One of the Buddha’s central teachings is anatta, or not-self. It appears in the list of the three characteristics of conditioned existence, along with dukkha (the difficulties that attend every human life) and anicca (impermanence). Fixed self-view, or beliefs about self, is also the first of the ten fetters we have to overcome as we gradually awaken.
In the Pali canon, we find the Buddha again and again teaching his disciples (and his own son, Rahula, above all) to abandon ‘the conceit “I am”’. They had to train themselves in noting, at every experience: ‘This is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself.’ He also warned against ‘the triple conceit’: I am better than the other person; I am worse that the other person; I am the same as the other person.
The great Zen sage Dogen explains the trajectory of dharma practice thus:
To study the Buddha dharma is to study the self;
To study the self is to forget the self;
To forget the self is to be confirmed by the ten thousand things.
In other words, dharma practice requires us to delve into our own personal experience: in this sense it impels us to ‘study the self’. But what we find in this experience – not least in the insight meditation tradition – is that, however much we look for confirmation of selfhood in the actual elements of experience, we find that none of them do that. They are all empty of self. Through repeated experiences of not-self, we ‘forget the self’. But what close attention to the elements of our experience does do is reveal our intimate connection with all other entities. It is through them that we participate in life – they ‘confirm’ us.
We can see from the emphasis that the Buddha placed on not-self that, even in his time and culture, people fell for the delusion of separate selfhood and their own individual specialness. For him, it was the foundation that samsara rested on.
And yet, compared to western society today, the Buddha’s life-world was far more communal. People were much more intimately involved in family and community ties and obligations, and that left comparatively little room for a delusive experience of separateness and specialness. The same could be said of the Buddhist homelands in Asia today.
So what has happened to the delusion of separate selfhood and specialness in the west, where it does not meet so much resistance in communal life? Western culture famously promotes individualism, which came to dominate it in the 1800s, often with destructive effects. Shortly after that, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, identified a mental illness he called narcissism, after Narcissus, of ancient Greek legend.
Narcissus is a handsome but vain youth who sets out to find someone to love. He attracts the attention of a beautiful nymph, Echo, who shows her devotion to him by repeating everything he says. But he rejects her, and she pines away. Eventually he sees his own image in a forest pool. He falls in love with his image, and is so much in love with it that he can’t stop gazing at it. And so he dies too.
Narcissus is vain and heartless, and thus impoverishes and destroys both his own life and that of the woman who loves him. He holds to the delusion of separate selfhood big time! Freud applied his name to a mental illness that had just these characteristics, and these effects. Narcissists are their own worst enemies, as well as the worst enemies of those around them. Their emotional development has been stunted, Freud said, so they think and feel like small children.
As the great 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described essentially the same pathology: these people do not know how to love themselves; they only know how to hate what is not themselves. Like the Buddha before him, Rousseau showed that healthy self-love (as opposed to sickly self-besottedness) is the precondition for the mature love and care for others. In not loving themselves well, narcissists cannot form deep bonds with others.
Today narcissism in its full-blown form is called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and its incidence is rising. One in six Americans will suffer from it at some stage in their lives. It’s probably not much different in other western countries.
The culture of narcissism
In a book that came out in 2009, The narcissism epidemic, by two American psychology academics, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, (New York: Free Press) we find that the problem goes well beyond the realm of clinical psychology and those suffering from the diagnosable mental illness, NPD. It is a cultural phenomenon that entangles us all, as Christopher Lasch brilliantly pointed out in his classic study, The culture of narcissism.
Since the 1960s, Twenge & Campbell suggest, narcissism has been infecting the culture, and inducing narcissistic characteristics in the population at large. It is personally, socially and economically destructive, including contributing to the debt crisis in the USA that led to the global financial crisis of 2008.
The causal link in this instance consists in two prominent characteristics of narcissism – grandiosity, and a sense of entitlement. (The authors’ subtitle is precisely living in the age of entitlement.) To acquire the grandiose McMansions and other objects of conspicuous consumption people imagine themselves to be entitled to, they accumulate unsustainable levels of debt. Both they and their lenders become estranged from reality, particularly in assessing individuals’ capacity to service debts.
