Indications of Spiritual Narcissism
Sufi literature often overlooks the fact that persons require a modicum of self-esteem to maintain their basic human dignity. In a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad it is said, “respect is the right of every believer.” Such respect also entails the esteem of another to be fully functional, and this is recognized in Islam more generally. In classical Sufism, as opposed to its devolved, authoritarian forms, this is widely accepted.
Another hadith claims, “”A muslim is the brother of a Muslim. He niether oppresses him, nor humiliates him, nor looks down on him.” As for oppression, yet another hadith specifies, “”So far as oppression on the part of human beings is concerned, it means high-handedness upon one another.”
Since high-handedness or “looking down” at another are prohibited by Islam, it would seem that the opposite would be actively encouraged. The opposite of such high-handedness would require that one value another person and actively show them esteem. Too often, however, in mistaken zeal, certain Sufis believe that they can accelerate the demise of false egoism by deriding themselves as well as other people. Unfortunately, this has the effect of fostering an atmosphere of neurotic blame and shame in many Sufi gatherings. This does nothing but encourage a fixation at the level of the “blaming nafs,” and it blocks access to the “inspired nafs.” At the same time, the level of the inspired nafs also can lead to another form of imbalanced egotism.
Many who become fixated at the level of the “inspired nafs” show signs of spiritual narcissism. Since, it is said by the Prophet that “respect is the right of every believer,” the latter must be lived in a relationship of mutual reciprocity. Narcissism can be defined as “compensatory self-aggrandizement under the threat of personal devaluation and fragmentation” (Toussulis).
Breaking the forgoing definition into its components, one might first consider what is “self-aggrandizement?” How is it different from the need to secure a normal modicum of self-respect.?
What is Narcissism
Simply put, narcissism is displayed by the following behavior:
- demands for uncritical acceptance;
- the assumption of unrealistic entitlements
- the activation of competitive envy.
Taking this a step at a time — ones (normal) self-esteem does not require that one reject criticism. The one proviso is that such criticism is delivered respectfully and with the intention of enhancing the other person’s individuation. An active spiritual teaching always requires critical appraisal or critique; and one of the vital components of Sufi teaching is muhasibi (“self-reckoning”). While such self-reckoning must be undertaken on ones own, it is likely to occur by rubbing up against other people in a spiritual circle or halka. This friction is anticipated, and at times it may be brought to the surface in order to facilitate the further growth of the murid.
Another vital component of Sufism is humility. One must approach the teaching with a certain degree of forbearance. While it is not necessary to act in an obsequious manner, no one has the right to approach the teaching with an air of entitlement. Receiving a spiritual teaching is not an inherent “right.” One has to earn that right by establishing oneself as capable and trustworthy. One must treat the teacher and ones fellow aspirants with respect while maintaining a modicum of self-esteem. If not, one cannot be judged adequate to receive spiritual guidance or instruction.
The Threat of Personal Devaluation and Fragmentation
This brings us to another feature of narcissism, “the threat of personal devaluation and fragmentation.” No doubt, a Sufi circle must nourish and sustain an atmosphere of basic trust. Such trust, however, is not a one-way street. Both a murshid and a murid must establish trust gradually and in tandem; and if injuries to such trust occur, they must be carefully repaired. If they cannot be repaired, the teaching is aborted.
Devaluation often alternates with a childish idealization of a teaching or a teacher. Neither idealization nor devaluation are realistic and balanced. At the same time, since this often occurs, a proper sense of mutual respect must be maintained throughout the necessary period of disillusionment that establishes a greater sense of realism.
As one approaches the experience of fana it is common for a murid to experience the fear of self-fragmentation. It is important to realize that fana-wa-baqa (effacement with continuance) does not aim to destroy a person’s normative ego-functioning. Self-effacement gradually dissolves the fictive sense of a substantially separate ego — but not the ego (or sense of “I”) itself. Instead, paradoxically, one’s normative ego-functioning is refined and improved.
The process of fana does, however, require a dissolution of the “false self,” a structure that is based upon narcissism. The Japanese philosopher, Keiji Nishitani, defines this attribute as the “self-centerdness of a self become the center of the world.” Fana dethrones the separative ego, and realigns ego-functioning with the source of Being itself. Attendant to this process, nevertheless, is the normal confusion that most of us entertain between our “true” and “false” selves. Before one enters into this process, much mutual testing of the teacher and the taught must occur, and an iron-clad sense of trust must be established. Without such mutual trust, the process of fana can actually result in a disruption of necessary ego-functioning.
The Activation of Competitive Envy
This brings us to the final facet of narcissism (as described above): “the activation of competitive envy.” It is not uncommon for a murid to feign submission to a murshid. While attaining a partial “taste” (dhawq) of fana or inner unification (jam), the murid is still at the mercy of their former, egoistic traits. During this period – and while acting in a servile manner — many murids begin to release their suppressed resentment against the teacher and the teaching, overtly or covertly.
What is confirmed at this point is that the murid’s normal egoic or narcissistic needs have merely been repressed in the interest of “getting ahead.” Once a murid believes that they have adequately understood the teaching, the “commanding nafs” reasserts itself and another form of imbalance occurs. Devaluation of the teacher often signals the emergence of competitive envy, and the teacher is treated as a mere utility. At this point, the murid may simply discard the teacher and the teaching — having rendered them impotent — and “move on to better things.”
Throughout the process I have tried to describe above, there is a danger that the “commanding nafs” has not been fully tamed. Instead, it is “spiritualized.” The spiritualization of the separative ego actually results in a form of false wayfaring that leads to greater difficulty rather than ease. Instead of being dethroned, the “self-centeredness become the world” is further enhanced, and this results in a complete upending of the teaching.
One must never forget that the Sufism of our forbearers was an intensely inter-relational activity. Moreover, this attention to relationship mirrors the ultimate principle of “unicity within multiplicity.” Without due attention being given to the dangers of spiritual narcissism, a Sufi cannot mirror within himself the attributes of God. Those attributes include compassionate inter-relatedness. Least we forget, nevertheless, compassion is not the same as complaisance. The sword of Ali also includes a razor-sharp sense of discrimination without which a false sense of unification enhances spiritual narcissism and feeds it.
© Copyright 2011 Dr. Yannis Toussulis
Dr. Yannis Toussulis is the author of Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology, and he currently serves director of Itlaq Foundation – AIWP, a non-denominational religious non-profit dedicated to Sufi Studies. Dr. Toussulis formerly served as an adjunct professor in political psychology at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and he was formerly director of the Consciousness Program, Antioch University/West. He can be reached at Itlaqfoundation.com .
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