How a combination of privilege, denial and attachment have created exclusive and sometimes toxic narratives within non-materialist teachings.
Below this paragraph is a quote from Rupert Spira. It expresses a sentiment that is regularly repeated in the philosophies of spirtuality, non-materialism and non-realism. This sentiment goes back to Buddhist teachings and appears in modern rhetoric from new-agers, self-help gurus, corporate retreat leaders and even philosophical luminaries like Spira; who I have a great deal of respect for and have written about in the past, even though in this one area he has completely whitewashed the experiences of a great portion of humanity.
“To invest one’s identity and security in something that moves, changes
and disappears is the cause of unhappiness.”
Essentially Spira is saying that our attachment to the illusions of physical reality are the source of human misery. While there is a valid point buried in there, it completely ignores a critical distinction between physical reality and social reality, and in the process points blame at the victims of the latter.
Chances are that those of you reading this enjoy a relatively stable life experience. The downtrodden probably do not have the means to do so, and even if they do, probably cannot afford the cognitive luxury of putting a lot of thought into the nature of reality as they fight to scrape by and avoid the consequences of poverty and the institutional inequality that comes with it.
Imagine that you are a disabled homeless person, or a malnourished child in a third world country. How much do you think your happiness will be increased by attaining knowledge of the primacy of consciousness? How much will your suffering decrease simply be seeing through the illusion of physical reality? There is a chance that your perspective shift will make it all more bearable, but there will still be hunger, disease, the elements and many other factors to contend with, no matter how much you realize their impermanent nature.
The understanding of reality’s intersubjective workings does not provide an instant escape from their immediate consequences. While we might yet use that knowledge to change the intersubjective reality narrative we currently live within over time, to deny its effects in the here in now is to avoid the painful, inhumane experiences of those who desperately need change in the present.
As I mentioned before, there is a valid point buried in the sentiment. At the deepest level, the origin of unhappiness lies in our attachments, and the fear and disorder they come to entail. The downtrodden are all placed there by the oppression of the ruling class of our social reality; and there is no doubt that their hubris and avarice represent the height of attachment. Yet it cannot be said that they suffer as greatly as those who pay the price of their attachments.
The social reality is this. While the objects of experience like food, medicine and shelter may be illusory, they are products of the intersubjective social construction process, which is very real. To begin new constructive processes we must acknowledge that. Philosophy, spiritualism, or whatever you want to call non-materialist ideologies, are empty without a recognition of the practical constraints facing people in the present. Without those two narratives working together, we are not telling the whole story.
A common link between the individuals expressing this sentiment to a captive audience is that they are not the disabled homeless person, or the starving third world child. Within the social reality they enjoy relative privilege. This is not to say that even the most wealthy cannot be miserable and existentially bereft, but having the option to do it in the comfort of your home with a full belly is a difference that most of us would recognize immediately if given a chance to choose between having and having-not for ourselves.
This is really the most disturbing aspect to me. The people selling books and getting paid to speak at conferences are currently dominating the non-materialist discussions, and as they profit from doing so they appear to be in denial of the social reality to the point of gas-lighting the individuals and experiences they have been lucky to avoid.
(Don’t even get me started on those who would bring ‘karma’ into this, as though these manifestations are destiny, and the winners are good souls and the losers are bad ones.)
Nor do I believe these teachings are effective at reaching the most crucial abusers of the social reality. Trying to affect top-down change is treading water that has drowned the best swimmers throughout history. We must create changes among those of us sandwiched between the top and bottom of the social strata. The downtrodden are too weak, and those whose attachment has expressed itself in the psychopathy and megalomania of authority and extreme wealth cannot be viewed as mentally healthy enough to help.
It is up to us regular freethinking folk to build a bridge between non-materialist ideology and the social reality. We must work to construct the plot devices which change the narrative. We must introduce and make feasible new possibilities which make old limitations, and their intersubjective consequences, obsolete. We must write a new story arc which bypasses the objects of experience that make possible so much inequality within the social reality.
And if striving for equality within the social reality is not part of some teachers narrative, it is time we begin to seriously question them. The philosophy and spirituality for its own sake crowd are just as unhelpful and distracting at those who cannot see the bigger picture beyond of changes needed beyond the apparent physical reality. Those without the tenacity and imagination to build the bridge can no longer help us go further.
This is not to say we need to abandon teachers like Rupert Spira altogether, but they should be encouraged to expand on their narrative and help build the bridge and assist us in creating the new narrative paradigms. Just as ‘woke’ activists who remain dreadfully over-focused on performative acts and counter-violence should be encouraged to incorporate non-materialism into their views, methods and rhetoric. Since both groups genuinely seem interested in making human existence a more pleasant affair, they should learn from one another and work together towards accomplishing their shared goal. And those who cannot or will not represent a form of regressive thinking just as obsolete and dangerous as the victors of this barbaric story we live within.
Need I point out the irony and hypocrisy of attachment to non-materialist teachings to the point of exclusion of the social reality and its role? We can do better. We must. Non-materialists teachings that ignore this need are not only failing us, they discredit those teachings and those who teach them. Answers to big questions about reality that contain no working solutions to people’s experience of reality appear to most folks living today as useless abstractions to be ignored and scoffed at. If you are not up to the challenge of walking the middle path between idealism and realism, then you are not fit to teach either.