Spiritual Materialism


There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.

The basic problems of spiritual materialism are common to all spiritual disciplines. ... The heart of the confusion is that man has a sense of self which seems to him to be continuous and solid. When a thought or emotion or event occurs, there is a sense of someone being conscious of what is happening. You sense that you are reading these words. This sense of self is actually a transitory, discontinuous event, which in our confusion seems to be quite solid and continuous. Since we take our confused view as being real, we struggle to maintain and enhance the solid self. We try to feed it pleasures and shield it from pain. Experience continually threatens to reveal our transitoriness to us so we continually struggle to cover up any possibility of discovering our real condition. "But," we might ask, "if our real condition is an awakened state, why are we so busy trying to avoid becoming aware of it" It is because we have become so absorbed in our confused view of the world, that we consider it real, the only possible world. This struggle to maintain the sense of a solid, continuous self is the action of the ego.

Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality. For example, if you have learned of a particularly beneficial meditation technique of spiritual practice, then ego's attitude is, first to regard it as an object of fascination and, second to examine it. Finally, since ego is seeming solid and cannot really absorb anything, it can only mimic. The ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life. When we have learned all the tricks and answers of the spiritual game, we automatically try to imitate the practice of meditation and meditative way of life. When we have learned all the tricks and answers of the spiritual game, we automatically try to imitate spirituality, since real involvement would require the complete elimination of ego, and actually the last thing we want to do is to give up the ego completely. however, we cannot experience that which we are trying to imitate; we can only find some area within the bounds of ego that seems to be the same thing. Ego translates everything in terms of its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a sense of great accomplishment and excitement at having been able to create such a pattern. At last it has created a tangible accomplishment, a confirmation of its own individuality. If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely. ... In following a spiritual path we may substitute a new religious ideology for our former beliefs, but continue to use it in the old neurotic way. ... He discovered that struggling to find answers did not work. It was only when there were gaps in his struggle that insights came to him. He began to realize that there was a sane, awake quality within him which manifested itself only in the absence of struggle. So the practice of meditation involves "letting be". ... In true meditation there is no ambition to stir up thoughts, nor is there an ambition to suppress them. They are just allowed to occur spontaneously and become an expression of basic sanity.

If the strategy of continually creating overlapping thoughts is penetrated, then the Lords stir up emotions to distract us. The exciting, colorful, dramatic quality of the emotions captures our attention as if we were watching an absorbing film show. In the practice of meditation we neither encourage emotions nor repress them. By seeing hem clearly, by allowing them to be as they are, we no longer permit them to serve a means of entertaining and distracting us. Thus they become the inexhaustible energy which fulfills egoless action. ... Meditation involves seeing the transparency of concepts, so that labeling no longer serves as a way of solidifying our world and our image of self. ... There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. This egoless state is the attainment of Buddhahood. The process of transforming the material of mind from expressions of ego's ambition into expressions of basic sanity and enlightenment through the practice of meditation - this might be said to be the true spiritual path.

Whenever we have a dualistic notion such as, "I am doing this because I want to achieve a particular state of consciousness, a particular state of being," then automatically we separate ourselves from the reality of what we are.

If we ask ourselves, "What is wrong with evaluating, with taking sides?" the answer is that, when we formulate a secondary judgment, "I should be doing this and should avoid doing that," then we have achieved a level of complication which takes us a long way from the basic simplicity of what we are. The simplicity of meditation means just experiencing the ape of instinct of ego. If anything more than this is laid onto our psychology, then it becomes a very heavy, thick mask, a suit of armor.

It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to strip out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego's constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking. ... If we do not step out of spiritual materialism, if we in fact practice it, then we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths. ... But we have simply created a shop, an antique shop. We could be specializing in oriental antiques or medieval Christian antiques or antiques from some other civilization or time, but we are, nonetheless, running a shop. ... Before we filled our shop with so many things the room was beautiful: white-washed walls and a very simple floor with a bright lamp burning in the ceiling. There was one object of art in the middle of the room and it was beautiful. Everyone who came appreciated its beauty, including ourselves.

But we were not satisfied and we thought, "Since this one object makes my room so beautiful, if I get more antiques, my room will be even more beautiful." So we began to collect and the end result was chaos.

We searched the world over for beautiful objects - India, Japan, many different countries. ... But when we brought the object home and put in there, it became just another addition to our junky collection. The beauty of the object did not radiate out any more, because it was surrounded by so many other beautiful things. It did not mean anything anymore. Instead of a room full of beautiful antiques we created a junk shop!

