Spiritual vs. Material: The Middle Way? by Elisabeth S.

new FAR picFor much of my life, I’ve wanted experience. I think it stems from my childhood/teenage years. When I would travel (for school events, mostly), everyone my age or a bit older always seemed SO much older than me, so much more mature, and I always felt like a little kid, and that embarrassed me. I didn’t care about money or being materially successful. It seemed more admirable to take a road or overseas trip and meet a lot of different people and encounter cultures and read books that would help me grow emotionally and mentally. Recently, my friend who is younger and on his way to being a millionaire by the time he is 40 has tried to encourage me to read books about financial investments and business. I do not have the best habits with money, mainly meaning I don’t usually save or invest and just live paycheck-to-paycheck rather carelessly.

But in the Dhammapada and Upanishads, they say that neither those who only follow the material path nor those who only follow the spiritual path will reach nirvana. . . it is only those who find a balance between the material and spiritual, the mind and the body that will be able to reach nirvana, be one with Brahman and notice the true self.

My problem with investing in the past has been that, if I invest money into stocks, I’m theoretically hoping that big companies will keep making money so that I can benefit. No one probably invests in companies yet hopes for less consumption, production, or profit. Am I okay with supporting and maintaining capitalism, my own wealth, and the gap between people of different economic levels?

Honestly, I’m not sure practically what religious minds were suggesting when they opted for both the material and spiritual path, if it had anything to do with the financial, but I can only question how it might be applied in a way that doesn’t actually cause more harm.

I do not think I can or want to justify or say there is a spiritual allowance for investing/venturing an increasingly profitable business. Prosperity spirituality makes my stomach churn, for whatever reason. So I hope no one misunderstands that is definitely not where I want this conversation to go. But there might be spiritual suggestion for being more responsible with money that I do have and being materially-minded enough so that I am financially secure with enough money I can start helping others out financially.

This is because if I think over my decades of not being focused or concerned about money, I realize how that has made me then be, at times, dependent on those who were more aware and more in pursuit of money, in the sense that that I couldn’t always afford my own place and so I had to live with family or friends. Rather than being able to help my parents or lovers with the savings or extra funds I had, in order to keep up a life of purely intellectual and psychological growth, they had to help me out. I want to be the one to give to others, but how will I do that unless I begin to be more focused on saving and making money?

I think that we want to live a life of least harm, and this takes constant reflection and reassessment, because when we might think we are taking a noble path, it is the path we judge that also has noble qualities. I wonder if a life of no-harm is actually possible? If you can truly refuse to be a part of the world you were born in because you disagree so much with what goes on? What is the truly spiritual path? I thought it was ignoring the kind of materially-focused life many people were pursuing (a job, investments, etc.), but by ignoring it in hopes of harming less the world, or at least being less a part of that world’s harm, I was harming the people who most loved and cared for me instead.

So how do you all look at wealth, investments, being in the world while wanting the world to change so that there is not abject poverty so that governments are not spending our money on military and nuclear weapons? Audre Lorde said we can’t dismantle the Master’s House with the Master’s tools, so how to incorporate this into our practices in a world we want to survive in and help others survive in and live well? Does the idea of the middle way help you at all? Am I thinking of it in a dangerous way? These are really questions I have that I never thought I would have because I was fine being a hippie, a bohemian, a nomad, and just focusing on souls, but the real consequences to others makes such a path (for me at least) unsustainable because when my hippie self can’t buy groceries or pay rent, other people lend a couch, and I can’t help but thinking maybe they want their couch back.

Elisabeth S., graduated with her Ph.D. in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches college composition in Colorado Springs. 

Categories: capitalism, Women's Power, Women's Spirituality

Tags: , , ,

19 replies

  1. I don’t think there is any escaping this dilemma. However, we can choose our path the best we know how. For me, it’s about being self-sufficient and living within my means. Once, long ago, we humans lived like that. Some communities still do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, I agree. Although I still hope we as human evolve and become kinder and more communal, it is perhaps the fact of life that there will always be suffering, even if we take out all the unnecessary suffering human beings cause. Be well and blessed.


