Secular Spirituality Is, In The End, Spiritual Materialism

We’re entering a particularly interesting moment in history when regular religious observance is, among large segments of the American population, waning while in some milieu spirituality is on the rise.

One version of spirituality I’ll be discussing today I call secular spirituality.

Secular Spirituality 

Someone becomes involved in secular spirituality when he or she comes to see that the therapeutic or psychological dispensation is not sufficient (why just heal myself or just sort out my traumas if the aim is merely to be functional in the secular world?), yet such a person remains skeptical of the possibility of there being a transcendent dimension.

Hence, this seeker defaults to one or more of these three options.

Option 1: Growth

The seeker may reject the idea that he or she is here to accumulate wealth, enjoy status, and be successful (all, in one sense of the term, materialist concerns), yet it soon becomes clear that this person operates according to a similar logic. Rather than growing the economy, I shall improve myself.

For this person, self-growth, self-improvement, and self-betterment–that is, essentially being better–become the foci of attention.

At some point, however, it may become clear to this seeker that what has gone unexamined is both (a) the fact that it’s the same formal structure he or she has already rejected on a lower level and (b) the very source of this growth–whether such a self actually exists. If the latter doesn’t exist, then this form of this-worldly spirituality is trying to hang its hat on air.

Option 2: States

The second option is to pursue altered states of consciousness. If ordinary life is unsatisfactory, as the seeker has come to see, then why not alter one’s states?

Because (a) all states, as states, are purely temporary (and cannot be otherwise) and because (b) the whole pursuit begins with desire and desire implies lack. Hence, one is chasing states that come and go–much like the person who is chasing wealth or growth (Option 1).

Option 3: Experiences

The most prominent, and deluded, option entails having, or trying to have or wanting to have, certain experiences that are said to be “mystical” or “spiritual.”

But any experience is just that: an experience. And every experience requires an experiencer. And no experience is such as to actually be the Truth at the heart of being.

Differently put, experiences, however varied and colorful, are not enlightenment, for the latter is neither about growth nor is it identical with a state nor, surely, is it an experience of any kind.

Spiritual Materialism

What then becomes clear is that growth, states, and experiences are just different versions of what Trungpa Rinpoche once called spiritual materialism. As I define it, the latter is basically a spiritual CV: a set of ambitions, desires, accomplishments, and experiences that are colorful, interesting, and ultimately irrelevant.

The good thing about secular spirituality is that it suggests that ordinary life, as it is, is unsatisfactory. Clearly, then, one is willing to go on a pilgrimage. However, the bad thing about secular spirituality is that, insofar as it’s hitched its wagon to spiritual materialism, it cannot go anywhere. For earnestly openhearted wayfarers, therefore, it is high time that we revisit transcendence, which I leave undefined here.