Thursday, January 17, 2008

Spiritual Materialism

I recently had an interesting exchange with Jody over at Guruphilliac over a criticism he made of Bharat Gajjar, an elderly yogic teacher in the Sivananda tradition teaching in Delaware who had mentioned in some newspaper interview that he at times felt and even saw Sivananda giving him guidance in how to teach others. Bharat also mentioned that some of his students had at times seen Sivananda as well. Jody, who otherwise liked the guy, felt that this was an exploitive and deluding thing to tell his students, and that it would lead to delusions on their part. In our exchange, in which I tried to defend Bharat, who otherwise seemed to be the picture of a benevolent and kindly yoga teacher, Jody makes it clear that he views all such claims that subtle phenomena actually exist outside the imaginal subjectivity of the practitioner as simply superstitious personal mythologies, and represent nothing more than cultural indoctrination of Hinduism which deludes and detracts from higher understanding.

Now, I must admit I played a fairly strong game of Devil's Advocate with Jody, particularly in relating to his admission that he sings to photographs of Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi on his own altar, and even talks to them. He defends this practice on the grounds that he doesn't think he's actually singing to them personally and directly, and doesn't expect others to believe he does. I pointed out that whatever rationalization he has for this practice, it remains a superstitious practice and belief of his own, and that he is merely being preferential for one form of superstition over another. Furthermore, Ramakrishna himself saw and spoke to the Goddess Kali on a regular basis, and mentioned this all the time to his own students, some of whom saw Kali as well. Well, this debate went on and on as you can imagine, without any real resolution. One thing I will say for Jody say is that he demonstrated real maturity in not taking offense at the criticisms I made about his arguments and approach, and a willingness to answer openly and honestly, which is fairly rare these days. I much appreciate the work he does over at Guruphilliac exposing some of the crasser and more dubious claims of the modern spiritual circuit both in India and the west. But I think his approach also reveals something that is commonplace in the modern, western spiritual movement – a cultural bias towards materialism that often goes unchallenged.

How can that be, you might ask, given the incredible amount of dubious New Age fluff floating around? Well, I'd suggest that even much of the New Age fluff we encounter in the west today is itself remarkably materialistic. As one can often see, there's usually big dollar signs behind a lot of it. Almost everyone out there teaching is charging money for it, and usually not small amounts. The content of what is being sold is often of dubious material validity, from lofty philosophies to meditation techniques to promises of levitation to the miraculous healing power of almost anything from crystals to angels to sex to rare Peruvian herbs. Yet the content is still largely material in nature, and tends to reinforce a materialistic point of view. The goals of those who come to these teachers and paths are largely materialistic as well, from improved relationships to prosperity to a healthy, happy body to a fully integrated psyche to a peaceful lifestyle free of stress, and so on. And the way many people judge the validity of spiritual teachings and teachers is likewise very much based in materialism. Is the teacher exploitive of sex, drugs, money, power, etc.? If so, they are considered to be frauds. Does the teacher improve the material lives of his students in any way? In not, they are considered to be irrelevant.

It's not that these material considerations are unimportant. It's certainly true that Gurus who exploit their students for sex, drugs, money, and power are pretty clearly off on the wrong path. It's that this is not really the relevant criteria for judging spirituality in the first place. It betrays a deeper bias towards materialism itself that is even more deluding that these rather obvious forms of materialistic exploitation.

Likewise, even the critics of spirituality, such as Jody and others I've encountered on the internet, often base their critique of spirituality on materialistic criteria. As Jody remarks, he tries to limit himself to what he knows, and he knows the physical, and he feels that the subtle is merely a subjective projection of the personal imagination. The problem here is one of uninspected cultural bias. Western culture is – no surprise here – materialistic in orientation. I wouldn't suggest that western culture is purely and exclusively materialistic, but it shows a tremendous bias in that direct, such that even those who become interested in esoteric spirituality bring with them all kinds of materialistic assumptions. In my experience people like Jody are very sophisticated about all these issues, and they would undoubtedly reject the notion that they are materialists, or that they agree with the philosophy of materialism. Quite the contrary, they are quite well versed in spiritual matters, and have well developed philosophical views that could hardly be confused with materialism. Likewise, they often have all kinds of spiritual and metaphysical personal experience of their own. So they find it very easy to slough off any criticism of themselves as materialistic. And yet, if one examines the basis for much of their criticism of spirituality, it comes with all kinds of materialistic assumptions.

My explanation for this is that materialism is so deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche that it is almost impossible to shake it off. As much as we might immerse ourselves in spiritual philosophies and practices, many of which are based on a wholly non-materialistic viewpoint, such as Ramakrishna's, we keep returning to materialism as “real”, and view anything else as, at best, “imaginal”.

Those who become involved in non-dual paths have additional rationalizations for hewing to these materialistic biases, because non-dualism tends to discount the meaning and value of subtle experience, pointing instead to the experiencer himself, the Self. So it is fairly easy to claim that subtle experience is meaningless and merely a distraction from the true thread of spirituality, which they identify with the Self. They fail to acknowledge that these same teachings are equally critical of material experience, and likewise consider the physical world to be just as illusory as the subtle world – and likewise, they consider the subtle realm to be just as “real” as the physical world as far as either of them can be considered to be real.

