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.



At July 14, 2008 at 11:14 PM , Blogger dee said...

"You are what you are. If you can be OK with that, you won't care if you are good."

I aspire to be OK with that... every day, with every breath. It sounds so simple and yet I find it profoundly elusive.

Just when I don't care if I'm good, I congratulate myself and the whole cycle starts itself over. Thanks, Charles, for walking the path with me, and helping me remember that there is no separation.

At July 14, 2008 at 11:19 PM , Anonymous DoAn said...

Thanks for this. I noticed something that bothered me about the Zen Burger article you refer to, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. After reading your discussion, I understand now what it was. I appreciate the clarity.

I remember a time when I was younger, that when I found a new philosophy I resonated with, or a spiritual tradition I felt drawn to I felt "obligated" to inform everyone about it. It was like suddenly I had gleaned a secret about the universe and it was my duty to tell people.

Do you suppose that this kind of "spiritual materialism" is part of a developmental phase that people go through?

At July 14, 2008 at 11:24 PM , Blogger thailandchani said...

First of all, I really loved Ascent of Humanity. It is the first book that expressed ideas and concepts that are so in alignment with my own that I finally felt someone understood. That was, believe it or not, very comforting. And I needed that.

Thank you for sitting and writing it.

Spiritual materialism: It sounds like you are talking about pride. Pride is another characteristic that is so damaging, yet seems embedded into the culture.


At July 14, 2008 at 11:31 PM , Anonymous Simonne Michelle-Wells said...

Wonderful post, I hope many many people read it.

At July 14, 2008 at 11:34 PM , Anonymous Patrick William Horn said...

This spiritual materialism you speak of is a kind of pride, and like anything else, balance is the right approach: for the better world we know is possible to exist, some people must set the example and lead the way, and confidence to do that often comes from making a "good" choice and spreading the word about it, when it seems like all there are is "bad" examples multiplying exponentially. Thank you again for sharing and inspiring with your example, Charles: when I read your writing, I often feel like you are the tongue of me, tied in my mouth but loosened in yours. Carry on!

At July 14, 2008 at 11:57 PM , Blogger Olivia said...

I am very glad that you started this blog, Charles. Fantastic first post! Blessings, Olivia

At July 14, 2008 at 11:59 PM , Blogger marie said...

I read the Zen Burger thing; it reminded me of a South Park episode called "Smug Alert". In a fast food restaurant, no less...

As always, thanks, Charles!

At July 15, 2008 at 12:38 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey man!

Last night the Dalai Lama told me the same thing. Maybe the universe is trying to get through to me. He says, all the religions are useful if they produce Good Heart. That's the goal of religion, he says. Thanks for keeping me connected.


At July 15, 2008 at 1:54 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thank God that I have grown in grace beyond the sin of pride that bedevils do-gooders and other spiritual aspirants on the road to self-discovery. In the race to realize reality beyond any civilizational blinders, I have set aside pride and other sins that easily beset us, separating myself from modern herbivorous Pharisees and all types of goodness crusaders. Fooled by neither spiritual materialism nor material spiritualism, I participate in the effortless dance of divine creation, knowing in all humility that I am an aristocrat of the spirit.

Oh God! If I were good, I wouldn't have written that.

Okay, I'll be serious. This is a hard concept to grasp, because it does appear (to me) that some people are indeed "better" than others. Some people have a very inspiring, uplifting influence, for example, and seem to express more joy or creativity or beauty or kindness than others, helping other people by reflecting those qualities back to them. I accept that the ground of being is no different among people, but don't you think people have the power to create themselves through their consciousness and life practices and ways of knowing, the way a great musician would nurture musical talent? I'd rather listen to a great pianist than some type of cacophonous sound that might pass for music.

There's something about this concept of no one being better than anyone else that I utterly fail to comprehend. In Man's Search for Meaning and other books, Viktor Frankl says that ultimately, even in the worst circumstances, we can choose our attitude, be open to truth, say, and isn't truth good? Is truth ever not good?

"Judge not, that ye may not be judged."

"Judge righteous judgment."

I know you're not saying that we should lose all power of discrimination, but . . .

Ursus Maritimus

At July 15, 2008 at 8:28 AM , Anonymous NihonBryan said...

Wow, I'm very happy to see you've started this blog, as like many others have said, your words often seem to clear up and sum up my thoughts so well. Thank you for that.

Funny thing is I was going to reference the South Park episode "Smug Alert," too as something in our popular culture that has taken a (humorous) stab at spiritual materialism.

The previous comment was talking about struggling with this idea and I can understand where he/she is coming from, though from my understanding, I don't think the point of spiritual materialism is that we cannot have our own discernment or preference for what we like and don't like. The point is that we shouldn't feel the need to feel superior because of what we like or to think of someone else as superior because their lifestyle choices or preferences are the same as ours or are what we judge as "good."

If we can accept that there are billions of people all having different experiences, without attaching a judgment or hierarchy to those experiences, that might be the way to go. It might lead to a more open, loving, less judgmental world.

I don't know, as it's a tough concept for me, too, but that's just what popped into my mind after reading the essay and comments.

I look forward to this blog.

At July 15, 2008 at 8:52 AM , Blogger Joe Verica said...

Hi Chuck

Great news about the blog. I am looking forward to reading it regularly. I have added a link to my blog roll. Hopefully others will wander over.

Interesting maiden post. Personally, I have been (and am) leery of deeply religious or spiritual people. Especially those who go around advertising their membership in this church, or that temple, or those that follow this teacher or that guru... I have always sensed that, at the core, they were either lost or pretentious (or both). I might as well add hypocritical to the list while I'm at it. Many of them talk about selflessness and such, meanwhile they go around stocking thier spiritual pantries for rewards in the next (or present) life. I especially experienced this growing up in a Catholic/Christian community.

