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 called spiritual materialism. And it’s a toxic form of spirituality.
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What is Spiritual Materialism?
Originally coined by Buddhist meditation master Chögyam 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.
All of us, without exception, need to be honest with ourselves and realize that we aren’t immune to falling into the trap of spiritual materialism. We all have an ego and its mission is to survive, no matter what it takes (including misusing spirituality!).
Why do our egos go to such extremes as to “appropriate spirituality” for their own gain? The answer is that our egos are primal defense mechanisms that both help us to survive in our environments, and will also do anything they can to avoid non-existence or annihilation.
Yet the irony is that the dissolution of the ego – or rather than awakening out of the ego – is the central message of the awakening journey of Self-realization or spiritual enlightenment.
So how do we know when our egos have slipped into spiritual materialism? We’ll explore that next.
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).”
The deeper we look, chances are, the more instances of spiritual materialism we’ll find. But the point is not to be judgmental of our behavior but to practice mindfulness and be compassionate with ourselves.
The best way to learn is often through our mistakes which is what teaches us humility, spiritual discernment, and greater self-awareness.
But often, it can be hard to turn an objective eye on ourselves and our behavior. Sometimes, it’s best (and preferable!) to learn from the examples and 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 reinforces the separate sense of self or ego.
- Literally buying into the spiritual marketplace, e.g., chasing after endless workshops, methods, tools, trinkets, and techniques that all promise to make you a wiser, more intuitive, more blissful, or more “spiritual” person.
- Practicing meditation with the hidden agenda of trying to avoid suffering by becoming peaceful or detached all the time (when the reality is that thoughts and feelings are always fluctuating like the ebb and flow of the ocean – the point isn’t to bypass or “kill” the mind, but to stop identifying with its contents).
- Using the law of attraction to try and attract all of your desires (because that would supposedly “make you happier” than being grateful for what you already have).
… and the list goes on.
Now comes the space to pause and reflect. Can you recognize any of this behavior within yourself?
It takes deep humility to admit where we’ve gone astray or have been misguided in our thinking and behavior. However, being willing to be vulnerable, open, and honest about ourselves is a central part of the spiritual awakening path.
(By the way, here’s a quick video about spirituality and its relationship with consumerism itself to go a bit deeper into this topic from another angle:)
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 trap that may have the appearance of a mansion but is still a prison.– M. Caplan
The ultimate question we’re seeking to answer in this article is, “Have you fallen into spiritual materialism?”
It’s a tough, confronting, and even scary question to consider – but it is so necessary!
Please don’t worry or feel bad about yourself if you’re hesitantly raising your hand and accepting that, yes, you have fallen into spiritual materialism – we all have to some extent! No one is perfect.
The reality is that taking an honest look at ourselves is an important part of our innermost shadow work: it helps us to avoid stumbling, falling, and getting sidetracked again in the future. It might be painful to admit that we’ve been spiritually materialistic, but it’s damn important work.
Here are the eleven crucial signs of spiritual materialism to pay attention to:
1. Spiritual elitism
I.e., using spiritual ‘achievements’ (like having a kundalini awakening) or one’s ‘gifts’ (like being able to channel or heal others) to disconnect from and feel superior to others.
2. Cultural appropriation
I.e., using other cultures’ specific words, practices, or ways of life for one’s own profit/self-image (while simultaneously trivializing them).
3. Creating a spiritual resume
I.e., keeping a list of all the important spiritual people, workshops, certifications, etc. that one has achieved to impress oneself and others.
4. Spiritual shopping sprees
I.e., 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
I.e., believing that “if I do ___, I will 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.
I.e., seeking out spiritual practices/teachers that are always bigger and better and who promise “instant joy/abundance/bliss/enlightenment” and quick fixes (often seen in the new age movement).
7. Focusing only on the positive
I.e., 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 high vibe,” “love and light,” “good vibes only,” etc. Focusing only on the positive is a major aspect of spiritual bypassing (or avoiding our issues by escaping into spirituality).
I.e., 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
I.e., rather than honoring the ordinary magic of everyday life, one seeks lights-and-glamor spirituality and supernatural experiences like angelic visitations, seeing visions, meeting UFOs, spirit guides, teachers with ‘extrasensory’ abilities, etc.
10. Self-improvement addiction
I.e., one flits around from teacher to teacher and practice to practice in search of becoming “more healed,” spiritually awakened, etc., not realizing that by constantly trying to self-improve, one is never happy and is continually reinforcing the illusory ego that feels broken.
11. Spiritual narcissism (aka., the spiritual ego)
Spiritual narcissism is the climactic result of spiritual materialism; that is, the ego becomes so big, so bulletproof, that it not only unconsciously believes it’s more “awakened” than others, but it will do anything to reinforce that “specialness,” including harming others through arrogance and megalomania.
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 – we just need to be more aware of this seductive inclination.
How to Stop Spiritual Materialism
The reality is that so long as we’re still attached to our egos, there will always be some level of spiritual materialism on our paths creeping in here and there.
Until that moment of sacred recognition – the moment where we shift from the ego to Oneness, Non-Dual Awareness, Cosmic Consciousness, or whatever you like to call it – the ego will inevitably find ways of using spirituality to bolster its existence.
How do we stop spiritual materialism? We can find moments of liberation, discernment, and greater perspective through practices such as:
- Journaling and self-reflection
- Shadow work and developing awareness of our shadow self
- Self-inquiry and contemplation
- Meditation and mindfulness
We can also seek guidance and opinions from trusted friends, spiritual advisors, or mentors. Simply asking the question, “In what areas might I be deluding myself?” can go a long way in helping us be free of self-deception by practicing 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!