The Spirituality of Narcissism
“Let me know Your enormity, and my tininess, Help me see Your infinity and my finite-ness”
–Mike Doughty, His Truth Is Marching On
The Spirituality of Narcissism.
The Secret. It’s all the rage. The book and movie have garnered the enthusiasm of millions. Everyone from Oprah to Montel is extolling Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual juggernaut. The premise of The Secret is simple; The power of attraction. Like attracts like. What we think, what we feel, acts as a magnetic signal, attracting its correlate from the Universe. The Secret says our thoughts and feelings manifest that which we desire. In fact, according to the teachers of the Secret, this works 100% of the time, for 100% of the people who use it. The Universe responds to our wishes, providing whatever we desire. This is because “we create our own reality”, and The Secret says science confirms this.
As with most things, The Secret is a Good news / Bad news scenario. First, the good news. The secret is (partly) true. Our thoughts and feelings are of consequence, and positive thinking and feeling can significantly characterize our experience of reality, even influence the way reality unfolds. The Secret cites everyone from Martin Luther King to Einstein as examples of people who knew -and employed- The Secret. Martin Luther King had a dream. Einstein said God doesn’t play dice. And so on.
The Secret uses valid (but partial) suppositions such as:
Our thoughts and feelings are powerful
and inflates them to a Kosmic (and false) scale, giving us: Our thoughts are the most powerful things on Earth.
The secret takes a statement like
Thought can influence reality
and amplifies it to “Thoughts create reality.” Not just any thoughts, but YOUR thoughts.
(By the way, are you a rape victim? I guess you created that reality with your thoughts. Was your family member killed in Iraq? I guessed you created that experience for yourself so you could learn from it. Wow. You are one sadistic cat.)
The Secret takes a truth like
The Self is one with the Universe,
and then immediately inserts the wrong self; The Ego.
Throughout, The Secret conflates ego (the frontal structure, personality) with Self (an unbounded, unlimited reality which transcends but includes all qualities). In doing so it engineers an unabashed Spiritual Narcissism. Ego is God. The vicissitudes of your ego, its preferences, its unresolved cravings, become the vestments in a regressive ritual. See? It’s MAGIC. You caste a spell, voila’, the Universe responds. Cuz you’re God. Why exactly an entity that IS everything would need more is not clear, why a Divine Being that is all powerful would need to appeal to another power is perplexing, but.. To cement this Kosmic Delusion, The Secret hypnotically repeats “The Universe” and “Your thoughts, your feelings” until the two are braided into a phantasm that places your Ego squarely in the Center of Reality, in control of all that comes in and out of being. What do you want to do with your Divine Power? Free all sentient beings? Awaken every sister and brother from the Dream? Dissolve the source of suffering? No. You want cars. And girlfriends, and boyfriends, and a new red bike and a big new house.
The Secret snags the self by flattering it into masquerading as the Self. As an egomaniac, I can attest to the efficacy of that strategy. And also to its disastrous results.
Allow me to pause for a confessional tangent. Before you think I am positioning myself as some spiritual fundamentalist who thinks materialism is bad and “spirituality” is good, let me set things straight. Me, Stuart Davis? I LOVE money. I LOVE sex. I want a new house. I’ll take a shiny red bike. I want to be rich, powerful, and successful. And I do not apologize to anyone for that. I think the ego is good, I think it’s games are legitimate and should be engaged. You know what else? I want YOU to be rich. I want YOU to be successful, powerful, and have every wish in the circus of your imagination brought into reality. As long as we’re not hurting anyone else, I say let’s go to town. I am the first to stand up and shout “THE EGO IS NOT EVIL!! THE EGO IS NOT BAD!! IT HAS GOTTEN A RAW DEAL FROM SPIRITUALITY! LET THE EGO BE WHAT IT ITS!!!” In fact, the ego is quite literally one of the most astonishing miracles to occur in the history of Universe. No joke. Celebrate it. It’s time we ended the spiritual war with the ego, include it as another facet of the Beauty in our Being. Why would we leave anything out? The self counts. The ego matters.
