Saturday, January 8, 2011

Yesterday It Was Spiritual Abuse, Today Spiritual Narcissism, They Go Hand In Hand And Side By Side

There are reasons this type of ritual expression smacks of serious narcissism rather than as proper to the adoration of God.

The following extract is taken from a Huffpo article by Rabbi Alan Lurie. I thought it was kind of synchronistic that it was posted the same day I wrote about spiritual abuse. I've taken the meat of Rabbi Lurie's thinking, but the entire article is also worth reading.

To understand spiritual narcissism we must first understand the word "spirituality." My acting definition is, "The experience of a transformative connection." In other words, spirituality is experienced -- it is not a concept or construct. It transforms us. It changes how we act, think and feel in all environments. And it is a connection -- a profound contact with something and someone outside of our selves. (Rabbi Lurie could also have said it's the experience of a tranformative relationship.  In my thinking, relationship and connection are almost synonymous.)

All three of these components are needed in order for spirituality to occur, but the most essential is that it be a connection -- between a person and the Divine, or between one person and another. Spiritual practices are designed to facilitate these connections, and begin with the knowledge that we have two selves: an ego-self and a true-Self. The ego-self is built on our strategy for ensuring that we are physically safe, stemming from our interpretation of the experiences of our lives (primarily our childhood) in which we determined what was required in order to survive. The ego-self may need to impress, dominate or control and sees others as either threats or tools. There is nothing inherently wrong with the ego-self; it is a necessary structure put in place so that we can survive in physical reality. But it is not who we really are, and we can not make a spiritual connection from it. Our true-Self, however, which is often referred to as our soul, contains the very purpose that we incarnated, and is in constant connection with Spirit/Consciousness/Creation/God. It sees others as fellow souls with equally needed purposes, and has compassion for the suffering that comes from the ego-self's attachment to things.  (I don't completely agree with the idea that one can't make a spiritual connection from one's ego.  I will agree it often happens in spite of the best defenses of the ego, but the connection has to start somewhere and the ego self is the self aware conscious aspect of our identity  in this reality.)

Spiritual practices help us to loosen the grip of the ego-self and to connect to the true-Self, so that we can live purposefully, be of service and participate in love. The central Biblical injunction to "Love your neighbor as yourself" is usually interpreted to mean that we must learn to love others, with the assumption that we already love ourselves. Literally translated, though, this line actually reads, "And you will [in the future tense] love your fellow in the same way that you love yourself." In other words, we will love another to the extent and in the way that we love ourselves. If you are harsh with yourself, you will be harsh with others. If you can not forgive yourself, you can not forgive others. In this way, this line is not a commandment, but is a statement of fact. The truth is that most of us do not love ourselves very well, and consequently we hurt others. This is why spiritual practices so often seek to teach us how to love ourselves, so that we can better love others. Real love naturally flows in two directions.

Spiritual practices becomes narcissistic, though, when the ego-self hijacks the process and assumes that it is the object of self love, becoming enamored of looking in the mirror and claiming that its reflection is the true-Self. Then we loose our way, forgetting that the purpose of learning to love ourselves is to become more open, kind and effective in interactions with others, and instead of opening our hearts with humility and compassion, we assume a position of superiority -- exactly what the ego desires for its safety. Spiritual narcissism sees self-love as the end goal. Spirituality to the ego-self is an object of attainment, much like fame, wealth, an expensive car and a sexy body.

Spiritual narcissism creates the pretense of holiness as an ego strategy to mask insecurity, receive approval, or avoid struggle and growth. "I'm a spiritual person" it proclaims proudly. "I travel to alternate realities, see auras, heal chakras, predict the future, talk to spirits, commune with angels, manipulate energies, meditate for three hours a day, harness the powers of the Universe to attract success. ... The truth is that I'm more evolved than you!" Deep spirituality makes us more sensitive to the feeling of others, encouraging an open stance of courage where we can drop our protective shields and accept the vulnerability to be seen as we are. Narcissistic sensitivity, however, is focused solely on the subtle nuances one's own internality, and resists looking at hard, uncomfortable truths that may upset the self image. One who is narcissistically sensitive is easily offended by the "coarseness" of others, seeks to make his environment change to align with the contours of his needs, and gets angry or offended when this does not happen. (This is such a good paragraph.  The truth is usually the 'ego I' doesn't do much except tag along for the ride or let it's fears get in the way.  It's the greater soul self that has the energy connections and abilities to change reality and it is an active relationship with this self that enlightens the ego self.)


