The post is part of the series: The Four Horsemen of Spiritual Ego.
Spiritual practices aren’t only misapplied to avoid difficult or challenging psychological work; they can also be misapplied to enhance the ego, rather than transcend it. As philosopher Alan Watts noted, “egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be reformed.” One way the ego pretends to be reformed is through spiritual narcissism, when spirituality leads to increased self-centredness, superiority, or specialness. In the words of Chögyam Trungpa in Cutting Through:
“Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”
The purpose of meditation, as taught by the Buddha, is to ‘cut through’ layers of mind, to discover the awakened state, beyond the ego’s veil of illusion. Meditation is essential to learn the patterns of mind; to realise how deceptive the ego is. Learning the pattern of spiritual narcissism requires a healthy dose of humility, and sincere self-enquiry.
Narcissism as a trait is not inherently bad. Everyone exists on the scale of spiritual narcissism in its active and passive form, the messiah complex (grandiosity and superiority) and the martyr complex (false humility and inferiority). Deconstructing the patterns of both extremes is needed to avoid ego-centred spirituality.
Who does spiritual narcissism apply to?
“It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort or whatever it is that a particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism.”Chögyam Trungpa
The ego adapts to anything you can make an identity out of — being gifted spiritually, being highly sensitive or intuitive, having visions, being a good meditator, being a breathworker, shadow worker, part of a spiritual community, a lone wolf, having made a YouTube video on spirituality that went viral, being a psychonaut, being someone who wouldn’t touch psychedelics because their meditation practice is enough…
… being an integral worker, coach, Buddhist, Neo-tantric practitioner, against tantra because it’s basically an excuse for hedonism, nondual realised, spiritual-but-not-religious, a quantum mystic mixing science and spirituality, someone who read The Power of Now, those who never write because language can never capture it, those who write to capture it and forget to practice…
We’re not here to comply with the trend of labelling everyone else narcissistic. Spiritual narcissism applies to anyone and everyone on the path. If you’re convinced you’re never spiritually narcissistic, you’ll benefit from understanding these patterns, because the question is not if but how spiritual narcissism traps even the most sincere of seekers.
The cultural context
“If you talk to God, you are praying. If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”Thomas szasz
As with spiritual bypassing, it’s crucial to see the context through which spiritual experiences are interpreted. We exist in a cultural no man’s land between an orthodoxy which conflates God with power, and scientific dogma which claims the divine is make-believe. There’s a risk that spiritual narcissism becomes a buzzword to nullify experiences which are impossible within the material worldview. Without the appropriate context, comparing spiritual experiences to the West’s narrow model of ‘sanity’ risks identifying all non-ordinary states as deluded, or insane.
Equally, institutionalised religion preserved divinity for high ranking clergy. Within this worldview, anyone claiming to have found God within was labelled a heretic, with serious consequences. The Gnostics, for example, were a Christian sect that taught personal knowledge (gnosis) ahead of orthodoxy. Millions were murdered during the Holy Inquisition of the Catholic church, their books and temples burned to the ground. Perhaps wounds remain embedded in our ancestry, the repercussions of knowing God painfully encoded in DNA.
Knowing God is not narcissistic, because God isn’t an external overlord but an internal experience. Awakening to oneness isn’t psychotic, but a transcendent truth. The challenge, then, is identifying spiritual narcissism within a healthy context, not the strict boundaries of religious dogma or a Godless vision of the world.
The messiah complex
As we’ve touched upon knowing God, let’s start at the extreme end of vanity: the messiah complex. I use the term to describe how spiritual insight, altered states of consciousness, positive feedback, visions, dreams, or other non-ordinary phenomena become part of someone’s ego identity. Contextualising these ‘spiritual powers’ — which Eastern philosophies call siddhis — is essential to avoid an inflated ego.
Many gurus, including the Buddha, warn of the allure of siddhis. In a letter sent to applicants to her esoteric school in 1888, Russian mystic and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky, warned of ‘psychic vanity’ in her instructions to the group. There was nothing spiritual or divine about psychic powers, she said. Accordingly, no student of Blavatsky was allowed to develop magical powers before mastering self-knowledge. She wrote:
“No member shall pretend to the possession of psychic powers that he has not, nor boast of those which he may have developed. Envy, jealousy, and vanity are insidious and powerful foes to progress, and it is known from long experience that, among beginners especially, the boasting of, or calling attention to, their psychic powers almost invariably causes the development of these faults and increases them when present. Hence, no member shall tell another, especially to a fellow member, how much he has progressed or what recognition he has received, nor shall he by hints cause such to be known.”
A few years ago I had a kundalini awakening. During each ‘download,’ energy would course through my body, my eyes would roll back, and I would have lucid visions and feelings of bliss. Religious themes saturated my dreamscape, including the last supper and an ‘initiation’ with Jesus. I share this for the awkward acknowledgment that, for a while, I considered whether I was Jesus. Fortunately for everyone involved, support from friends on the path, and additional context, stopped me from getting too carried away.
