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Get away from me, Mr. Zen

It’s subtle and pernicious as hell how this happens. How we transform something that’s supposed to make us more open and balanced into a shiny new prison of things, jargon, and obligations.

“Spiritual materialism” is the brilliant term Chögyam Trungpa came up with back in the ’60s to describe something that often happens to Americans when they start exploring meditation. We are materialists at heart, like it or not, and focused intensely on results. What’s the bottom line here? What am I getting out of this? We want a measurable return on our investment of busy time. Just look at the marketing around any of the latest generation of meditation apps or mindfulness programs. They promise a calmer, more focused you. Sustainable energy. Higher productivity.

Trungpa was one of the key leaders of the “first wave” of Buddhism in the West. He taught and was influential in both England and America, and “controversial” because having been brought up as a Tibetan monk, he went through a phase in which he believed he had passed beyond conventional notions of right and wrong. He slept with students and did drugs. To his credit, he stopped teaching for a while, but his acolytes still hung on his every word and action.

But I’m interested here only in “spiritual materialism” — one of his key teachings and the title of one of his most popular books. It’s how we turn meditation and mindfulness into an acquisitive lifestyle driven by a desire for new clothes (more relaxed, more spiritual, collarless), new objects (Buddha statues, fancy meditation cushions, 50 different guided meditation apps, and yes, even sometimes books and the information they allow us to acquire about techniques and names for things. Even new friends — a “sangha” as Buddhists call the spiritual community — who understand and support our commitment to personal growth unlike all those “negative people” we used to hang out with).

It’s subtle and pernicious as hell how this happens. How we transform something that’s supposed to make us more open and balanced into a shiny new prison of things, jargon, and obligations. How a friend calling you up in a moment of desperate need becomes a barbarian at the gates of your scheduled meditation hour.

And how slowly but surely we become totally insufferable to everyone except the (equally insufferable) members of our “sangha,” because all we can ever talk about is how great meditation is, how it’s changing our life, and how it will change yours, too. To a friend having a nervous breakdown, we might helpfully suggest that they “let go” of their attachment to some idealized form of their marriage. To a colleague complaining about never getting to see his kids because of ridiculous work hours, we might good-naturedly point out that our expectations of time are an illusory construct of our consciousness.

“Get the hell away from me, Mr. Zen,” this friend or colleague might very well think. And he would be right. All this helpful advice isn’t a product of enlightenment or spiritual advancement — it’s spiritual materialism as crass as rolling up in a red Ferrari Testarossa blasting “Monster” by Kanye West. 

What is the antidote to “spiritual materialism”? For Western practitioners I think it is, to a certain extent, unavoidable, at least at first. We are culturally steeped in the doctrines of progress and productivity. We want to GET somewhere.

When I first started meditating and reading Buddhist books a few years back, I was probably looking for an antidote to anxiety, something any regular reader of this blog will have noticed I possess in abundance. I read and attended classes in various traditions including Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana (Insight) meditation, Zen, and hybrids of Western psychology and Buddhist mindfulness techniques. Along the way, I ended up acquiring a bunch of things I didn’t need, from shelves full of books I probably could have borrowed (that little spiritual-materialist thrill of clicking “purchase” on Amazon in the knowledge that some new window on enlightenment will soon appear in your mailbox), to little statuettes, to more malas (meditation beads) than I’d care to admit (I just had to have that one with skulls made of real bone, a tangible reminder of mortality…).

I also began to play one tradition against another, superficially deciding that, say, Zen wasn’t for me because it was too enigmatic and anti-progress. Or that Vipassana wasn’t “complete” enough because it focuses on breathing meditation and ignores the more elaborate visualization techniques (tantra) you get in Tibetan Buddhism, in which you imagine yourself merging with a deity of compassion, say, or justice. Then again, the Tibetan deities kind of bugged me: Were they symbolic, or did these people actually BELIEVE in them? Metaphors, I’m OK with. I can’t handle actual deities. On the other hand, Tibetan traditions seemed highly structured and progress-oriented — aiming in the direction of enlightenment. This was good, because I needed momentum. How was I supposed to meditate every day with no motivating outcome? Tibetan Buddhism (I thought) promised to take me, step by step, toward a more expansive, stable, clear-minded, compassionate me. Or not-me.

You probably already know where this story is headed. In spite of my best intentions, I stumbled into spiritual materialism of the worst kind. I bored my infinitely patient wife to tears proselytizing about the benefits of meditation (“your insomnia will VANISH!”) and started to think of myself as a Buddhist. I attended classes regularly at Tibet House (U.S. base of the Dalai Lama, co-founded by his friend and disciple Robert Thurman, Uma’s dad and a leading professor of Buddhism at Columbia University. He’s a great teacher, by the way). I yearned for a personal “spiritual advisor” (expensive) and contemplated spending tons of money we didn’t have on weekend retreats or (someday!) a week- or even a month-long Meditation Vacation.

Ultimately all of this stuff got so tangled up in my head that I became nauseated with the whole business and dropped it altogether.

Now, almost two years later, I’ve been meditating again. Just breath meditation. Just five to 10 minutes at a time, sometimes 20. I started reading Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn on a tip from Rick Rubin (Zenlike music producer: Beastie Boys, Slayer, Johnny Cash. A genuinely cool guy) in an interview on Tim Ferriss’ podcast.

Wherever You Go, There You Are is a great, practical guide to meditation without spiritual materialism. One of the very first things Zinn says is this:

Every time you get a strong impulse to talk about meditation and how wonderful it is, or how hard it is, or what it’s doing for you these days, or what it’s not, or you want to convince someone else how wonderful it would be for them, just look at it as more thinking and go meditate some more. The impulse will pass and everybody will be better off — especially you. 

If I’m going to meditate, which I guess I am, I don’t want to reflect on what possible professional or personal benefits it may be having (more sex! higher salary!). I don’t want to trumpet my progress in focusing on the breath or count my “blessings” and the number of “beneficial” acts I’ve performed today. I agree with Zinn — all that talking is boring as hell and just gets in the way (which raises the question, Mr. Zinn — how exactly do you manage it as a guy who writes books and talks about meditation for a living?). 

I think I’ll just go meditate sometimes. Or not. And shut the hell up about it either way.

Come talk to @jgots on Twitter.

This isn’t the Matrix. Should you wish to face the ugly reality, there’s no red pill you can swallow.

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