Sunday, October 13, 2013
Slay Your Own Dragons: Freeing Yourself from the Grip of Materialism
With that simple lyric, Madonna pretty much summed up modern society. But she was only pointing out the obvious: this is a world where materialism dominates. The phrase, "The one who dies with the most toys wins," is not just a sad joke but is actually many people's life philosophy. Madonna mocked materialism while simultaneously milking it all the way to the bank and becoming one of our society's wealthiest pop icons. Her song was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But the materialism Madonna sang about goes much deeper than pop culture. It's rooted in the prevailing philosophical outlook of our times, which is scientific materialism. This outlook tells us, with a lot of very convincing studies and theories to back up the idea, that we are nothing but physical matter. Any experience of consciousness we have, whatever thoughts and emotions we feel, whatever inkling we have of some kind of spiritual dimension of our being, is only the byproduct of chemical reactions, material neurons firing in a material nervous system. Not surprisingly, this view encourages us to focus on maximizing our own material well-being and pleasure, since there is nothing else to live for.
This outlook tricks us into thinking that we can make ourselves permanently and securely happy if we just line up the right material circumstances. Get our bodies in shape, make lots of money, surround ourselves with nice things and pleasurable experiences, live in the right house and wear the right clothing and accessories, hang out with the right people and consume the right food and drink, get the right surgeries….the list could go on. And there is nothing wrong with having any of those things. But if we believe that material objects or experiences are the key to sustainable contentment, we are setting ourselves up for failure. No matter how much good stuff we have, as human beings we are wired to want more, and we are also wired to fear losing what we already have. We feel attached to our pretty things, but our pretty things don't last. Therefore, we suffer. "Mo' money, mo' problems," as another pop song wisely observes.
More Than Skin Deep
But materialism rules our minds and causes us to suffer in even deeper, more insidious ways—ways that are more subtle, harder to see. We also become attached to our ideas and points of view, and we harden them into ideologies that give us a more solid sense of identity and control over our lives. But our ideologies—our "isms"—end up putting us in a box, and anything that doesn't fit in our little box of ideas, anything we disagree with, becomes our enemy. Look at the front page of the newspaper and you can see where this leads us. Our world is locked in a maelstrom of warring ideologies and conflicting belief systems. And everyone thinks they are right.
For those of us attempting to walk on a spiritual path in life, there is a third kind of materialism—which is perhaps the most insidious kind of all. The pioneering Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa coined a term for this: he called it "spiritual materialism." We fall into the trap of spiritual materialism when we begin to use our spiritual practice to build up our ego—our spirituality becomes a project for building a bigger, better, happier, more secure "me."
Authentic spiritual practice, on the other hand, makes us less self-centered, less interested in making "me" happy and satisfying the demands of the ego—and more open and compassionate towards others. Genuine spirituality is actually rooted in having seen through the game of ego and the whole project of "me," and no longer quite believing in the stories that ego constantly tells about itself. From a Buddhist point of view, what we regard as "me"—the ego—is illusory, like a mirage. It appears to be there, but it's only a trick of perception. And it's as changeable and unreliable as the weather. We use the crutches of material comforts and ideologies and beliefs to prop up this illusory ego and convince ourselves that it's solid and real.
When Ego Hijacks the Spiritual Journey
Unfortunately, the ego can also hijack our spiritual practices and use them to further ensnare us in a web of illusions. We can become attached to religious forms and rituals—which are, after all, only tools—and confuse religion for spirituality. We can play dress-up and present ourselves to the world as a very "spiritual person," someone who floats through the room in white clothing and prayer beads, whispering words of wisdom while inwardly judging and looking down on others as being less "spiritual" than we are. We can get lost in the ego's craving for "bliss" and convince ourselves that our yoga and meditation practices should just make us feel good, and that everything is supposed to be "love and light" all the time. We can walk away from anything on the spiritual path that challenges us or makes our ego feel uncomfortable. If we take this easy way out, then we merely skim along on the surface of spiritual inquiry, never going beneath to discover the deeper and darker layers of our psyche—our shadow, our dark passengers—which also call for our attention and our care.
In the Gnostic gospels, Jesus warned: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
If we engage deeply enough and authentically enough with the spiritual path—regardless of which tradition we are practicing—we are bound to discover truths about reality that insult our ego. Even without a spiritual path, life itself is bound to deal us blows that humble us and bring pain. And by turning our attention within, we are bound to get in touch with aspects of ourselves that are unsavory and would be more comfortably left unexamined. Yet it is precisely these things that will set us free when we bring them into the light of compassionate awareness.
"Learning to look deeply to see into the true nature of things," wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, "having direct contact with reality and not just describing reality in terms of notions and concepts, is the practice."
The authentic spiritual path is not a walk in the woods. Or, rather, it is, but those woods are not all dappled sunlight and chirping birds and warm breezes. The woods that make up our lives also include dark and haunted passages, swampy bogs with poisonous airs where the unwanted, unseen parts of ourselves lurk like ghostly villains in a fairy tale. To live our lives fully, to awaken and have direct contact with reality and not just describe it in terms of our concepts, we must leave the comfortable, ivy-covered stone walls of our ego's protective castle and journey out into the uncharted and unknown reaches of our actual experience. The journeying may not all be pleasant. But wherever we go, whatever we find—it all belongs to us, and we must come to know it. It is the kingdom to which we are the heirs, and we must pass through every square inch of it, bogs and ghosts and all. We must go out and slay our own dragons. No one else can do it for us.
Or, we could just remain in our castle of materialism—bathed in luxury, our notions and concepts and ideologies unchallenged, floating on a blissful cloud of so-called spirituality—and pretend there isn't anything scary outside the walls of the castle. That's definitely an option. But for how long?