Nice to see a piece acknowledging the need to deal with narcissism, as I find that narcissism is becoming the new norm.
The original post also includes links to related articles.Meditation: The darker side of a good thing
By Douglas Todd
August 7, 2009. 10:35 pm • Section: The Search
Tens of millions of North Americans are now into meditation; practising stillness to deal with their frantic, whirling thoughts. Most meditators’ aim is to remain calm in the midst of life’s struggles.
Instead of being buffeted about by harsh events, many meditators in Canada and the U.S. try to “detach” from their feelings and impulses, thinking that will liberate them from suffering.
A recent Vancouver Sun poll conducted by the Mustel Group found one out of three British Columbians, roughly 1.4 million people, have practiced meditation. That doesn’t include many more who practise prayer in a contemplative way.
I believe meditation and contemplation are generally positive responses to North America’s culture of busyness.
But can meditation, contemplation and related practices encourage people to detach too effectively from their so-called negative thoughts, leading them to actually detach from life itself?
Can meditation even feed into the North American consumer society’s predilection toward narcissism, which sees individuals cultivating an inflated sense of their own importance?
The potential dark side of meditation is something of which to be aware.
In his brilliant book, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, Michael Eigen, tells the stories of two highly adept meditators who deep down, to put it in the vernacular, were not happy campers.
Eigen, a New York psychoanalyst who appreciates both Buddhism and his Jewish upbringing, profiles one respected meditation teacher who, when he came to therapy, was depressed and anxious and having trouble functioning.
“Owen,” as Eigen calls the client, believed that, since he was an accomplished Buddhist meditation teacher, he was superior to the therapist, who was only a part-time meditator.
Eigen began discovering about Owen that he did not come from a home in which he was hurt. In fact, he had been indulged by his mother.
Owen’s long periods of pleasant meditation on the concept of Buddhist Emptiness, Eigen says, paralleled his early childhood sensations of his mother’s doting affection. For Owen, “inflated maternal support blossomed in the Void,” Eigen writes, with a certain wryness.
Since Owen’s Buddhism instructed him not to hold onto such idealized maternal feelings, but to “detach” from them, Eigen believes the meditator never really confronted their negative ramifications.
In other words, Eigen believes Owen used meditation to deny his own dark side. The meditator felt himself better than others, including his students, and often privately denigrated them.
Eigen saw a similar dynamic in another veteran meditator, “Jesse,” a successful Wall Street analyst who came to therapy to deal with chronic fatigue syndrome and nausea.
Jesse often reflected on life’s possibilities in meditation, writes Eigen. “Meditation catalyzed Jesse’s creativity and heightened his already acute awareness of shifting sensations, moods and feelings.”
Although Jesse was a nice guy who seemed “open,” in his constant search for something new, he became insensitive to women and others. Eigen says Jesse really needed to control people, because they threatened him.
Jesse attended meditation centres for years, but Eigen believes meditation threw Jesse back into himself. What Jesse needed, in the end, was less meditation and more connection.
As Eigen says: “Jessie needed simple human contact, not Enlightenment.”
Thinking of Owen and Jessie together, Eigen believes they both hurt themselves by trying to escape from other people through meditation.
The meditators did not integrate life’s inevitable suffering and limitations into their own being, says Eigen. Focussing on their inner lives, neither Owen nor Jessie allowed themselves to be “transformed” by others.
Ken Wilber, another sophisticated spiritual thinker who is working to integate psychology, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and philosophy, also warns against North Americans treating meditation as a be-all and end-all.
Even though Wilber meditates himself, he laments how meditation in the U.S. and Canada is often accompanied by an attitude he calls “Boomeritis Buddhism.”
That is, Wilber believes many middle-aged baby-boomers who meditate bring to it an over-simplified commitment to pluralism and relativism and the notion that, “You do your thing and I’ll do mine.”
Meditation, Wilber said, does not necessarily help such individualistic people face their inner “Shadows,” the destructive aspects of their personalities.
Instead, Wilber says, when Eastern meditation teachers tell people to “kill their egos,” it runs the danger the students might “dis-identify” with their more unpleasant personality traits.
Meditation for many “becomes a process of transcend and deny … rather than transcend and include,” Wilber writes in his book, Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World.
The Eastern teaching that people should have “no ego,” an idea espoused by Vancouver-based spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and many others, encourages meditators to try to be “empty,” to have no viewpoint, says Wilber.
The trouble is many meditators believe that means having no viewpoints at all, even on important issues. As Wilber says, many meditators don’t believe in anything.
Although Wilber thinks people can through meditation reach elevated states of consciousness that can help them become more mature, he says there is no guarantee mediation will free men or women from their own narcissism.
I appreciate the way both Eigen and Wilber conclude that meditation can be beneficial, but that it’s only part of what’s necessary to reach maturity.
The true goal of meditation, and any spiritual discipline, is not only to “empty” oneself of negative feelings and thoughts, but to face one’s own inner demons. That leads, in a sense, to feeling “full” — in connection with yourself, others and transcendent values.
Meditation should lead to the development of wise beliefs, which Wilber says require a commitment to “compassion for all sentient things.” In turn, that requires developing a self (or ego) that is skilful enough to put compassion into practical action.
In other words, meditation and Buddhism have a lot to offer, but so do Judaism, Christianity and other spiritual and psychological paths that emphasize transformation and living life to the fullest.
As Eigen sums up: “No religion or therapeutic methods holds the best cards in all games.”
Or, as Wilber concludes: “Meditation is not wrong, but partial.”