Tuesday, July 29, 2008

you don't need to..

In working on my next book, Storyteller Consciousness, I have become increasingly aware of my own unconscious language patterns and what they reveal about my relationships and beliefs. First, I'll say a bit about this new book. It is about how to exercise that most fundamental means of human creativity: words. Ancient traditions associated a magical power to words; indeed, in Western religions it is through Word that God created the universe, while in Eastern religions the universe IS word. Om, the sound that generates all things, for example. Moreover, any leader exercises power through words. If George Bush starts World War Three, it will be because he commands it to start. He has the power to speak a war into existence. More prosaically, everything that Congress does is, on one level, nothing but generating a bunch of words. This book examines how to recover the power of word in an age where words seem increasingly ineffectual.

Like Ascent, the book has a personal and a social aspect. How can we create the world; how can we create our lives? Many authors have already pointed out the insidious effects of words like should, can't, and but. Their observations are the starting point of this work.

Somewhat naively, some people decide to stop using "should" or "but" or "try to" in hopes that it will magically lift them out of victim mentality. This shortcut will not usually work: it is entirely possible to stop using those words while continuing to entertain the thought-forms behind them, substituting euphemisms that to the unconscious mind actually mean should, but, and try. I see these words instead as symptoms. When we bring awareness to our habitual use of these words, it brings awareness as well to the attitudes and beliefs underlying them. Awareness, attention, is itself healing. When old hurts come to light, when they rise to the surface of consciousness, then healing has reached its final stage, just as certain deep diseases end up as skin eruptions before they are finally healed. Only when the underlying attitude is truly changing will a willful change of language patterns be effective.

If you mean should, say should. If you mean but, say but. If you really feel helpless, say can't. Don't lie to yourself. Let the words, though, shed light on your state of consciousness.

Today I was writing a letter to someone and noticed the phrase, "You don't need to tell me..." All of a sudden I realized the arrogance of telling someone what they need or do not need to do. How patronizing! Certainly there may be times when I actually do perceive another person's need, maybe better than they do, but this was not one of those times. The truth was not, "You don't need to." The truth was "I don't need you to." My reflexive use of "You don't need to..." reveals an unconscious habit of manipulation, of trying to control other people. Don't get me wrong -- probably no one who knows me would say I'm a particularly controlling person -- but I am like all of us inculcated with the habits of civilization. Today, however, I am no longer comfortable telling people what they need, especially when I don't know.

I went on to ruminate on how often I hear the phrase "You need to..." especially directed at children. Many parents use this phrasing as their primary way to deliver a threat. "You need to put that down and come inside right now! One, two..." I think this sows confusion in children. It says that needs come from outside themselves, and desensitizes them to their own needs. It also stymies the development of their own internal authority.

I think it is much better to speak the truth to children. The truth could be, "I need you to put that down and come inside right now." It could be, "I am feeling very impatient," or, "I'm really getting angry." At least then, the truth comes out that it is not the child's needs at all that are being served by coming in right now, it is the parent's needs. Sometimes we believe that as parents, we are supposed to always put the child's needs first, and so we pretend to be doing so even when we are not. We do the same in a relationship. It is part of the self-denial that goes along with the War Against the Self whose origins I describe in my books.

It is time to stop pretending and to stop denying ourselves. As I shake off the Age of Separation, I become more comfortable with my own needs, and less prone to projecting them onto other people in order to validate them. This naturally happens as I become more comfortable with my own self, which is not the isolated, disconnected self of Descartes, but interwoven with all the other selfs around me, because I see then that my truest needs are not in opposition to the needs of our planet.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


I'm back after a few hectic days. Recently I've had several successes using herbs for healing. I've dabbled in herbs for many years now, but until recently most (not all) of my experiences were along the lines of "Well, that might have helped... I think that worked..." That's not good enough for me, if someone is putting their health in my hands. I need to KNOW they work.

Thinking back over the times they have and have not worked dramatically, I noticed a pattern. Generally speaking, the herbs that work for me are those I've been personally introduced to, mostly by my herbal mentor, Jennifer Tucker. Inspired by my recent successes, I went to visit her last week to be introduced and reintroduced to some more. At some point, sometimes after a single introduction, sometimes after more than one, the herb sort of "crystallizes" in me. I can recognize it at a distance and I have a feel for its personality and a sense of at least one way it can be used. I understand it -- not all of it, but an aspect of it.