Narcissistic characteristics rest on the delusion of separate selfhood in exaggerated form. They include self-admiration, a deluded sense of one’s own importance and talents, grandiosity, a strong sense of one’s own entitlements, loss of contact with reality, rage when reality gets in our way (as in the rising incidence of ‘road rage’), pleasure-seeking, shallow relationships, lack of love and compassion, an obsession with fame, fashion and wealth – with surfaces and appearances. The catch cry of this culture is Look at me!
If we think we’re special and apart from others – others who can simply be exploited (or alternatively pushed aside as obstacles) – then we have no moral sense at all. All morality rests on a sense of our interconnectedness – within our family, our community, our society, and all of sentient life with which we share this planet. To live skilfully is to live responsibly with others, which cuts clean across the narcissist’s agenda.
For this reason, narcissism is anti-social and amoral. The Christian tradition has an old list of ‘the seven deadly sins’: pride, wrath, envy, sloth, gluttony, lust and greed. As Twenge & Campbell point out, the list specifies narcissism to a tee.
Manifestations of the culture of narcissism
In western countries, this cultural narcissism represents a profound shift in public values, away from equality, inclusiveness, freedom and social responsibility, to the socially-destructive pursuit of personal fame, instant wealth and privilege. The delusion accompanying this change is astonishing: for example, one third of today’s high school students in America believe they will become famous!
The arrival of social media has accelerated the change. This is not to say that a particular individual’s use of social networking sites betokens a narcissistic trait, or that social media can’t be put to ethically skilful use. But it is to say that these sites are vectors of the narcissism epidemic.
As with any other disease, globalisation spreads it around. Chinese commentators, for instance, criticise ‘the little emperor syndrome’ in their country that is also fuelled by the one-child policy. Each of these only-children has two parents and four grandparents, among others, competing to spoil them rotten and convince them that they’re special.
While I think Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell are right to argue that the culture of narcissism is intensifying, this does not mean it is only the young who bear it. Perhaps all of us suffer from narcissistic patterns to some extent, and – alas – some inspiring and charismatic teachers exhibit them to a considerable extent. As the senior insight teacher Jack Engler has pointed out, narcissism can manifest in spiritual groups (not least their teachers) in the form of claims to be enlightened, with the tell-tale posture of ‘grandiose autonomy’ – that is, the supposed attainment of human perfection, purification and ‘detachment’.
All this masks the destructive core of narcissism: the inability to form stable, lasting and deep relationships with others. (Engler, ‘Being somebody and being nobody’, chapter 1 of Jeremy Safran (ed.) Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: an unfolding dialogue (Boston: Wisdom, 2003), p. 37).
This problem, though, points to the way spiritual practice can be deflected by the culture of narcissism; it does not add up to a critique, for instance, of dharma practice as such. Indeed, the dharma – when skilfully and honestly practised – is ‘the path secure’, in terms of the traditional Theravadin formulation. A path that leads unambiguously away from narcissistic delusions and vulnerabilities.
The dharma as cure
Ever since I began to practise the dharma, I’ve been aware of its added usefulness in criticising aspects of my culture. The dharma obviously represents a standpoint utterly opposed to cultural narcissism. But I was quite astonished to find the dharma cropping up at the end of Twenge & Campbell’s book. They show little interest in it until they arrive at a discussion, at the end of their book, of how narcissism can be resisted. But then where do they turn? To the dharma!
Empirical research shows that Asian Americans suffer the least of any US ethnic minority from narcissism, because they still enjoy a strong communal life, and (in many cases) the dharma itself. The authors look to the dharma not only for an exposure of the delusion of separate selfhood and individual specialness, but also for the all-important practice of mindfulness, which allows reality to flood back into the mind – what Freud referred to as the reality principle and reality-testing. They quote the Dalai Lama in particular with great approval.
A moment of mindfulness is (among other things) a moment of reality-testing, a moment with the reality principle, and thereby a moment of seeing into not-self and of liberation from narcissistic self-misunderstandings.
Western countries accord their citizens the freedom to practise the religion of their choice. But also as harbingers of the narcissism epidemic, they give Buddhists an extra incentive to practise ardently, in order to remain in good non-narcissistic health and so live skilful, fulfilling lives – including the nurturing of deep relationships.
~ Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand. His website is at wintonhiggins.org