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Nirvana for Sale: The Spiritual Journey in a Material World

10/14/2013 07:25 pm ET | Updated Dec 14, 2013

That calm spiritual bliss -- we Americans want it more than ever. In fact, we're up to our chakras searching for enlightenment. But what does the spiritual journey look like in a consumer-driven society, where even spirituality has become a commodity to be marketed? At your typical yoga studio, students are inhaling and exhaling through their Warrior One and Warrior Two poses in $100 Lululemon yoga pants, and that sum only accounts for the bottom half of their flexible bodies. While teachers guide their yoga students in Eastern spiritual philosophy and the idea of letting go of desires, cravings and attachments, the typical studio itself is selling yoga accessories that cost a small fortune.

And have you ever gone on a spiritual retreat? On the meditation cushion we are instructed to breathe in love and compassion, and to breathe out good karma to all sentient beings. We are told: All we need is this breath, this moment. Everything you need is already within you. Everything you desire, you already are. Okay, I like that, but if all that is true (and it sure sounds good) why do so many ashrams and meditation centers have glittering gift shops that are to die for -- or, I should say, reincarnate for? Indian silk scarves weaved with 14-karat gold thread, mantra bracelets and T-shirts, and OM everything including earrings, necklaces, pillow and mugs? So how do you travel the road to Nirvana without getting sidetracked by all of the spiritual tchotchkes for sale?

Years ago, when I first set up a small meditation area in my house, I found myself shopping through my spiritual journey, thinking that more than a spiritual master, I needed a spiritual interior designer to help me create the perfect spot to Become One with the universe. But I digress, which is often what happens when walking a spiritual path in a material world. It's easy to spend so much time talking about meditation, buying accessories in the service of meditation, and decorating the space with sacred intention that you might never have time to actually sit in meditation. I remember looking through a catalogue selling page upon page of enticements along the Zen path and thinking, "Boy, for a spiritual tradition that's all about nothing, there sure is a lot to buy."

Let's face it. We are a culture that focuses on the external as opposed to the internal and on the material rather than the spiritual. We are bombarded with messages that encourage us to wear our spiritual inclinations. We are told to buy what we want to be and to appear rather than become. It's easy to get caught in the trappings of a spiritual path and mistake those trappings for the path itself. It's also easy to get caught in what passes for an existential dilemma like when a seeker heads to an ashram for the first time and wonders, "When I meet my Inner Self, should I meet her in shabby chic or something more fashion forward?"

I once went on a seven-day silent meditation retreat, where there was also no reading or writing allowed, and didn't say a word for a whole week (of course, I haven't stopped talking about it since). I found that staying silent was easier than I thought, but what was initially more challenging was that this spiritual center was one of the few that had no gift shop or coffee shop. It held no distractions to get lost in as hour after hour we were engaged in either sitting or walking meditation -- and breathing into silence and stillness. With no soy lattes to order and no merchandise to buy, we were left to meet our own selves.

Living in a material world will inevitably hold challenges for walking a spiritual path. But these obstacles themselves can serve as challenges to bring us deeper into our inner wisdom and wise discernment as we navigate through the fluff to reach to the core and find our balance.

Ellen Frankel is the author of the novel Syd Arthur, about a middle-aged, suburban Jewish woman and her search for enlightenment 2,500 years after her namesake Siddhartha, the historical Buddha. You can visit her at: www.authorellenfrankel.com