It is like getting to know a friend. When someone is no longer an acquaintance but a real friend, you know that person -- again, not all of him, but some important essence of him.

Who are you more likely to help: your friends, or a total stranger? Your friends, of course. The same is true for herbs. The ones that are my friends are much more likely to help me. Just knowing an herb from books is not enough. It would be like expecting a celebrity to be friendly and helpful to you because you've read so much about her and seen all her movies.

Sometimes, of course, we do help strangers. Herbs you look up in books do work sometimes. But I am not that kind of herbalist. I use herbs that I grow or gather myself, or are gathered by a friend. I don't want to live in an anonymous world. I best learn about an herb by hearing stories about: not "This herb is used for X, Y, and Z," but anecdotes about how someone has used it before, the person she used it on, etc. I especially like Matthew Wood's stories and descriptions of the personality and signature of the plant.

A rational explanation for my success only with plants that are my friends is: obviously, I know them better so I know when to use them. True, but there is more to it than that. I believe that the same herb for the same condition works better after it has become my friend than before. I think it works better only after it has given me its friendship and permission to use it.

I was ecstatic after my walk with Jennifer last week, because I made some new friends and deepened some existing friendships. We repeatedly found St. John's Wort, which I had been acquainted with before, but this time I felt that crystallization, that connection, and now it is my friend. A number of others too: Figwort, Wild Bergamot, Self-Heal, White Vervain. I feel more whole the more new friends I meet; each connects me to lost aspects of myself and to the richness of being that is our birthright, that we all sense and long for. We lament its loss and strive toward wholeness. It is natural to me then, for plants to help recover it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Yesterday I discovered that my kittens have fleas. Not a huge number, but I'm told these critters tend to multiply. So my first step, besides vacuuming daily so they don't spread to the house, was to improve their diet. A healthy animal should be able to handle parasites. Parasites, like most diseases, are a symptom and not a cause of ill health.

Wait. Did your eyes kind of swim past that last sentence without realizing how outrageous it is? I just contradicted the fundamental tenet of modern medicine, which is that germs cause disease. This belief is not an isolated peculiarity of the medical system, but is embedded in deeper paradigms of science and civilization. It fits in with the mentality of control too. If you can identify the pathogen, then the cure is to eliminate the pathogen. That is what we do with antibiotics, or with a flea collar. If a field has weeds, spray an herbicide. If a crop has insects, spray an insecticide. If the world has evil, eliminate the bad guys. If you have negative thoughts, kill those too. The germ theory of disease leads naturally to a mentality of war. We hear quite often the phrase "The battle against AIDS," or cancer or bacteria.

If we see germs as primarily a symptom and not a cause of ill health, then eliminating them is at best a temporary or secondary priority. The primary question becomes: Why are there germs here? Why are there fleas? That reason may not be a single, definable cause, but a constellation of causes, a holistic state of being.

Eastern North America is experiencing a catastrophic outbreak of Lyme disease, spread mostly by deer ticks. A control-based solution would be a vaccine against Lyme, or a way to kill the spirochete or kill the ticks. Looking symptomatically though, we see the tick infestation as a sign of something deeper. When I was kid you could trudge through the high grass all day and not get a tick. Today I get them sometimes from a short hike on a suburban park path. The proliferation of ticks is probably a symptom of sick deer, and that is a symptom of a sick forest. Just as candida overruns a human body depleted of its internal ecology, so do certain species overrun other depleted ecosystems. The forests in the East have been clearcut at least three times in the past 150 years, and their once numerous species reduced to a handful.

We are nearing the end of the Age of Separation, the age of control. There is no magic spray that is going to make the forests healthy again. It is the regime of control itself that we will abandon to recover health. We will end the state of war, against germs, against self, against nature. And against fleas. I am grateful to the fleas for alerting me that my kittens are not healthy. I had been lazy, feeding them Kitten Chow instead of the raw meat, liver, egg yolks, kelp powder, etc. I'd been feeding them. (Does anyone have any holistic cat food tips?)

