What is Spiritual Materialism? (and How To Move Beyond It)

Spiritual materialism is a term coined by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987). He describes the term in his 1973 book, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” The phrase refers to a common spiritual pitfall, using our practice to boost the ego versus transcend it. This spiritual narcissism is part of being human, but we don’t have to fall victim to it.

Before turning toward a spiritual path, ego rules our world, our behavior, and our desires. Attempting to achieve contentment via worldly pursuits, we seek to firmly establish a solid, unchanging sense of self. Our identity is strengthened by our jobs, our relationships, our possessions, the clothes we wear, the language we use and so on.

Suffering arises because this is a mistaken pursuit. Everything in the ordinary world is temporary and thus can never be the source of lasting contentment. Using spirituality to escape life’s difficulties is called spiritual bypassing.  Eventually, we discover transcending versus boosting the ego is a more worthwhile path. But the ego is not so quick to let go.

Along the path toward freedom, our habitual tendencies continue to arise. Our spiritual pursuit and every success along the path becomes fodder for the ego. When our practice reinforces, bolsters, separates and inflates our ego, this is spiritual materialism.

Spiritual materialism might look like any of the following:

  • Believing there is a preferred spiritual state of mind and using meditation, drugs or alcohol to maintain this spaced-out, euphoric state.
  • Meditating as a means of escape or to achieve an emotional state, versus as a method of observing and connecting to reality as it is.
  • Claiming righteousness or superiority because you are more spiritual than others.
  • Practicing spirituality or meditation to acquire things, such as manifesting money, cars, careers or relationships – without understanding these things are not the source of contentment
  • Attaching to a collection of spiritual objects, such as books, candles, crystals, statues, or jewelry. Or dressing, acting and speaking as a spiritual person should – all as a means of bolstering your identity as a spiritual person
  • Attaching to a collection of spiritual teachers and teachings, such as courses, workshops, or retreats – believing this makes you a better or more spiritual practitioner than others

When in doubt, ask yourself this simple materialist vs spiritualist question: Is this practice, teaching, pursuit or belief further separating me from others by reinforcing my ego? Or, is it bringing me closer to others by breaking down my sense of separateness?

Narcissism And Spiritual Awakening

In a culture that’s obsessed with self-improvement, there’s a tendency to see spirituality as a means of creating a better, faster, stronger, more productive version of ourselves. But as Chogyam Trungpa has said, “enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.”

Who is it that gets enlightened? Only the spiritual narcissist would think “I have become enlightened!” For by its very nature, enlightenment is the dissolving of the separate sense of self. It is a non-dualistic experience that cannot be held or even described by the separate entity of “me.”

But the ego, of course, prefers otherwise. The spiritual ego will attempt to claim ownership over every insight and milestone along the path toward liberation. In the process of claiming and naming such experiences, we hold them in the material world and take away their power.

Letting Go of Materialism and Spiritualism

Grasping to spiritual achievement is not a new phenomenon, it’s something practitioners of every faith have forever dealt with. So in an attempt to avoid spiritual materialism, perhaps the first step is to recognize you’re not alone – you’re human.

Because we all have ego, we’re all susceptible. The ego will use anything to affirm its existence, even our attempts at dissolving ego

Spiritual materialism may not be avoidable, but we can move beyond it by practicing the following:

  • Meditate. Observe the mind and get to know how it works.
  • Be mindful. Take note of when you’re laying claim to spiritual achievement.
  • Practice self-compassion. Understand we all make mistakes along the path. It’s part of the process of learning and growing.
  • Practice equanimity. There is no spiritual mandate to be happy all the time, or for nothing to ever go wrong. Light does not exist without dark, and both can serve us equally.
  • Practice non-attachment. Practice being present and letting go of goals, even ‘spiritual’ ones. Embrace change and allow your sense of self to soften. One day, you may even let go of the practice itself, having finally relaxed into the bliss of simply being, versus working to be better.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, look for advice to others who are mentors or teachers on the spiritual path. If they are genuine, they’ll help point out any self-deception or unnecessary self-doubt.