What is Spiritual Materialism?

spiritual materialism

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. –Carl Jung

Psychotherapy facilitates the realization of one’s potentials; to know who we are and what we may be.

The holding environment, which embodies the therapeutic process and the alliance between client and therapist, lends itself to stripping away illusions so as to unlock the truth and to ultimately explore the questions concerned with larger meaning.

Collaboratively entering those places most feared for the purpose of healing and growth may reveal it is our greatest pain that contains a deeper purpose. Clients may come to recognize that psychological growth and spiritual development are not dissimilar, but rather facets which constitute the whole of who we are, and consequentially, they may feel inspired to pursue spiritual and metaphysical teachings and practices.

Be that as it may,  the undertaking of seeking out adjunctive holistic and spiritual practitioners may be fraught with many challenges.

In Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 satirical novel “Being There,” the child-like protagonist Chance Gardiner embodies the archetypal innocent.

Exposure to gardening, television and radio encompass his world. Hence, he is sheltered, unsophisticated, and developmentally stunted.  Yet when fate eventually thrusts Chance out into the ‘real’ world he becomes a national sensation. His innocence and naivete are perceived as wisdom, poise, and shrewdness. He is even deemed among influential businessmen as presidential material.

Writer Jerzy Kosinksi explains:

“The emergence of celebrity in America is not based on depth. It is based on visibility and accessibility, a smile, a figure. It is based on appearing as a person of importance. The question asked is not ‘Is he a good man?’ It’s ‘what circles does he move in?’

This collective longing for prestigious iconic figures of which Kosinksi writes, promulgates a delusional mindset, which deifies celebrity stature and also insidiously expresses itself in the spiritual quest.

Spiritual materialism, a term coined by Tibetan meditation teacher Chögyam Trungpa describes this phenomenon. It is the belief that suffering can be magically assuaged by hedonistic pursuit disguised as sanctifying thought systems, rituals and ideologies.

Trunpa, wrote that we are often “deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”

Addicted to `the Light’

Religious scholar Andrew Harvey has written about how we’ve become neurotically driven and addicted to ‘the light.’ Harvey expounds on this premise, conveying that the ego clutches at enlightenment in an effort to fulfill the ego’s need to be ‘special.’

He further conveys that the New Age Spiritual Movement capitalizes on this misguided self-absorbed search by polarizing itself on the spiritual spectrum. By denouncing ‘darkness,’ New Agers narcissistically align with an illusory sense of God-like power.

They proclaim evil and sin are false constructs and assert that the unrestrained pursuit of ‘abundance,’bliss, ‘enlightenment, light, are the apex of spirituality. If others are harmed by these sacred pursuits it’s simply chalked up to karma, ‘bad energy’, and a low vibration.

A Dark Side

Clearly, the beatific world of spirituality has a dark side. Vulnerable to the trap of promised enlightenment, we succumb to the seductive lure of Plastic Shamans.

Reaping from a smorgasbord of astrology, psychics, channeling, angels, crystals, aliens etc, magical thinking and narcissistic grandiosity is exalted. Hungry for power, these self aggrandized gurus, cults, workshops televangelists, mystical healers and spiritual centers capitalize from the mass insatiable yearning to escape the human condition through idolatry and materialism.

These charlatan Godheads strategically use mind control techniques to foster the sort of spiritual fetishism necessary to ensuring lucrative tithes.

Spiritual teacher Krishnamurti wrote:

“The evil of our time is the loss of consciousness of evil.”

It is hubris to deny or attempt to transcend one’s basic humanity. When we ascribe to the belief that we are magically capable of Divine feats- that we are not subject to human fallibility and foibles, we give our psychological shadow free reign to act out, thus stigmatizing, blaming and scapegoating those who deviate from ‘the Path.’

This alienation from one’s body, emotions and unconscious depths proliferates the very emptiness and desperation that ironically made one susceptible to blindly deferring to promises of infinite Cosmic bliss.

An authentic spiritual life is balanced, conscious, and leans towards wholeness. The collaborative relationship between the sensorial world of the body, the ego self, and the metaphysical world of the spiritual self come together for the essential purpose of actualizing the capacity to love.

This requires psychological maturity and the courage and perspective to humbly embrace the truth of our intrinsic nature.

Ghandi wrote: “The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”

Humility respects our innate humanity and is therefore the trajectory to selfhood and grounded spiritual discovery and truth. We must keep our heart open to fallibility if we are to “admire the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” (Einstein). Only then can we safeguard ourselves from the many faces of spirituality that maneuver to dupe and exploit.

Butterflies and leaves image available from Shutterstock

What is Spiritual Materialism?

Rev Sheri Heller, LCSW

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, is a seasoned NYC psychotherapist with 25+ years experience in the addiction and mental health fields. Sheri is also an interfaith minister and playwright, and the founder of The Sistah Tribe - Phoenix Project, a therapeutic theater event for at-risk women and girls in the public sector of NYC. For more information, visit


APA Reference
Heller, R. (2016). What is Spiritual Materialism?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 3 Apr 2016
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