What’s Wrong with American Spirituality?

I ran across this quote from the Dalai Lama the other day. It rang true to me. It also highlights what’s wrong with American spirituality. Let’s start with the quote:

How hard is that to understand? What if that was the guiding principle of our lives? We would show more compassion towards others and share the abundance of the earth.

Americans and other Westerners are caught up in the capitalist system. We intuitively know that having a good heart is the essence of spirituality, but our competitive system makes us give spirituality a decidedly nonspiritual twist. Even Christians fall for this. When was the last time you heard a Christian quote Jesus: “Behold the fowls of the air: for the sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them”? I actually read a long winded article by a Christian who said Jesus was in favor of usury. He overlooked that statement as well as the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount to justify his argument.

And what about American Zen Buddhists? Ken Wilber has quite a following in America. A 2009 article, Like it or Not, You’re a Capitalist. But are You a Conscious One? explains why we’re all capitalists. Yes, the article pays lip service to “socially responsible” capitalism, but it attempts to redefine capitalism to make it more palatable to “conscious” readers who understand the value of compassion.

Capitalism is a system based on greed and it doesn’t work for everyone. In the American economic bubble, it has worked for some, but profit is the motivating factor behind any capitalist venture. When profit comes first, the heart inevitably comes second or third; or perhaps doesn’t play a part at all. American spirituality tries to mix capitalism with spirituality. It doesn’t work.

Then there is the “abundance” theory. It goes something like this: we are children of the universe and deserve abundance. All we have to do is open ourselves to it and it will come.

Wayne Dyer is one abundance guru. He wrote, “Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tune into.” I got this quote from a Manifest Abundance site by someone named Melissa Field. She offers an abundance meditation for only five dollars, which is pretty cheap. Some abundance gurus want thousands of dollars to learn their awesome “manifest abundance” techniques.

I don’t mean to pick on Melissa Field. She says the same things dozens of “abundance gurus” say. Her website happened to be on page one of Google, so I’m using it as an example of American spirituality only.

Yes, we all need to survive, but what American spirituality misses is that we don’t need all the stuff we have. A simpler life is generally a happier life.

I understand where American “gurus” are coming from. I grew up there and for the first 20 years of my life, believed the secret to happiness was making enough money to afford everything you could possibly want. Then I realized what a trap that was. I didn’t want to work every day for the rest of my life just to be able to afford a nice new house, a new car and the other perks of capitalism. That seemed like a form of slavery to me.

When I left the United States for my first trip abroad, I discovered a whole new world. I found villages in Afghanistan and India that were prosperous enough to feed and clothe everyone, but weren’t frantically trying to outdo each other in the wealth department.

Cambodia has embraced capitalism, but I’ve met several Cambodians who fondly remember growing up in small villages. “We didn’t need money,” one of them told me. “Everything we needed was right there.”

A school teacher told me she felt happiest and safest when she lived in a village. “Everyone looked out for everyone else in the village,” she told me. I’ve noticed that even here in Sihanoukville, which is a rapidly growing city. When someone opens a shop outside their house, the neighbors will go there to help them earn an income. A rich man on our road hired a neighbor to do his housekeeping. She wasn’t the best choice, but he hired her because she was part of our “village” and needed the work.

Abundance and love do not go hand-in-hand. Abundance requires a degree of selfishness. Love is unselfish. You can’t be a capitalist and have a good heart at the same time. You do have a right to take care of yourself and your family, but if your mind is fixed on the unnecessary perks of wealth, you’re not really being spiritual. If you use “magic” techniques to “manifest abundance,” some cultures would say you practice black magic.

We All Have Two Selves

One of my favorite poets is Walt Whitman. He hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you/And you must not be abased to the other”. Basically, he was saying we have two selves: a spiritual self and a selfish self. We have to see each of them for what they are. The spiritual self is beyond the concerns of the ego. Whitman describes it brilliantly:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
 And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
 And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, 
 And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
 And that a kelson of the creation is love, . . .

Those spiritual “highs” take us out of our selfish concerns and give us a taste of what is possible. We return to our egos, though, and survival dictates that we must take care of our personal needs.

What’s wrong with American spirituality is that it tries to mix the ego with the soul. That waters both down. You can’t taste the bliss of non-attachment if you’re practicing mindfulness to improve your performance at work as suggested in the Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Mindfulness or meditation are meant to get you in touch with the “soul,” as Whitman put it. You will return to the ego and go about your daily business, but hopefully a little of your meditation will stick and you’ll remember that you’re not just a competitive beast trying to acquire everything you can. All men and women are your brothers and sisters and a “kelson of the creation is love”.


Originally published at www.expat-journal.com on October 15, 2016.