Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of September 27, 2010

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Allure of Materiality

(Stages of Freedom: Part 2 of 9)

The basic fact of our existence is that we have these physical bodies. This fact imposes a whole host of constraints on us, from the effort we must put forward to feed, clothe, and care for our body, to family obligations, to limitations on the kinds of experiences we can have and on what we can do. So from the outset we are wedded to this material world.

While this physical reality does limit our freedom, or at least defines its parameters, our usual attitude toward the material world limits us even more severely. We take the material as the only reality and shun the possibility of inner freedom, of a higher spiritual reality in the here and now. Those who seek the spiritual have somehow come to recognize its existence, perhaps through some higher experience, or perhaps through seeing that nothing in the material world can give us complete and lasting satisfaction. Indeed, the latter realization informs the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and is the first milestone in the Sufi representation of the path.

But the depth of our realization of that Truth can vary over time. The fact of our physical body and all the limitations it imposes on us do not disappear just because we have begun to suspect or even see the reality of the spiritual. We have to continue dealing with the material world regardless of any inner freedom we might achieve. So the question comes to transforming our relationship with the material, to love, accept, and honor it, without looking solely to the physical world for our life’s fulfillment. We seek a way to live not only in the physical world, but also in the inner world of our mind-heart and in the spiritual world beyond our mind-heart. Spiritual practice is about becoming able to live in these three worlds simultaneously.[1]

As it is, however, we are matter bound, body and soul. We are mesmerized by this physical world and believe it to be our only reality. We look for meaning and fulfillment through it. We believe our net worth defines our self-worth, that our resume and portfolio define who we are. Even if some event or insight has jarred us out of the absoluteness of that view and we have begun our inner work in earnest, we still mostly believe in the material. Perhaps 80% or 90%, our goals and interests are material. You might argue that many people find fulfillment through their life’s work in the material world. But that fulfillment comes from what they give to the material world, not what they take from it.

None of this is to say that material wealth or material goals block a person’s access to the spiritual, just as material poverty does not enable that access. The issue concerns what we identify with, our attachments. We have to earn our living, but our identification with the material results of our earnings or lack thereof, with our status in society, does stand between us and the sacred. This Earth with its natural splendor, all the life on it, and all the wonderful things that humans create, is amazing and beautiful. We can and should love, respect, enjoy, and care for all this, but not expect to be satisfied with however much we personally take from the abundance. We seek the spiritual wealth that is enabled by freedom from identification.

Many of the things in the material world offer important support to our spiritual search. Some art, architecture, music, drama, ritual, and literature, for example, can bring us to a moment of inner silence, awaken our longing for the sacred, and open our hearts and minds to the Real. But most of it only keeps us on the surface of materiality, filling our boredom, emptiness, and ennui with entertainment and distraction.

At the root of our desires and attachments to the material lies our inner emptiness. We cannot fill our emptiness with things from the material world, not only because of the inherent incompatibility and differences between that world and inner worlds, but also because the emptiness itself is illusory, is a false emptiness. Our ego manufactures this emptiness and, in fact, is the emptiness. Within an indivisible continuum, our ego erects a false boundary that defines it. Our ego sets itself up as separate from everything and thus as needing to be filled and able to take from outside itself. But as soon as the ego steps aside or dissolves, even temporarily, we find ourselves reconnected and full, full of life, full of the spirit, full of an utter and deep contentment, no longer needing or wanting to take. With ego, there can be no fullness; without ego, there is only fullness.

For this week, please notice how you are affected by material things, your relationship with the material world, and the many aspects of its allure. Can you enjoy your food, your entertainment, your things, and the beauty of nature and yet remain inwardly free? If something goes missing or breaks, do you break with it? If your net worth drops, does your heart also drop? When wrinkles or gray hair appear in the mirror, do you inwardly rail against time? Do you resent the weather when it doesn’t suit you? Do you view other people in material terms, their wealth, their beauty, or lack thereof? When you notice something attractive and expensive beyond your reach, does it sadden you that you don’t have it? Look and see.

[1] Gurdjieff, G. I., Life Is Real Only Then, When I Am (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978) p.170


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