Sunday, January 3, 2010

Spiritual Materialism

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.

3rd December

I borrowed a copy of ‘Cutting through Spiritual Materialism’ by Chogyam Trungpa, from the monastery library yesterday – mostly because I was intrigued by the title. The book is based on a series of talks that Chogyam Trungpa gave to meditation students in Colorado around thirty years ago.  In the introduction he says:
‘walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively.  There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centred version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity ... This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.’
Included in this idea of spiritual materialism is the way that ‘the ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life.’  I can relate to this well, especially because I’m now staying at a monastery where I’m surrounded by people pursuing the monastic spiritual life.  I perceive all of these people to be way more advanced along the spiritual path than I am, and find that I’m always looking for cues as to how I should be behaving.

Should I be walking as slowly as that very peaceful Chinese nun?  Why do I feel like I always want to talk during lunch, when everyone else seems to be content to be silent? What am I supposed to be feeling during the chanting?  (I’m guessing it’s not ‘bored and confused.’)

As I sense myself looking around at everyone else to gage what is the right way to feel, act, speak, and think, I’m starting to notice how  ill-at-ease and acutely self-conscious I feel when I’m engaged in this type of spiritual materialism.  I’m starting to just notice this confusion - this sense that I’m not doing it ‘right’ - and am slowly recognising that it's something that's followed me around my whole life. I can remember feeling like this in Grade 1, when Sr Julian hit me over the knuckles with her ruler after catching me counting on my fingers in maths class.

During the chanting last night, (which I can’t understand because it’s in Pali), I suddenly noticed how uncomfortable I was.  I was searching for how I should be feeling, when what I was actually feeling was mild boredom, a back-ache, and curiosity about which person was chanting wildly out of tune.  

Boredom? Curiosity?  This was all wrong!  I wasn't expecting white-light, or an appearance by the Buddha (or Jack Kornfield),  but I should be feeling something at least vaguely spiritual...shouldn't I?   It all felt so confusing. Sigh.  Eventually I just gave up and settled into whatever I was feeling in that moment, regardless of how spiritual or non-spiritual it was. I can’t say I felt any amazing revelation, basically I just felt pretty bored and kept thinking ‘will this ever end?’ and finally, it did, and I went to bed.

And so ended my second day in the monastery.


  1. I love your honesty. Most blogs about meditation talk like they are the gurus (ok that's probably the wrong word but I am not even a junior meditater, I only just qualify as having attended an orientation day) of internal peace. I always felt like a failure during yoga when I couldn't get my inner light to turn on. When I questioned my teacher she just looked very disappointed and told me to try harder. I like, and fully understand, the internal monologue. I always think part of the journey to any form of internal equilibrium is a rocky road filled with self-doubt but it is important to feel it to understand and explore it, to be able to integrate it into an overall you and understand and accept that it can rear it's head at different times. Whoa that's way to deep for me at this time of night. Please excuse my rambling, there was a coherent point there somewhere. Maybe I should have just said "good blog". :)

  2. Thanks so much Rusty - it's so lovely to get feedback like yours. You made lots of coherent points! As someone who has had a lot of struggle getting any 'inner light' to shine (perhaps I have a permanent inner blackout?), I wanted to write a blog that was honest about my daily struggles with meditation. I felt that I couldn't be the only person in the world going through this - hence the blog!

    I agree that self-doubt is absolutely part of this journey. I always felt such a failure in meditation classes becuase I felt like I was the only one who just wasn't 'getting it.' I've realised that just sticking with it, even though it's difficult, is really my path.

    I hope the orientation day you attended was useful to you, and that you might be encouraged to give meditation a go :) If you are, I can also recommend the tricycle website, it's a Buddhist website which has several forums that support and assist people beginning meditation.

  3. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism is a book you could learn from the rest of your life. I find that when I go back to it, Trungpa's right there to challenge my ass every time. Even though I've been practicing for almost a decade, I'm humbled constantly, and bumbling around plenty in my life.

  4. Hi Nathan, yes, it's a great book. I thought it was interesting that he gave those talks thirty years ago, and to a Western audience.

    I wonder what types of spiritual materialism exist in the countries Buddhism originates in? I suppose there is some, but maybe it's a lot different to the western materialism.

    Am really enjoying reading your posts. Always thought-provoking.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...