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. 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.