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While traveling on my world tours and meeting people of all walks of life I have observed a common idea that causes people so much distress. This idea says that the spiritual and the material are two separate things. This misconception says that all things in the spiritual domain are of one nature—they are made of one type of thing—whereas the material, the physical, the things of this world that you can see and touch, are essentially made of something different.
The problem with subscribing to this myth is that it inhibits your ability to not only be effective, but to also lead a happy, balanced, healthy, and integrated life.
I have found that there are two types of people or psychologies that lead to the Myth of the Spiritual and Material Divide. I describe them here so that you can see if you have been influenced by these mindsets. If you want every action you take and every experience you live to be the most effective possible and to inundate your being with passionate spiritual bliss and then you must learn how the spiritual and material are integrated and how to act in accordance with their integration. Artificially separating these things will only hurt you in the long run.
Group 1: The Hurt Purest
These are the people whose life was not working well for them. They have had lots of bad luck and have gone through large amounts of suffering. They came to the spiritual path to end their pain, and it worked. The spiritual path helped them tremendously, and they were able to minimize their pain. Of course this destruction of pain by spiritual process is a good thing. We don’t want anyone to suffer, and desiring to end the pain that life sometimes throws at us is a perfectly normal and good motivation to begin with on the spiritual path.
One of the problems with being spiritually motivated because of high amounts of distress is that it opens some people up to the misconception that the world is somehow wrong, evil or bad. Because the world was hurting this first type of person so much, it makes it easy for them to villainize it and thus be propelled into a binary way of thinking that says that there is a separation between the spiritual and the material.
They may think that because the world or the material was hurting them that it is all bad and there is nothing good in it. Through spirituality they found considerable peace and happiness, so they may think that the spiritual is the only good. Thus they come up with the idea or subscribe to the myth that the material and the spiritual are entirely different things, material being bad and spiritual being good.
Such people may conclude that to run away from the world, to criticize it, and to minimize any involvement with it, are the best things to do. They think that abstaining from any successful action is better than intelligently pursuing success, financial well-being, or any form of achievement in this world.
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Contemplation: Search your mind and heart to see if you have any ill feelings toward the material domain. If so, search to see how much is there because of the suffering you have experienced. This kind of introspection, where we find our limitations, shortcomings, darker sides, is scary and takes a certain radial honesty. I admire you for attempting it.
1st Pitfall of the Hurt Purist
The Hurt Purist often idealizes a spiritual figure like a Guru, profit, or saint, and projects their misconceived binary idea of a bad material world and a good spiritual world onto that spiritual figure. They imagine that the spiritual figure is “pure” and has no material engagement or involvement, and is therefore perfect. They think that if someone is fully spiritual they cannot be connected to or involved with anything material of this world.
It is impossible for them to ever live up to the ideal of the idea they have created; it is impossible. The Hurt Purist thus feels inferior; they feel incompetent and just quite useless on the spiritual path. They see that their only hope to fully end their suffering is to become like the mental image they have of the Guru or spiritual figure. But this is impossible, because the idea they have made is a mental fabrication and is unrealistic. Thus the belief system they have built leaves them doomed to feeling like failure, guilty, and inadequate.
Inherent in all of this is the wrong thinking that the material domain is separate from the spiritual domain.
The fact is, one who is fully enlightened is often a master of dealing with this worldly material domain. We respect such enlightened beings not because they retreat from the world, nor because they may be rich, but because their hearts are full of spiritual love, which is the most beautiful thing in existence.
Simply because there are pain and illusion in the world, does not make it bad or wrong. It is not about the world being good or bad; it is about your relationship with it. You can and must one day use this world, which has manifested from the divine, as a tool and offering, in order to enter into the higher blissful spiritual states of Passionate Enlightenment.
A note on detachment: Spiritual advancement comes from Spiritual Surrender and is a passionate, loving relationship with the divine. A detachment from ego-based selfish interest is a natural side effect of spiritual growth. Detachment is an essential, integral, and powerful part of spiritual growth, and for a spiritual figure to truly be highly advanced they must be detached from the vices of the world. But remember there is a stark difference between detachment and disengagement. Spiritual elevation or purity has everything to do with spiritual love, dedication, and detachment, and nothing to do with a disengagement from the elements of this world.