What is often not understood by people like Jody is that the Self is just as much a “subjective, superstitious, imaginal myth” as the subtle dimension, and likewise, the physical world is just as much a subjective, superstitious, imaginal myth” as those two. It is only our cultural bias towards materialism that makes us give so much weight to the gross physical world, and so little to either the Self or the subtle. It is also hard for us to imagine any other way of being. The reality of the physical seems so obvious and fundamental, it's hard to see how anyone could think otherwise. However, many, many people do just that, and always have. The modern western world is one of the few times and places in history when the mass of human beings have actually taken the physical world to be the one, true, real world. Many consider this to be a great achievement, and there's certainly much that has been achieved in relation to the physical world that can be admired. But much of that achievement has come at the cost of our attention to both the subtle and the Self. We have become tremendously lopsided, with so much attention given over to the materialistic world that we have little left for anything else, and even when we do try to become more “spiritual”, we bring such a materialistic imbalance to the scene that we can hardly imagine what it would really mean to achieve true balance.

The widespread spiritual idea of the correct balance between physical, subtle, and Self is to put at least 95% of our attention and faith in the physical world, and a tiny fraction in only a limited, imaginal form of the subtle, with Self as merely an afterthought or a philosophical map we use to rationalize what we do in the physical world. This ideal of balance is really a materialistic balance between various aspects of the material world. It suggests that we try to balance material mind, material emotion, and material body, looking for the right way to achieve peace and harmony with these. Many of us hardly ever consider the subtle mind, subtle emotion, and the subtle body as something we have to work with in the same way as the physical. It is not considered “real” like the physical is real, but is purely some sort of personal, imaginal experience that has no relational validity, and no responsibility in relation to others.

The truth, as I see it at least, is that this materialistic attitude prevents people from maturing spiritually to the point of actually taking spiritual teachings seriously. Jody, for example, chants to his photos of Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi, but he never enters into the point of view of Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi that allowed them to actually become great spiritual figures. He keeps himself at arms distance from them, thinking of this practice as a purely imaginal gesture that has no subtle component. Practicing in this way may be rewarding personally in some sense. I imagine he wouldn't practice this way otherwise. But it isn't the approach to practice that allowed Ramakrishna to see and speak directly to the Goddess Kali, or that allowed Sarada Devi to continue her devotional relationship to Ramakrishna after his body had passed. The notion that these people, and their devotees, and many, many other ordinary devotees, were capable of actually relating on the subtle level to spiritual beings and forces and powers that lie in the subtle domain is considered taboo, superstitious nonsense, and a distraction from the “true” meaning of the Self. Well, news flash, you can't leap to the Self from the physical domain without also taking care of the subtle. It's not that one must dwell upon the subtle dimension, but one can't ignore it either.

And why can't one ignore the subtle? Because the primary, senior force of the subtle dimension is discrimination, and discrimination is utterly necessary for spiritual practice, whether one is a jnani, a bhakta, a karma yogi, a hatha yogi, or anything else. The senior aspect of the subtle is the vijnanamaya kosha, the discrimination body, the source of prajna, or wisdom. If this is not developed, there is really no hope or possibility for realizing the Self. One can think about the Self all one likes, one can think of one's spiritual practices as being centered in the Self all one likes, but it won't really amount to anything without the development of discrimination, which means the development of the subtle mind. All spiritual practices are really, if one looks at them from a non-material viewpoint, aimed at developing this discriminative ability, even if they are physical and material practices outwardly speaking. This is why even the non-dual traditions speak primarily about developing the capacity for discrimination. By this they don't mean intellectual abilities – at least not in the way we speak of such things in the materialistic west – but the ability to actually feel the truth of things, and to use this feeling capacity to discriminate between truth and falsehood, reality and illusion. Without this capacity, we are simply lost and hopeless spiritually. We don't know what we are doing, and we don't know why we are doing it. We inevitably gravitate back to materialism as the default position, and we even gravitate to materialistic forms of discrimination, rather than the true and deep form of discrimination that is really the whole point of these great spiritual teachings. The intellect as the west knows it is merely the materialistic side of the vijnanamayakosha, stripped of any deeper sensitivity. Thus, it is lost and unable to actually understand anything, or penetrate to the truth of anything, and it wanders endlessly in circles looking for verbal-mind answers to the great questions. But it is unable to answer these questions, or come to any certainty in its own vision, because it cannot take the subtle dimension as real, as anything other than an intellectual and subjectively imaginal ideation.

So I think it's very important to acknowledge the subtle dimension, and accept that we have to be responsible for it in a direct, feeling way, and not suppress ourselves or one another in any way in relation to the subtle. We don't need to become fascinated with the subtle, and we certainly shouldn't use such ideas to exploit other people, but merely because people can indeed be exploited by such ideas doesn't mean they should be made taboo. Materialism doesn't end human strife and exploitation by pushing aside the subtle and insisting that all such things are merely imaginary subjectivity. In fact, that approach condemns humanity to exploitation, and is itself merely a rationalization for not being responsible for the subtle dimension. It certainly isn't how western spirituality is going to develop any maturity. To the contrary, it is a recipe for a stunted adolescent spirituality that never grows up at all, and is never able to discriminate between true and false forms of spirituality.

It's important, I think, to be aware of the overwhelming power of materialism in our culture, and to know how important it is to grow beyond it, and not be limited by it. Living in the west has great advantages, but also terrible drawbacks, and this is the primary one in my view. There is no such thing as materialistic non-dualism, much as we might like to think. To go down the non-dual path means to let go of our materialism, and do so for real, not just philosophically. That means opening up to the subtle and beyond, not making false distinctions between the subtle and the material, but allowing all of experience to develop us as it needs to, so that we can be responsible for it, and thereby transcend it in the Self.

4 comments:

kangahol said...

jody said: "The problem with apparitions in general is there's no way to prove their existence apart from a mind perceiving them."

Does he think there is a way to prove physical existence apart from a mind perceiving it? Apparently he does, and that's just blatantly ignorant.

Never ride your motorcycle up behind a car with a blind spot that big.

Anonymous said...

Great post Conrad, except "imaginal" isn't a word!

theosophy-teachings said...
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