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Swati Desai, Ph.D., LCSW Headshot

Materialism Is Not All Bad!

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President Obama had a hugely successful trip to India, a country that shares several political and economic values with the U.S. Amongst other things, he had an impressive question-and-answer session with students in Mumbai who asked him tough questions. One student referred to the modern, materialistic frame of thought, asking the president what methodologies a government could adopt to incorporate core spiritual values such as selflessness and brotherhood. The president pointed out the government's role in removing poverty and encouraging the spirit of "giving" and philanthropy.

The question raises an important issue relevant to our daily lives: could we and should we seek material prosperity and spirituality at the same time? Note that the question is about both the "should" and the "could."

When I was growing up in a middle-class Brahmin family in the 1960s in India, the values around me taught me that the acquisition of knowledge is important in itself, regardless of the money that the knowledge might bring me. My father's old teacher, who was obviously of very modest means, was treated with utmost respect in our house. This India, although materialistically poor and politically left-leaning, was spiritually prosperous, known for its messages on how to transcend the perils of ordinary life. The U.S. at that time was spiritually wandering, materialistically prospering, on a tremendous upswing, believing in making one's own destiny, and lured by being the superpower in defense, technology and economics.

How things have changed since then! India is now materialistically prospering and spiritually confused. On the other hand, in the U.S. the realization has come about that material excesses do not give meaning to our lives and are an unreliable source of happiness.

Neither one of the countries seems to have a good grip on both at the same time. Why does it seem so tricky to mix materialism (in an economic sense) and spirituality? There are at least two reasons.

First, they have conflicting emphases. Spirituality implies connecting with the inner truth and the larger universal reality, outside our ordinary life experiences, and thus includes the inner sense of morality, as well as concern for humanity beyond our mere selfish interests. Economic materialism is very much about collecting and spending resources, particularly money and time. One is about the intangible spirit, and the other about daily life's concerns.

Secondly, materialism comes more naturally, in spite of the fact that we know that it often leads to a lifestyle that is perpetually wanting more, ruthlessly self-centered, desperately greedy and often taking pleasure in ostentatious displays as a source of power. Spirituality, on the other hand, is much more difficult to pursue, in spite of the fact that we know that it is associated with long-term happiness and feeling the right thing.

This is what I suggest. The question of "should" we or "could" we mix these two in our life is not the right one, because for a common person to have a good and fulfilling life, it is inevitable to make a potion of both materialism and spirituality. In fact, use one to balance the other in the following way:

Use spirituality as a greed- and envy-stopper. Spirituality, getting in touch with our inner and universal reality, would make it difficult for a materialist to engage in ruthlessly self-centered behavior, because any inner truth includes the innate human goodness. Allow the practice of spirituality to monitor the greed and envy, which seem to be at the heart of why materialism gets excessive, leaving the world around us a worse place.

Use materialism to stay in touch with the realities of daily life, recognizing that amassing resources is a source of security, survival and freedom to experience life. Desire is a life force, and when practiced with wisdom, it can create beauty. The wisdom lies in recognizing that modesty, cooperation and compassion, when combined with materialism, can indeed be a source of creativity, satisfaction, peace and prosperity. Spiritual values have the power to create such wisdom. The counter-balance to the perils of materialism can come from compassion -- a possible product of spiritual thinking. The Dalai Lama predicts that the 21st century will be happier because people have become more caring and compassionate.

However, there is one caveat! In order to understand this potion, you will need to know what it means by being without! If life hasn't already brought it to you, consider going to a place (a sparse retreat, not a resort) where your pride of "me and mine" and the habits of possession can fall apart. Do this with awareness.

Note that the difficulty in practicing spirituality without material prosperity lies not only in the fact that "it is hard to preach to an empty stomach," but also in the fact that spirituality, if not balanced, could lead to forced austerity, and eventually bitter dogmatism. Even at its best, practiced as a completely self-sufficient existence turned towards inner beauty, spirituality could become self-centered and deny the realities of the daily life. In this sense, it still may not create a better world.

President Obama emphasized the need for "giving" as a value when you become materially prosperous. I would like to point out that incorporating spirituality also includes encouraging the innate goodness that humans seem to possess, which the government can encourage by creating institutions in which doing the right things can lead to prosperity (such as success without having to succumb to corruption, very much needed in India), and in which the right moral values get highlighted (such as regulating greed, very much needed in the U.S.).

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