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Ever hear of “spiritual materialism?”
Well, if you’re an American Buddhist, or just like reading about Buddhism, you might’ve heard this term before.
If not, it’s a thing. A thing that goes along with spirituality.
It’s a funny concept. Much like spiritual bypassing, we’re a lot better at talking about it than we are at practicing it.
It’s one of those lessons you learn in spirituality where you can go, “Oh, look at that yoga person over there, decked out in all their yoga attire—those stretchy leggings, that precious mala—saying namaste to people, and then explaining to them what it means in Sanskrit, like they got it off Wikipedia. They are soooo spiritually materialistic.”
Don’t be coy. We’ve all thought that at one time or another.
Thing is, if you practice spirituality, you’re spiritually materialistic. There’s nearly no way around it.
The simple thought that you’re doing a little bit better than the person who just bought that nice new yoga mat is being spiritually materialistic!
But don’t fret, I’m going to tell you how to stop being spiritually materialistic. It’s really simple.
Spiritual materialism is, just like spiritual bypassing, intertwined with, let’s call it, Westernized spirituality. Basically, this is anytime someone comes into a spiritual practice that they weren’t necessarily raised with.
By and large, anyone born into the Occident was probably raised in a Judeo-Christian tradition. Even if not, chances are good that we came from a tradition with a monotheistic representation of god.
And that, in and of itself, has so many interesting dilemmas attached to it. Firstly, we almost always only get the most boring, tip of the iceberg stuff growing up. And let’s say we weren’t content with what we learnt or how we were raised. So we sought out something wholly—seemingly—different.
Immediately, if we’ve found another tradition outside what we were raised to believe, we already have some concept of it feeling better, or at least different, to us somehow. Is that wrong in some way? Not necessarily. It’s just, complex, isn’t it?
By which I mean, we probably have some negative feeling toward whatever tradition we were raised in. And, granted, it makes sense. Too many children have been raised with an oddly sin-centric belief structure in Christianity. Just as many Jewish kids grow up with a little too much of a victim-centric belief structure.
But lo and behold, Buddhism and Hinduism don’t have concepts of sin? You mean, I’m not necessarily bad, right from the get-go? Sign me up!
I had a fairly odd upbringing. Religiously, at least. Growing up, I went to all of the Jewish stuff with my father. See, he was a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to New York.
He rebelled against his religion in some ways, however, when he found a guy named Chögyam Trungpa. All of a sudden, he was practicing Tibetan Buddhism; this culturally Jewish immigrant had found his reprieve in Eastern Buddhism. And he did that for, like, 20 years. Until—as I’ve heard it told—he had a pretty heated argument with this eccentric Tibetan, a guy who was trying to bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West, and told him that he ought to go back to his original spiritual tradition.
Strangely, thanks to my mother, I was also raised Tibetan Buddhist. Which isn’t to say that because of my upbringing, I’m any more worthy of practicing Buddhism than any of you. Indeed, even I rebelled against both traditions, and found Hinduism for a hot minute. Thing is, it just never really sat well with me. Sure, it felt like I had finally found something that made sense, but, looking back, it was never natural for me. I was always trying to be a good yogi.
And, honestly, I’m glad I left all of that behind. I had to come to terms with my own internalised hatred (yeah, hatred) toward Judaism. That wasn’t an easy one for me. I also had to realise all of the gifts I’d been given as a Buddhist. Namely, I really have no concrete concepts of sinfulness instilled in me. Things just are. Or they are not. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, or even a good person. I can’t even be sure that I am a person. But anyway. Back to the topic at hand.
Spiritual materialism is a subtle little demon (it’s actually represented as three distinct demon-like entities).
It tells us that what we’re doing is right in some way. More right than what we were doing before. More right than what others are doing (atheists, ahem).
It’s not a far cry for me to assume that many of us aren’t too happy with the idea of materialism itself. It sounds like capitalism, like endless consuming.
But, truth be told, if we’ve found a tradition that leads us to believe we’ve discovered some work-around to all of this negative bullsh*t we’re so tired of in our society, we have latched onto yet another form of materialism.
And that’s because what we are doing is actually very simple. We are attempting to attain or gain something outside of ourselves.
And that’s why, as adults—now with all of our personal agency and ability to pick and choose what we actually want and need—it often actually makes more sense for us to deepen our practice with the tradition we were offered in our youths.
The reality is that every tradition, from Christianity to Islam to Judaism to Buddhism, has an inner tradition of the esoteric, the occult, the good stuff.