Any time I have a physical symptom of ill health, I am also grateful to that. It shows me there is something to pay attention to. We can suppress symptoms, but if the underlying imbalance remains they'll come back, perhaps in some other form. The same is true of "negativity" in my mind. Don't go to war against yourself: not your anger, not your fear, not your laziness or any other negative quality. Each points to something. To what? There are no universal guidelines. My next Reality Sandwich essay will discuss how to work with pain and negativity though, in some depth.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Red Pill

In the beginning of the film The Matrix we see the protagonist, Neo, slumped asleep in front of his computer screen. "Searching..." it says. Abruptly he is awoken by a knock on the door. "Wake up, Neo" says the computer screen.

Do you ever feel like Neo, searching for something, you know not what, but something, something so big and so pervasive that its clues are everywhere? A fruitless search, yet so compelling you cannot stop even when you are asleep? Don't worry, I'm not going to pretend that I've found it and you haven't, and I'm not going to tell you what it is. That would be impossible. What I will do is illuminate something of the process of being found, touching upon the allegorical movie, The Matrix.

In the next scene Neo, instructed by his computer to "follow the white rabbit," goes with some people (one of whom has a white rabbit tattoo) to a dance club where he meets Trinity. She tells him, "The answer is looking for you and it will find you." Here he has begun to follow the guidance of something from outside the world that he knows. Computers just don't start talking to you, and they don't know who is at the door. In our search, we may have experiences like this. They demonstrate that there is a larger reality out there; that even if we don't know what it is, our search does have an object; we are reassured that whatever it is, it is looking for us as much as we are looking for it. I call this encounter with Trinity "First Contact".

The next scene finds Neo, in his day-job guise of Thomas Anderson, late for work. His boss calls him into his office and bawls him out. "The time has come to make a choice, Mr. Anderson," he says. He is right. Once First Contact has been made, it quickly becomes impossible to continue searching and yet live in the old world. Very soon Neo must decide if his search was in earnest. He is about to be found -- will he allow it or not? And you, my friend: are your spiritual strivings just diversions, comforts to facilitate the maintenance and ease the dolor of life-as-usual? You will find out in the same way Neo finds out.

Powerful forces conspire to keep us where we are. They are the internalized forces of propriety, survival anxiety, guilt, and fear that prevent us from stepping outside the bounds of the conventional world. They conspire to keep us in ordinary jobs, ordinary relationships, ordinary lives. They are none other than agents of the Machine, agents of control, of repression and self-repression. In the film they are FBI-looking types who come for Neo after he returns to his cubicle. But before they get to him he receives a package, an envelope containing a cell phone. As soon as he opens it, it rings. "Hello?" The voice says, "They're coming for you, Neo." He sees the agents coming past the receptionist. "I can guide you, but you must do exactly as I say."

"Why is this happening to me? What did I do?" cries Neo. When the reality we intuitively reject actually starts to unravel, when we see what a transformation of life really means, we are frightened. But Neo trusts himself entirely to the guidance of the voice on the phone, which choreographs his every movement to make good his escape from the Agents. When this voice from beyond the world we have known calls to us, we do our best to follow this requirement of absolute trust, but the instructions we receive call for greater and greater courage. We "trust our guidance" as far as we can, until we come up against a limit that we are afraid to cross. So it is with Neo, who cannot navigate the skyscraper ledge. Retreating from the precipice, he falls into the hands of the Agents.

The Agents reiterate the choice offered by Mr. Anderson's boss. They lay out both his identities: the reputable software programmer, Mr. Anderson, and the hacker, Neo. "One of these lives has future and the other does not." He cannot go on living two separate lives. The time to choose has come. We all have an opportunity like this, to defy the Agents of normality irrevocably.

The internal and external Agents of our enculturation to the Machine, to the status quo of our hurting planet, are dedicated to the prevention of our transformation. But it will find us nonetheless. Morpheus, the Transformer or the Transformed One, brings Neo to his headquarters. "You may have spent several years looking for me, Neo, but I've spent my whole life looking for you."

Neo's search was impossible, and so is yours. The tools he was using were the tools of the system he was embedded in, and could reveal only more of that self-same system. It is like a two-dimensional person in Flatland searching for the third dimension. He looks north, south, east and west, but he cannot look up, or even conceive of up. Yet, the search is not in vain, even if it is impossible, because the search is what calls the attention of the Finder.

"You are here because you know something," says Morpheus. "You don't know what it is, but you can feel it. Something is wrong with the world."

