Spiritual Materialism

In 1973, just before spirituality became a booming industry, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. I imagine that, like many of the spiritual teachers from Japan, China, Tibet, India, Vietnam, and Cambodia, he must have been shocked when he arrived in America. All the eager faces – at that time, mostly white, mostly young, mostly strikingly naïve about spirituality.

Asian cultures have their own spiritual traditions of long years of study with a variety of mentors before considering themselves to be solidly on the spiritual path. Americans want enlightenment in a three-day weekend workshop or 6 weekly online classes that promises to teach the secret of meditation or healing or any one of a thousand different topics.

We tend to be spiritual materialists. As long as we have the ‘stuff’ we must be spiritual. I have a yoga mat and a bunch of yoga videos – I must be a yogi. I have incense and a singing bowl, I must be a great meditator. I have … I must be … we are so willing to fool ourselves, and yet, we feel the truth. We are empty. We have mastered nothing. We have barely stepped on the path.

I include myself. I am someone who loves … LOVES … to learn. The more courses and the more topics and the more teachers, the happier I am. I take in a lot. It nourishes me. But I try not to fool myself and the level I am on in some of these areas.

When I taught writing to first year college students, I would tell them, “You can skate over the surface, you can dip in and look around, or you can dive deep into your topic.” It’s true of writing, it’s true of life. I’m not saying one way is right and the others are wrong. I am saying, be honest about where you are.

Because, in the end, what’s the point of spirituality? What’s the point of a meditation practice, a healing practice, a breathing practice? You can answer this in the big pictures (enlightenment or nirvana) or in the little picture (day to day satisfaction with your life).

For me, if spirituality isn’t practical, it’s not worth it. I’m here – in this body, on this earth, with these people. I want to do the good that I can while I’m here. I can imagine other spiritual realms (yes, this is also a spiritual realm, just with slower vibrations that are manifest in physical reality) but I don’t know the truth until I experience.

I do know the truth of this world in all its broken beauty. I do know the truth of my body in all its broken beauty. And I know it because I experience it. The same is true for spirituality. It must be an experience – in the body first and foremost.

I can read 100,000 books and have all the knowledge and information at my fingertips. I can study with 10,000 teachers and repeat their words. I can do 1,000 practices … but …. If my life isn’t better, then what’s the point?

Are you flourishing? Are you safe? Do you have a stable foundation? Do you have a loving community? Are there people in your life who you trust and have intimate relationships? Do you even know what it is that your heart desires so that when you experience it – your heart sings?

If not, then what’s the point?

Put down the books, put away the dvds and cds and streaming videos, put away the yoga mat, the tarot cards, the astrology charts, put it all away. Go for a walk. Look at the world. Wonder. Ask for what your heart wants and ask for guidance to get there. Don’t ask anyone else – shhhh, keep it a secret between you and your soul. Leave behind the stuff and invite the Essence of Life to be more present in your life.

You have all you need. Don’t ask for guidance from others unless it is absolutely necessary (sometimes it is) and learn to discern the difference. Take a chance on the wise one within – she will always be at your side.

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