The Special Models
In the same basic vein as the love models, we have the special models, which specify the degree of specialness that we will have at various stages of awakening or that promise specialness in general terms, or before even having gained actual realization, just by dint of association with specific spiritual figures or practices. It is nearly impossible for most people to untangle some vague and even specific notion of specialness from the results of clear perception of ordinary sensations, particularly as the various meditative traditions all sell specialness even when they try not to, as even that “non-specialness” and “ordinary mind” we find in traditions such as Zen still generally have a glossy sheen of spiritual specialness to them. Because of this sense that awakening will involve specialness, all sorts of complex problems arise.
The first problem that I care the most about, being a practice-oriented pragmatist, is that the sense of specialness that we imagine we have or will attain through practice will subtly or overtly separate us from our actual experience in this moment. Many moments don’t feel all that special. We are doing the dishes, driving to work, dealing with some angry customer or disturbed family member, washing the funk off our toes, or whatever. We are sitting on a cushion and our back hurts, our knees hurt, our mind seems a mess, and our practice feels disappointingly ordinary.
If we have some ideal that awakening is about specialness, then we may find ourselves subtly or overtly inclining to some imagined special future, to images of special awakened beings, to dreams of how wonderfully special we will be when we finally get awakened, and yet, paradoxically, those ideals in that moment block the very process we feel will make our lives, selves, and practice so special, namely clear investigation of this ordinary reality. This is a serious and pervasive practice problem and needs diligent attention whenever it arises. This specialness becomes a spiritually rationalized form of aversion to our current earthly reality coupled with attraction to some imagined reality augmented by the basic delusion that somehow this moment isn’t it: a triple-whammy of hindrances. Thanks, Special!
Next, if we imagine that specialness will necessarily pervade the lives of those who are awakened, we may seek traditions, scenes, spiritual friends, and teachers that seem the most special to us based on public opinion and/or our own ideals of what special is. Zen is so cryptically, aesthetically special. The Theravada is so starkly, practically special. The Tibetan traditions are so colorfully, magically special. Shingon is so exotically, mysteriously special. We may be attracted to fringe traditions that seem even more special than mainstream traditions just because they seem to be even more uber esoterically extra-special, yet down those ultra-special rabbit holes we may find forms of special we might best avoid. This specialness can lead to both subtle and overt drawing away from the ordinary facts of our life, our ordinary minds, and our immediate experience, which is, paradoxically, already special and unique beyond belief.
Dazzling is the specialness that the various meditation traditions can construct that undermines a recognition of the extraordinary in the “ordinary”. This dazzling aspect can at once draw people into situations where they find real wisdom and draw them into arrogance, fascination, humorlessness, narcissism, spiritual materialism, sectarianism, and bewilderment just as often. Specialness and intoxicating charismatic displays are double-edged swords. In the West, we tend towards high degrees of individualism and narcissism. When we combine these cultural downsides with these dazzling traditions that are relatively prone to glamorous exaggeration in their myths and advertising strategies, we have a recipe for trouble.
Consider the ethical motivation to save all beings everywhere from suffering: this is at once a beautiful aspiration and intention, a high standard that should reasonably keep us extremely humble, and yet potentially a set-up for staggeringly grandiose notions in those who misunderstand the explanations about such an aspiration and what that aspiration is intended to effect in our minds. If we identify with something like the bodhisattva vow despite warnings in the tradition to reduce and eliminate identification through skillful, balanced practice, and by ignorance solidify and reify this otherwise skillful aspiration and think, “My self-existent ‘I’ will personally save all self-existent beings everywhere,” then we are basically asking for trouble resulting from a lack of study of the subtleties of those ideals.
Were we to sum the total number of beings who have awakened through the efforts of the Buddha and all of his followers and divide it by the total number of beings of all types who have lived since the Buddha awakened, the number would be so close to zero as to make the idea in practice laughable, however noble the ideal. Were you to ask most senior meditation teachers how many of their students have awakened and mastered their practices to the degree that the teachers have, most honest ones would report small numbers, or else the population of great, awakened teachers would be very large by this point, and it is not.