Something is wrong with the world. Do you feel a chill when you read those words? Something about the world just doesn't add up. The seamless reality we are offered couldn't be real. It just doesn't make sense. The prescriptions for how to live, for how to be human, don't make sense. Something in us says, "That can't be right," but how can we envision an alternative if that is all we have known? At this stage, we try to make lifestyle changes, or even go live on a commune, but we find we have not escaped the Matrix; we have brought it with us. And what is the Matrix? Morpheus identifies it as "the world that has been pulled over your eyes that blinds you to the truth: that you are a slave." Later he shows Neo the world behind the facade, a wrecked, desolate planet with dusty gales howling across a scorched sky. It is a good picture of Hell, and indeed, behind the facade of normal life, the office parks and shopping centers, the phony affluence of plastic and convenience, lies a Hell in the making, for all of this is built upon the ruin of nature, culture, health, and spirit.

Morpheus continues, "No one can be told about the Matrix. You have to experience it for yourself." Now, you may have read plenty of material that justifies your feeling that something is wrong with the world. Yet, you are still trapped inside it, and you find that you cannot escape because there is nowhere to escape to. The problem is that yes, you can be told some of the things that are wrong, but these are all superficial manifestations of something deeper and vaster. That something is indeed so deep and so vast that it is beyond the reach of words. As Morpheus says, it must be experienced.

Finally Morpheus offers Neo a choice: the red pill or the blue pill. The red pill will show him the truth; the blue pill will take him back to his old life. "This is your own and only chance," he says. In reality we have infinite chances, repeated chances, and one day we will choose the red pill. The question is, will we choose it when we are young and have a lifetime of creativity in front of us, or later when time and youth are exhausted? Here is a paradox: each of the infinite chances we have to awaken from the Matrix is also our one and only chance. The urgency is real.

The red pill is something that rocks your world, an experience that changes forever who you are and how you see everything. Afterwards, things that had once seemed so real, beliefs that were once axiomatic, become transparent, unreal. For example, the fears that once bound us become absurd, and we are no longer controlled by fear of losing health insurance, or people disapproving of us, maybe even of dying. It is not an all-or-nothing affair: we might have many red pills in the course of a lifetime, and the biggest one of all is called dying. Each one, though, liberates us from some of the rules and beliefs that have bound us. As a result we gain new powers. Things that would have been impossible to the old self in the old world become possible. Morpheus' words describe our new relationship to the conventional rules that bind the majority: "Some rules can be bent; others can be broken."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Humility: Chasing a Mirage

I interrupt my half-completed follow-up "Matrix" essay to share some things that emerged in a conversation with a friend last night. He was talking about someone he worked with whom he perceived as arrogant, and I said, "Guess what? It is OK not to be humble, you know."

Then the following information came through:

Humility is not something you can achieve. Those who pursue humility as a goal end up with a counterfeit. Real humility is something that sneaks up on you. If you are not humble, then be OK with that and don't pretend otherwise. That is the beginning of true humility -- to not care about maintaining an elevated self-image. If you feel pride and superiority, and then try to stuff it down and pretend it isn't there, you will end up feeling even more superior as you congratulate yourself on your humility.

If I may offer a suggestion, see pride and superiority merely as symptoms that you are not seeing the truth of yourself and others. Symptoms, that's all. Nothing to be ashamed of. Arrogance harbors its own cure. Eventually, only one thing can happen to the tower of pretend virtue we build. Something "humiliating" will happen, something that strips away our pretenses and reveals our naked self. 

If you aren't sure whether you are humble or not, here are a few clues. If you are gratified when someone says you are humble, you are not humble -- you are just good at faking it. If you are offended when someone says you are conceited, then you are conceited. Both these responses point to an inflated self-image. 

If, after reading the "suggestion" paragraph above, you feel a desire to demonstrate that you are in fact "seeing the truth of yourself and others," then you are not humble either. Underneath the inflated self-image of the arrogant person lies self-rejection, self-diminishment, for which the inflation seeks to compensate. The humble person is rock solid in self-love. The humble person does not care if she is humble or not. Humility is not something you can cultivate. It is a side-effect of something else.

Sometimes a humble person might appear arrogant, because he is very sure of his gifts. I once knew a very humble massage therapist. When someone asked her, "Are you good at what you do?" she would reply, "No, I'm great!" And she was, and she knew she was, and she had no need to pretend to be humble. Modesty is only humble when you aren't sure. 

