‘Enlightenment is Ego’s Biggest Disappointment’: The Perils of Spiritual Materialism
While navigating the complicated and often messy world we inhabit, it is important to remind ourselves time and again of the inherent sanctity of human life
Wise men often speak of the elusive present, a fleeting shard of time which disappears the moment one attempts to pin it down. It is what mystics down the ages have attempted to articulate, sometimes with words, and often without them.
Zen Buddhists use Koans to express the inexpressible. Example: ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’? It is a rhetorical question, meant to evoke momentary realization or Satori - the experience of the ‘NOW’ moment between thoughts in which everything falls away and only the Witness remains.
Mansur al Halaj, a tenth century Persian Sufi said:
“I wonder at this You and I
You are all there is
And I am all annihilated.
There is an I
No longer exists.”
The Buddha discouraged debates around the notion of a ‘Self’ or the Atman described in Hindu texts, not because he did not believe in it, but because he knew only too well the futility of using concepts to arrive at a non-conceptual state.
Above all he stressed the importance of arriving at a personal understanding of reality; verifying truth for oneself rather than depending on textual authority.
So while it is useful to refer to religious texts out of intellectual curiosity, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating – and the map should not be mistaken with the territory.
A Bodhisattva performs his or her Sadhana – spiritual practice - in challenging environments like war zones, brothels and leper colonies, understanding that the dualities of pain and pleasure, the ‘sacred and the ‘profane’ are mere constructs that must be dissolved in order to arrive at the Truth.
For a Bodhisattva, alleviating the suffering of sex trafficking survivors is perhaps more ‘sacred’ and meaningful than offering dead flowers and coconuts to a stone idol in a temple.
In the words of Sant Kabir :
‘O servant, where dost thou seek Me?
Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time’
Bypassing painful truths and the reality of the human condition or grasping at transient or illusory pleasures both eventually lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Humans grasp at hedonism and religion for exactly the same reasons – to attain momentary relief or perhaps liberation from the pain of the human condition and to be told that all will be well if you stand on your head long enough, or follow this Guru or ingest ecstasy tablets at a desert rave.
The revolution of the Buddha was in encouraging his fellow travelers to shed their personal histories and the accumulated baggage of tradition, seeing them as hindrances that would ultimately impede spiritual growth, and keep one trapped in the prison of craving and aversion, grudges and grievances.
As the saying goes, ‘If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him’. There comes a point in the journey where even the Buddha becomes unnecessary and can be dispensed with.
He encouraged us to see reality for what it is and where we are: in the here and now. For example, if one is feeling down and out, crushed under the weight of ones’ problems, it is probably unhelpful to pick up a religious text or ruminate on abstract notions of ‘Enlightenment’ in the hope that it will alleviate the situation. On the contrary we are told to meditate on the unpleasant sensations, observe them clinically, meet them head on and stay with them for as long as they linger; without judgement, aversion or grasping.
As Chogyam Trungpa, author of the seminal ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ says: “Many people try to find a spiritual path where they do not have to face themselves but where they can still liberate themselves--liberate themselves from themselves, in fact. In truth, this is impossible. We cannot do that. We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our real shit, our most undesirable parts. We have to see that. That is the foundation of warriorship and the basis of conquering fear. We have to face our fear; we have to look at it, study it, work with it, and practice meditation with it.”
When we do this long enough; watch the rising and falling of our mental tides and train ourselves to see them all as waves upon the surface of a vast ocean, equanimity and peace is possible. And more importantly, reconciliation with the present moment, not escaping or fantasizing about the Shangri-La promised in the scriptures.
The profound wisdom imparted to us by the seers of India can be a catalyst for personal transformation but can also be used for spiritual bypassing – a term which refers to the use of spiritual practices and concepts as a denial mechanism - to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, and fundamental emotional and psychological needs.
Bypassing unresolved trauma using the crutch of ‘spirituality’ can result in a downward spiral leading to fanaticism, jingoism and religious bigotry.
Case in point, ‘non-duality’ - a term often bandied about in the new age community and by students of Vedanta.
The teacher and author Jac O’Keefe writes: ‘The pointers of non-duality are of little use to the immature mind and, in most cases, have an adverse effect and actually delay spiritual maturation. It is essential to work from the level of consciousness at which one has stabilized. The hallmarks of an immature seeker include wanting to bypass the proper development of ego in order to avoid confronting the shadow aspects of the psyche and lacking the capacity to perceive one’s own whereabouts on the progressive path. For example, on being told that ‘you are God’, or that ‘there is nothing to do’, or that ‘you do not exist’, etc., they grasp at these concepts and overlay them on unexamined, personal beliefs in separation'.
While navigating the complicated and often messy world we inhabit, it is important to remind ourselves time and again of the inherent sanctity of human life and the glue that binds us all together. Let us remember these words by Maulana Shah Maghsoud, a 20th century Sufi mystic:
“We searched a while for the Divine
Within the depth of our illusions
Looking there to find His signs
In the Beings of “you” and “I”.
When love appeared
“You” and “I” were dissolved,
And found no more need to follow signs”
Image credits: Rajasekharan Parameswaran/Wikimedia Commons
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