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.