I realize that the advertising strategies, myths, ideals, and ways of presenting all these ancient practices and traditions arose in cultural contexts, times, and places where perhaps they were skillful and augmented personal and cultural paradigms in ways that made for inspired yet humble practitioners who could practice well and achieve extraordinary results. Maybe medieval yak-farming peasants needed a bit of grandiosity to get them through snow-swept nights in freezing caves. Maybe they helped those sitting for long hours alone in sweltering jungles endure malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, and ravenous insects. We must respect the extraordinary trials and tribulations that great practitioners went through who mastered and transmitted these teachings in much more difficult times and settings.
I can easily wax very grateful and pragmatic, thinking that any advertising or coping strategy that delivered the wisdom to this time and place was worth it. But, on further investigation of the workings of religious or spiritual grandiosity in the history of the various meditative sects over the millennia, it might be worth deeply investigating how we frame high ideals, whether those aspirations are reinforcing grandiosity and spiritual narcissism or true humility and excellent practice, and whether those aspirations have been and continue to be the skillful approach that meets the needs of our time and context moving forward in these very troubled days.
There are misunderstandings that are perpetuated within all the schools of Buddhism and all fields of human endeavor based on ignorance, attachment, and aversion. My own take on many of those grandiose notions and advertising strategies, created by beings with mixed noble and ordinary mammalian motivations, is that they often do not work well in our time and place, are often not received or practiced well, and do not often skillfully counterbalance unskillful personal and cultural factors. Instead, I believe that many of those advertising strategies, ideals, and myths, all of which emphasize specialness of tradition, teacher, and methods, can cause serious imbalances, sectarian arrogance, and often exacerbate our already pronounced tendency to take ourselves way too seriously and be way too into ourselves, often to the detriment of our own practice and those around us. Obviously, I am not free of this either, and here we have evidence that even one who is trying with everything they have to break free of this conditioning can easily fail.
Luckily, we have some valuable terms and technologies that come out of modern psychology that may shine light and relative wisdom on what may be serious shadow sides of the meditative traditions, the three patterns that most readily come to mind: narcissism, narcissistic supply, and narcissistic rage. Narcissism, simply defined, is being pathologically self-obsessed, sometimes posited to occur because of not having physical and emotional needs adequately met in early childhood. Modern psychology contains a significant body of very useful and applicable theory about narcissism, much of which applies with scary precision to certain institutional aspects of the various meditative traditions. Any internet search will provide plenty of information on narcissism, and it is no accident that what is likely the most narcissistic age in human history is starting to realize that it needs much more information about narcissism.
Narcissistic supply refers to the various pathological interpersonal supports to a narcissist’s grandiosity and exaggerated self-importance. Many meditative traditions, sects, and more broadly many human organizations and institutions, from family units to large corporations, build communities around narcissists and reinforcing narcissistic supply. Narcissistic individuals and communities require nearly continuous doses of narcissistic supply as part of their pathology, with withdrawal setting in almost immediately if that supply is cut off or withdrawn. Thus, when someone becomes savvy to the dynamic and withdraws from participating as a narcissistic supply, he or she will often be scapegoated and demonized.
Narcissistic rage is the self-rationalizing, unbridled, and intentionally hurtful reaction that narcissists have when they perceive what is termed narcissistic injury, or, more specifically, when their sense of themselves as being special is in any way threatened or called into question, or when their ability to get their own way is blocked, or when those around them fail to meet their lofty standards for how they should treat the narcissist, which generally means praising them and deferring to their entitled and often impulsive demands. In other words, narcissistic rage is the likely result of perceived interruptions or threats to narcissistic supply. Narcissistic rage may arise both in individuals and collectively in narcissistic communities. Did someone with a larger-than-life personality and unusually high standards just metaphorically blow up your spiritual community and alienate one or more consistent and hard-working community members in their unusually large, compelling, and turbulent wake? Is your tradition waging a grand magickal war on some other tradition? Is your tradition sure it is the very best, most holy, most perfect and advanced tradition ever? Consider that these dynamics may contain narcissistic elements.
