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Spiritual materialism
June 10th, 2014

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Spiritual materialism

   Chögyam Trungpa wrote "Cutting through spiritual materialism"   and coined the term (

   The notion is easily understood as practising spirituality for worldly rewards, and it does include such a view but it is not limited to this…
   It rather is the very objectification and quantification of practice.

   For example, many journalists found a particular corporate "mindfulness program" inspiring, however a look at their "become a trainer" page initially showed very dubious traits from a buddhist perspective (this has been corrected since):
"read the book"
"have at least two thousand hours of seated meditation"
"participated in silent meditation retreats of five days or longer"

   Obvious counter-arguments could be given, to show the emptiness of such spiritual materialism:
• if we have the answer in 1 particular silver-bullet book, there isn't much engagement with the ineffability of life…
• 1999 hours not enough, but 2000 hours good enough? Independently of the individual, circumstances, conditions, teachers, type of meditation?
• 4 long week-ends (of 4 days) are not worth 2 longer retreats of 5 days? A single retreat (of 3 months) isn't worth 2 short retreats of 5 days?

   Not only the program is much about increased 'productivity' of workers (even if it comes from a better work/life balance which helps preventing a burn-out), i.e. the optimisation of the treadmill  rather than the cessation of clinging,  but also its teacher-training was very much based on an objectification and quantification of practice.

   It might seem that the objectification and quantification of practice are in line with the "scientific method"… except we still have no scientific explanation of how consciousness arises or how to qualify/quantify its traits, so quantification nowadays is just a veil for prejudice and bias: scientism and spiritual materialism, neither science nor actual practice!

   The same issue appears whenever someone wants to know how many retreats of this-or-that someone else attended.

   Answering to such a question constitutes catering to one's prejudices and arbitrary thresholds (that will be set up conveniently, either to discard what one disagrees with or to confirm what one agrees with).

   The only measure of spiritual work is how it affects your life and how much you embody the teachings. If you embody buddhahood after one minute of meditation, good for you! If it takes a few lifetimes, good for you too (most beings just keep circling in saṃsāra for eons, remember?)! A whole second of full alertness in the midst of ordinary life might provide more insight, more access to the Unconditioned, than 2000 hours of dull mind in a nicely-controlled, unchallenging environment (!

   How much merit, or 'hours', you accumulated "in this life"  is quite irrelevant in a tradition that considers causal continuity across apparent 'entities', individual lives, cultures, traditions, contexts:
• intentions do matter,
• effort and actual realisation matter,
• how easily you get upset matters,
• how biased your responses are matters,
• how loving, compassionate, joyful, equanimous you are matters…
…while "not enough hours yet" is just an excuse to cling a bit longer to saṃsāra, and not to drop ordinary views (and other delusions of 'control' and of gain/loss logic).

   It doesn't matter how many retreats you attended if you're still full of self-serving certainties! It's even a regression if all it serves is a narrative about how a 'dedicated', 'good' practitioner you are. So do practice, a lot, but do not  keep counts! Practice "moment to moment", not retreat to retreat, not even sitting to sitting…
   Spiritual materialism is a manifestation of lust for Enlightenment ( initially it may help you by redirecting unwholesome habits of competitiveness towards a wholesome goal, but ultimately you have to drop all habits to become 'alert' and 'present' to the situation at hand (without comparing with another situation)!

Photo: unattributed.