Walking the spiritual path can be a tricky adventure. Sometimes we make progress and become more free and loving and wise; sometimes we may think our meditation or prayer or ritual is leading toward enlightenment, but really we’re just treading water or even going backwards. The great Tibetan meditation teacher, Chogyam Trunpa, wrote that we are often “deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.” He called this kind of self-deception spiritual materialism. We all deal with spiritual materialism; here’s a list from my book, A Seeker’s Guide, of common traps you may encounter on your spiritual journey:
Spiritual Materialism’s Top-Ten List
1. Narcissism: There’s a thin line between narcissism and “following your bliss.” Without some degree of sacrifice for the greater good, self-discovery eventually leads to plain old self-indulgence. Be aware of your tendency toward excessive self-centeredness even as you work to heal and love your own tender self.
2. Superficiality: America’s new forms of spirituality and therapy are often accused of selling superficial and sunny answers to life’s complexity and pain. Spirituality does not ultimately work if we use it to protect ourselves from the rough-and-tumble of real life. Any world view that suggests that thinking positively always protects you from harm, or that there is something wrong with you if you suffer or fail, or that healing isn’t often complex, is offering superficial promises.
3. The Never Ending Process of Self-improvement: You can become so obsessed with your own self-improvement – your story, your victimization, your faults, your fears – that instead of becoming free, you end up caught in a tape-loop. This myopic kind of focus on the self also leads to social apathy. It just isn’t true that your self-empowerment and self-healing will necessarily lead to the health and happiness of others and of society. We have to participate in the improvement of more than just ourselves.
4. Instant Transformation: Just as some people get seduced by the never ending process of self-examination, some are disappointed when they don’t achieve inner peace after reading a book, or in a day-long workshop, or even after two years of weekly therapy. Spiritual awakening takes patience, hard work, and the grace of God.
5. Desire for Magic: Some of the new American spirituality throws common sense out the window and pursues a search for magic cures and miraculous people. The need to believe in all-powerful teachers, angelic visitations, UFOs, and other unexplained mysteries can obscure the ordinary magic of everyday life, proof enough of God and the miracle of life.
6. Grandiosity: In democratizing spirituality and bringing it to the daily life of each person, each one of us risks becoming a messianic little Pope or a humorless saint. If you find yourself becoming unbearably profound, feeling that you are somehow different from others and destined for sainthood, perhaps you are suffering from grandiosity.
7. Romanticizing Indigenous Cultures: There exists a kind of reverse prejudice in our politically correct times that just because something or someone is from another culture, especially an indigenous or minority culture, that it/he/she is somehow more valuable, spiritual, or wise. “Whenever teachings come to a country from abroad the problem of spiritual materialism is intensified,” writes Chogyam Trungpa.
8. The Inner Child Tantrum: I once heard someone say, “Some people just don’t seem to realize, when they’re moaning about not getting prayers answered, that no is the answer.” Knowing what you want, and honestly asking for it, is a monumental achievement. But so is learning to gracefully accept God’s wisdom – when “He giveth and when He taketh away.”
9. Ripping Off The Traditions: Many modern seekers skim off the ritual trappings of a tradition with little respect for the depth behind it. This trivializes powerful and elegant systems of spiritual growth that often demand years of study. There is a difference between carefully creating a spiritual path that includes genuine practices from a variety of traditions, and flitting from flower to flower like a drunken honey bee.
10. The Guru Trip: Harry S. Truman lamented: “Memories are short; appetites for power and glory are insatiable. Old tyrants depart. New ones take their place. It is all very baffling and trying.” Perhaps the most baffling and trying aspect of the new American spirituality is the disparity between spiritual teachings and the behavior of teachers. Men, women, Western, Eastern, fundamentalist, new-age, modern, or indigenous – none have escaped the temptation to abuse power. Things to be wary of: extravagant claims of enlightenment or healing; the minimizing of the hard work that accompanies any true spiritual or healing path; the excessive commercialism that betrays the deeper spiritual message; and the blind adherence of followers to charlatans (be they gurus, therapists, preachers, healers, or teachers.) With their deceitful double standards, some gurus, therapists, and teachers have given mentorship a bad name and tarnished the image of humbling oneself to a wiser and more experienced guide.
is the cofounder of Omega Institut
e in Rhinebeck, New York, the United States’ largest life-ling learning center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change. She is the author of the NY Times bestselling Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow
, and The Seeker’s Guide
. For more than 30 years Elizabeth has worked with leading figures in the fields of healing—healing self and healing society. Her work at Omega has included leading the organization, developing its curricula, teaching, and writing the yearly Omega catalog, a reference book that describes the work of some of the most eminent thinkers and practitioners of our times. For the past ten years, Elizabeth has spearheaded Omega’s popular Women and Power conferences, renowned gatherings featuring women leaders, authors, activists, and artists from around the world. She is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Center