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The Allure of Spiritual Narcissism

Several months ago my wife and I attended a prayer service at a synagogue that is well known for its spiritual, and spirited, approach. As we entered, the Rabbi was leading a meditation. “Close your eyes and breathe in the peace of Shabbat [the Sabbath],” she said.

“And on the out-breathe imagine that you are sending healing love to all beings.” We passed a man who appeared to be deep in meditation; his eyes were closed, and through a slightly opened smile he slowly breathed in and out. As we moved to our seats I accidentally stepped on his toe. He quickly turned toward me; his smile vanished and he angrily hissed, “Hey, watch it, buddy!”

In the irony of a person being angry at a stranger for accidentally interrupting his meditation about universal, unconditional love, this man demonstrated the disturbing, alluring, and all-too common phenomenon of “spiritual narcissism.”

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.

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.

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, and 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, see 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.

At a seven day spiritual silent meditation retreat that I recently attended, devoted to nourishing equanimity, attendees routinely wrote messages to the retreat leaders with complaints about others – one attendees complained that two days of progress was “ruined” by another attendees who send a note with the words “I love you”, and another complained about someone who was walking too loudly on the leaves outdoors - and the leaders publicly scolded an individual who broke the rules by reading a book in public [in Jewish tradition, embarrassing someone in public is considered a very destructive and violent act]. While complaining about others and shaming a rule-breaker at an event intended to teach equanimity is - like the story in the beginning of this blog - ironic, it teaches an important warning: The desire to control others in order to create a “perfect” environment that nurtures our sensitivities is a calling card of spiritual narcissism. It is not a spiritual feat to feel equanimity only when everything is going exactly as one would like. True spirituality takes place in the holy messiness of the world, in open-hearted relationship with others, and in a kind smile to one who accidentally stepped on your foot. In that moment of connection one can clearly see that the annoyances and upsets are actually wake up calls pulling us out of our self-involvement and in to relationship.

The holiest prayer in the Jewish prayer book is the Amidah – the “standing” prayer - in which we are in soul connection to God, so that we can praise our Creator for the beauty and bounty of the world, ask for peace, health, and understanding, and express gratitude for our lives. What is surprising to many is that most of these prayers are in the plural form; we do not pray alone and for ourselves, but for everyone. In this prayer are words that are, for me, the summation of an antidote to the lure of narcissism: “Purify our hearts to be of service in truth.” With this one powerful sentence we yearn to move beyond our ego-selves, and to know our true-Selves so that we can be a blessing to others. This is why Judaism teaches us to focus on acts of kindness; inviting someone to your house for lunch, treating a stranger with kindness, and giving money to charity, are the highest levels of spirituality.

Spiritual narcissism can be very appealing. I know because I also feel the tug, and too often succumb. But once we see how we are tempted to use the guise of spirituality to shield us from criticism, impress others, and make us feel wise, its appeal begins to loosen, and we even find the humor in this upside-down dynamic. Then, we slowly see this as an all-too-human inclination, and as we forgive it in ourselves we can forgive it in others, knowing that we are fellow suffering, struggling, holy beings. As Martin Buber, author of “I and Thou” wrote, "When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them."