The trap of spiritual materialism

Chogyam Trungpa (who died in 1987) continues to be an important teacher to me. He coined the phrase “Spiritual Materialism”. The term describes a common experience; it is what happens when you give your ego the job of searching for your truth.

The ego, with its desire to always be right and always be in control, with its need to be the star of the show, happily accepts responsibility for the search. But because it’s the ego, any piece of spiritual wisdom is used simply to inflate itself. After a retreat the ego feels pumped up: “I am so much more spiritually mature than these ignorant others”. The desire to share knowledge arises from a desire for status to be regarded as someone special, more advanced.

The ego just loves to listen to itself. “Look at me, I’m just so cool and spiritual!” Of course, this gives rise to anger and frustration when no one else wants to play the game, when no one else wants to see you as your ego wants them to.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

The consequence of this attitude is that you learn nothing; you change nothing, but the ego is entertained whilst you imitate spiritual practice with its false sense of striving, advancement and above all status − adopting all the forms and little of the essence.

The ego wants to feel big and important, not uncomfortable, humble and patient. So when things get uncomfortable we simply drop whatever practice we are doing and move to the next cool workshop, the next bit of ego-food. In the eighties there was a phrase that summed this up nicely “Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt”.

True spirituality is a steady dismantling of ego and its frenetic, management of your journey, dissolving the sense of separation like the morning mist in the valley.

Spirituality means stepping outside of the smallness of the ego and its false sense of separation. It is a sense of aliveness, connection − the experience of the bigger picture. It is to experience a simultaneous sense of smallness and immenseness, all imbued with a sense of wonder, gratitude and − dare I say it − love.

Giving your ego the job of managing your spiritual journey is like asking a fox to look after your chickens.

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