Yes, we may have only gotten a taste of the rather boring, rote, religious stuff, but it is there! Sure, I went with my father to the awfully boring Jewish stuff—his way of staying in touch with some sense of community, I imagine—but he was a Kabbalist at heart. Although, truth be told, I had to find a community of Jewish women to begin accepting that part of myself again.
I’ve met catholic priests who, living on a Greek mountaintop, practice things that look strikingly similar to Tibetan vajrayana, or tantra, if you like. I’ve met Sufis who lose themselves in dance—who play such music that I’ve had to forcefully keep my eyes open whilst listening, for fear, at the time, of going too deep within.
Now, I promised I would tell you how to get rid of spiritual materialism; this hindrance to an authentic, genuine spiritual practice. It’s really quite simple. Ready?
We have to get better at embracing paradox.
I’m not saying to not be spiritual. I’m also not saying to be spiritual. Either way, we get ourselves into a spiritually materialistic double-bind.
What I’m saying is that all of this is a paradox. It’s just a paradox. That’s all it is. It’s a logical conundrum that we can’t actually solve. And, when we try to solve it, when we try to be spiritual or not spiritual, or good or bad, or right or wrong, we’re falling prey to finding ourselves at one end of an extreme. A dialectic of sorts; this or that. A spectrum of black or white.
Similarly, see if you can get away from thinking about living in the grey, as it were. In fact, get as far away from thinking as you possibly can.
Instead, accept. Accept the paradox.
You might start feeling as though every damn thing is a paradox. It is. And that’s great. Things are, and they aren’t. Sometimes, things are rather obnoxiously not and are at the same time. It’s damned frustrating. And yet, when we stop worrying so much about them, they become so much less important.
Strangely, my spiritual practice is centred around being as unspiritual as I possibly can be. And yet, somehow, that’s crazily spiritual! I’ve only stopped worrying about it so much.
Is it logical? Does it make sense? Does it feel right? These are three questions I tend to ask myself with most things. Spiritual or not. And not all three boxes will always get checked off.
And, when I start to wonder, to think about it all, and to worry about it all (as worry seems to go hand-in-hand with incessant thinking) I try to stop that sh*t. And, of course, the more I try to stop, the harder it gets.
So try to stop trying. Loosen. Relax. Lighten the bullsh*t load. It’s the only thing that’s worked for me.
Here’s the thing. It isn’t the traditions in which we find ourselves that are to be blamed, its our relationship to them.
And, just like any relationship, we can ask ourselves a few questions, because this is a dialectic between the tradition itself, and you.
If you lose yourself in some spiritual practice, meditating for hours on end, only wanting to do things that feel spiritual to you, then are you treating this relationship as a healthy partner? Have you met your practice only halfway? Have you given the practice a chance to come and meet you?
Where are your boundaries? Are you enmeshed?
And, what if you’ve had such an awful experience with religion that you now choose to do quite the opposite? Maybe you consider yourself atheist or agnostic. Does that feel right to you, or do you carry some little judgement toward anyone who believes otherwise? And, as for yourself, might you now be running away from anything spiritual, the way a person might run away from any sense of vulnerability after being hurt by a past partner?
Practically speaking, when we look at such things as different forms of relationships, we can start to play with them through this same lens. A healthy relationship requests that two or more partners meet one another halfway, rather than running and jumping into each other’s own spaces. Boundaries are important. And, paradoxically (of course) boundaries also allow us to then play around, when need be.
Sometimes, I will need to be enmeshed. I’ll need you to be my caregiver figure, and comfort me (because, let’s be honest here, sometimes we need to re-parent in adulthood). Sometimes you will need that of me. And, in an ideal world, we are able to give one another those things. It’s a push-pull. A reciprocal stretching and loosening.
So let’s start to treat our relationships to spirituality—or the lack thereof—as just that. Relationships! Let’s be adults about it (which means that we sometimes need to be children about it). And let’s not treat spirituality the way we might raise a partner up on some pedestal.
Because, I think we can all agree that such behaviour probably never panned out.
Let’s enter into spirituality the way we might enter into an intimate relationship with a friend or lover: with the knowledge that they—just as we—are only human. That we err. We make mistakes. Sometimes we hurt one another.
But that doesn’t mean we have to fall apart or lose ourselves. Sometimes that means we only need to grieve, to feel our pain. And then we might be able to move forward. To repair and continue our relationship, or create new ones, now with more resilience and stretchier boundaries.