Proper shopping does not entail collecting a lot of information or beauty, but it involves fully appreciating each individual object. This is very important. If you really appreciate an object of beauty, then you completely identify with it and forget yourself. It is like seeing a very interesting, fascinating movie and forgetting that you are the audience. At that moment there is no world; you whole being is that scene of that movie. It is a kind of identification, complete involvement with one thing. Did we actually taste it and chew it and swallow it properly, that one object of beauty, that one spiritual teaching? Or did we merely regard it as part of our vast and growing collection. ...

The teachings are an individual personal experience, right down to the present holder of the doctrine.

Q: So who are you following, more or less?

A: Situations are the voice of my guru, the presence of my guru.

... Self-deception is a constant problem as we progress along a spiritual path. Ego is always trying to achieve spirituality. It is rather like wanting to witness your own funeral. For instance, in the beginning we might approach our spiritual friend hoping to get something wonderful from him. This approach is called "hunting the guru." Traditionally, it is compared to hunting the musk deer. The hunter stalks the deer kills it, and removes the musk. We could take this approach to the guru and spirituality, but it would be self-deception. We could take this approach to the guru and spirituality, but it would be self-deception. It would have nothing to do with real opening or surrender.

Or we might falsely assume that initiation means transplantation, transplanting the spiritual power of the teaching from the guru's heart into our own. This mentality regards the teaching as something foreign to us. ... This approach to the process of initiation is very romantic and not at all valid. So we need someone to personally concerned with us as we really are, we need a person to play the part of mirror. Whenever we are involved with any kind of self-deception, it is necessary that the whole process be revealed, opened. Any grasping attitude must be exposed.

Self deception seems always to depend upon a dream world, because you would like to see what you have not yet seen, rather than what you are now seeing. You will not accept that whatever is here now is what is, nor are you willing to go on with the situation as it is. Thus, self-deception always manifests itself in terms of trying to create or recreate a dream world, the nostalgia of the dream experience. And the opposite of self-deception is just working with the facts of life.

You do not have to regard the watcher as a villain. Once you begin to understand that the purpose of meditation is not to get higher but to be present, here, then the watcher is not efficient enough to perform that function, and it automatically falls away. The basic quality of the watcher is to try to be extremely efficient and active. But total awareness is something you already have, so ambitious or so called "efficient" attempts to be aware are self-defeating. As the watcher begins to realize that it is irrelevant, it falls away.

In as much as no one is going to save us, to the extent that no one is going magically to enlighten us, the path we are discussing is called the "hard way." This path does not conform to our expectation that involvement with the Buddhist teaching will be gentle, peaceful, pleasant, compassionate. It is the hard way, a simple meeting of two minds: if you open your mind, if you are willing to meet, then the teacher opens his mind as well. It is not a question of magic; the condition of openness is a mutual creation.

I am not saying that foreign or disciplinary traditions are not applicable to the spiritual path. Rather, I am saying that we have the notion that there must be some kind of medicine or magic potion to help us attain the right state of mind. This seems to be coming at the problem backwards. We hop that by manipulating matter, the physical world, we can achieve wisdom and understanding. We may even expect expert scientists to do it for us. ... so the point we come back to is that some kind of real gift or sacrifice is needed if we are to open ourselves completely. This gift may take any form. But in order for it to be meaningful, it must entail giving up our hope of getting something in return. ... We must give up our ambition to get something in return for our gift. That is the really hard way.

... Perhaps we are not quite absolutely sure, but certainly such a miracle must mean that we are on to something, that we have found the true way at last. ... Such intense attempts to prove to ourselves that what we are doing is right indicate a very introverted state of mind; one is very aware of oneself and the state of one's being. We feel that we are a minority and that we are doing something very extraordinary, that we are different form everyone else. This sort of attempt to prove our own uniqueness is just an attempt to validate our self-deception. "Of course I experienced something extraordinary; of course I saw the miracle; of course I had the insight; therefore I am going on." Which is a very closed-in, introverted situation. We have no time to relate to anyone else, our friends or relatives, the outside world. We are concerned only with ourselves.

... We must give up all our speed and aggression, the whole demanding quality. We must develop some compassion for ourselves, and then the open way just begins.

Chogyam Trungpa - Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism