Mysticism & Narcissism…

Here’s a very interesting, and somewhat challenging, quote from a Jewish Blogger:

It seems to me that [spiritualism] encourages self-involved people to become more self-involved. Spiritual types often talk about the “universe” in the same way that a certain kind of Christian or Jew sees the hand of God in every banal event, or a certain kind of New Yorker broadcasts every little conversation he’s had with his shrink. And while these examples may show that narcissists are drawn to whatever feeds their narcissism, I do think that spiritualists are more likely to confuse causality with their own egotism. I’ve never heard of anyone visiting a psychic in order to learn how to be more generous with other people.

— Gordon Haber, The False Science

Okay, my point in passing this on is not to take potshots at spiritualists or psychics. Rather, this struck a nerve with me because I’ve wondered the same thing about good old Christian contemplation. It’s the old navel-gazing issue: at what point does meditation, or prayer, or other practices associated with the contemplative life stop being forces for liberation and holiness, and instead simply function as ways of self-referential, narcissistic ego-building? “Look at me, I’m so spiritual, I pray the entire divine office and sit in silence for an hour every day.”

Teresa of Avila insisted that the only sure measure of progress in the spiritual life is the question of how we love. You want to find an authentic mystic or “spiritual master” to mentor you? Look for someone who is truly loving, kind, has healthy boundaries, a living conscience about matters such as justice and environmental sustainability, and who has a keen awareness of his or her own brokenness and woundedness (read: imperfection), but who is nevertheless trying to heal and grow.

When Contemplation Feels Like Dying
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Creative Conversation Begins with Contemplative Compassion
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • elizabeth

    how interesting, especially as the Jewish mystical tradition is largely about growing from being dominated by a “taking will” to cultivating a “giving will”

  • Al Jordan

    I appreciate this post. I, too, share a concern about the potential for ‘good ole navel gazing’ to feed narcissistic tendencies in the personality. And you offer some very sound and practical advice for guarding against that. I especially appreciate the emphasis on our needing a keen awareness of our own brokenness and woundedness. It’s from that sense of woundedness that our outward kindness comes. I have a personal little model for maintaining the balance between inner work and outward expression that I use for myself which I call Three Jewels and Two Settings. The three jewels are acceptance, letting go and opening. These are the work of contemplation. The settings are loving kindness and mindfulness and these are the outward manifestation of the inner work. If I don’t see the settings, then there is no place to put the jewels. Thanks for this very helpful posting.

  • Caris Cerdwyn

    That quote made me bristle! I’ve been a “mystic” for many years. And I do find God in the small, ordinary stuff. I listen for Spirit’s voice there…like Brother Lawrence. But it isn’t about self serving. It’s about justice and love and learning to pay attention to others’ needs. And I am quite aware of my brokeness. Doing my best to heal. And that has been very hard. however, I would caution against dualism. There may be those who look as though they are naval gazing. And there may be those so broken that it is taking a very long time to heal enough that they CAN pay attention to others’ needs and the bigger picture. Ultimately I try to listen to Jesus’ words: Judge not… We don’t know another’s journey or why they may be doing what they are doing. We have to do our best with what we have, and know that many are doing their best as well. AND those who are self serving are probably the ones most in need of healing. There…I’ve had my say.

    • Carl McColman

      I certainly agree that those who are self-serving are often those most in need of healing. Here’s what I’m wondering, though: sometimes the “spiritual” work we do, far from healing us, can actually make the core issue (in this case, narcissism) worse. Maybe not always, and of course judging is always dangerous, but still… maybe working in a garden or volunteering at a women’s shelter would, for some people, be a far more “mystical” thing to do than just reciting another rosary in a compulsive manner.

  • Lisa Are Wulf

    I really appreciated this post. As a contemplative – and a person who was closely associated with a narcissist for many years in the past – this is an issue of concern for me. I also agree that love must be the end goal – so to speak. That seems to be the trait that holy people through the ages have in common. So the question to ask is – why does a contemplative say all the offices, etc.? An honest and self searching answer can shed great light on one’s spiritual life.

  • Liz W

    This is something I struggle with: how can I better allow my mystical experience to change me for the better, not just inwardly, but in my outward behaviour? I feel the two ought to be linked, but it’s rare that I can see the link being effective in my own practice. Any suggestions and tips gratefully received!

  • Al Jordan

    Very good question, Lisa Are Wulf. Very good question. I would like to hear from others, but as a self considered contemplative who does not say the offices, I would think it is like any other practice, i.e. reciting mantras, visualization, focusing on breath, reciting prayers, reading sacred text or using prayer beads…something that gathers and focuses the mind and provides an entry into the spiritual and sacred. Like to hear from others, though.

  • john waligorski

    I totally agree with you. One may be a great meditatator but if they don’t have love it is for nothing. We have to balance action and stillness in our spiritual practice. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were very much into work, hospitality and prayer. Also, I agree that experiencing life in the fullest, both the good and the bad make for a good spiritual teacher. If a teacher has not descended into hell how can they truly know the joys of heaven. I’m skeptical of any teacher who knows all the answers and there seems to be allot of they around.

  • Ali

    I very much enjoyed this post, and the quote – except for the very last line:

    I’ve never heard of anyone visiting a psychic in order to learn how to be more generous with other people.