I also have to say: The ego is not the Self.
The Secret is selling tools that supposedly fulfill wishes, dreams, desires. But WHOSE wishes? What LEVEL of desire? What DEPTH of dream?
Well, here’s what sucks about The Secret: There are many levels of self, but only one which THINKS, and that’s the Ego. Thinking, feeling, thinking, feeling, these two conductors are the hub for all The Secret espouses, and sadly thoughts and feelings (while important and valid) come from an extremely shallow dimension of the self. Because of this, the Secret deeply, sadly, entangles us further into suffering instead of liberating us from it. The source of suffering is delusion -the illusion of separateness. It gives rise to craving, longing, desire. It’s the illusion that we lack something that sends us on the Odyssey of Acquisition.
The Secret gives us a cure that’s worse than the disease. Its cure for craving is controlling craving. Its solution to hunger is famine. The Secret speaks to materialism, narcissism, and other afflictions of self by sanctifying them, exalting them. Rather than liberate us from the Source of Suffering, The Secret reenforces it. It anchors us in the shallowest level of our self (the Ego) and consecrates its preferences, its fantasies.
When someone asks you what you want, before you answer, ask yourself What level of me are they asking? What level of me am I going to respond from? If I had all the power to wish for anything in the Universe, what would I wish for? Who am “I” anyway?
It is dangerous to insert the ego in the place of the Self -the highest Self, the deepest Self, the one that is without a beginning or end. The ego -the subject- is a boundary. It identifies itself by what is inside or outside of it. Whatever is outside of the subject is an object. The small self is a dynamic aggregate of qualities and preferences, locating itself anew in each moment through a calculus of these subject / object distinctions ( I am this, I’m not that, I like this, I don’t like that, I want this, I don’t want that, this is me, that is not). The self depends entirely on boundaries.
Self, on the other hand, has no boundary. Self has no “other”. It cannot be reduced to any particular qualities or characteristics, but all qualities and characteristics rise and fall within it. Self includes vertical and horizontal coordinates that stretch as deep and wide as the Universe itself. It is true that all Reality arises from and dissolves into the Self. Not the ego, not the personality, not an individual, but the Self -the Groundless Ground of all Reality.
The ego is defined by preferences, identified by desires, determined by boundary.
The Self has no preferences, no desires, no lack, no inside, no outside. It includes all preferences, but is not defined by them. Desire arises within it, but it is not identified with it. Every imaginable boundary forms and dissolves within the Self, but never parses its not-two not-one Nature. This Self -entire seen and unseen Kosmos- is the native endowment of every human being. Our greatest depth is without bottom.
The good news: You can have your cake and eat it too. You don’t have to disown your self to be your Self. You have an ego. You are the Universe. But don’t confuse the two, and don’t let anyone else confuse them for you.
I have an ego, and it has desires, and it’s healthy and appropriate for that level of my being to seek fulfillment. My thoughts are powerful, and my feelings matter. But the Universe does not reconfigure reality to accomodate the personal preferences of my ego, my frontal structure, every time an impulse comes through my reptilian brain stem. That is not just narcissism, its KOSMIC narcissism, and that is what the Secret is selling. Kosmic narcissism, spiritual materialism of the WORST kind. First, by ensnaring me in my own ego with the promise of release, liberation from desire (while addicting me to it) and second by getting me to forfeit my Self for my self. Since my ego is now Divine, since my frontal structure is now Infinite -Stuart Davis is God- why on Earth would I ever bother with finding my Self? Actual awakening requires real development, years, decades of practice and evolution. Continually moving my Subject through ever-expanding, ever-inclusive transformations takes TIME and TROUBLE. Of course there is no such thing as time, but authentically realizing that takes time. Of course there is no such thing as suffering, but profound recognition of that Fact is exquisitely painful.
Authentic spirituality is not a vending machine that spits out cars, lovers, and shiny red bikes. It is not a wand we can wave to avert discomfort, or acquire power. Actual awakening increases intimacy with all suffering (and bliss), everywhere, without exception. It does not remove struggle, but increases our devotion to and stewardship of all Reality.