I could conclude this piece by saying, "So, if you want to be humble...", but if you want to be humble, then already you are heading away from humility. Instead, seek to be truthful. You might end up humble as a result, but you won't even notice. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who is Agent Smith?

I am going to explore the film The Matrix as an allegory of social and personal liberation.

The main premise of The Matrix is that the reality presented to us is phony. This is an idea that resonates deep in the hearts of young people today. The normal life presented to us, we suspect, is phony. We sense that if only we could wipe away the veneer, we would experience a totally different reality.

Moreover, we also have the feeling that this phony reality in which we all believe has not been created for our benefit. We sense that perhaps life-as-we-know-it is the product of something sinister, something behind the scenes, all-controlling, that manipulates us for its own purposes. Think about it: in the movie, the true reason for human life was to feed energy to the machine. This taps into the suspicion that our lives are not our own, that we are not living for ourselves, but for something powerful, unseen, and callous to human dignity and self-fulfillment. And like a machine it runs on and on, senselessly, destructively, toward an end that no same human being would ever choose.

Sometimes we may even feel that our lives are programmed for us, played out according to preset parameters. Superficially, maybe we buy into life-as-it-is-presented and try to convince ourselves that yes, we have freedom and self-determination, but underneath that gnaws an undeniable sense of impotence and confinement, our spirits held in stasis much like the bodies -- the true selves -- of The Matrix's VR-dwelling humans.

In the movie, Neo takes a pill that awakens him to the real, non-virtual world. His first reaction is amazement, terror, and horror at the truth of the human predicament. Later, one of his shipmates on the rebel submarine indeed voices regret at choosing to awaken. And in our own rebel mission there is also that betrayer, submerged below conscious awareness, who urges us to buy in, to believe, to sleep. The danger is very great that the mutiny will prevail and we will deny as youthful idealism or immaturity that vaguely urgent feeling that life is supposed to be more than Just This.

As in The Matrix, the forces that present us with a virtual life are forces of our own making. In the movie it is a vast computer linked to loathsome bio-mechanical organisms; in the real world it is technology in general that has incrementally separated us from authentic human life. In the movie it is said that people became more and more lazy and dependent, until the machines just took over. Can we say this is fiction? Technology has separated us from nature, from each other, and from ourselves. The Matrix has already come true, in the sense that we live in an inauthentic world of our own collective making.

In The Matrix, rebels who threaten the status quo are hunted down by Agents, which are sentient computer programs appearing in human form in the VR world. The machine can take over the body of anyone and transform him or her into an Agent. This runs in nearly exact parallel to the way that impersonal forces, acting through the agency of nearly any human being, persecute anyone who threatens the collective illusion and corral us all into behaviors that perpetuate it.

The same loan officer who is a loving mother and generous friend outside her role, can be an agent of economic oppression within it. A corporate executive who loves nature feels compelled to make business decisions that harm the environment; or more likely, does not even associate those decisions with their environmental effects. Many activists of all stripes, social, political, or environmental, observe that they are complicit by their very membership in society in precisely those collective behaviors they denounce.

A former student of mine offered a great example of being taken over by an Agent. She was working as a cashier in a large store. Part of her job was to say to each customer, "Have a nice day!" with real feeling. This was part of the store's effort to create an image of "genuinely caring about the customer." My student hated saying this when, as was sometimes the case, she actually couldn't care less whether the 30th in an endless stream of anonymous customers had a nice day. She especially resented her shift supervisor, who would prowl around making sure she said it with feeling.

Then one day she herself was promoted to shift supervisor. Before long, she found herself not only enforcing the same rule she had resented before, but actually getting angry at employees who said "Have a nice day" halfheartedly. Her job, her role, essentially took control of her. "'Bitch' was built into my job description," she said. No longer her self, she had become an Agent of the machine.

When an Agent seizes control, we abandon our natural human programming and obey the programming of the Machine instead. Say you are working for a credit collection agency, trying to squeeze a payment out of the people on your call list. Your human programming wants you to say, "Ma'am, really, don't make a payment. Buy groceries instead. Don't give your money to this gigantic corporation." But your machine programming overrides that, through a variety of mechanisms, and makes you put on the pressure instead.