When I moved to San Fran a few years, I encountered a lot of people who cast off the orthodoxy of their native religions and where looking for truth elsewhere. But ot my dismay, most of these people were more ego driven and self-satisfied than the Orthodox types I left behind back east. My brother and I jokingly called them "spiritual masturbators". And they are not confined to the west coast. I see a lot of them here in Taiwan as well.

In defense of the spiritual materialists, I think it is difficult, particularly in western cultures, not to be ego driven. We are essentially taught from infancy to "look out for #1". Our culture and education system reinforce this with rewards, grades, salary promotions, etc.

I think deep down, people want to be "good". At some point, most people with a spark in their soul recognize that the rat race they are running is leading them away from where they need to be. Many also feel betrayed by their birth religions. So they look elsewhere. When they find (or think they find) what they are looking for, they think that it (and they) are "good". Then the "old ways" kick in, and they seek to be rewarded for their "acheivement". I think we all fall into that trap from time to time. I know I have.

It's hard to be human.

The ideas inherent in the "spiritual materialism" concept you have brought to our attention sum it all up very nicely.

Thanks for the enlightenment.

At July 15, 2008 at 9:01 AM , Blogger Rob said...


you thoughts are always welcome in my day. i hope to run into you soon again.

In response to this blog entry:
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense."

mevlana jelaluddin rumi - 13th century


At July 15, 2008 at 10:19 AM , Blogger Eugenia Macer-Story said...

Recall that the early Vril enthusiasts of the German Third Reich were vegetarians and considered themselves "spiritually advanced". Not so. The vegetarian outlook tends to forget two items: a) plants have been shown to be emotionally sensitive in telepathy experiments b) the memory and distinctive identity thread (spirit or soul) is not in the meat or veggie salad, but may manifest through the living neural system.In Native American mythos, the quarry--if the hunter has a legitimate need--will allow the meat to be taken. But the hunter must be aware of "permissions"--somewhat Kosher.

At July 15, 2008 at 3:03 PM , Blogger Olivia said...

Charles, I've nominated you for a Brilliante's a gift, not an obligation, though...See my blog for more info! I wanted to be the first of many, Olivia

At July 15, 2008 at 3:16 PM , Blogger Charles Eisenstein said...

Thanks to everyone for these comments. I'll respond to a few in case someone comes back to read them. To Dee: just to pursue the threat a bit further, you say, "I aspire to be OK with that..." For me, if I see it as something I aspire to, I engage a whole habitual apparatus of trying, of self-motivation, and so on. And then if I think I've finally achieved it, I congratulate myself on my achievement, demonstrating that I've been fooling myself...

To Doan: Definitely there is that excitement, but often it gets deeply bound up with wanting credit for having figured out the right answer -- a habit of schooling. Still, I understand the feeling of wanting to shout it from the rooftops. If you are equally happy for the message to spread anonymously as from me, then you know your desire to share is authentic.

To Thailandchani, Patrick: Thank you. Yes, pride. But pride too has its valid place. When my 3-year-old gets that proud look at some accomplishment of his, it is so beautiful. He doesn't hold onto it and use it to create an image though.

To anonymous "c.": I like the Dalai Lama. I think he is an honest man. I like how he uses the word "useful" in that quote.

To Ursus: Right, I am not advocating relinquishing our powers of discrimination. I want people to fill their lives with beautiful things, relationships, whatever brings them joy. But often they sacrifice precisely these things in order to preserve a self-image of being good.

Smug Alert. Sounds funny. I've never seen South Park but my students often recommended it.

Joe: just thinking here, "good" can be a useful concept sometimes. When you say we all want to be good, underneath the desire for approval from others and self (internalized parent), there is also a fundamental desire or urge toward wholeness.

Eugenia: I agree that vegetarians have no monopoly on ethical or spiritual eating. I have an article on line somewhere entitled "The Ethics of Eating Meat" (google it plus Eisenstein and you'll find it) that makes this case and has generated some angry mail.

At May 2, 2014 at 10:03 AM , Anonymous Peter said...

Hi Everyone,

Charles, I know this article is a little old now, but i felt it necessary to write a response anyway.

I can see where you are coming from- it is a bore to be surrounded by righteousness, of any kind, but particularly in groups.

However, the tone of this article seems to be speaking to the same kind of things you work to oppose- that of separation. In this piece, broad, historical oppositions are set up- 'meat eaters' and 'vegetarians', and in the process camps are formed, setting the stage for conflict, and leaving very little space for plurality (you- a concerned meat eater, is the same true for all meat eaters? Those people, righteous vegetarians, but is the same true for all vegetarians?). This debate has been going on for a very, very long time, lest not because it is such a personally challenging topic for a lot of people.

It is my understanding of your work- and I have great admiration for what you do- that we are to challenge the 'old narratives' in favor of a more beautiful world based on community and gift. I wonder how this piece (and the ensuing comments) work toward establishing those ends- connection over separation, love over hate, peace over violence, celebration over discrimination?

I believe strongly that this opposition- meat vs no-meat- should be put to rest. In working toward a more beautiful world, it might be helpful for us to bring insight to our personal beliefs, and drop this age-old argument. I can only dream of a new story in which we celebrate diversity in the name of a stronger and more connected way of living together within the world. But we must ask- how are we to practice on this path, to embody a beautiful world?

I look forward to the day we can live as 'inter-beings'as you have said.

Perhaps then, this opposition can become irrelevant?


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