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November 15, 2022
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Spirituality wasn't always so accessible. Once upon a time, it was reserved for the mystics, monks, and ascetics of the world. Accessing teachings required long treks, grueling initiations, or even a certain bloodline. Today, we're a podcast or library visit away from more wisdom and less ignorance. Because of this, it's no wonder the number of Americans defining themselves as "spiritual but not religious" has been increasing for some time.

Whether you lean Buddhist, practice Kundalini, or prefer to remain undefined—spiritual principles generally preach more love, peace, compassion, and healing… And how can this be anything but good? The popularity of spirituality in the U.S. is promising, but there's a footnote here. Because while spirituality is on the rise, it's also climbing within the mecca of materialism in the modern world.

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Spiritual materialism 101.

Spirituality can be a bit deceiving. On the one hand, it's a worldview, lifestyle, and ideology. On the other, it's a label. Anyone can claim the label of spirituality just like anyone can buy the namaste T-shirt, choose a particular guru, or sling the world karma as common parlance.

There's nothing wrong with any of the above—but it does indicate that spirituality may have a doppelgänger. What looks like spirituality, sounds like spirituality, but isn't quite? For the spiritually curious in a material world, spiritual materialism is the term to know.

In 1973, Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa published Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism—a transcript of lectures he gave in Boulder, Colorado, to put words to a phenomenon that shapes the way many of us experience spirituality today. Here's how he explains spiritual materialism: "There are numerous sidetracks which can lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spirituality when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques."

Spiritual materialism is when we think we’re doing something spiritual but are actually strengthening the ego.

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In other words: Spiritual materialism is when we think we're doing something spiritual but are actually strengthening the ego. It's when our ego has us fooled that something external or illusory is the key to enlightenment.

Naturally, it's something that those of us on a spiritual path would want to avoid, but spiritual materialism is slippery. The reality is, all of us will eventually encounter its distortions. (Even the Buddhist greats were susceptible.) But the more we can learn about its different forms, the more effectively we can avoid or shorten the detours.

The first layer of spiritual materialism: Physical comforts.

I'll be the first person to admit the sparkly allure of a crystal shop. I had a collection of mala beads back when they were fresh on the yoga scene and once put far too much reliance on my tarot deck. But all of these physical belongings, even those of a spiritual nature, Trungpa ascribes to "the neurotic pursuit of physical comfort, security, and pleasure." The thing is the crystals and devotional statues can have value. We don't practice spiritual materialism by owning these things but by attempting to create safety and comfort through them.

Our culture of consumerism and materialism has taught us that possessions bring us happiness and success in life. It's not such a far leap to think that objects of a spiritual nature similarly bring enlightenment. The holy objects you bring back from India, the sound bowl collection, the incense—these objects carry importance. But acquiring them does not make us spiritual or put us on the fast track to awakening. Spirituality is and always will be an inside job… But the plot thickens because spiritual materialism can be just as rampant in our minds as it is in our homes.

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The second layer: Spiritual materialism of the mind.

Spiritual materialism takes place on the internal level in the form of ideas, concepts, and ideologies—or what Trungpa loosely defines as our intellect. Just like we lean on our physical things to bring comfort, we can lean on our intellect to navigate life more comfortably. "Nationalism, communism, existentialism, Christianity, Buddhism," Trungpa says, "all provide us with identities, rules of action, and interpretations of how and why things happen as they do." Mentally, we use ideologies, beliefs, and concepts to protect us or soften 'what is.'"

It's true: How often do we lean on our beliefs to self-soothe? Even the common spiritual maxim, everything happens for a reason, can sugarcoat the present moment. And when we use spiritual truths to comfort ourselves, we sometimes miss the opportunity to face the doubt, uncertainty, and confusion, which are, frankly, the best teachers.

The last layer: When spirituality itself becomes the object.

There's no question that a solid yoga practice, regular meditation, or an ayahuasca retreat can introduce us to (or expand) our consciousness. But Trungpa describes the last pillar of spiritual materialism as "the effort of consciousness to maintain awareness of ourselves." It's "when we use spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding on to our sense of self. Drugs, yoga, prayer, meditation, trances, various psychotherapies—all can be used in this way," he says. Paradoxically, our susceptibility to this layer increases the "more spiritual" we become.

This one stings, I know—but it's also a light bulb moment. It's human nature that when we experience something powerful, we want to replay it in our minds, examine it, package it up, and revisit the pleasure of it. But in doing so, that genuine spiritual moment becomes an imitation. It becomes something material and complex, whereas spiritual insights are characterized by simplicity. Systems of spirituality like meditation, yoga, or studying with a teacher will take us far—but eventually, self-realization will look like letting them all go.

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How to move away from spiritual materialism:

  • Don't hoard spiritual objects: Ever notice how exciting and full of promise a new crystal will feel—and then six months later it has lost its metaphysical luster? Quintessential materialism.
  • Watch out for rigid thinking—politically, socially, or spiritually: Having beliefs and opinions is a part of the human experience, but be wary when they become a retreat in times of discomfort or challenge.
  • Stay real with your spiritual teacher: There's a difference between being devoted to your teacher and putting them on a superhuman pedestal. In Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa describes what this relationship ought to look like: "It is a matter of mutual communication rather than a master-servant relationship between a highly evolved being and a miserable, confused one." He advises that we should seek our teachers based on how authentically we can communicate with them, not how many followers they have.
  • Consider how often you feel the need to share: Whether it's claiming to be an empath, to have elevated intuition, or to have access to a renowned teacher, feeling the need to share every aspect of our spiritual evolution may indicate the ego is *present.* Take the extra moment to examine why you feel the need to share—and what the best outlet might be (whether it's social media or a private conversation).
  • Notice if you're trying to manifest yourself out of the present moment: Manifesting is certainly a buzzword these days, but it can get us hyper-fixated on the future. Spiritual practice lives in the present moment. Obsessing about the future may be a sign of spiritual materialism at play.

Your own experience is your best teacher.

It's strange and uprooting to think that even our spiritual practices or teachers can become obstacles. And at the risk of an existential crisis: Once we give up spirituality itself, what's left? According to Trungpa, "It is essentially to relate to yourself, to your own experience, really. If one does not relate to oneself, then the spiritual path becomes dangerous, becomes purely external entertainment rather than an organic personal experience."

If we condense the lessons of spiritual materialism into one idea, it's that the essence of spirituality is about realizing our own true nature—and there are as many paths to that realization as there are people.

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