Perfectly nice, ordinary people may do horrible things at their jobs. "I'm just doing my job," they say apologetically. Any time we make compromises for that reason, or because we "cannot afford" to do otherwise, we are running an Agent program. The two main mechanisms by which Agent programs enter us are survival anxiety (money, security, etc.) and social conditioning (unconscious habits of blocking compassion and connection and love). We steel ourselves to do what we "have to" do.

Every time we channel the Agent, whether in a profession or in other relationships, the Agent circuits are carved a little deeper. Eventually we are running Agent programs nearly all the time; we can no longer resist them even if we try. The human being lives in stasis, just like the enwombed bodies in The Matrix.

Just as we all occasionally act as Agent Smiths to preserve the functioning of the virtual world, so also do we harbor an internal Agent Smith who seeks to thwart our awakening. The internal Agent Smith tells us that we are mistaken, to play by the rules of the VR game and everything will be all right. Dressed impeccably in the uniform of legitimacy, he wields fear as his main weapon. He says you are insane if you don't listen to him. He implies that you are the only one who questions the reality handed to us. Don't be a minority of one, he counsels. "One of these lives has a future. The other does not," says Agent Smith.

In the movie, Neo eventually discovers that he gains amazing powers in the Matrix when he disbelieves in its ultimate reality. He can jump incredible distances, move at great speed, even fly. Similarly, when we begin to disbelieve in the version of reality that has been handed us, it begins to lose its power. When you stop believing that you have to go to school in order to learn, that you have to choose a practical major, that you have to get good grades, that you have to get a job to survive, that you have to go to doctors, that you have to do as your boss says, that you have to make people like you, that you have to submit to anything humiliating; when you stop believing that you should maximize security and minimize risk; when you stop believing in every "should" that's ever been fed to you, then you will become powerful. Freedom is in the mind.

It is, in fact, impossible to free ourselves from the Machine in any other way. Fight against it by its own rules and you are sure to lose. You find that the rules are rigged against you; they are designed for the perpetuation of the the Machine. The movie conveys this truth by making the Agents invincible. You can run away from them, but you cannot defeat them. This is what people eventually discover when they try to play by all the rules and "make a difference" or "do good" anyway. They end up strengthening the very thing they despise; eventually they cease even despising it. Such is the "beltway syndrome" of Washington environmental lobbyists.

Compare them to Diane Wilson, author of An Unreasonable Woman, who stopped a multibillion dollar petrochemical plant almost single-handedly. She did it by breaking rules, written and unwritten, and upholding an unwavering integrity and purpose. If you ever doubt your power to alter the course of the world-devouring machine, read this book. She maintained her integrity even when the situation appeared hopeless. Everything fell apart, and her integrity was all she had left, a raw trust in her own feelings. When things fall apart, and everything reasonable fails, we finally find license to live as real human beings. When the worst has happened we are no longer afraid. Stop being afraid now, I tell myself, and the worst won't need to happen. But sometimes there is no other way.

I do not advocate heroic measures to resist the incursion of Agent Smith. Merely to watch him in operation and to know that your true nature is human, not Agent, is a powerful step, a progressive innoculation against the Agent program. In the film, the only people immune to Agent takeover were people who had already been freed from the Matrix, but who plugged back into it with a conscious purpose in mind. Having been freed already, they knew who they were. The more we know who we are, the less susceptible we are to Agent takeover. You will know this is happening when the rules of the matrix no longer bind you, when the practicalities and rules and reasons start to lose their authority, and new horizons of the possible come into view.

Next time, or maybe next week, I'll expand on the film's metaphor of the Red Pill and the Blue Pill to describe how this freeing process happens. You can't make it happen, and if you think that any of your own perceived liberation has come by dint of your own admirable efforts, then you are actually enmeshed in just a deeper level of it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Spiritual Materialism

I am moved to write this after reading an article on Reality Sandwich, Zen Burger, about a man who left his high-paying successful career to work at a vegetarian fast food restaurant, owned by a friend who'd left his own high-paying successful career. I thought the tone of the article was pretty self-congratulatory, but that might be my own projection. Either way, it is rife with symptoms of what Chogyam Trungpa called "spiritual materialism", an affliction that is endemic to religion and "spirituality" in our culture. 