If you find yourself dealing with unusual amounts of angry reactions that seem intentionally designed to wound and exacerbate a situation rather than rationally resolve or calm it, all justified with the most elaborate and lofty spiritual notions, seriously consider that you might be dealing with a narcissistic person and/or community and read up on how to deal with them. It often takes two to tango, so you should carefully examine your own role in the dynamic, but narcissists will happily put all the blame on you and bat away any notions of responsibility with the fluid dexterity of an aikido master and a suppleness regarding concepts and the truth that may amaze you. Seeing the other side of an issue and taking others’ needs into account is not the narcissist’s forte, to put it gently, except to the degree that it feeds into their own grandiose sense of themselves.
Much of the best advice on how to deal with narcissistic individuals and communities boils down to three points: 1) establish and maintain very strong, consistent boundaries; 2) keep to the polite, respectful, and skillful end of the moral high ground; and, 3) do your best to minimize or eliminate dealings with the person or group without pathologizing them to others if you have sincerely owned your own stuff and found no workable or healthy solution. Space and distance help greatly. In short, and said in relatively vernacular and non-professional terms, don’t let their crazy become your bad day or bad karma. I have read some articles and pieces of advice that involve doing the opposite, such as shouting down a narcissist and mirroring back to them their own toxic behavior when they act out, but I consider this karmically terrible and unacceptable advice, and believe that the other methods are much more ethically sound and skillful spiritually, emotionally, and energetically.
Curiously, narcissists will generally opt for negative attention over no attention, so will try repeatedly to hook you into dramatic and entangled interactions. Very little is likely to be gained and potentially much will be lost by rejoining the narcissist’s games. Narcissists habitually, if unconsciously, craft and thrive on situations in which they will win, or at least you will lose, but most importantly the game and engagement in any form will continue. However, narcissists are often adept at providing something compelling about these dramatic situations, however low-yield, so it can take a high degree of self-control, psychological insight, and restraint to avoid playing into and exacerbating the drama.
There are other personality disorders that can predispose people to unusual degrees of rage out of apparent proportion to what is going on, such as borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder (this last one previously termed sociopath and psychopath). Your ability to deal with all these personality disorders will benefit greatly if you reading up on the reasons that individuals so diagnosed fly into rages, which vary a bit by the disorder. Luckily, these days there is much useful information on these topics readily available on the web, as we realize that these personality disorders cause a large portion of the drama and chaos in the world.
Given the relatively high percentage of people in the population in general and in spiritual communities who have these “Cluster B” personality disorders and traits, learning about how to deal skillfully and compassionately with these people is time well-spent. There are many good books coming out on narcissistic personality disorder, and one I recommend is Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited (tenth edition, 2015), by Sam Vaknin, a self-diagnosed narcissist. The book, while long, makes for compelling and highly informative reading and treats the subject with rare comprehensiveness and depth. It is a book produced by someone who not only knows narcissism firsthand, but whose grandiosity was turned into a useful service in the form of writing perhaps one of the very best books on narcissism.
This apparent paradox illustrates an important point: narcissists often have multiple unusually positive traits and well-developed talents despite their pernicious tendency to cause destruction in human relationships. When reading Vaknin’s amazing book, even the first few pages will likely remind you of many situations you have found yourself in, particularly if you are a narcissist or have codependent tendencies and tend to get wrapped up with narcissists by being their narcissistic supply. Reading about narcissism in general explains a vast range of human phenomena that otherwise would seem to defy explanation, including much of world history, the people that end up running countries, the news, and much of the trouble found in this world at all levels, including the spiritual scandal sheets that never seem to lack juicy material.
In that vein, it is entirely possible that you, the reader, have significant narcissistic tendencies, or have another significant personality disorder. We all have aspects of one or more of the personality disorders, a touch of narcissism here, a bit of the histrionic there, but for some people these are more than mere tendencies and instead pervade them to the core. If this is you, consider that insight into these conditions can improve your life substantially and allow you to get some of your needs met in more skillful ways as well as allow you to seek the help you need to address these challenges.
[My two main personality tendencies, neither that strong, are secret schizoid and obsessive compulsive. Both could be guessed by aspects of my story, specifically my deep love of retreat time, the countless solitary hours required to write this book, and my relentless fascination with mastering phenomenology. You might reasonably think it would be narcissist, what with “arahant” on the cover and all, but not so much in practice, oddly enough. It turns out narcissism and arrogance are not the same thing.]
