Tibetan meditation teacher Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche coined the term “spiritual materialism” as a way to describe self-deception, and the “grasping after material accomplishment within the context of spiritual pursuit.”
This is a common trap many fall into while following the path of spiritual growth and understanding. The arduous, yet gratifying, journey of spiritual enquiry will challenge the participant to dissolve the ego, but at times the path back fires and fuels the flames of self-importance, judgment and material gain.
It’s a paradoxical adventure, because progress is not necessarily linear and once we feel we’ve achieved enlightenment, we are challenged yet again.
Internet personality JP Sears does a brilliant job at keeping a light heart, poking fun at this exact paradox of spirituality (see below).
Anyone who has gone down the spiritual path has certainly faced one of the challenges in the following list from the book The Seeker’s Guide by Elizabeth Lesser; our challenges are what make us human – and ultimately identifying these traps allows us to move forward even more aware.
The 10 Most Common Traps of Spiritual Materialism by Elizabeth Lesser
- Narcissism: There’s a thin line between narcissism and “following your bliss.” Without some degree of sacrifice for the greater good, self-discovery eventually leads to plain old self-indulgence.
- Superficiality: America’s new forms of spirituality and therapy are often accused of selling superficial and sunny answers to life’s complexity and pain. Spirituality does not ultimately work if we use it to protect ourselves from the rough-and-tumble of real life. Any world view that suggests that thinking positively always protects you from harm, or that there is something wrong with you if you suffer or fail, or that healing isn’t often complex, is offering superficial promises.
- The Never-Ending Process of Self-Improvement: You can become so obsessed with your own self-improvement—your story, your victimization, your faults, your fears—that instead of becoming free, you end up caught in a tape-loop. This myopic kind of focus on the self also leads to social apathy.
- Instant Transformation: Just as some people get seduced by the never ending process of self-examination, some are disappointed when they don’t achieve inner peace after reading a book, or in a day-long workshop, or even after two years of weekly therapy
- Desire for Magic: Some of the new American spirituality throws common sense out the window and pursues a search for magic cures and miraculous people. The need to believe in all-powerful teachers, angelic visitations, UFOs, and other unexplained mysteries can obscure the ordinary magic of everyday life, proof enough of God and the miracle of life.
- Grandiosity: In democratizing spirituality and bringing it to the daily life of each person, each one of us risks becoming a messianic little Pope or a humorless saint. If you find yourself becoming unbearably profound, feeling that you are somehow different from others and destined for sainthood, perhaps you are suffering from grandiosity.
- Romanticizing Indigenous Cultures: There exists a kind of reverse prejudice in our politically correct times that just because something or someone is from another culture, especially an indigenous or minority culture, that it/he/she is somehow more valuable, spiritual, or wise. “Whenever teachings come to a country from abroad the problem of spiritual materialism is intensified,” writes Chogyam Trungpa.
- The Inner-Child Tantrum: I once heard someone say, “Some people just don’t seem to realize, when they’re moaning about not getting prayers answered, that no is the answer.” Knowing what you want, and honestly asking for it, is a monumental achievement. But so is learning to gracefully accept God’s wisdom—when “He giveth and when he taketh away.”
- Ripping Off the Traditions: Many modern seekers skim off the ritual trappings of a tradition with little respect for the depth behind it. This trivializes powerful and elegant systems of spiritual growth that often demand years of study. There is a difference between carefully creating a spiritual path that includes genuine practices from a variety of traditions, and flitting from flower to flower like a drunken honey bee.
- The Guru Trip: Harry S. Truman lamented: “Memories are short; appetites for power and glory are insatiable. Old tyrants depart. New ones take their place. It is all very baffling and trying.” Perhaps the most baffling and trying aspect of the new American spirituality is the disparity between spiritual teachings and the behavior of teachers. Men, women, Western, Eastern, fundamentalist, new-age, modern, or indigenous—none have escaped the temptation to abuse power. Things to be wary of: extravagant claims of enlightenment or healing; the minimizing of the hard work that accompanies any true spiritual or healing path; the excessive commercialism that betrays the deeper spiritual message; and the blind adherence of followers to charlatans (be they gurus, therapists, preachers, healers, or teachers). With their deceitful double standards, some gurus, therapists, and teachers have given mentorship a bad name and tarnished the image of humbling oneself to a wiser and more experienced guide.