Contemplation: Take a deep and hard look at yourself. Is there a part of you that is avoiding responsibility for either your spiritual growth or even your success and happiness in life? Is there any part of you that sees a Guru’s or prophet’s purity or spiritual elevation as your saving grace, which thus allows you to take a more passive and lazy role in your spiritual life?
I believe the support and the grace of spiritual guides is essential in spiritual growth. The key distinction here is this: Do I let that grace or a false notion of purity make me a passive participant in my spiritual journey, rather than an active one? Action is part of our Eternal Dharma and is therefore key in our spiritual growth.
2nd Pitfall of the Hurt Purist: Guilt
When we are not fully enlightened the majority of what we do is material, because we are still learning to integrate and operate properly with the spiritual. Therefore believing that this material world is separate from the spiritual domain can lead people to feel that they are bad and that something is wrong with them because they spend most of their time interacting with, and thinking of, worldly things. Because of this they may have unhealthy feelings of guilt, which not only sucks the joy and vitality out of life but can even get in the way of their spiritual path.
Low self-esteem is not spirituality, and neither is feeling guilty.
Group 2: The Bewildered Materialist
The second group of people are the ones who are doing okay in the world. They may have had some successes, and they are getting a certain degree of pleasure and gratification from life. This group also includes those who may not “have it good” yet, but aspire to it. They want to enjoy and they believe that it is possible to achieve complete happiness through material endeavors alone.
When divorced from the divine, the pleasures of the world have a hypnotic effect and are almost drug like: They dull our minds from being able to see things as they actually are. By indulging, or attempting to indulge, in the pleasures of this world while negating the spiritual, their mind becomes bewildered and they may begin to think that this world is the all in all. They may think that they will do what needs to be done to fulfill their desires and then they will be satisfied. They falsely believe that they have control. This illusion tends to blind them from the suffering of this world and even the suffering caused by their endeavors.
A strong example of this is a drunkard or drug addict. They think that if they can just get their fix, then they will be happy. But they fail to see that getting their fix and endeavoring in that direction is what is causing their pain. By indulging their vice, they are actually being bound and degraded more, they are moving further away from happiness, joy, and freedom.
The example of a drug addict is a bit of a strong one, but this same principle applies for those who are absorbed in this world while neglecting the spiritual domain. This absorption in enjoyment may take the form of one's vices, or other less noticeable mundane actions such as work, family, friends etc…
Same Problem for the Materialist and the Purist
The problem of the ‘Bewildered Materialist’ is the same as the ‘Hurt Purist’ who has come to the spiritual path to run away from the world--creating a separation between the spiritual and the material. Over-infatuation with either the spiritual or the material can make us dull to the fact that the material and the spiritual are both just different expressions of the same thing.
I have heard that some religions propagate the idea of the spiritual/material divide. I think that one of the main reasons why they have done and do this is because of the fact that many people who intensely follow and propagate religion are often Hurt Purists.
The Integration of the Spiritual and Material
Even though the spiritual and material are in a sense one, they also have their individual natures and functions. They function both separately and in a way that nourishes and supports each other. They are integrated.
If we are to be effective and happy in the world we must learn to act in an integrated fashion where both the material and the spiritual are allowed to operate at their fullest and synergize together. This type of integrated action is proper action, it is action in dharma.
For there to be real bliss, power, harmony and effectiveness, we must appropriately engage and integrate the spiritual and the material into our approach to life. We must learn how to turn every action into a love-based spiritual phenomenon.
By doing this, every action becomes a perfect action, every action becomes a spiritual action, every action becomes the most effective action possible, every action leads us to enlightenment, and every action is filled with the greatest cosmic-loving-spiritual-bliss possible for any being to experience in the entirety of all of existence.
© 2017 by Vishnu Swami. All rights reserved.
Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, New Page Books
a division of Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371.
About the Author
Vishnu Swami, also known as the Maverick Monk, relocated to study Veda at a monastery in India at the age of 11 and later became the world’s youngest ‘Swami’ at age 23. He has appeared on television and radio and in newspapers internationally, and was featured in an award-winning spiritual documentary in Hollywood. He continues to empower and inspire thousands through his writings, speaking, and online college-accredited courses at Vishnu-Swami.com.