This blog post is about the subtle narcissism that creeps into almost all spiritual teachings. Before you check out and say, ‘that’s not me, I’m not a narcissist.’ This applies to all of us.
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:
- self-centredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects
- a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration
Given the first explanation you can see why it so commonly arises in the way we express spiritual teachings, which are all about diminishing a sense of self.
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’ 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 what sitting on the cushion at the front of the class buys you. It is the assumed power that you can tell people what is at the bottom of their consciousness or is the highest form of experiencing their reality. It is the idea that when people ask questions or share their experiences, you have the authority or responsibility to tell them that they are wrong or that you know better. This system is bullshit and I’m calling it out.
Dictating what is the truth applies to: emptiness, ‘the eternal’, pure awareness, God, claims that people are already perfect or whole, energetic sensations or perceptions… the whole shebang. These are all internal experiences that can be valid and true for the person who is sharing them, but you cannot take your experience and tell someone that the way you have experienced life is the truth for someone else or, indeed, for everyone.
What I am proposing is a deeply radical way of seeing and approaching spiritual teachings that has arisen out my awakening and world-view. When I hear teachers teach in this way, it makes me deeply sad and I believe that the purpose of my awakening was to disrupt the entirety of this structure, which is built on subtle narcissism that is undermining people’s own felt-experiences.
This arises for a reason. If there is one thing I have personally learnt from the spiritual path it is this, that there is nothing that can keep us safe from life and our felt experience. We can only be present with what it feels like to be us in each moment – what it feels like to be us is a lot more malleable than a lot of people realise, but you never escape being you.
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 we have enough power, we build a world-view where we know what is right and true and we get people to buy into it and validate it. If you get enough people to buy into it, 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. You are essentially taking their uncertainty and using it to 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 teachers are. 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, this is the impact that is had on my life and/or this is the perceived impact on the lives of people around me.’
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.
It is explicitly flipping the traditional model on its head. ‘As a leader, I am here to share my experiences from a place of individual vulnerability in the service of helping my students understand their world view better’. This means allowing people to disagree with you or not be able to understand where you are coming from. 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. It is their responsibility to show up for it and it is also theirs to validate. It’s not going to be for everyone. Some people seem to like having an idol to put on a pedestal, it means that they don’t have to take responsibility for their own life, which is fair enough.
But ultimately, I feel that spiritual teachings need to be held to a higher degree of rigour. I think we can do better and the way we do this is by holding people to account of their values and the impact of their behaviour and teachings on the world and people around them.
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 is never 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 getting people to take responsibility for what is happening in their experience.
As a teacher, if you cannot see changes in your students lives then I believe that what you are offering is essentially glorified (and not very fun) spa weekends and I think it would be a lot more honest if people sold them as this.
Personally, I would like to help people to show up to their experience so that they can understand and accept their experience and make changes that serve themselves and humanity better.
In my experience, if we find a sense of belonging where we feel we are accepted whole-heartedly enough as we are, then we stop wanting or needing this external validation. 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 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.