Again, to be clear: I, Stuart Davis, want to be rich. I want to be comfortable. I want lots of Prada shoes. Hell, as long as my cravings are satisfied, I want that for everyone. That’s not bad. I do not apologize for that, and this is not hyperbole.
But call a spade a spade. I work with my ego, but I don’t presume the Universe is reinventing itself moment to moment in order to comply with the minutia of my needy personality. There is the self, and then there is the Self. I go to my therapist for one, I go to the Point of All Places for the other.
I, the Self, which also includes Stuart but is not defined by him, was here before Stuart was born, and will be here after he dies. The Self is the end of Suffering, and operates through all discrete agents as a means to Awakening to Reality as it Is. I am that Self. I am radical, absolute freedom. Incorruptible. Immutable. Every imaginable thing is that Self, equally without exception. But not all things equally realize that. Not all beings are equally awake. There is development. There is evolution toward what already Is.
The Self is absolute freedom. The self is relative delusion. The Secret is appealing to the relative self and pretending it’s the absolute Self.
The Secret crowns the Ego as God (I mean, YOU create Reality, isn’t that amazing? YOUR THOUGHTS are INFINITELY influential), then makes two disastrous leaps.
#1, Now that you know YOU create your own reality through the spiritual enterprise that is “thinking, feeling”, what do you, the Creator, want to create with your thoughts? Wealth. Money, power, influence, status, and the luxury afforded the elite who amass fortunes. The Secret will teach you how. Odd, isn’t it, that your self is so spiritual and powerful, but what it chooses to Attract with its Law is money, houses, lovers. Not the liberation of all sentient beings, not relief for every creature, not the cessation of that which is the Source of Suffering (clutching, desire, greed arising from the illusion that there is an “other”), but a refinement of the Source of Suffering. A manipulation of it. The Secret turns Desire and Clutching into a technology you can wield, AND its Spiritual! The cure is worse than the disease.
#2, Since YOU create your own Reality (Oprah went to pains to stress and emphasize this point, and had Rhonda explicitly confirm precisely that phrase “we create our own reality”) you are responsible as the Source of whatever arises in your Reality. Every thing in your experience, you created (merely using thoughts and feelings! Wow). Many of you reading this right now may be astonished to finally understand you gave yourself cancer. You caused yourself to be raped, robbed, murdered, stricken with every malady in the canon of illness, beset with each kind of strife imaginable. The Holocaust? Just something Jews brought on themselves, as they each apparently created their own Reality. The Rape of Nanking? Bad Chinese, with their bad thoughts and feelings, simply created their own reality and thus caused the unspeakable murder of 350,000 innocent children, women, and men. Weird, the Reality people create for themselves, ain’t it?
Of course, it’s hard to overstate how cruel and insulting such a notion is. The impossibly sick premise that people in such situations create their own Reality is so obviously wrong, so self-evidently false to our basic intuition, that we can almost laugh it off. I mean, we could if Oprah -perhaps the most influential woman in the Western World- hadn’t gone to pains to repeatedly emphasize and confirm it with Rhonda Bynre to an audience of tens of millions. Tens of millions of people who literally orient their lives according to these sorts of “discoveries”.
There are not just many levels of smaller self (the ego is but one), but different spheres, or dimensions. The Secret is not only selling a shallow dimension of self, but it is also only acknowledges one aspect of self.
