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
Pleasing Illusions that Put Us to Sleep
The power of materialism, particularly in the West but increasingly all over the world, is pervasive. When my teacher first began sharing authentic wisdom here in America, he started by emphasizing the reality of this power, and how important it is for all of us on a genuine spiritual path to have a realistic understanding of the ways it challenges us.
Materialism has become the main strategy for attempting to resolve our tension between our longing and our limitation, our hope and our fear. Through its emphasis on comfort, security, and efficiency—and its ability to provide these for people all over the world—materialism induces the illusion that this tension is no longer an issue because our modern world empowers us to provide ourselves with a pleasant lifestyle.
But this is not the case. Just as hope and fear, each in itself, are not the problem, we do not need to make the moral judgment that materialism is an inherently bad thing. While it is increasingly true that technological and material “progress” bring with them a host of new social and environmental problems, these are not the concerns I wish to address in this book. Materialism is not a bad thing so much as a limited thing; it is the wrong tool for the job, like using a hammer to saw a piece of wood. Materialism does not offer a real solution to our underlying human tension.
Let’s look more closely at how and why this is the case. My teacher shared with us a traditional Tibetan teaching that describes three lords of materialism. The word “lords” here connotes the feudal sense—masters over their domain, with us as their serfs. So lordship here indicates a relationship based on domination and oppression.
These lords rule on three levels: physical, psychological, and spiritual. They all absorb us in an ongoing project of bringing what, in their view, is an unpredictable and often dangerous world under human control.
Human beings have a natural tendency to evolve from one level of materialism into the next. Having mastered one level we are drawn inevitably to focus on a more sophisticated or subtle level, and we keep going forward in that way with our fundamental evolutionary instinct.
To begin, we engage physical materialism—which is initially the pursuit of material necessities, and ultimately becomes the preoccupation with wealth, comfort, and ease.
The first level of materialism, which for the vast majority of humanity is simply survival, begins as the essential and necessary preoccupations that allow human life to continue. But once survival is at least temporarily assured, materialism proliferates further in a way that no longer has anything to do with survival. You begin trying to secure your imagined future. This shift from present concern to future concern is highly significant; it is when the physical level of materialism becomes a “Lord” that rules you.
Under this lord, you feel you need to have more than the necessities, and the need to have more is what brings hope and fear into your life on a more abstract level. Now you are enticed by the mirage, or haunted by the specter, of future possibilities.
But even when you have fulfilled the physical level of materialism to its utmost, you find that this accomplishment has not solved your underlying problem. What persists is a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction and boredom. You feel there must be more to life. There must be something more meaningful than merely having lots of toys—even more toys than anyone else.
In fact, having exhausted the ability of wealth alone to satisfy you, you will often find yourself inevitably using the power and influence your wealth provides to influence others, but on a different level of materialism—the psychological level.
Whether wealthy or not, you may then try to resolve this problem of bringing your world under control with your ideas. You attempt this through the philosophical or political or religious systems of belief with which you feel you can identify, and to which you can belong. Theistic systems based on belief in a savior are forms of psychological materialism because you project the ultimate source of safety “out there” onto an All-Powerful Being that is somehow going to save you, or punish you, in the future. This serves the same function as physical materialism, giving the illusion of securing and protecting yourself with externals.
But you encounter the same result. You give away your power to these externals.
These projections then enslave you. As we know from even a quick glance at human history, passion for our own beliefs is extremely dangerous to ourselves and to others. We are willing to kill others over them, and do. In fact, the harm we do to ourselves and to others as a result of our beliefs seems equally as bad as, if not worse than, the harm we do in the competition for physical resources. We are sure we have found The Answer—whether it is religious or secular—and we want everyone else to have that answer, too. Then to our surprise, we discover that they already have their own answers, and are not interested in being converted to ours. The road to Hell is paved with our good intentions. This is why the second lord of materialism is even more dangerous to us than the first.
Of course, psychological materialism is not limited to theistic belief systems alone. All intellectual systems and schools, and all political parties and factions have the potential to be used in this way. Since most educated people tend to adopt many philosophical, psychological, and political ideas, and many even depend on promoting these ideas for their livelihood in a materialistic society, it is obviously impractical to approach the problem from the point of view of trying to abolish such things. They are part of our human inheritance, whether we resonate with the worldview of Freud or Jung, Ayn Rand or Karl Marx, Evangelical Christianity or Tibetan Buddhism. The passion, diversity, and liveliness of our intellectual life will always be with us in any “free” society.
The issue here is not that all intellectual systems or traditions are inherently false or flawed, and you should therefore reject them out of hand. The issue is that the truth they point to, by its very nature, is inevitably partial, biased, and incomplete. As a result, your tendency to create your identity around any ideology—no matter how noble or persuasive—narrows your vision and often blocks your capacity to understand and empathize with others’ points of view. Your impulse to define yourself and seek security, approval, power, or admiration for your ideas and opinions—even in the event that it doesn’t lead you to actively harm others who see the world differently—ultimately limits your capacity to grow spiritually because it traps you in an adversarial, dualistic model of reality.
The Buddha didn’t wake up by taking sides.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner