Let’s be real for a moment.
There comes a time when our spiritual practices harm us more than help us.
Yet most of us are so invested in protecting our fragile egos from the truth, that we live in a state of denial or total oblivion to what is happening.
When our spiritual practices reinforce, bolster, and underhandedly inflate our senses of self (i.e., our egos) this is spiritual materialism. And it’s a toxic form of spirituality.
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What is Spiritual Materialism?
Originally coined by Buddhist meditation master 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, bolstering the ego through spiritual practice is totally at odds with the whole point of the spiritual path.
As Trungpa writes,
No matter what the practice or teaching, ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.
We need to be honest with ourselves and realize that we aren’t immune to spiritual materialism. As we all have an ego, its mission is to survive, no matter what it takes, because it is terrified of the prospect of non-existence. Yet being free of the ego is the very definition of enlightenment according to all major non-dualistic spiritual traditions.
Examples of Spiritual Materialism
There’s a mess inside you: You clean the outside.― The Dhammapada
Examining our own paths and practices closely, most of us will be able to find instances of spiritual materialism quite easily. All we have to do is ask, “how is this belief/practice/tool reinforcing the ego (the separate sense of self).”
In fact, the deeper we look, the more instances of spiritual materialism we’ll find. But the point is to not be judgmental, but instead to be aware and compassionate with ourselves. The best way to learn is through our mistakes – and to always reflect with a discerning eye on our own drives and incentives.
But often, it can be hard to turn an objective eye on ourselves. Sometimes, it’s best to learn from examples or the behavior of others.
Here are four common examples of spiritual materialism that can often be found in the spiritual marketplace of life:
- “Owning” and indirectly claiming special status due to certain gifts (e.g., clairvoyance, ability to read auras, communicate with spirits, etc.) which all reinforces the separate sense of self or ego
- Literally buying into the spiritual marketplace: chasing after endless workshops, methods, tools, trinkets, and techniques which all promise to make you a wiser, more intuitive, more blissful, 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 are always fluctuating, which is normal and natural – we can’t avoid them forever)
- Using the law of attraction to attract all of your desires (because that “would make you happier” than being grateful for what you already have)
… and the list goes on.
Now comes the difficult moment: can you recognize any of this behavior within yourself?
It takes honesty and humility to admit where we’ve got lost. But being willing to tell the truth about ourselves is a central part of the spiritual path.
11 Signs You’re Falling into Spiritual Materialism
Spiritual materialism is an attachment to the spiritual path as a solid accomplishment or possession. It is said that spiritual materialism is the hardest to overcome. The imagery that is used is that of golden chains; you’re not just in chains, you’re in golden chains. And you love your chains because they’re so beautiful and shiny. But you’re not free. You’re just trapped in a bigger and better trap. The point of spiritual practice is to become free, not to build a tap that may have the appearance of a mansion but is still a prison.– M. Caplan
Have you fallen into spiritual materialism?
Don’t worry if you say a hesitant “yes” – we all have to some extent. No one is perfect. However, taking an honest look at ourselves is an important part of shadow work: it will help to prevent us from stumbling, falling, and getting sidetracked in the future. It might be painful to admit, but it’s damn important work.
Here are the eleven crucial signs of spiritual materialism to pay attention to:
1. Spiritual elitism
… using spiritual ‘achievements’ or ‘gifts’ to disconnect from and feel superior to others.
2. Cultural appropriation
… using the specific words, practices, or ways of life of other cultures for your own profit/self-image (while simultaneously trivializing them).
3. Creating a spiritual resume
… keeping a list of all the important spiritual people, workshops, certifications, etc. that you’ve achieved to impress yourself and others.
4. Spiritual shopping sprees
… habitually buying spiritual trinkets/tools/items or accumulating the blessings and initiations from sages, shamans, saints, etc. to somehow feel more “special,” “awakened,” “aligned” or spiritually worthy.
5. Future obsession
… believing that “if I do ___, I’LL get to this special elevated state in the future” without living in the present moment or recognizing the fundamental ego-centricity of this driving belief
… seeking out spiritual practices/teachers that are always bigger and better, and promise “instant joy/abundance/bliss/enlightenment” and quick fixes
7. Focusing only on the positive
… so that the ego avoids the reality of its own shadow (i.e., its hidden pain, wounds, and deceptions), it focuses on the purely positive aspects of spirituality, aka. “Think positive thoughts,” “be high vibe,” “love and light,” “good vibes only“
… focusing on aesthetically-pleasing spiritual practices that are “Instagram-worthy” while neglecting the deeper and messier aspects of spiritual transformation that can’t fit into a pretty picture
9. Hollywood spirituality
… rather than honoring the ordinary magic of everyday life, you seek lights-and-glamor spirituality and seek after supernatural experiences like angelic visitations, seeing visions, meeting UFOs, spirit guides, teachers with ‘extrasensory’ abilities, etc.
10. Self-improvement addiction
… you flit around from teacher to teacher, practice to practice, in search of becoming “more healed,” spiritually awakened, etc. not realizing that by constantly trying to improve yourself, you are never happy and are constantly reinforcing the illusory ego that feels broken
11. Spiritual narcissism (aka. the spiritual ego)
… this is the climactic result of spiritual materialism: the ego becoming so big, so bulletproof, that it not only unconsciously believes it is more “awakened” than others, but it will do anything to reinforce that “specialness” including harming others through arrogance and narcissism
Wowza … this is a confronting list, no?
Let’s sit with these eleven signs and be honest with ourselves. How many can you relate to?
As we can see, spiritual materialism is what occurs when spirituality feeds the ego – when we take something Divine and try to possess it as our own, when we are fuelled with ego-centric motives. Again, we all have this tendency, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
How to Stop Spiritual Materialism
The reality is that so long as we are still attached to our egos, there will always be some level of spiritual materialism on our paths creeping in here and there.
Until the moment of recognition – the moment where we shift from the ego to Oneness, Non-Duality, Cosmic Consciousness, whatever you call it – the ego will find ways of using spirituality to bolster its existence.
How do we stop spiritual materialism? We find moments of liberation through practices such as:
- Shadow work
We can also seek out guidance and opinions from trusted friends and spiritual advisors/mentors. Simply asking, “In what areas might I be deluding myself?” to ourselves and others goes a long way in helping us be free of self-deception and practice spiritual discernment.
So tell me …
What is your experience with spiritual materialism? Are there any other types I haven’t listed in this article? Please share below!