How Spirituality Can Actually Aggravate Your Epic Ego
Cut through spiritual materialism.
The purpose of the spiritual path, as described by all religions and philosophies is to transcend the ego. The problem is, we operate in the world with our ego itself.
Do you see the irony?
We have to transcend ego while still working within its bounds. No wonder spiritual enlightenment doesn’t come by easily.
This problem is best explained by the concept of Spiritual Materialism. It was first coined by the famous author and Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.
The main premise of the book is that the ego likes to use the spiritual path for its own ends. Not realizing this, spiritual seekers can fall off their path of enlightenment.
He writes, “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use…even spirituality.”
Look at it from another angle. Most of you reading this are interested in “self-improvement.” If you dissect that word, the “self” being referred to here is the ego. It’s a hidden oxymoron indeed.
You don’t want to improve the ‘self’. You want to transcend it — to the point where it no longer determines your decisions and reactions in this world.
How Modern Psychology Has Shifted the Paradigm
As Michael J. Formica writes in Psychology Today,
“One of the shortcomings of modern psychology, in its migration from a study of the spirit to a pseudoscientific study of the mind (1, 2), is that it focuses on the development of identity, as well as the self as an object. Even Carl Jung — the mystic, where Freud was the scientist, Adler the humanist, and James the philosopher — spoke of individuation as a key component of human development; a notion that demands that the “I” be regarded as a thing.”
In simpler terms, modern psychology shifted from thinking about the spirit to thinking about the mind in greater detail. Ergo, psychologists developed a firm belief regarding the development of the “self.” This, in part, can be the reason behind the self-absorbed western culture.
By concentrating on the growth of ‘self’ (or “I”) as a separate entity, we’ve developed high-flown concepts like self-actualization which is nothing but an iteration of Self-Realization or God-Realization.
Notice the difference between “Self” and “self”. Capitalization changes everything. Self is the higher-self — the state of consciousness you want to achieve. “self” is the lower self, your ego, which enforces the illusion of separateness and delusionary desires.
Three Lords of Materialism
Perhaps the most fascinating set of ideas under this topic are the three lords of materialism.
Trungpa has given broad categories of all these spiritual errors that are often made by seekers. Given that he was a teacher who came to the West to teach Buddhism, it is not surprising that in his opinion, all these lords stem from the inherent materialism in Western cultures.
He describes physical materialism as the belief that owning and accumulating more stuff will give us freedom, satisfaction, and happiness that we’re frantically searching for.
In reality, the ego always yearns for more regardless of how many riches it is presented with. Every purchase is accompanied by a dissatisfaction. The happiness that we get after buying something new lasts for say 12 seconds.
This desire needs to be addressed. Adyashanti, an American born spiritual teacher:
When we make a purchase and/or get what we want, we are temporarily happy and fulfilled. But the reason for happiness is not because we got what we wanted, but because for a brief period of time, we stopped wanting, and thus we experience peace and happiness.
Though on a much deeper level, psychological materialism can be equally fatal. It refers to the belief that a certain ideology, philosophy, religion, or belief system can be the cure to all our ills.
I used to run after books from diverse philosophies thinking the next book is going to be life-changing. Except it wasn’t. Though the books were full of wisdom, they did nothing but fill me up with ideas — they didn’t help me advance spiritually.
In general, thinking that anything in this world can provide an end to suffering is naivete. That, in essence, is what Buddha realized. Suffering and pain are the universal constants in all our lives.
Even though you like Buddhism, or Hinduism, or [insert your belief system] you’ll inevitably have challenges on your path. Thus, seeking psychological refuge in one faith or another can also be a spiritual pitfall.
Finally, spiritual materialism is a belief that a certain state of mind will help us escape reality and suffering.
When I started meditating I was laser-focused on increasing the length of my practice. Naively enough, I thought the longer I meditate, the faster I’ll progress. While that is true (with some caveats of course), my ulterior motive was to avoid life itself.
By virtue of living in this world, you cannot meditate all the time. There will be a time you have to stop meditating. And while it can help you heighten your state of consciousness, it cannot eliminate your worries.
You have to do that yourself. This is why it is important to see suffering as an inherent part of your life — to embrace it instead of denying it.
You can do all the breathing exercises you want or even use artificial intoxicants to enter a drugged psychological state, but it will always remain a coping mechanism if used to escape reality.
Ego Is Still a Projection of the Mind
The three lords of materialism are based on the fact that the ego is a real, tangible concept and that we have to train it to abide by certain spiritual rules or behaviors. In fact, Trungpa said, that the ego is ever-changing. It does not exist in itself but is only a reflection of the mind.
The more we feed the ego, the more it grows, and the more it seems real. And finally, anything that feeds the ego is bound to bring us more suffering — the things we set out to escape in the first place.
Avoiding these traps is a matter of self-awareness, meditation, and honest introspection. God knows how many such traps await us on our journey.
What I can do, however, is give certain examples and common pitfalls that people make to ultimately feed the ego.
Spiritual narcissism is a broad category of mistakes people make.
For instance, carrying out spiritual practices with the motive of self-aggrandization and boosting the ego.
At the end of the day, what decides is an activity lies under the purview of spiritual narcissism is our motivation behind the action. Meditating for long hours is good but if you do the same to show others you’re better than them, then it has the opposite effect.
Keeping your body in a good condition to continue your spiritual practices is good. But if the same fitness turns into a sense of achievement and superiority, it fuels the ego.
Even the purest acts of love like serving food to the homeless or donating money can turn into narcissistic behaviors if done to build your self-image as a philanthropist.
At the end of the day, an honest reflection on your motivations behind the action is enough to find out if you’re falling into spiritual materialism.
Comparison and Focusing on Experiences
This brings me to my next point. Often on the spiritual path, people run after metaphysical experiences, visions, etc, and compare it with other seekers.
This comparison can either feed into our superiority or make us feel inferior to others. Either way, it fuels and affirms the ego.
Parmahansa Yogananda never encouraged his disciples to talk about spiritual experiences perhaps for the same reason.
Chasing Gurus and Many Philosophies
In a recent chat with a spiritual seeker, he went on for forty-five minutes to convince me to find a living guru. He told me how he went to Buddhists, Sufi practitioners, and some ‘saint’ he found on Facebook who lives in some remote Himalayan town.
This is in part psychological materialism as Trungpa described. Further, it shows our inherent need to chase quick-fixes, instant enlightenment, etc, to avoid doing the inner work necessary for true liberation.
Even worse is the fact that we think we can ‘pick and choose’ our favorite practices from myriad philosophies and religions without understanding the culture and deeper purpose of a ritual/practice. This ‘window-shopping’ of spiritual practices, if you will, is another pitfall.
The purpose of this article is not to give a quick-fix against spiritual materialism — if there were such a thing, this concept wouldn’t exist.
Plus, claiming that I have such a solution is to dive into the pools of spiritual materialism itself while taking you with me.
We all know people who roam around wearing beads around their neck, posting photos of their Vipassana retreat on Instagram.
These behaviors, as we saw, are just a temporary high. Their joy is fleeting and will always keep you looking for the next drug.
Awareness and introspection is the key.
But the fact of the matter is, Trungpa’s ideas serve as a wake-up call to all of us to introspect and take a harsh look at our own lives.
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