Narcissism and Spiritual Materialism: The New Age Legacy
by Kobutsu Malone, The Buddhist Channel, Dec 14, 2004
Sedgwick, Maine (USA) -- Recently, I went for a walk with a close friend in a nearby town. It was a beautiful day and the town was one of those places where there is an abundance of antique stores, craft shops, book stores and the like. As we walked along I spotted a sign in a window that said "Zen" and "Tai Chi." Curious what the "zen" reference involved, we entered the establishment.
Immediately we were assailed by the distinctive "odor" of New Age -- that sweet smell of candle perfume combined with cheap, saccharine Indian incense. The ubiquitous CD was playing in the background, permeating the store with a soothing rather mysterious ambient music, very "spacey." The store was filled with books, posters, crystals and assorted materials.
We spent some time looking at the books, a large assortment of topics ranging from angels to zen. Their selection of Buddhist books was fairly decent. A copy of Chogyam Trungpa's "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" was prominently displayed. I could not help flashing on the sly little smile that would have crossed Rinpoche's face had he been there and seen his book displayed in such an establishment.
Leafing through the books and looking at the titles, I was struck by the heavy emphasis on the notion that the vast majority of them were offering people something other than reality. The theme of altered, higher, better states of consciousness occurred repeatedly. I was surprised at the number of books dedicated to "angels." The recurrent thread throughout was that of personal entitlement, getting something, reaching or attaining something. All of it seemed demeaning in a way, a tacit acknowledgment that there was something missing, that an individual could find and possess by reading the book. I could not help noticing some of the customers browsing the titles, most appeared to be dissatisfied people desperately seeking some sort of answers.
There was a bulletin board, covered with advertisements for dozens of "healers," "body workers" and various "schools" of "mystical arts." This was very much what Trungpa Rinpoche used to refer to as "the Spiritual Supermarket" a plethora of offerings appealing to our sense of spiritual poverty, offering relief in the form of spiritual commodities, "higher" states of consciousness, travel to higher realms, secrets of the universe. All of it appealing to the underlying diaspora of separateness and disconnectedness that is all pervasive in the human condition.
The overriding theme in this spiritual supermarket was that there was something missing which could be provided by the products being sold. Nowhere was the notion evident that perhaps the real problem was that we had too much to begin with, and what we really needed was to let go. Everywhere the message was self centered, me, me, mine... achievement, gain, and ego reinforcement seemed all pervasive. I could not help but wonder how many people had come into such places in search of peace of mind. Someone discovering an offered technique which seemed appealing, purchasing the available books, tapes and materials, taking them all home to begin their new life of spirituality. They would find out in a short time after the fascination wore off that they were still deeply dissatisfied.
One could imagine people going back to the supermarket, getting all the stuff for a different "modality" (they seem to like that word "modality") and starting the process again. I would imagine that this could become an endless occupation, jumping from cosmic consciousness to crystal healing to channeling to pyramidology to energy vibrations, to out-of-body experiences, to déjà vu, to ESP, to Atlantis, to reincarnation to endless other "ologies" and "isms." Truly a never ending story.... always searching, trying to find something, anything, to fill the perceived need that something is missing.
The theme of selfishness appears to exist throughout the New Age trip, it is on the whole supported by middle class white people who are dissatisfied with their lives and uncomfortable in their relationships and surroundings. Invariably it is a money making scene, the books, crystals, bells, incense, oils, aromas, the tapes and CD's all sell like hotcakes.
I could find no information in the store that had any reference to the sign in the window advertising "zen" the clerk did not offer an explanation, there seemed no reason for the sign other than the novelty of the word "zen." This is a common occurrence in materialistic America. Over the years I have seen numerous advertising campaigns offering "zen" this and "zen" that. Books have been written with the word "zen" in the title that have nothing to with zen at all. "Zen" is a "pop" word that sells.