In the three plus years I've been writing this blog, I've written a great deal about relationship and spirituality, about spiritual maturity, about ego defenses which preclude spiritual progress, and even a little about the neurological processes that contribute to spiritual progress or serve to block it's progress.  Spirituality is a holistic process.  Biology, psychology, culture, religion and very importantly early childhood development, are all parts of the puzzle.  Real spiritual growth has to transcend the myriad of ways the 'ego self' is supported in it's primary task to insure survival of the organism in this reality. 

The initial programming to insure survival is relational. The one trait we may all come preprogrammed with is the neural ability to identify the human face--mom's human face.  The one thing guaranteed to make life incredibly difficult, challenging, and usually miserable, is a primary care giver who is incapable of forming a relationship with their child.  One of the most devastating diagnosis a child can be given is Reactive Attachment Disorder.  Think Romanian adoption nightmare stories. 

Healthy relationship is critical to proper neural development and by extension a healthy self aware ego.  We know this scientifically.  So why would we think a healthy spirituality is fostered principally in external ritual practice rather than forming healthy interpersonal relationships?  One of the major differences between the kind of Catholicism that Benedict is supporting and the kind of Catholicism that I believe is the Catholicism of the future is the that Benedict puts relating to the ritual sacraments and external doctrine as the primary Catholic relationship.  Sacraments come first and empower other relationships.  I think it's exactly the other way around.  Positive relationships empower meaningful sacramental experience.  Right ritual practice is virtually meaningless and can in fact be detrimental to my understanding of what Jesus was teaching.  After all His own rituals were often spontaneous expressions from the requirements of a current communal need.  The wedding feast at Cana comes to mind.

When a person comes to accept and understand that right relating is more important to their spiritual life than right religious practice, that person has taken a fundamental first step on the road to experiencing other kinds of incredible relationships.  In fact that person may begin to connect with and experience a relationship with their true soul self.  It's that elusive existence that Jesus described as being with in each of us, the one that was in constant connection with the Father, the too often hidden part of us that makes us all equal children in God's eyes and whose functioning is not dependent on wealth, power, or status.  That self  functions most clearly when it's  ego expression understands the Beatitudes aren't pious platitudes, but describe a lifestyle which enhances the ego's ability to relate with the true genesis of it's own created existence.

The problem with this notion of relating to ritual as the primary focus of Catholic life is precisely that it  fosters spiritual narcissism.  That's a big problem and one the Vatican is seems absolutely unwilling to deal with even though it's ugly footprint is stamped all over the Catholic landscape.  Narcissism and abuse do go hand in hand and they do walk side by side. Catholics need to quit ignoring this simple fact about the entire Catholic system.  


  1. People who don't believe in god already do this; why bother with religion when this is already possible?
    It's like eating when you're already full.

  2. I agree that ritual can be narcissistic.

    Sometimes the use of ritual can be quite helpful in attaining a particular state of mind. Meditation and contemplation can be stimulated by cues.

    Otherwise, to quote T. S. Eliot

    We are the hollow men...


    This is the dead land
    This is cactus land
    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they receive
    The supplication of a dead man’s hand
    Under the twinkle of a fading star.

    Is it like this
    In death’s other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone."


  3. p2p, thank you so much for the Elliot quote. It has been way too long that I visited his letters.

    Of course the ego must be part of a true self. The ego is what allows the baby to grow and develop internally. It is what allows us to creatively accomplish or achieve our goals, and allows us to have true pride in out selves. None of this is narcissistic. I do agree that when one completely focuses on his or her own pleasure without putting together, as Freud called it, "an International Feeling" that our ego have gone too far into a false self. The international feeling causes us to understand that suffering anywhere on earth is shared by each of us. It is the early beginnings of spirituality. I think that it is important for people to define and understand the the idea of ego a little better. Too many think that the ego is a bad part of us. Without it we could achieve nothing good in our lives! I think that we can and do form false selves and this involves the selfish misuse of the ego and this is what we know as narcissism.

    Some also have difficulty with the term pride. Pride when attributed to well earned accomplishments is a very good emotion. When this word is used to describe an obstinate person, it should be understood as false pride or as the Asian's say “a loss of face.”

    It is my understanding that in the next DSM, the diagnosis of narcissism will be removed. The reason given is that it is all to common to everyone. I guess they are saying if this type of misbehavior is common, then it no longer is suitable to be classified an abnormality. If that is true, spirituality in our civilization is receding. I am not sure that I agree, but I do think that there is a major problem with wealthy (religious and non religious) narcissists that gather most of the wealth and resources for a tiny part of the population when this tiny group does but a pittance of societies work. That is pathological (narcissism). dennis