Walking the spiritual path is a tricky adventure. We are often deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This kind of self-deception is called “spiritual materialism” which is a “toxic” form of spirituality.
In this article, I want to share with you what spiritual materialism is and 8 warning signs you could be practicing it.
What Is Spiritual Materialism?
Spiritual materialism is a term coined by Chögyam Trungpa in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.
This term is used to describe mistakes spiritual seekers commit which turn the pursuit of spirituality into an ego-building and confusion creating endeavor, based on the idea that ego development is counter to spiritual progress.
Spiritual materialism means making use of spirituality to gratify the desires of the ego.
No matter what the practice or teaching, ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.– Chögyam Trungpa
According to Chögyam Trungpa, spiritual materialism can fall into three categories:
#1: Physical materialism
This form of materialism is based on the belief that possessions can bring release from suffering. However, in fact, they may bring temporary happiness but then more suffering will follow. Or on another level, physical materialism can manifest itself as a belief, “I am rich because I have this or that” or “I am a teacher because I have a diploma.”
#2: Psychological materialism
This category is based on the belief that a particular philosophy, spiritual tradition, belief system, or point of view will bring release from suffering. Therefore, seeking refuge by strongly identifying with a particular religion, tradition, philosophy, political party, or viewpoint, for example, would be a manifestation of psychological materialism. The goal of psychological materialism is to use external concepts, pretexts, and ideas to prove that the ego-driven self exists, which manifests in a particular competitive attitude.
#3: Spiritual materialism
It is based on the belief that a certain temporary state of mind is a refuge from suffering. For example, when you’re using meditation practices to create a peaceful state of mind or using drugs or alcohol to remain in a numbed out or a euphoric state, you are merely heightening the suffering when these states cease. Therefore, attempting to maintain a particular emotional state of mind as an escape from suffering, or constantly pursuing particular emotional states of mind, will actually lead to more long term suffering.
Spiritual materialism is an attachment to the spiritual path as a solid accomplishment or possession. It is said that spiritual materialism is the hardest to overcome. The imagery that is used is that of golden chains; you’re not just in chains, you’re in golden chains. And you love your chains because they’re so beautiful and shiny. But you’re not free. You’re just trapped in a bigger and better trap. The point of spiritual practice is to become free, not to build a trap that may have the appearance of a mansion but is still a prison.– M. Caplan
We all need to realize that nobody is immune to spiritual materialism. As long as we have the ego, we are living on the edge. And no matter how spiritually developed you think you are, there is a tricky ego trap for each “level” of development.
Most of us have a delusional idea that the spiritual path is always steady and secure. It is only later that we begin to realize that the spiritual path is very slippery and you have to maintain balance and constant awareness not to fall into old “traps”. The thing is that the more we learn theoretically about spirituality without applying it to our everyday lives, the more likely we develop the spiritual ego in our beliefs.
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the spiritual ego can hide behind judgment, spiritual dogma, or even a false sense of moral superiority over others. And this could be very dangerous for our spiritual development since it can blind us and prevent us from doing the necessary deeper spiritual work we need for inner growth and self-healing.
It’s hard to see our ego and therefore it’s hard to control it. Buddhist say that in the war of ego the loser always wins. Which makes complete sense to me. The second you realized you overcame your ego, you have fallen into its trap. Therefore, the best way you can deal with your ego is by observing it. It is by observing that you can learn how to take control of your ego.
8 Signs You Could Be Practicing Spiritual Materialism
The most important part of shadow work is taking an honest look at ourselves no matter how hard and painful it could be. Let’s take a look at 8 signs of spiritual materialism and determine which ones could be describing us.
Sign #1: Spiritual Superficiality
Modern forms of spirituality and therapy are often accused of selling superficial and sunny answers to life’s complexity and pain. Spirituality isn’t about protecting ourselves from real-life challenges. Any philosophy that is based on the belief that thinking positively always protects us from suffering and emotional pain, or that there is something wrong with you if you suffer or fail, is offering superficial promises.
Sign #2: Spiritual Elitism
Spiritual elitism is based on using spiritual ‘achievements’ or ‘gifts’ to disconnect from and feel superior to others. 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.