From this perspective, there is no relationship between zen and "New Age," in fact, they are diametrically opposed. Zen does not cater to selfish notions of self improvement or egoistic narcissistic spiritual entertainment. If any thing, zen is about destroying utterly such preconceptions. There is nothing "New" about zen, it has been around for 2500 years. Whatever preconceived ideas may be proffered by so called "New Age" gurus, have nothing to do with formal traditional zen practice.
New Age notions of "love n' light, peace and harmony, and we are all one" are in no way aspects of zen training. To think otherwise is childlike and ignorant. Zen is a far more realistic and sophisticated than that, more down to earth and ordinary. To lump zen in with the myriad of New Age endeavors is completely erroneous. Zen is a method for becoming sane not a self-indulgent hobby for bored rich white people.
The "New Age" movement, if indeed it can be referred to as a movement, appears to be a desperate effort of people attempting to find the spirituality that is totally lacking in the dominant culture. Dominant here means more than mainstream, for domination is an integral element of the pervasive materialistic and conquest based culture of the West. The power-over dynamic and materialistic nature of Western culture is a product of conquest and subjugation that grew out of European feudalism, patriarchism, theocratic dictatorship and opportunistic desire to wield power over other beings.
The entire history of what we are taught is "civilization" is in short a story of conquest, written by the conquerors with their purposes in mind. This element of conquest is the backbone of materialism and the materialistic psychology that enables people to visualize their entire world as objects that can be manipulated for selfish gain, this manipulation includes people. Materialism and the principle of conquest are driving forces in the efforts of groups to control the lives of others. Efforts to legislate morality, attempts to mold society to arbitrary standards developed by religious groups based on belief systems all rely on the conquest principle, the subjugation of others.
What is perhaps no so apparent, is the degree to which this paradigm permeates our personal lives on a day to day basis. The conquest paradigm has disconsciously been incorporated into our psychology in ways that are far from apparent.
The conquest paradigm by its nature is diametrically in opposition to spirituality, and when practiced leaves no room for the freedom of spirituality, no room to breathe. The root of spirituality is "spiritus" the Latin word for breath, the essence of life itself.
In our Western society materialism has become so all encompassing that we have no clue as to any alternatives, since our foundation, our psychology, our spiritual leanings have all been contaminated by materialism. We have no way to relate to things other than materialistically. The New Age phenomenon is very much a materialistic approach in fact it is a thinly disguised system of conquest applied to what we perceive as the spiritual. In so many cases, our thirst for meaning, our need for fulfillment, can only manifest in terms of wanting to appropriate more "stuff." In the New Age this means appropriating the spirituality of other cultures because we are so impoverished and have squandered our heritage and fatally polluted it with our materialistic attitude of conquest and ownership.
We blithely in our search seek to appropriate the wisdom of ancient masters, we adopt the spirituality of other cultures as though they were ours for the taking. Our spiritual search has turned into spiritual conquest, we have become rapists, pillagers and looters of other cultural legacies. We are exercising our conquest psychology by stealing the cultural spiritual heritage of other cultures because we have destroyed our own. This goes on and on..... go into the new age book store and look around -- consider what has just been said here when you do.
We may buy a book on indigenous shamanism, we may gather the feathers, the drum, the medicine bag, the herbs, the pipe, all the "required" paraphernalia... and pretend to be a shaman. We may go to someone who claims to be such a person to learn from them. But after we've done all that, after we've read everything that can be read on the subject, acquired all the props, dressed ourselves in the native clothes, painted our faces -- when we look in the mirror -- we are still a white person pretending to be someone other than who we are. We are a clumsy approximation of a shaman at best. If we study an oriental tradition we can never become an oriental person, we can not undo our past and somehow recreate a cultural heritage. In short, we are who we are and need to become used to the idea that we do not have the right to steal the heritage of another culture to satisfy our unbridled greed and arrogance.
You see, what is really needed is not what is offered for sale, advertised for money and acquired through materialistic gain. What is needed, is to look at our motivations, to examine our present condition, to study our history to learn about how we function. We can do none of this if we are involved in looking outside ourselves for answers, if we are looking for "higher" states of consciousness.
