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"Spiritual Materialism" by Guest Author Elizabeth Lesser

HeadShot-ELesser One of our favorite expressions of true wisdom is this excerpt on Spiritual Materialism from Elizabeth Lesser's must-read book The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure.  Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of the country's largest holistic retreat center, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY, and we're delighted that she's shared some of her work with us:

Walking the spiritual path can be a tricky adventure. Sometimes we make progress and become more free and loving and wise; sometimes we may think our meditation or prayer or ritual is leading toward enlightenment, but really we’re just treading water or even going backwards. The great Tibetan meditation teacher, Chogyam Trunpa,  wrote that we are often “deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.” He called this kind of self-deception spiritual materialism. We all deal with spiritual materialism; here’s a list from my book, A Seeker’s Guide,  of common traps you may encounter on your spiritual journey:

Spiritual Materialism’s Top-Ten List

1. Narcissism: There’s a thin line between narcissism and “following your bliss.” Without some degree of sacrifice for the greater good, self-discovery eventually leads to  plain old self-indulgence. Be aware of your tendency toward excessive self-centeredness even as you work to heal and love your own tender self.
2. Superficiality: America’s new forms of spirituality and  therapy are often accused of selling superficial and sunny answers to life’s complexity and pain. Spirituality does not ultimately work if we use it to protect ourselves from the rough-and-tumble of real life. Any world view that suggests that thinking positively always protects you from harm, or that there is something wrong with you if you suffer or fail, or that healing isn’t often complex, is offering superficial promises.
3. The Never Ending Process of Self-improvement: You can become so obsessed with your own self-improvement – your story, your victimization, your faults, your fears – that instead of becoming free, you end up caught in a tape-loop. This myopic kind of focus on the self also leads to social apathy. It just isn’t true that your self-empowerment and self-healing will necessarily lead to the health and happiness of others and of society. We have to participate in the improvement of more than just ourselves.
4.  Instant Transformation:  Just as some people get seduced by the never ending process of self-examination, some are disappointed when they don’t achieve inner peace after reading a book, or in a day-long workshop, or even after two years of weekly therapy. Spiritual awakening takes patience, hard work, and the grace of God.
5. Desire for Magic: Some of the new American spirituality throws common sense out the window and pursues a search for magic cures and miraculous people. The need to believe in all-powerful teachers, angelic visitations, UFOs, and other unexplained mysteries can obscure the ordinary magic of everyday life, proof enough of God and the miracle of life.
6. Grandiosity: In democratizing spirituality and bringing it to the daily life of each person, each one of us risks becoming a messianic little Pope or a humorless saint. If you find yourself becoming unbearably profound, feeling that you are somehow different from others and destined for sainthood, perhaps you are suffering from grandiosity.
7. Romanticizing Indigenous Cultures:  There exists a kind of reverse prejudice in our politically correct times that just because something or someone is from another culture, especially an indigenous or minority culture, that it/he/she is somehow more valuable, spiritual, or wise. “Whenever teachings come to a country from abroad the problem of spiritual materialism is intensified,” writes Chogyam Trungpa.
8. The Inner Child Tantrum: I once heard someone say, “Some people just don't seem to realize, when they’re moaning about not getting prayers answered, that no is the answer.” Knowing what you want, and honestly asking for it, is a monumental achievement. But so is learning to gracefully accept God’s wisdom – when “He giveth and when He taketh away.”
9. Ripping Off The Traditions: Many modern seekers skim off  the ritual trappings of a tradition with little respect for the depth behind it. This trivializes powerful and elegant systems of spiritual growth that often demand years of study. There is a difference between carefully creating a spiritual path that includes genuine practices from a variety of traditions, and flitting from flower to flower like a drunken honey bee.  
10. The Guru Trip: Harry S. Truman lamented: “Memories are short; appetites for power and glory are insatiable. Old tyrants depart. New ones take their place. It is all very baffling and trying.” Perhaps the most baffling and trying aspect of the new American spirituality is the disparity between spiritual teachings and the behavior of teachers. Men, women, Western, Eastern, fundamentalist, new-age, modern, or indigenous – none have escaped the temptation to abuse power. Things to be wary of: extravagant claims of enlightenment or healing; the minimizing of the hard work that accompanies any true spiritual or healing path; the excessive commercialism that betrays the deeper spiritual message; and the blind adherence of followers to charlatans (be they gurus, therapists, preachers, healers, or teachers.) With their deceitful double standards, some gurus, therapists, and teachers have given mentorship a bad name and tarnished the image of humbling oneself to a wiser and more experienced guide.          
Elizabeth Lesser is the cofounder of Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and the author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The Seeker’s Guide (both from Random House). She is a frequent host on Oprah Radio.
Excerpted from THE SEEKER’S GUIDE by Elizabeth Lesser.  © 2000 by Elizabeth Lesser. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.

