you agree to surrender? You barter away your fundamental vitality and innate confidence in exchange for the illusion of security they offer.
To understand why this is so, consider the underlying motivation for all forms of materialism, which is to control your world—outer or inner—so that you can be permanently safe. To assure yourself of this safety, you must separate yourself from the thing that you think you need to control. What we call the “material” world is really just a projection based on this need to separate the world from ourselves in order to manage it at all times.
But the world is a living world. You are embedded in it at all times, and you can never really separate yourself from it. Here it is more accurate to say that you live in an elemental world, rather than a material world. This elemental world is composed of earth, water, fire, wind, and space. These elements exist all around you and within you as well. They are full of vitality, constantly shifting and changing. The elemental world, from which you can never separate yourself because you are always part of it, is the real source of your strength.
By pledging your allegiance to materialism, you forfeit your access to that living relationship with the world. The whole path of genuine spirituality is about dropping materialism’s imaginary boundary between you and the elemental world, and beginning to relate to that world directly.
True Medicine for Suffering
The strategies of materialism ultimately weaken you through distraction. In its obsessive pursuit of the control and manipulation of your immediate experience, materialism cannot offer you the medicine for your suffering. The Dalai Lama has said that the Buddha should be understood as a doctor—rather than as a philosopher or a priest or a savior—and the Dharma that he taught as medicine.
When you go to a doctor, he examines you and based on what your illness is, he prescribes medicine that you then take. You don’t worship the doctor. Worshiping the doctor is not going to do you any good at all. Taking the medicine is what’s going to do you good.
Buddhism is a nontheistic path. The doctor doesn’t need or want your worship. Indeed, if he or she does, then he is not a genuine doctor. Ultimately, you are alone with the challenge of your personal struggle with hope and fear. Only when you understand the hopelessness of trying to manipulate this challenge, can you truly and honestly embark on the spiritual path.
Journeying Through Materialism without Goal
Be forewarned: Your earnest project of trying to eliminate all traces of materialism from your life—thinking that this will get you where you want to go—is going to be hopeless, as well. That is just another form of manipulating your experience. Rather than rejecting materialism—pretending it’s not happening, or convincing yourself you are something other than you are or better than that—you accept all this as part of your working basis. This is especially important to acknowledge, so that you have a sense of humor about your life and your path and how you too are deeply embedded in the delusions of the materialistic world, along with everyone else.
In other words, you accept your hope and fear as the raw materials of your spiritual path, because you have the honesty to admit that your materialistic strategies have not resolved your struggle with them. Then by committing yourself to a practice that’s based on being completely identified with nowness, your struggle with hope and fear can become a dance.
As the poet T.S. Eliot put it: “At the still point of the turning world, there the dance is.” Meditation is about finding that connection with stillness and with nowness beyond mere projections of the mind. Meditation is not merely a projection of hope or fear, of the past or the future. To fully identify with nowness is to experience life as Eliot describes. You begin to learn how to remain still in the midst of the endless movement of your mind and the world around you.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner