Let’s be realistic for a moment. There comes a time when our spiritual practices harm us more than help us.
However, most of us are so dedicated to protecting our fragile egos from the truth, that we live in a state of denial or total oblivion of what is happening.
When our spiritual practices reinforce and inflate our self senses (that is, our egos), this is spiritual materialism. And it is a toxic form of spirituality.
What is spiritual materialism?
Originally coined by the Buddhist meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, spiritual materialism is what happens when we use spiritual concepts, practices and tools to reinforce the false sense of self, the ego. As the ego is the source of all our suffering, reinforcing the ego through spiritual practice is completely at odds with the whole point of the spiritual path.
As Trungpa writes,
No matter what the practice or teaching is, the ego loves to wait in an ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.
We need to be honest with ourselves and realize that we are not immune to spiritual materialism. As we all have an ego, its mission is to survive, no matter what it takes, because it scares the prospect of non-existence. However, being free from the ego is the very definition of enlightenment according to all the most important non-dualistic spiritual traditions.
Examples of spiritual materialism
There is a disaster inside you: you clean the outside.
– The Dhammapada
By closely examining our own paths and practices, most of us can find instances of spiritual materialism quite easily. All we have to do is ask, “how this belief / practice / tool is reinforcing the ego (the separate sense of oneself)”.
In fact, the more we look, the more cases of spiritual materialism we will find. But the point is not to judge, but to be aware and compassionate with ourselves. The best way to learn is through our mistakes, and always reflect with an insightful eye on our own impulses and incentives.
But often, it can be difficult to make an objective view of ourselves. Sometimes, it is better to learn from the examples or behavior of others.
Here are four common examples of spiritual materialism that can often be found in the spiritual market of life:
“Possessing” and indirectly claiming a special state due to certain gifts (for example, clairvoyance, ability to read auras, communicate with spirits, etc.), which reinforces the separate sense of self or ego
Buy literally in the spiritual market: pursue workshops, methods, tools, trinkets and endless techniques that promise to make you a wiser, more intuitive, happier and more “spiritual” person
Practicing meditation with the hidden agenda of trying to avoid suffering by becoming peaceful / detached all the time (when the reality is that emotions / mind always fluctuate, which is normal and natural, we cannot avoid them forever)
Use the law of attraction to attract all your desires (because that “would make you happier” than being grateful for what you already have)
… And the list continues.
Now comes the difficult time: can you recognize some of this behavior within you?
It takes honesty and humility to admit where we have lost ourselves. But being willing to tell the truth about ourselves is a central part of the spiritual path.
Signs that you are falling into spiritual materialism
Spiritual materialism is an attachment to the spiritual path as a solid achievement or possession. It is said that spiritual materialism is the most difficult to overcome. The images used are the golden chains; You are not alone in chains, you are in chains of gold. And you love your chains because they are so beautiful and bright. But you are not free. You are caught in a better and bigger trap. The goal of spiritual practice is to free yourself, not to build a tap that may look like a mansion, but that remains a prison.
– M. Caplan
Have you fallen into spiritual materialism?
Don’t worry if you say a “yes” hesitantly, we all have to some extent. Nobody is perfect. However, looking at ourselves honestly is an important part of shadow work: it will help prevent us from stumbling, falling and deviating in the future. It can be painful to admit it, but it is a very important job.
Here are the eleven crucial signs of spiritual materialism to pay attention to:
1. Spiritual elitism.
… Using ‘spiritual achievements’ or ‘gifts’ to disconnect and feel superior to others.
2. cultural appropriation
… Using the specific words, practices or ways of life of other cultures for their own benefit / self-image (at the same time as the trivializes them).
3. Create a spiritual curriculum
… Maintain a list of all important spiritual people, workshops, certifications, etc. You have managed to impress yourself and others.
4. Spiritual shopping
… Regularly buy trinkets / tools / spiritual items or accumulate the blessings and initiations of wise men, shamans, saints, etc. to feel somehow more “special”, “awake”, “aligned” or spiritually worthy.
5. Future obsession
… Believing that “if I do ___, I will reach this special elevated state in the future” without living in the present moment or without recognizing the fundamental egocentric of this driving belief
… Looking for spiritual practices / teachers that are always bigger and better, and that promise “instant joy / abundance / happiness / enlightenment” and quick solutions
7. Focus only on the positive
… so that the ego avoids the reality of its own shadow (that is, its hidden pain, wounds and deceptions), it focuses on the purely positive aspects of spirituality, aka. “Think positive thoughts,” “be vibrant,” “love and light,” “just good vibes.”
… focusing on aesthetically pleasing spiritual practices that are “worthy of Instagram” while neglecting the deepest and most disorderly aspects of spiritual transformation that cannot fit into a beautiful image
9. The spirituality of Hollywood
… Instead of honoring the ordinary magic of everyday life, look for the spirituality of lights and glamor and look for supernatural experiences such as angelic visits, visions, encounters with UFOs, spiritual guides, teachers with ‘extrasensory’ skills, etc.
10. Addiction to self-improvement
… You move from one teacher to another, practice to practice, in search of being “more healed”, spiritually awake, etc., without realizing that by constantly trying to improve, you are never happy and you are constantly reinforcing the illusory ego that feels broken
11. Spiritual narcissism (also known as the spiritual ego)
… this is the culminating result of spiritual materialism: the ego becomes so large, so bulletproof, that not only does it unconsciously believe that it is more “awake” than others, but will do anything to reinforce that “specialty”, even harm others through arrogance and narcissism
Wow… this is a confrontation list, isn’t it?
Let’s sit with these eleven signs and be honest with ourselves. How many can you identify with?
As we can see, spiritual materialism is what happens when spirituality feeds the ego: when we take something Divine and try to possess it as our own, when we feed ourselves with ego-centered motives. Once again, we all have this tendency, so there is nothing to be ashamed of.
How to stop spiritual materialism
The reality is that as long as we remain attached to our egos, there will always be a certain level of spiritual materialism in our paths that creep here and there.
Until the moment of recognition, the moment in which we change from ego to Unity, Non-Duality, Cosmic Consciousness, whatever it is called, the ego will find ways to use spirituality to reinforce its existence.
How do we stop spiritual materialism? We find moments of liberation through practices such as:
We can also seek guidance and opinions from trusted friends and spiritual advisors / mentors. Simply asking: “In what areas could I be cheating myself?” It helps us and others a lot to get rid of self-deception and practice spiritual discernment.
So tell me …
What is your experience with spiritual materialism? Is there any other type that you have not listed in this article?