  2. I love this essay – it addresses tough questions – questions I have struggled with too – all my life – and like you learning about money doesn’t interest me – you words are my own: “So how do you all look at wealth, investments, being in the world while wanting the world to change so that there is not abject poverty so that governments are not spending our money on military and nuclear weapons?” This is a question I would like feedback on myself because I have never been able to reconcile investing money to prop up such an egregious economy ansd have been guilty of doing so, albeit with distancing – what little money I have is with an investment co.. and I inherited it – I did not earn it. ugh..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much Sara for your perspective. It is a life-long journey of reflection to figure how to tread the earth lightly. But at least we can have these conversations that might lead to a revelation for our practices. Be well and blessed.


  3. You bring up great questions, Lache. Nathan Robinson wrote an article (2017) titled “Can the Master’s Tools Destroy the Master’s House?” https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/11/can-the-masters-tools-destroy-the-masters-house

    One excerpt: “The real question about any tool or technique is: does this actually demolish the house, or does it just change who lives there?” The article is short and worth a read.

    Entangled with your broad theme, you ask this very poignant question: “I wonder if a life of no-harm is actually possible?” I’ve struggled with this question for years. From our food choices to the clothes we wear to the machines we use–the list seems endless. Doesn’t harm ensue (to somebody or something) as we live, attempting to survive on planet Earth?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your comments and the reading. When I was looking at it, the question that you quote was the one that was most compelling to me as well.

      I guess I’m beginning to realize that if there is so much at stake in terms of living a life of less-harm, I have to be more strategic.


  4. Thank you for this thoughtful post. Although I am not a Buddhist, I do like the Buddhist concept of right livelihood. It sounds like that is what you are seeking, enough so that you can take care of yourself and be in the reciprocal flow of give and take. If you find yourself in a position to invest money, you can choose a socially conscious investment company or ask anyone helping you invest to find investments you can believe in. I guess that is still capitalism, however green. I don’t think right livelihood or the middle way requires that you become an investor. I imagine lilies of the field, even if they toil not nor spin, know how to thrive by planting themselves in a place where the soil and light and rainfall is ample. And plants and animals are part of that reciprocal flow, taking and giving. Good to ponder these questions, and I am guessing you will find a beautiful middle way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to hear from you. I love the sentiment of keeping it simple and perhaps directing investments to particular companies one believes in. I guess that is another way we can care for each other. Thank you for the remembrance of nature.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It could be helpful to remember that the idea of opposition between the spiritual and the material is itself a product of dualistic thinking that has not always been the norm. In indigenous cultures such an opposition would be unthinkable: rather, every aspect of material life is sacralized. This of course goes along with the idea that this life in the body/community/nature is not to be escaped (for a “higher” or “better” life) but rather is a gift (of the Mother Goddess).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Carol, that’s exactly what I was thinking as I read this post. The most recent reading that brought the indigenous perspective clear to me was _Braided Sweetgrass_ by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She made me realize my sacred relationship with plants, which I must eat in order to survive. There is NO way I can live without causing harm. To survive, I must kill plants at the very least. But I can be grateful when they give their lives to sustain me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Carol. Yes, I love the non-duality in various traditions that I read in and am compelled by even if I’m working through total acceptance. Thank you for your thoughts.