The Secret is working in one realm (interior individual). And it actually does a useful thing in that realm. Positive thought is important. We can change the way in which our thoughts and feelings symbiotically produce healthier behavior. That’s good. But there is so much more to the story. We have an inside, and an outside. We are individuals, and we are also social beings. These realms are all part of who we are. All four realms come together at once, they tetra-arise as Reality. No one domain “creates” the others. Each is indispensible. The interior of an individual (where thought occurs) does have correlates in the exterior of the individual (manifest as measurable biological change). We are beings with an inner and an outer worlds. But Reality is not composed of individuals. We are also collective beings, with shared interiors, or inter-subjective domains. Such as culture, collective consciousness, and all that goes with the inner World of We. That shared inner world is complemented by the outer world, the inter-objective domain of Nature, the biosphere, and all that can be seen and observed in corporeal form. These FOUR domains:
*The Interior of an Individual (where thought occurs, for instance)
*The Exterior of an Individual (the body, what can be measured and seen objectively)
*The Interior of the Collective (Culture, invisible features of mutuality, inter-subjective social)
*The Exterior of The Collective (Biosphere, planet, infrastructure, the inter-objective realm)
While The Secret promotes itself as the magic wand for everything, it actually deals with one part of one realm, and misrepresents itself while doing it (by substituting self for Self).
To claim any one of them “creates” the other is a disaster, and unfortunately fairly common occurance. Any time you find a discipline which FOCUSES on a particular domain (which is good) you find it is tempted or seduced into claiming that ONE quadrant is the only “real” one, or the only “true” one, or the only important one (which is bad). That is another of The Secret’s defects.. It takes one realm, one perspective (The Interior of an Individual) and claims it creates all the others. Wow. YOU, your thoughts, create your body. And the biosphere, and the entire culture, and history of the planet, origin of species, all the cities you could visit, all the planets in the Galaxy, all the Galaxies, all the… and so on. And its wrong. Sorry. Your thoughts, your feelings, while being important and valuable, are but two coordinates in one Quadrant.
Your thoughts and feelings are not the Source of Reality, but two of its features. You do not “create” your reality, you participate in it, and in certain circumstances, under particular conditions, you can influence it. And it is good and useful to cultivate that influence, to positively nurture those portions as much as possible, in the interest of love.
Rhonda Byrne’s Secret is bad Self-Help masquerading as mysticism. Broadly, “spirituality” can mean anything. So when we say spirituality, what level of spirituality are we talking about? What altitude of awareness are we coming from, what level of “spirit” are we referring to? I’m not saying The Secret is not spiritual. I’m saying it’s a very low-level of spirituality masquerading as a high one. What it uses as enticements (become wealthy, get a better job, get a lover) are very telling. It is appealing to a person’s desire to attain, acheive, and better their personal station. It is promising you a better STORY. And that is indeed one altitude of spirituality. But it’s the bottom, and inflating it can end up keeping people stuck in the cycle of suffering even longer. Because the self is addicted to its STORY. The Self is the end of all stories.
Now contrast The Secret with The Mystery. The Mystery, to me, includes all four domains (inner, outer, individual, collective) and does not privilege one over the other. It engages them as tetra-arising. It includes them as inextricably inter-woven, yet distinct in important ways. The Mystery includes every altitude in every domain, and values each of them, but also understand their differences. The Mystery includes every methodology, every ontology or Way of Knowing, but it also understands what they do, and what they don’t do. The Secret is but a method, and it will not set you free from The Story. In fact, it will probably suck you deeper into it. It promises money, power, increased attraction, and tells you it is “spiritual” practice. Your story could become so comfortable, why would you ever forfeit it?
Here is an important question: What level of YOU wants to get rich? What altitude of YOU wants a new house, a better lover, an improved Story?
Here’s what I feel is a healthier approach. Use the right tool for the right job. The right decoy for the right level. I think it is GOOD to improve our financial station. I think it is GOOD to have an exciting love life. That’s why I have a financial advisor. That’s why I see a therapist. I need to work on my self. I want to improve my relative reality. But I don’t need to invoke “the Universe” or quantum mechanics or magical-narcissistic mysticism to do so. That’s tremendously misguided. Want to find your Self? See Swami Sally. Want to get a new house? A better blow job? See Suze Ormon and Dr Ruth. Stop it with this Secret delusion. It’s offensive and detrimental to our work in the Mystery.
Perhaps worst of all, until we are truly FREE -free from the Source of Suffering, free from desire, clutching, the assault of our false identities and all their Stories- until we are that FREE, we cannot really be available to help others become FREE. And that my friends, is the hokey pokey.
First published at www.stuartdavis.com