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Excerpt from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser - Part 5 of 5

ELesserHeadShot This week, we conclude our series of excerpts from the Introduction of BROKEN OPEN: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

Whether you are in the midst of a big upheaval or riding the smaller rapids of everyday life, I want you to know that you are not alone, not now, or at any stage of the journey. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist of the twentieth century, wrote, “We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”


The experience of change and transformation is never complete. Something bigger and brighter always calls to shine through us. We are continually challenged to change and grow, to break down and break through. The first big change made in the name of awakening can be destructive and traumatic. In the midst of my divorce, I agonized over the risks I was taking and the blows I was receiving, and wondered if so much pain could ever lead to anything good. But now, years down the road and many changes later, I trust in the twists and turns of what Joseph Campbell calls the “hero’s path.” Some of us need a cataclysmic event to find our way toward “the center of our own existence.” Some of us don’t. Some of us add up all of the smaller changes into one big lesson, and find our way home as well.

Excerpted from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Excerpt from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser, Part 3 of 5

ELesserHeadShot This week we are delighted to offer another excerpt from the Introduction of BROKEN OPEN: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

To be human is to be lost in the woods. None of us arrives here with clear directions on how to get from point A to point B without stumbling into the forest of confusion or catastrophe or wrongdoing. Although they are dark and dangerous, it is in the woods that we discover our strengths. We all know people who say their cancer or divorce or bankruptcy was the greatest gift of a lifetime—that until the body, or the heart, or the bank was broken, they didn’t know who they were, what they felt, or what they wanted. Before their descent into the darkness, they took more than they gave, or they were numb, or full of fear or blame or self-pity. In their most broken moments they were brought to their knees; they were humbled; they were opened. And later, as they pulled the pieces back together, they discovered a clearer sense of purpose and a new passion for life. But we also know people who did not turn their misfortune into insight, or their grief into joy. Instead, they became more bitter, more reactive, more cynical. They shut down. They went back to sleep. The Persian poet Rumi says,

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.


You must ask for what you really want.


Don’t go back to sleep.


People are going back and forth across the doorsill


where the two worlds touch.


The door is round and open.


Don’t go back to sleep.

Excerpted from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

NEXT WEEK:  More from BROKEN OPEN: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

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Excerpt From Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser - Part 2 of 5

BookCover-BO-ELesser Elizabeth Lesser continues to share with us her experience in the following excerpt from her book
BROKEN OPEN: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow

The old man stood and shuffled over to meet me. He placed his right hand on his heart and

bowed his head in the traditional Islamic greeting. “Look,” he said, pointing at a small painting hanging on the wall. He touched my arm with the kindness of a grandfather. “See the rose?” he asked, turning me toward the picture. There, framed in dark wood, was the ethereal image of a rosebud, with shimmering, pale petals holding one another in a tight embrace. Under the flower was an inscription that read:

And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Unexpected tears stung my eyes as I read the words. The two men hovered around me, more like bodyguards than salesmen. I turned away from them, hiding my face in the shadows. I was afraid that if the old man showed me one more ounce of mercy I would break down in a stranger’s store, thousands of miles from home.

“What is wrong?” the long-haired man asked.

“Nothing is wrong,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“No, something is wrong,” the man said. “You are in


“What do you mean?” I asked, suspicious yet curious. Was he a con man, trying to sell me the painting, or was my heartache that palpable, my story so easily read? I felt exposed, as if the long-haired man was a spy of the soul who knew all about my marriage, my two little boys, and the crazy mess my husband and I had made of our life together.

“What do you mean?” I asked again. I looked at the men. They stared back at me. We stood in silence, and then the long-haired man repeated, “You are in pain. Do you know why?”

“No, why?” I asked, even though I certainly did know why.

“Because you are afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Afraid of yourself,” the man said, placing his hand on his chest and patting his heart. “You are afraid to feel your real feelings. You are afraid to want what you really want. What do you want?”

“You mean the painting? You think I want the painting?” I asked, suddenly confused and desperate to get away from the smell of the rugs and the intensity of the man. “I don’t want the painting,” I said, making my way toward the door. The man followed me to the front of the shop. He stood directly in front of me, took my own hand, and put it over my heart.

“I don’t mean the painting,” he said kindly. “I mean what the painting says. I mean that your heart is like the flower. Let it break open. What you want is waiting for you in your own heart. The time has come. May Allah bless you.” Then he slipped back into the darkness. I pulled open the door, stepped out into the bright and bustling day, and wound my way through the circling streets to my hotel. Once in my room, though it was noon and ninety degrees, I ran a bath.

As I rested in the tub, the words under the painting echoed through my mind. Somehow, the long-haired man had seen into me and named the source of my pain. I was like the rosebud, holding myself together, tight and tense, terrified of breaking open. But the time had come. Even if I was risking everything to blossom, the man was right: It was time for me to find out what I really wanted—not what my husband wanted, not what I thought my children needed, not what my parents expected, not what society said was good or bad. It was time for me to step boldly into the fullness of life, with all of its dangers and all of its promises. Remaining tight in a bud had become a kind of death. The time had come to blossom.

Excerpted from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

NEXT WEEK:  More from BROKEN OPEN: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

Elizabeth Lesser Bio and Links