Our desire to be special can be manifested in many different self-aggrandizement ways, like:
- Claiming to have “special access” to spirit guides, Ascended Masters, angels, spirits, etc.;
- Claiming to be the reincarnation of a guru, superior being, a famous spiritual historical figure, etc.;
- Claiming to figure out all the world mysteries, conspiracy theories, governments’ secrets, etc.;
- Claiming access to special and exclusive spiritual knowledge that others can’t access.
In order to overcome this trap, ask yourself: “Do I really need to prove my specialness by using different titles (like lightworker, Starseed, etc.), the memories (or fantasies) about my past incarnations, etc.?”
Sign #3: Spiritual Shopping Obsession
Do you find yourself habitually buying spiritual trinkets/tools/items or accumulating the blessings and initiations from sages, shamans, saints, etc.? Does having spiritual items make you feel more “special,” “awakened,” “aligned” or spiritually worthy. If so, you could be practicing spiritual materialism!
The truth is all those endless workshops, tools, trinkets, and techniques which all promise to make you a wiser, more intuitive, more blissful, more “spiritual” person, are designed for distracting your attention from profound spiritual practice. You see, in order to follow your spiritual path you don’t need to “look” or “feel” spiritual. All you need is already inside you.
Sign #4: Entertaining Spirituality
This is a common trap many seekers get into. Instead of enjoying the blessings of everyday life, you seek after entertaining spirituality and supernatural experiences like angelic visitations, seeing visions, meeting UFOs, spirit guides, Ascended Masters, beings from other planets and dimensions, etc. All these supernatural experiences can be a part of your spiritual journey. However, if they are your main focus, you could be practicing entertaining spirituality.
Sign #5: Ripping Off the Traditions
Many modern seekers skim off the ritual trappings of a tradition with little respect for the depth behind it. This attitude trivializes powerful spiritual systems that often demand years of study. It is so important to be committed to your spiritual practice and realize the difference between carefully creating a spiritual path that includes genuine practices from a variety of traditions, rather than flitting from flower to flower like a drunken honey bee.
Sign #6: Power Abuse
Another sign of spiritual materialism is the disparity between spiritual teachings and the behavior of teachers. These are the things to be wary of:
- extravagant claims of enlightenment or healing;
- minimizing the hard work that accompanies any true spiritual or healing path;
- excessive commercialism that betrays the deeper spiritual message;
- blind adherence of followers.
With their deceitful double standards, some gurus, healers, and spiritual teachers have given mentorship a bad name and tarnished the image of humbling oneself to wiser and more experienced spiritual guides.
Sign #7: Spiritual Narcissism
The spiritual narcissist unconsciously believes he/she is more “awakened” than others and will do anything to reinforce that “specialness” including harming others through arrogance and forcing his/her beliefs on them. They also use spiritual jargon that you can relate to when recruiting their victims. A spiritual narcissist will make you think that you have a special gift or that you are their soul mate when in a real sense they are grooming you for the abuse.
Do you always back your desires with only those spiritual facts that suit you? Then, you could be developing spiritual narcissism. Be mindful when you purposely omit those facts that don’t advance your course.
There is a thin line between narcissism and “following your bliss.” Be aware of your tendency toward excessive self-centeredness even as you work to heal and love your own tender self.
Sign #8: Future Obsession
Do you believe that if you do certain spiritual practices or chant certain mantra you will get to a special elevated state of consciousness in the future? Well, there is nothing wrong with this belief unless you become so possessed with your future achievements that you stop living in the present moment. If you become too obsessed with your future and stop recognizing the fundamental ego-centricity of this obsession, you could be stuck in another spiritual materialism trap!
The Bottom Line
The spiritual path can be a truly joyous and satisfying journey of self-realization. It quickly becomes very clear to anyone who has spent significant time on their journey that the path is riddled with many obstacles and traps designed specifically for the ego.
Have you found yourself saying “They are Asleep”, “I am Awake” or any other self-proclaimed statements of spiritual achievement in comparison to others? This type of comparison can be the first of many dangerous behaviors that can lead a hopeful spiritual student down a path of despair, spiritual degradation, and unfortunate suffering.
True spiritual development is almost always a long and arduous journey that spans many years and lifetimes. Maintaining a high level of compassion and humility along with a strong desire to serve can be a very helpful tool to ensure one keeps their ego in check.