Any time we take pride or derive self-esteem from our spiritual practices, ethics, morals, metaphysical beliefs, or mystical experiences, we are engaging in spiritual materialism. One version of it bears the mantra, "I am good because..." I am good because I meditate. I am good because I teach yoga. I am good because I am a vegetarian. I am good because I am a Christian. I am good because I had a shamanic experience. I am good because I am a universalist. I am good because I do not judge others. I am good because I don't work for an evil corporation. 

Of course, because not everybody shares these beliefs, practices, and experiences, other people do not share in this "goodness" either. Implicit in spiritual materialism is a covert belief in one's own superiority. I imagine the vegetarians at Zen Burger just can't understand how some people could choose to eat meat, given the "karmic benefits" of vegetarianism that the article alludes to. Why, they must be less compassionate, less spiritual, less conscious. They just don't get it. I do, and they don't. If that isn't superiority, then what is?

The spiritual materialist attaches experiences, beliefs, etc. to self, expanding the ego and trying his best to make those things his. Spiritual materialism thus betrays a deep neediness, a deep woundedness. Anytime someone adds on more and more extraneous possessions to the self, it is only because there is a hole in the self to begin with. Reasons to believe oneself good are a kind of balm, salve to the wounded soul. 

The author of Zen Burger emphasizes the sacrifices he made to do the right thing. When people identify with their spirituality, there are only two possible logical explanations of their superiority. Either they are intrinsically superior -- just plain better -- or they are fundamental equal to other people but just try harder. The Ancient Greeks and most other ancient people took the first approach: in the Iliad, for example, the various heros achieve victory not through any extraordinary effort of their own, but simply because they are favored of the gods. Today we generally take the second approach. We congratulate ourselves for trying harder to be good.

With little exaggeration, I could say that the central teaching of all religious institutions is "try hard to be good." Their esoteric heart teaches differently, but this is what is taught in practice; otherwise religious people would never look disapprovingly of those who don't share their religion. This teaching is not a circumstantial artifact of muddy thinking, but springs from the core ideology of our civilization. The millennia-long campaign to control, conquer, and transcend nature parallels a campaign to do the same to human nature, and ultimately to our own nature. The struggle against the self -- against pleasure, against desire, against biology and the flesh -- is part of the "ascent" of humanity into a "higher" realm. I describe the mechanics of this struggle in the book, especially Chapter Five, and in my upcoming Reality Sandwich essay series "Miracle of Self-creation". 

The association of virtue with trying harder is why we look down upon the drunk, the sinner, or whoever we think is less spiritual or less ethical or less conscious than we are. "I wouldn't do that," we think, "if I were her. I would control myself. I would try harder." 

This attitude is founded on an illusion, an illusory separation between oneself and another person. The truth is, if you were that person, you would do exactly as she has done. You are no better and no worse than any other living being. If you find that, to be very honest, you do think yourself superior, then please don't castigate yourself. Just take note of it. If I were you, I'd feel superior too. But soon, as the truth dawns, you will find that you no longer feel superior to anybody. Each of us is exploring a different niche of the human experience. Collectively, we are outgrowing certain very painful ways of being human, and moving into more joyful ones. We can be thankful to those brave souls who have explored the most painful realms.

The very word "spiritual" carries some deeply flawed assumptions, standing as it does in contradistinction to "worldly" and reinforcing the perception that virtue comes through ascending above the world of flesh and dust. But if the word means anything at all, then it means a shedding of the burdens of false self that weigh us down. In Fight Club, Tyler Derden famously says, "You are not your possessions". Well, you are also not your spiritual possessions, even if those possessions include an experience of enlightenment, communion with God, or a blessing from Quetzelcoatl.

I think ordinary people's hostility to environmentalists, vegetarians, and other do-gooders comes from an unconscious recognition that they think they are superior for having their beliefs. Whether or not this is true, if you yourself are such a do-gooder, instead of dismissing the negative reactions of all those benighted people who "just don't get it," try instead looking for whatever grain of truth, whatever teaching may be contained within those reactions. For if anything can divest us of the excess weight of spiritual materialism, it is the experience of humiliation. Humiliation strips away our pretensions and reduces us to a naked spirit. It brings us back to the truth. I would say, "You are already good," as a pithy closing statement, but even that, comforting though it sounds, is a diversion from the truth. You are what you are. If you can be OK with that, you won't care if you are good.