The Subtle Narcissism
of Spiritual Teachings
This blog post is about the subtle narcissism that creeps into almost all spiritual teachings.
This is the subject that I am most passionate about and how I would love to change the world.
A couple of the definitions of narcissism:
The second part – the entitlement – really arises from the first part. We lose our sense of boundary between self and other and so we need the admiration of others to prop up our self-view.
You can see why it so commonly arises in people who’s spiritual teachings are about diminishing a sense of self. Unless that teaching is grounded in a deep sense of embodiment and interconnectedness, it can quickly fall into a narcissistic worldview.
This can obviously be really gross, but it often comes out in teachers in a very subtle way. It is any belief that you have experienced a type of ‘truth’ or right way of doing things in your practice that you are trying to get students or other people to adopt or validate. It is the idea that your internal experience is somehow the reality of the external experience, or that everyone should or can experience it in the same way as you.
Subtle narcissism is essentially needing other people to prop up your world view – you want people to accept what you have experienced as unquestionably real. You believe that your experience is more true than theirs and you struggle or refuse to empathise with their experience.
This is inherently tied up with power, because it is the most powerful people who get to dictate to others what the truth is. And it is through this subtle narcissism that they maintain their power – they are enforcing the belief that they know the truth and other people don’t, rather than empowering people to step into their own truth.
An aspect of this is that there is a strange human dynamic that it is generally considered ok for power to speak mistruths but it is generally not ok to speak truth to power. When people do the latter, they are often branded as aggressive.
This makes subtle narcissism complex, hard to spot and hard to extract yourself from. The narcissistic part of it wants to retain power in whatever way it can and it will lie, manipulate and use aggression to do this. The subtle is exactly that, it does this under the radar in subconscious ways or ways that can be denied.
With that in mind here are some power imbalances to look out for and some healthier ways of being that we can aspire to.
Signs of power imbalances:
Signs of a healthy balance of power:
Subtle narcissism comes from a fear that we are unloveable as we are. We want someone external to validate our experiences and tell us, ‘yes, you know, you are right, you are good, you have solved the puzzle, you are safe from life’.
We don’t want to have to show up in every moment afresh with the fear that we might be wrong or unloved or rejected, so if someone has enough fear around this and enough power, they build a world-view where they know what is right and true and they get people to buy into it and validate it.
If you get enough people to buy into a worldview, it starts to feel really real. But it is a pyramid scheme. It requires there to be people underneath you, who you know better than. Emotions like certainty arise in relationship – you are essentially taking their uncertainty and using it to create and prop up your certainty of the world.
Status is the biggest mask for truth. We have all seen a boss who makes a stupid decision but is surrounded by yes men. The boss gets sheltered from the outcome of their own decisions and actions because the yes men want to suck up to the boss and receive validation of their own. It becomes a cycle of people just saying what will get validation rather than what is actually true.
This is what most traditional spiritual teachings do. They decide what is true and if you want to stay in the tribe you agree with them and you bend and shape your experiences to fit in with what they think it should be. It is deeply sad and oppressive and stops people living their own lives and validating their own experiences. People become mindless followers, always trying to change their experience to fit in.
This isn’t to say that people sharing their own spiritual experiences isn’t helpful or valid. It is one of the most helpful things – I love teachers that share what their experiences have been, in fact this is the only type of teacher I can listen to.
It needs to come from a place of, ‘I have had this experience, this is what it felt like, this is what it meant to me and this is the impact that is had on my life.’
The more clarity that people can speak with about their own felt experience, the more helpful this is.
Guided meditations are also helpful – they are like telling a story, or reading a poem. They are a creative way of sharing your experience with others in a way that may give them access to experiences that they would struggle to find on their own. It is worth pointing out that this is different to telling people what the unquestionable truth is.
There is obviously some grey area here. We all speak as if we know Universal truths sometimes, it can be extremely helpful and provide brevity and clarity, but it needs to be done in the spirit of: here is some information that I can share with you that invites conversation and questions. It is freely given and you can take what resonates and leave the rest.
We also obviously do have agreed truths in our reality and it’s possible to build these into our understanding of what spirituality is. For example, we all know what a leg is. We can look at it together and come up with criteria that distinguish it from an arm. In the same way we can come up with some agreed criteria of what certain things mean.
One of the difficulties with spiritual experiences is that we mostly can’t look at it together – they are generally individual experiences; however, if you collect enough data – either from things like EEG machines or from people sharing their felt experiences, you can start to spot the patterns and come to some agreement around what certain words mean and what certain experiences are likely to occur and what their impacts might be.
You can get a really good broad sense of what human nature is like and start to offer this up as a way for people to understand their individual experience better.
The overlap with psychology is huge – I would argue that there is really no separation here it just tends to be concerned with slightly different areas of human experience.
As a teacher or leader, I believe that it is your job to offer your experience as a subject of research for your students. You master certain states and experiences and then you share them with your students, along with any conceptual frameworks that could help them make sense of what you are sharing. This gives them the opportunity to explore this as a way that they too could experience the world.
You can also ask them questions, give them tips and coach them to help them explore and develop their own understanding of their internal world. Anything beyond this is over-stepping the mark into subtle narcissism.
The way of working that I am proposing here is explicitly flipping the traditional model on its head.
‘As a leader, I am here to share my experiences in the service of helping my students understand their world view better’.
Rather than, ‘As a leader, I am here as a status symbol for students to emulate and aspire to’.
This is really my deepest passion in life. I want to shine a light on this dynamic and help people to wake up and see that their experiences belong to them and that they are valid and welcome.
Ultimately, I feel that spiritual teachings need to be held to a higher degree of rigour.
The amount of people I’ve met who go on retreats, achieve insights and go back to living their life exactly as they had before is through the roof. It’s so depressing!
The world isn’t going to change if we keep doing the same things and I believe that we need to change in order to overthrow systemic oppression and climate disaster.
Change isn’t easy, but if people are giving up even a week of their time to make spiritual changes, I feel that there needs to be tangible impacts on the way they are experiencing and living their lives after this. I believe that this is absolutely possible and it comes from empowering people to connect with their own experience.
My experience is that people want to show up to their lives so that they can understand and accept their experience and make changes that serve themselves and humanity better.
If we find a sense of belonging where we feel we are accepted whole-heartedly as we are, then we stop wanting or needing the external validation that creates narcissism.
We become free to express the truth of what is in our experience. This confidence isn’t something that we can choose to embody. It is something that we gift to each other by validating each other’s experiences.
This validation can happen in the traditional way – the pyramid scheme that you work your way up – or it can happen in a way where we just assume that each person knows their own inner experience, we give people permission to share it authentically and we are interested in hearing each other’s perspectives.
So much pain arises in our society because in order to be seen, loved and respected you have to have power and status over other people. If everyone was made to feel seen, loved and respected as a basic human right it would completely change everything.
In order for this to happen in spirituality, teachers need to recognise and face up to the consequences of this subtle narcissism in themselves and each other. To stop playing the power games that prop this up and instead focus on moving from their inner compass of what they care about and the difference they want to make in the world.