Spiritual Materialism and our search for belonging

Nadja Eriksson
6 min readOct 24, 2019

At fifteen, I had a phase when I was wearing all black, day in, day out. The goth kids at school started paying attention, and I soon became one of them. Not that I was particularly interested in Goth culture, but their assumption was that if I’m wearing black, I must be sharing their values. But I was just excited to make friends, enjoyed the status, and basked in my newfound sense of belonging.

A year later, I attended high-school in England. I was alone in a strange country, so I became friends with a fellow German lefty who was living with a dreadlocked hippie with long, orange hair. I gradually adapted to my new surroundings. My elegant, black uniform morphed into an eclectic mix of flea-market finds that left my mother crying. My long, black hair was shaved into a 2mm boy cut which I then painted bright red.

But over time, I grew tired of being a rebel and settled into a more soft, rosy-cheeked, spiritual version of myself. I was hanging out with purple-wearing, mantra chanting vegans who put crystals in their bra. I played with Goddess cards, saw healers, and practiced yoga for two hours a day. I did juice cleanses, ate raw foods, and wore expensive, hand-crafted mala-beads around my neck. I thought I was the real deal.

But then I stumbled upon another spiritual community, where people dressed up to party in black leather and high-heels.

Hippies were ridiculed, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll were considered the most reliable path to enlightenment — alongside meditation, of course. I was intrigued. Some of my deepest questions were answered, but to my dismay, I discovered that the dominant group-think so popular in many spiritual communities prevailed.

Can you imagine my confusion?

I always thought that if I dressed and behaved like everyone else, I would be accepted, included, part of something bigger. I would belong somewhere and not feel so lost and disconnected anymore.

But it’s not just me. The desire to belong lives in all of us.

Marketers have long been aware of this, successfully channeling our confusion into Billion Dollar industries. And that’s just Yoga. Then there’s the meditation industry, the fashion industry, and the all-pervasive self-help industry.

Nobody seems to care that this whole “spiritual materialism” defies the real purpose of spirituality.

Isn’t one of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras about “non-grasping”?

“Aparigraha means “non-grasping,” and it can be a tough sell in this consumer culture of ours. But freedom from wanting more and more is just that: freedom. Aparigraha is the decision to not hoard or accumulate goods through greed but rather to develop an attitude of stewardship toward the material world.” (…)

“Once you get so much stuff, you have to take care of and defend it. You start to get attached to it and identify with it. It’s easy to start thinking you are your stuff, but the truth is that stuff comes and goes.”

We’ve forgotten who we really are, so we use stuff to provide meaning.

We’re looking for a home in material things. But it doesn’t stop here. There’s also the psychological aspect of spiritual materialism: mental concepts. When we define ourselves as Yoginis, Tantrics, or Buddhists, it provides us with a feeling of belonging and security in an otherwise uncertain world.

We then surround ourselves with others who believe in the same things. We show the world how great we are by posting pictures of kale smoothies and Instagram-perfect yoga poses on social media, getting approval from millions of followers who believe they need to be just like their narcissistic heroes so they can belong to the people they admire.

Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche calls this the trap of falling into ego-identification with our spirituality, a.k.a. spiritual materialism.

He explains:

“It does not matter what we use to achieve self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts, mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalists religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism.

Whenever we begin to evaluate, deciding that we should or should not do this or that, then we have already associated our practice or our knowledge with categories, one pitted against the other, and that is spiritual materialism, the false spirituality of our spiritual advisor.” (our egos)

”Whenever we have a dualistic notion such as, ‘I am doing this because I want to achieve a particular state of consciousness, a particular state of being,’ then automatically we separate ourselves from the reality of what we are.”

The reality of what you are doesn’t give a fuck about whether you pretzel yourself into insane yoga poses or do $100 a day juice cleanses.

The only thing that happens is that the more you are seeking, the further you are removing yourself from your true nature. The harder you push, the more difficult it becomes to align yourself with the satisfaction of your inner being.

Maya Angelou wrote:

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

As long as you try to belong to people or places outside of yourself, without truly belonging to yourself on the inside, you’re not really free. Identities are arbitrary, a result of your history and conditioning, and as you can see from my example above, always changing. Like the trickster in a good story, it will slip from your grasp as soon as you think you’ve nailed it.

And it should, because you want to wake up, don’t you?

See it as a blessing, a wake-up call from your inner being. One day, you will take your last breath, and all your material possessions, mental concepts, and petty stories of who you are will blow away like leaves in the wind. What’s left is who you really are. So why not live from that now?

True belonging arises from the inside, from the connection with who you really are. You can only ever truly belong to yourself. Your inner being, or your soul, is the only thing that remains constant in the flux of life. Appearances, people, and situations come and go, but your connection to your true Self remains.

Your outer reality is a reflection of your inner world.

Once you are home in yourself, you may still feel the desire to wear mala beads or play with goddess cards, but then it will be a joyful expression from your inner being, nourishing you, rather than trying to fill an inner void.

After decades of searching for meaning and belonging in spiritual and material identities, I’ve concluded that I first and foremost want to belong to myself.

The connection to my inner being is my highest priority. Everything else in my life arises from that. I care very much that I am in alignment with my soul.

This requires a daily feminine practice of introspection. Instead of reading blogs or checking emails as soon as I wake up, I spend my mornings in silence. Praying, writing, meditating, practicing yoga. I also rest and unplug completely on Sundays and on the first day of my moon.

On days when I don’t have at least an hour for myself in the morning, I feel off, disconnected, like something is missing. This has become my non-negotiable me-time. I prioritize and defend this practice vigorously.

From there, the masculine spiritual practice of feeling outwards and serving others arises more effortlessly. Once your own cup is filled, you’re able to give more fully to others. Nothing feels more rewarding and meaningful than selfless service and contribution to the greater good. How can you add real, authentic value to people’s lives today?

It doesn’t have to be something grandiose as starting a company from your deepest purpose, touching millions of lives. Although it could be. But maybe it’s just a small thing, like picking up the trash or helping an elderly lady on the bus. By serving life as it unfolds in front of you, you can create meaning and value that reaches far beyond “Likes” and followers on Facebook.

By cultivating a rich, feminine practice of connecting to your inner being on a daily basis, you come more fully home to yourself. You start to belong to yourself.

By feeling outwards and expanding your gifts into the world, helping to create a more beautiful life-experience for all sentient beings, you feel that you too are part of this co-creation. Our shared humanity. With all our suffering, hopes, and dreams.

Living in alignment with your soul, speaking your truth, and giving your deepest purpose to the world from an authentic, heartfelt space is not always easy. We all have to choose the cross we carry. Everything in life contains a shit-sandwich. But the joy and meaning that comes from serving and connecting are far greater than any approval-seeking from a place of lack.

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Nadja Eriksson

I'm a copywriter and brand strategist with a focus on spirituality and storytelling. I help leaders get paid to serve love with words that seduce & sell.