Further, it is also possible that some of your spiritual friends and mentors will also have these personality disorders. None of the personality disorders necessarily prevent mastery of either concentration states or bare insight. This, I recognize, is a strong statement with vast implications, but it’s true. Because of this, we find a reasonable number of spiritual teachers who also have major personality disorders or traits, such as narcissism, borderline, and antisocial personality disorders. It is therefore not surprising that some of the most compelling, dazzling, and charismatic spiritual teachers fall into this category, as, whatever else you think of people with personality disorders, they are typically very interesting, often entertaining, and sometimes extremely attractive. It has been observed that people without the Cluster B personality disorders do not seem to sizzle in the way that those with them sometimes may. In just that way, many good meditation teachers without those disorders have a hard time creating as much spiritual buzz, specialness, exclusiveness, and grandness as teachers with more Cluster B traits.
Also, lofty and idealizing spiritual teachings and practices, being very “special”, may be more prone to attracting narcissists, who are then encouraged to master those practices over more “mundane” pursuits, which can yield practitioners who thereby destroy any chances of realizing the profound teaching: “Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment chop wood and carry water.” Any practitioner who sees him or herself as above service in the form of cleaning or grunt work (karma yoga) has missed an important part of training in morality. While narcissists privilege themselves and their agendas over others, the training in morality will remain shallow. [See http://www.johnwelwood.com/articlesandinterviews.htm about spiritual bypassing for very useful information to help keep practice from becoming part of the problem instead of the solution.]
Often tending towards perfectionism, some narcissists will do the work it takes to perfect their meditation craft. Just because you are a narcissist doesn’t necessarily mean you are lazy. Many high-functioning narcissists are found at the top of their fields. The same is true in the world of meditation. However, evidence shows that awakened narcissists are often still straightforwardly narcissistic, much to many an idealist’s chagrin. Numerous contemporary examples evidence this disconcerting fact. As contemporary psychology points out, the personality disorders tend to be relatively hardwired and, despite Buddhism’s frequent claims to free the mind of defilements, the personality disorders are proving to be hard nuts to crack, as it were.
Met some obvious narcissist who claims to have eliminated their narcissism by their amazing practice and in record time? Don’t believe the hype. Clearly, more good research is needed on the relationship between the traditions, their adherents, the results of practice, and the personality disorders.
The more you read about narcissism, the more it can seem that basically all the world’s spiritual traditions were highly decorated with flourishes of grandiosity by narcissists. This grandiosity seems to have had a sticking power that even non-narcissists have a hard time purging once it has gotten in. In fact, this book clearly contains numerous grandiose elements, as I am sure you have noticed, and I in no way claim to be free of some grandiose and flamboyant tendencies. However, if you look more closely, hopefully you will see that I have done my flawed best to try to strip out the grandiose false advertising and to ground claims and the promotion of spiritual practice in terms, concepts, effective practice, and results that have been reproduced today and hold up to down-to-earth reality testing by actual mortals, results that you can realistically achieve also by simply following time-tested instructions.
Finally, if we navigate the intricate play of the various pathological manifestations of specialness in our chosen tradition, investigate our own flawed, ordinary human life as it actually is, and successfully attain wisdom, it is very, very easy to transfer that specialness onto ourselves. Even awakened beings who aren’t formally diagnosable as having one of these personality disorders can, through long conditioning by the elaborately enumerated and relentlessly advertised theories on the specialness of those who are realized, fall squarely into the traps that the misunderstood ideals of the tradition have laid for them.
So, is it true that there is something special about awakened beings? Well, yes, which obviously doesn’t help the problem of narcissism relating to realization. However, this specialness is not only hard to explain, it is typically nothing like the specific marks of specialness that the traditions advertise, as it is about something in relationship to sensate phenomena much more than it is about anything else. This is extremely confusing even to some awakened beings, and it can take years or decades to sort out the implications of clear perception of the bare truth of sensate experience and what is special about it and what is just hype, projection, scripting, and mimicry. Remember that it is very ordinary mammals that get awakened, and keep that mammalian nature firmly in mind when the concept of “special” rears its hydra-like head. Often, the least flashy, least grandiose, and most down-to-earth traditions and techniques offer the highest level of empowering support for good practice that keeps it and you real and reduces suffering.