  6. I enjoyed this post and brought it up with a UU friend when we were walking yesterday. What came to mind for me is the interdependent web of life, i.e., that everything is connected. We can’t pluck one of the threads of the tapestry without it affecting all other threads.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. At 8:59am I just read this post and find that the way of life path you describe is a spiritual reflection of my own. I finally left a 20 year abusive marriaage and in process of a divorce which is stymied by the shutting down of civil cases during COVID 19 and waiting for a Court date. Meanwhile I am homeless and renting a bedroom from an African American sister friend rather than pay a wealthy overpriced hotel horrendous rates. Looking for a new home, a condo or Senior apartments is overwhelming when deep down a feeling inside me is saying don’t pay big money to get back on the capitalists mortgage plantations. It’s a reinvention of share cropping that is a huge financial drainage of low and middle income human beings irrespective of the psychosis of the imbalances that causes people to feel better than those who are in extreme poverty or physically disabled. Looking at the local and unity against so many deaths from Covid19 ranking well into the rising death toll numbers of a military war is truly a most worthy phenomena. I pray everyday to enhance the strength of those righteous protesters and for the continuous outing of those Infiltrators who try to subvert their unified mission. Your article struck my mission which is acquiring a home that I can afford and avoid scheme of the capitalistic banking sharks in cohost with real estate agents and their additional high commissions. Meanwhile, the idea that the skyrocketing loss of jobs is causing foreclosures on families and my bleeding hearts struggles with that as I search and learn more about this not a good situation for a buyer in the market at this time, or anytime frankly. Houses will continue sitting. dry rotting for years, losing more value if a profiteering sales become impossible due to a steadily falling economy, job losses and human lives. Perplexing as it seems, my thinking is that communal tribal matriarchal would be much better option for me to invest my time, energy and money into which is very similar to your thinking. I look forward to reading other reply’s to your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful post. I’m so sorry you are going through such a challenging time, but I’m glad that you got out of that relationship that was abusive. I hope you become free from it completely soon. I agree with you about the communal tribal matriarchal world. I think a lot of us would like to live there.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Apologies for getting here so late, Lache.

    I’ve thought about this sort of thing all along the way. It’s been over 40 years since a whole troupe of adult advisors did all they could to steer me into advertising or fashion design instead of fine art. I’m sure they were thinking of my best interests. I didn’t let them divert me though, and as they expected, I have always been below the official poverty line.

    The two fundamentals I find true and that obliquely speak to your concern:

    When we go, all we can take is our memories. Not the pile of wealth. So many people have said that they experienced their life flashing before their eyes at an extreme moment. That’s enough for me to think those memories matter for some reason.

    We each have a statistical likelihood to live past our working years. Some professions can be carried on well past our eighties but still, so many unanticipated things can come up to prevent even the best plans. I think we need to always keep in mind trying to ensure our basic survival needs can be met when we may no longer be able to work or have access to much $$. “Planning for retirement” was basically meaningless to me until recently. I wish somehow it had been impressed on me that I will get old. (The high school advisors just talked about the near future.) My advice in this regard is to think outside the box, and to always have that topic in the back of your mind. Being old comes on unbelievably quickly.

    As an example, what I’ve managed to do is secure a small, easy to maintain house outside a little village, on enough land to grow most of my food if need be, a real root cellar to keep it in if there is no electricity, a passive heat situation, and some solar panels to cover the rest of energy needs. The house is paid for but the last two are not. Now that I’m clear about securing my old age, they take top priority in budgeting (the $ from art sales), however, in a worst case scenario I think the chance of anyone repossessing solar panels or a passive-heat house addition are virtually nil. I still don’t have enough set aside to cover property taxes for 40 more years, or anything else beyond that, but at least now I’m focused.

    What works for you might be vastly different, but I’m suggesting that focusing on these tangible quantifiables, and aligning them with your own non-negotiables might clear up much of the abstract quandaries.

    You’re so intelligent and thoughtful, you can definitely do this in a beautiful way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for so thoughtful and carefully sharing your wisdom. I think you bring up a good reminder – that we can’t always depend on our current energies and health. I’ve started considering these things because I’ve not ever had savings before but now it is my goal to start at least that. Be well and may your path be blessed and filled with love, health, and peace. Thank you so much for your kind words. I am moved by them.


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