A Nation of Narcissists

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    ‘Narcissistic’ is a word being heard a lot in America these days. Someone even wrote to me in the past week saying, without a hint of irony, “I started meditating last spring and have truly grown to love and appreciate it. But I have just left my meditation group because it is so dysfunctional: the teacher is narcissistic and some of the followers as well.”


    Narcissism has become a meme—a cultural virus—in more ways than one. The word points to a common trait in North America culture—extreme self-centeredness.  And people are projecting the trait en masse, since a narcissist, by definition, cannot see that they’re being narcissistic. So the word has become, in our hyper-conformist culture, a fad word, which means that it’s just a supercharged way of saying ‘self-centered.’


    The incongruity of a purported teacher of meditation being narcissistic crosses into the territory of the absurd. Of course, the glib accusers of such ‘navel staring’ wouldn’t think it incongruous at all, since ‘looking inward’ is inherently an exercise in self-involvement to their way of thinking.


    Though it should go without saying, meditation is not narcissism or navel staring, though it can become both. Essentially, meditation is the negation of self-centeredness and ego in the gathering of undirected attention through passive watchfulness. In short, there is no center in meditation; therefore in a meditative state, there is no self.


    We’re not talking about the various forms of ‘meditation’ as exercises in mental control, like the Finnish fellow who runs marathons in the arctic snow without shirt, shoes, or sanity. With concentration, the mind can do incredible things, but that’s evident from the world of science and technology.


    Meditation, though it can be as focused as a laser, is not the willed concentration of mental power, but the effortless dissolution of mental noise and accretion. As such, the will is antithetical to meditation.


    The witless complainants of ‘navel staring’ are unwittingly right about one thing however. Begin with the premise of ‘my consciousness,’ and you end in narcissism. But begin with the premise that each one of us manifests a portion of the entirety of content-consciousness, past and present, and that the whole is enfolded within us, and meditation takes on a completely different meaning.


    Another person wrote to say, “I actually think non-human animals are, in many ways, superior to human beings because they are authentic and unselfconscious…and don’t contemplate their navels like humans do.” When I emailed a response, I received this auto-reply: “I am out of the office at a meditation retreat.”


    As most people know, the word ‘narcissism’ comes from the Greek myth about a ‘pathologically self-absorbed young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool.’ Freud believed some degree of narcissism was part of us since birth. And contradictorily, given its present connotations, some psychologists speak of ‘healthy narcissism.’


    Nonetheless, the word now signifies out of control self-centeredness, an extreme selfishness–the person who habitually puts themselves before anyone else.


    Within a person or a people, the true, accentuated, does not offset the false; but the false, unaddressed, does diminish the true. This is why the American diktat and compulsion to “accentuate the positive” has had the opposite effect. It has cultivated the negatives of individualism through negligence and denial, turning us into a nation of narcissists.


    Living in such a culture, one has to ask: Am I narcissistic? The question is one of those that can’t be answered with a yes or no. But if one honestly asks it occasionally, one probably isn’t.


    A narcissist is not, as the myth goes, in love with their own image. He or she is in love with vicious circles, finding a certain sick comfort in them. A narcissist exhibits the classic criminal mentality: confronted with the destructiveness of their extreme self-centeredness, it instantly becomes about how bad it makes them feel. That can pass for conscience a few times, but you soon realize it just completes the vicious circle.


    Facile and faddish accusations of narcissism tell you two things: self-centeredness is rampant in the culture; and despite the retreat and meditation industry, it isn’t being addressed or redressed at all.


    It’s incredible, even as the galaxy of therapists, lifecoaches, meditation teachers, yoga instructors, and retreat owners has grown, so too has the nutmeat and chestnut of narcissism. You would think all these personal guidance professionals would be decreasing the degree of self-centered activity in society, but they’re actually increasing it. Why?


    Is it because with the erosion and breakdown of society at every level, the unsplittable atom is the individual self, whether lower, higher, or middling?


    Be that as it may, true meditation and inward growth only begin with the negation of the center. The universe has no center; why should we?


    Martin LeFevre

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