On Spiritual Materialism and Creating Collective Peace


There's this thing called "spiritual materialism." It is very dangerous. Whole books have been written on it, but I think the basic concern is pretty darn simple:

Do you engage your spiritual practice primarily for the purposes of increasing your individual comfort, convenience, pride, and self-image in distinction from the rest of the living world?


Does your spiritual practice primarily function to equip you to more consistently, more effectively, and more compassionately engage in efforts to create universal peace and healing for life in all its forms?

Simple, not easy.

Further, I do not believe that adopting the latter approach requires neglecting your needs as a unique individual. Rather, I think taking that approach is actually the most effective way to address your needs. I can write another post about this, but I actually think that phrasing is misleading. Because, in a nutshell, "your" needs are literally and inextricably tied to "the other's" needs. In other words, there is need, collectively. We all exist within need. In this shared condition of need, we can address need as such, and not only as individual needs. Because while there are, of course, countless unique ways that a fulfillment of need can manifest for each unique individual, having one's unique needs met does not necessarily entail encroaching on or negating the needs of others. That is the individualistic conceit of the western ideology, and especially the American perspective of "rugged individualism." For instance, the example of the dangers of driving captures this well, I think. Drivers kill over 34,000 people annually in the U.S., and that is a historically low number. In 100 years, American drivers have killed more people than the number of American soldiers killed in the entire history of U.S. military conflict. Yep, that's right, people driving around town and on highways have generated more American causalities than all the wars the U.S. has ever fought - WWI, WWII, Vietnam, the Civil War, etc.

So this is a very real issue. How have "we" addressed this? Largely, "we" have addressed it individually. That is, we have tried to solve what is primarily and ultimately a collective, systemic issue by adjusting the "individual's" experience within that system. Namely, individual consumers have tried to protect themselves from the structural dangers of this system by buying ever-larger and heavier vehicles such as 5,000 lb. SUVs and large trucks. Here's the irony. While such SUVs do (in some cases) increase the safety for the individuals inside a given vehicle, for every 1 person saved by an SUV, 5 people are killed. The very same factor that increases "individual" safety -- larger, heavier vehicles -- simultaneously increases the systemic, collective danger of the system that that factor is trying to minimize.

If we try to create world peace by primarily increasing the safety and security of individuals over against other individuals, we will do the same thing as in the vehicle system example. Peace is not something that an individual can totally own or possess as if it's a material object. It is a shared, collective, systemic condition. It either exists collectively or it doesn't. Either everyone experiences it or nobody truly does. The current state of American society reveals this plainly. America has tried to create a sense of safety and security for Americans by fighting others, by protecting ourselves against "external" threats. The U.S. military is by far the largest and most globally-extended military force in history. You'd think we would be the most safe and secure. And many people believe America is safe. But in fact, the opposite is true: Americans live in constant fear. Americans are obsessed with arming themselves to the gills with firearms, protecting themselves with obscenely large vehicles, spending fortunes on home security systems and residences in gated, security-patrolled neighborhoods, militarizing police forces, policing and monitoring schools, and purchasing billions worth in products to personally protect us from every conceivable ill that might befall us, whether interpersonal, biological, or whatever. Americans are 30 times more likely to be killed in a mass-shooting than people in any other industrialized country. Drivers are the leading cause of death among people aged 1-39. People instinctively lock their car doors when driving through "those neighborhoods," and increasingly, we simply stay segregated and isolated from certain areas around our residences because we fear our neighbors.

Americans are not safe. We are profoundly anxious, cynical, distressed, tense, on-guard, on-edge, and fearful. It has reached a point where many people are wary of even having a conversation with someone from a different social identity, neighborhood, religious tradition, or political orientation, for fear of any number of potential experiences. I am not saying this is unreasonable; in fact, I am saying this is totally understandable, because by trying to create a condition of freedom for ourselves over against the rest of the world, we have produced the opposite: we actually do live in a dangerous, threatening world.

The way out of this is not to further increase "individual" levels of safety and security. There is no such thing. It is all or nothing. Just as the dangers of our driving system are not only not solved but actually exacerbated by trying to protect individuals rather than reforming the basic structure of the system itself, we cannot create world peace by trying to increase the security and peace of individuals, or individual countries or cultures. There is either peace collectively, universally, or there is a lack of peace for everyone. It is not us against them. There is no separation here. There is a single Earth with an integrated life system. Peace is a condition that applies to this system as a whole. Just as the human body is comprised of trillions of cells and countless parts and components, and health is a condition that applies to the entire person and not just a select few parts of it (how absurd would it be to seek to make my digestive system healthy by fighting my respiratory system?), the Earth's life system (Gaia) is either healthy collectively or unhealthy collectively. We would not say that someone with cancer is healthy, save for their cancerous cells. If you have cancer, you are not healthy as such, collectively. If you lack illness, you are healthy. Likewise, it does not make sense to say that a small portion of human society is healthy/safe/peaceful while the majority is not. If any part of society is not at peace, none of society is at peace.

For me, what defines a spiritual practice as such, then, is that it is a practice geared primarily and ultimately at increasing the peace, safety, and health of the collectivity, of which we are properly functional components. There is no separation here. An individual gain in peace without, or at the expense of, a collective gain in peace is an illusion, just as an individual increase in safety on the roads actually increases collective danger. There is no conflict between self and other, except for that created by that bifurcation itself. We impose that separation, that distinction onto what in reality is a unity. If your spiritual practice contributes to that separation, is based on that separation, I do not understand it as a spiritual practice. That is spiritual materialism. If your spiritual practice works to overcome that separation and increase unity, it will be infinitely more effective than trying to secure for yourself -- over against all other "individuals" -- certain qualities and conditions that can really only be experienced if they exist collectively and universally.