    I do. In fact, most of the people I know who take divination seriously see it as a form of prayer or connection with the Divine and turn to it as a practice for seeking guidance and insight into how to live their lives better. My fiancé used divination regularly during his divorce to seek guidance on how to find emotional stability and forgiveness so that the divorce would be amicable and as gentle as possible on his kids. I use divination regularly in order to gain insight and perspective on bad habits or unhealthy patterns in my life, and it has often shown me things about myself that have challenged me to become more loving and more generous and more compassionate (or less cynical or less pessimistic or less controlling).

    On the other hand, I get that Gordon Haber isn’t really talking about divination in this quote, any more than he’s talking about psychiatry or counseling as being inherently navel-gazing. He’s talking about a way of behaving that plenty of people slip into, and how almost anything can become a vehicle for narcissism if we’re not orienting ourselves towards Spirit. He just happens to use a stereotype about “the kinds of people who go to psychics” to make his point (just like he uses a stereotype about New Yorkers), and it rubbed me a little bit the wrong way. Had to speak up and complicate this notion of divination so folks don’t get too comfortable with stereotypes. ;)

    (For the record, I don’t think all New Yorkers who go to therapy are Woody Allen, either.)

    • Carl McColman

      Ali, thanks for your eloquent stereotype-busting. :-)

      In my experience, people who do their own divination typically bring more self-reliance, and, consequently, a higher measure of consciousness, to the work, than do those who pay to see a professional psychic. But that’s only my experience, your mileage may vary.

  • http://none Bill Thomas

    First, I would be more interested if the quote was from a Christian blogger. But attending to that which is printed, may I say, as with most subjects when intellect is applied there is some truth, or in perhaps in Christian terms , some temptation when seeking higher ground. Yet as with all temptation narcissism depends upon the participation of others.
    I refer readers to Page 47, Big book, both the Scripture and Elizabeth of the Trinity.

  • Ali


    I’ve never actually been to a psychic myself, though I’ve wanted to just to see what it’s like. I do know people who give readings, but I also know that because antiquated laws against “witchcraft” (which tend to equate it with fraud and fleecing the public) vary from state to state, they often have to provide their services as “for entertainment purposes only.” So I’m not surprised by the stereotype that only a narcissist would seek out such entertainment as a serious form of self-reflection/-gratification. On the other hand (I have a lot of hands today, it seems ;)), the folks I know would prefer that their services be taken seriously as more like counseling or spiritual advising (such as might be provided by a therapist or a priest) than like a Magic 8 Ball or carnival attraction. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who do the whole psychic thing as a gag for entertainment, though. I have no idea how many of the latter there are compared to the former – but like I said, I just enjoy being the complicating type. :)


  • Michael Kennedy

    The ego is such a powerful entity that it battles on all fronts. It can battle on the front of spirituality. And in that way it is the real corruptor of good practices. So the question is really how we progress on our spiritual journey.
    It seems to me that the first building block we need is to really observe this narcissistic tendency. It is there but once observed it loses its corruption efficacy. Patience is also needed because the narcissistic tendency asserts itself again and again. Again and again we bat it away with observation and at times a good old raucous laugh.
    The ultimate narcissism killer is awareness of awareness.

  • Phil Soucheray

    This issue Has to be one that every mystic has faced. It could be that Jesus’ time in the desert is one example. For me the implication seems to require that I ask of myself why I engage in any form of contemplation or prayer. If it is anything other than to put myself in some sense of connection with God’s spirit so that I can in some small way do God’s will, then it likely is fueled by egoism/narcissism.

    Engagement in the Process requires that I also have a spiritual friend who is unafraid to slap me up side the head sometimes when I go off course.

  • trev

    I was discussing a similar subject just today with a spiritual friend of mine. What I see is embodied in Matthew 17. Christ ascends the Mount of Transfiguration, and his full glory is revealed there. But immediately thereafter, he descends from the mountain, rejoins the mutltitude, and heals a man’s son.

    It’s not enough to go up; we must also come back down, to the nitty-gritty reality of existence on this planet. What we do in that existence is the true spiritual work.

  • David Ford

    Perhaps looking to ‘motivation’ might be helpful. Do I engage in the contemplative life to be recognised as a contemplative (by myself or others) or to draw closer to the source of my being? If the former, then beware egotism and narcissism, if the later then I will find healing for my brokenness and power for service. It’s more about the ‘why’ than the ‘what’.

  • Lynne

    David, so succinct and so well-said!

    I battle with the issue of making my spiritual practices more relevant to my daily life. I believe most honest seekers face the same conundrum.

    But perhaps just asking ourselves “why” we engage in such practices gives us the deepest answers. How many of us actually perform this simple, powerful questioning? Not many, I would say.

    It’s funny how the simplest action so often eludes us.


  • John L

    This tension may be what compels some to denigrate the inward or mystical life (e.g., To some, spirituality is about logic and information. For others, it’s about the intangibles of heart and feeling. I wrestle, as perhaps many contemplatives do, with the perennial tension of seeking enlightenment while trusting that the “work has already been done.”

    I think the proof is in one’s life: if our practice/faith/discipline/study is not making us increasingly more kind, empathic, compassionate, slow to anger, charitable, forgiving, loving, generous, and hopeful, then we’re probably stuck in propositional religion and not experiencing the freedom of the cross. I do think Jesus came to free us from religion, not to create more of it.

    Critics of the mystical life seem to rarely point the camera back at themselves to gauge their own empathic/spiritual maturity. To paraphrase Paul, I may possess the finest theological/apologetic knowledge imaginable, yet if I haven’t grown in love (compassion, empathy, charity, heart intangibles, etc.) I’ve missed the Whole Point.