Such religious experiences are common, and it’s hard not to feel special. The energy of higher dimensions is exceptional and intense, as is content from the unconscious (Christ is an archetype of the bridge between conscious and unconscious). This is often exploited by spiritual practices that create trance states, hypnotic experiences, or ‘spiritual highs,’ confusing them for advancement on the path.
Ram Dass captures the subtle difference between experiencing Christ consciousness, and developing a messiah complex, in a funny story about his brother, who was institutionalised:
“There was a moment where the doctor, my brother and I met in this hospital ward together, as the doctor wouldn’t let him see anybody without being present. I came in with a beard and a dress and beads. My brother was in a blue suit and a tie. He was locked up and I was free, the humor of which didn’t escape the three of us. We were talking about whether the psychiatrist would ever know he was God, and then my brother said: ‘I don’t understand why I’m in a hospital and you’re free, you look like a nut.’ And I said ‘well, you think you’re Christ.’ He said ‘yeah.’ I said ‘well I’m Christ too.’ He said, ‘no you don’t understand.’ I said: ‘that’s why they’re locking you up.'”
In the talk, Promises and Pitfalls of the Spiritual Path, Dass describes how mundane spiritual freedom appears to the ego.“It’s very hard to understand that spiritual freedom is very ordinary, it’s nothing special, and that’s what’s so precious about it,” he says. “And yet we keep trying to make it into something.” This is similar to the Zen koan, reportedly told by the well-known Linji Yixuan: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” In other words, even the most alluring of phenomena isn’t the true path of awakening, but another distraction.
Modern spirituality catches many seekers in this trap. We lack the grounding, context, teacher-student chain of instruction, and initiation that develops spiritual discipline. There’s a restlessness, an urgency, a need for instant enlightenment. Spiritual teachers who themselves are caught in the trap, and teach to further enhance their brand or ego, enforce this ego-centric approach as ‘the way.’
The martyr complex
“We fear our highest possibilities. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under conditions of great courage. We enjoy and even thrill to godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.”Abraham maslow
The martyr complex is a form of inferiority that is still narcissistic and reinforces the ego. This covers a range of behaviours that are inauthentic, but tick the checklist of what a spiritual person should do. False humility, acts of service to boost self-image, indulging in suffering, imbalanced abstinence or self-constraint, judging others as spiritually less than, fake compassion, overextending emotionally or energetically, all fall into this category.
Martyrdom, when authentic, is noble. But the martyr complex is a form of victimhood. Historically, it’s symbolised by the scapegoat, someone who suffers for their faith. It boosts self-centredness, even if that’s through being targeted, persecuted, misunderstood, or maligned. People with the martyr complex might view their awakening as burdensome, or take too much responsibility to ‘wake up’ others. They may emphasise their suffering, not from a place of resourcefulness, but to blame or project onto others or the world.
My flirtations with the messiah complex have been complemented by the martyr complex. Paranoia is highly self-indulgent, as is social anxiety and depression, which I’ve struggled with over the years and developed an identity from. Because these masquerade as ‘humble,’ they aren’t easy to detect. But overcoming spiritual ego requires work on the opposites of vanity and self-limitation.
The dirty work of spirituality
“I have never met anyone who simply ‘woke up’ one day, and never suffered again — however much we love to believe that story, about ourselves and others. I have never met anyone — teacher or student — who ‘discovered who they really were’ and never, ever forgot it again, even in the midst of physical pain or the beautiful mess of intimate human relationship.”Jeff foster
The messiah complex would have you believe you don’t need to participate, that things like earning a living, paying taxes, taking out the trash, or interpersonal conflict, aren’t spiritual. When spiritually superior, the all-too-very-human is judged as less than. You have to do the dirty work. Own your humanness, brave the depths of the unconscious, liberate the suppressed and denied.
It’s easy to be spiritual in moments of joy and bliss. But finding divinity in the dark, or faith during heartbreak, is the true test of any spiritual practice. These are opportunities to develop the discipline to mature in all aspects of life. Equally, the martyr complex may overlook your spiritual power, neglect the possibility for transformation, ignore or fear Godlike potentials that make you shiver with weakness and awe.
Your highest potential emerges from the tension of the paradox between the messy and the messianic, the Earthly and the divine, the mortal and immortal, the flawed and the flawless, the dark and the light.
Next: Spiritual Correctness
2 thoughts on “The Second Horseman of Spiritual Ego: Spiritual Narcissism”
This is an incredible article! Never thought of myself as a martyr until after reading this. Thank you for your wisdom!
I always find myself returning to the Middle Way between extremes, so it’s all part of the learning and balancing process. Thanks for engaging, Charlie!