What is a "higher" state of consciousness? Higher that what? We are not even aware of our present state of mind other than that we are in pain, feel a lack and want to feel complete. We behave as if spoiled children who want their situation "fixed" and taken care of right away. We have not really looked at ourselves, we have not deeply examined the nature of our feelings, the root causes of those feelings, the social structure, language and culture that has produced our world views. In short we are so busy wanting to escape that we have not taken the time to understand the nature of our imprisonment. What sense does it make to trade one jail cell for another, when the prison walls are in reality our own forgotten creation?
The real truth is that things are not as bad as we thought.... In fact, they are much worse! This is the real work of spirituality, this is the grist for the mill. The notion that we can somehow look into the mirror of our selves and see some magical vision of purity and light is mere wishful thinking, an attempt to escape from the pain of our collective social karma.
The real truth is that there is no escape, no way out. There are temporary, highly entertaining "trips" we can go on in an attempt at escape, but ultimately they all wind up back at the same place, we are left feeling the fundamental dissatisfactoriness that is all pervasive.
Until we are brave enough to face the truth, to recognize the dire nature of the problem, to see that we are not alone in feeling dissatisfaction we have no hope of coming to any sort of insight and wisdom. So long as we are totally wrapped up in planning our own personal escape, we can not see the real problem, we can not see that there are others who are just as stuck, in just as much pain as we are.
There is no escape in the New Age, it is a mere product of the culture of materialism, a fantasy woven to cater to our neurotic obsession with ourselves and our personal angst. New Age is for those who have money, idle time and nothing better to do. Check it out -- How many poor people struggling to put food on their tables, living lives far more uncomfortable that our own are in the New Age stores seeking answers to their problems?
Are we not really looking to heal our selves in all of this? We are in a peculiar dilemma, we know that something is wrong but we are so absorbed in escaping from the pain that we do not take the time required to learn the true nature of the disease. Our materialistic psychology prevents us from seeing the big picture. We remain entranced with our individual problems and can not see beyond the immediate issue to the much wider picture of how we exist in a state of interbeing with all our sisters and brothers and all our fellow sentient beings.
Big picture consciousness involves weaning ourselves from our petty concerns with personal development, personal enlightenment and addressing societal healing as a collective endeavor. We need to learn to adopt a vision of history, the story of our collective past that extends far beyond the "Reader's Digest" version of history we are taught in school. We need to learn about the history of oppression, the history of materialism, the history of the thought patterns and value structures which combined to form the power-over dynamic which permeates our present culture. We need to develop a critical eye, a sensitivity to how we came to be where we are and how we can recognize the themes and attitudes which we have carried with us as a society and how they influence us as a whole and as individuals.
A comprehensive look at history from the perspective of the common people is available in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This is not a history written by conquerors about conquest and the exercise of power over others. It is about our past, the past of the common people. It covers in detail the legacy of oppression which we carry as a society that has produced our current isolated culture and self absorption based society. It tells of the oppression, genocide and slavery which are the foundations of our heritage. It tells of the lives of the people who suffered under the yoke of tyranny for the sake of the profit and control motives which are the basis for our social and economic legacy.
The study of this sort of history enables us to develop a profound understanding of who we are and how we got to be in the position we find ourselves today. It also gives us a connection with our fellow beings and brings us the realization that we are not isolated individuals on a mission for personal salvation, but instead presents us with the vista of all of us together, as a community, engaged in the endeavor of building an alternative circle of societal healing.
It is through the big picture perspective, and the adoption of a long range, a thousand year view, what indigenous people of America call "the seven generations," that we can fully develop an understanding of our true nature. Our intrinsic, true nature reveals us as individuals and as a community of people actively walking together on the path of a fully awakened state of mind.
Ven. Kobutsu Malone, zenji is an American Rinzai Zen Buddhist Priest of the Gempo-Soen-Eido lineage. He currently lives in a remote village on the coast of Maine. For more information, please visit: http://www.engaged-zen.org/Kobio.html