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Mariana Caplan, Ph.D. Headshot

When Spirituality Becomes a Mask

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We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path. ~Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche

Given that global culture has been turned toward materialistic values in a way unprecedented in human history, it is inevitable that this same ethic would infiltrate our approach to spirituality. We live in a culture that values accumulation and consumption, and it is naïve of us to assume that simply because we are interested in spiritual growth that we have relinquished our materialism -- or even that we necessarily should.

There is nothing wrong with having an "om" symbol on your t-shirt or being an avid practitioner of meditation while also enjoying moneymaking and big business, but it is useful to explore, understand and check your integrity in relationship to your choices. Spiritual materialism is not a matter of the things that we have, but of our relationship to them.

We all resist seeing the ways in which we deceive ourselves on the spiritual path. It is an embarrassment to ego, though not to who we really are, to look in the mirror and see ourselves dressed in spiritual drag. Yet we allow ourselves to be exposed for the sake of greater freedom and to become more expansive through recognizing how we are limiting ourselves in the name of spirituality.

We also use spirituality to gain power, prestige, recognition and respect, and even to avoid our own troubles. And we misuse the very teachings, practices, and all the spiritual things we do and think to increase our awareness to avoid a deeper intimacy with the truth we seek. We use our practices, paraphernalia, and concepts to support ego rather than truth. Even a monk on a mountaintop can be attached to his robes or begging bowl as a way of creating a false sense of spiritual security.

The ego wants to think of spirituality as something it can "have" once and for all, and then we do not have to do the continual work of showing up and practicing moment after moment for the rest of our lives. The ego creates a whole identity around one's spiritual self. This is part of what we all do on the spiritual path, but it is helpful to learn to see it in ourselves.

There are many forms in which spiritual materialism may manifest:

The spiritual resume refers to the list of important spiritual people we have met, studied with, done a workshop with. At times we might find ourselves reciting our spiritual resume to impress ourselves or somebody else.

Spiritual storytelling takes the form of reciting narratives about our spiritual experiences. While they may be interesting, we often hide behind our stories to shield ourselves from the vulnerability of deeper human connection.

The spiritual high often manifests by going from workshop to teacher to beautiful place in order to stay on a perpetual high and avoid our own shadow, which is a different form of spiritual bypassing.

"Dharmacizing" refers to using spiritual jargon to account for our confusion and blind spots and to avoid relationship. If we're a dharmacizer and someone tells us they feel tension around us, we might counter with a truism such as, "It's just a passing phenomenon. Who is there to experience tension anyway?"

Spiritual shopping sprees are characterized by accumulating initiations, empowerments, and blessings from saints the way others collect cars, yachts, and second homes. We need to feel that we are always getting somewhere -- that we're becoming richer and better. Some people unconsciously believe that if they collect enough spiritual gold stars to become enlightened, they don't have to die.

The spiritualized ego imitates, often very well, what it imagines a spiritual person looks and sounds like. It can create a glow around itself, learn eloquent spiritual speech, and act mindful and detached -- yet there is something very unreal about it. I remember going to hear a particularly well-known spiritual teacher talk. He was trying too hard to act and talk spiritually--saying profound things and wearing a certain "knowing" smile -- yet his message was empty of feeling and dimension. His ego had integrated the spiritual teachings, but he had not.

The bulletproof ego has assimilated constructive feedback and integrated it into its defense structure. If someone shares an opinion about us we may say, "I know it appears that I'm being lazy and selfish, but I'm actually practicing just 'being' and taking care of myself." A spiritual teacher with a bulletproof ego may justify verbal abuse or economic extortions from his or her disciples by saying he or she is trying to cut through the egoic mechanism or trying to teach them they must learn to surrender all they have to the divine. The problem with people who have spiritualized and bulletproof egos is that they are extremely slippery and difficult to catch -- and it is particularly difficult to see how this spiritual defense mechanism operates within ourselves.

It is important to understand that spiritual materialism is less about the "what" and more about the "how" of relating to something -- whether it's a teacher, a new yoga outfit, or a concept. It is not a question of wealth or money but rather of attitude. I have encountered numerous sadhus, or holy men, in India who live as renunciative beggars, yet waved their fists at me when they felt the donation I gave them was insufficient or others' attachment to the pilgrim's staff they carried was as prideful as many bikers are about their prized Harley-Davidsons.

As we penetrate deeper into the layers of our own perception, we discover that the origin of all forms of spiritual materialism rests in the mind. We find that we can relate to information, facts, and even profound understanding in such a way that it precludes the emergence of deeper wisdom. At this most subtle level, in which even knowledge itself becomes a barrier to wisdom, our sword of discernment -- the deep desire to see ourselves clearly and the willingness to take feedback from others -- can cut through our confusion.

When we were studying the subject of spiritual materialism in a graduate school psychology class I was teaching, a young student raised her hand and said, "I know I am really drawn to spiritual life, and somehow what stops me is this really cool black-leather jacket I bought in Italy. I think that if I really give myself to spiritual life, I will have to give up my jacket, and I know it sounds ridiculous, but it really holds me back."

My student's leather jacket was a material possession, but we all have something -- a reason, possession, or something we tell ourselves that prevents us from looking at ourselves more deeply -- that can keep us away from the path for our whole lives. For many of us, in spite of our best intentions, our spirituality itself becomes one more layer of subtle armor behind which we shield ourselves from deeper truth.

[Adapted from Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path, Sounds True, 2010]