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Are the Spiritual Habits, and The Journey, a Form of Narcissism?

The September 2015 edition of The Journal of the American Academy of Religion arrived yesterday. I was drawn to the article by C.W. Huntington, Jr. “The Triumph of Narcissism: Theravada Buddhist Meditation in the Marketplace.” (624-648)

Huntington offers a commentary on the recent flourishing of “mindfulness based psychotherapy” and posits that this version of Buddhist meditation is the very opposite of vipassana meditation. The soteriological aspect of vipassana meditation is that it enlightens one to the illusory nature of the self. While samatha-bhavana–a technique for calming the mind by focusing attention on a single object–helps calm the self, vipassana-bhavana frees the mind from the self altogether. Modern Western psychotherapy, on the other hand, is about helping the self to function properly in society. Mindfulness based psychotherapy has adopted forms of samatha-bhavana to calm the self, Huntington posits, but in the end has accomplished the antithesis of Bhuddist philosophy. Instead, it has fed western narcissism.

I’m taking the time to reflect on this article for two reasons. First, I found it fascinating because I really know nothing about Buddhism and it was very educational. Second, and more importantly for my purposes, it invited me to reflect on the narcissistic tendencies of my own theology in general and The Journey in particular. I do not want The Journey to do the same thing to Jesus’ teaching that Huntington accuses western mindfulness psychotherapy of doing to Buddhism.

Let me explore this further by recounting the basic premise of the The Journey and supposing how a Buddhist might respond to it (fully acknowledging that I don’t really know what a Buddhist would say). The Journey begins by asking the question: Where Am I? The answer to that question invites the traveler to expore her self. I call this section The ME that God is Creating. I chose to start here because everyone has something to say about his or her own experience of reality, regardless of his or her religious upbringing. It is the only thing we can actually know. The Buddhist might say that the ME (self) is an illusion. However, she may concede that, while the self is an illusion, we all share the experience of the illusion, so we may be able to start here nonetheless.

The Journey then moves to the second question: Where Am I Going? The answer is that we are going deeper into the infinite heart of God. This is not a singular destination, but is a deepening relationship with the infinite. Here is where the conversation between the Christian and the Buddhist might get interesting. According to my reading of Huntington’s article, the Bhuddist would say that the place we are going–a definition of the infinite–is the liberation from the illusion of self so that one is no longer born into the suffering of being. In other words, a the notion that God is another self with which my self can have a relationship is, in itself, an illusion, and the the infinite is the realization that there are no selves at all.

I agree with the Buddhist that God (our convenient label for the unlabelable infinite) is not simply another self, in the way that I am a self, with whom I can have a relationship like I have with my wife, my friends, or my dog. However, I must admit my deeply Western mindset and the difficulty I have in comprehending the point of existence if the self is nothing more than illusory. The search for self is a deeply complex conversation, admittedly, that far exceeds my knowledge or expertise. Yet, in my ignorance, I wonder what, in my personal experience, is perceiving the illusion of self if there is no self at all, and why have we been trapped in this illusion in the first place?  However, I also readily admit the narcissism of the Western fixation on self, self-actualization, and self-help. See my friend Alex Blondeau’s work on Living through Death to feel the tension that the Christian faces in this topic.

What, then, is my definition of a deepening relationship with the infinite and the place to which I may be leading the The Journey travelers? It is framed in the relationality of the Triune God. I build upon Jesus’ simple command and metaphor. He commands that we are to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbor as ourself. He offers the metaphorical language of dwelling in John 13-17–The Father (sic), the Son, the Spirit, the disciples, and the world all experience a mutual indwelling, and this is the glory of God.

The Journey leads us into the Triune God. We will spend the second half of The Journey exploring the three articles of the Apostles’ Creed, one module per article, in order to explore the infinite. The goal of these modules is not to describe or apprehend God, but is to reflect on the historical and liturgical expressions of the human/divine intercourse and find the self both authenticated and transcended-for-the-other in the process (See Conn’s work on conversion and these posts on self-transcendence).

The third question of The Journey is: How do I get there? How does the traveler, who begins in an illusory self, get to a place of self-for-the-other within the relationality of the Triune God? The simplistic answer is: the spiritual practices. This is where Huntington’s critique creates a cautionary tone for The Journey. The typical westerner, Huntington argues, looks at the prospect of engaging in the spiritual practices, or an experience like The Journey, and asks: “What’s in it for me?” The practitioners of mindfulness psychotherapy, he says, would reply that the practices help the self become more suited to perform in the world. It’s all about me becoming a better me. This feeds narcissism. I agree.

The Spiritual practices, I would argue, are not engaged for the purpose of helping me get in touch with myself. Rather, the traveler begins the journey with the illusion that my self is either (a) the center of the universe, or (b) not worth anything in the universe. This is an oversimplification, but most average suburbanites live their daily lives toggling between these two basic, destructive and illusory self-perceptions. The Journey begins with the self–wherever one may find one’s self-perception–and seeks to bring the traveler into a broader understanding of self. This broader understanding, I would hope, is a healthy view that the self is not an autonomous singularity, but that the self is constituted by the relationality with all things which flows from the ground of being that is the relationality of the Triune God. This is a slow process that requires the reflective practice of dwelling in the Word and the World in the context of intentional relationships.

I would hope that The Journey navigates between the narcissism of mindfulness psychotherapy, on the one side, and the complete loss of self achieved through vipassana-bhavana, on the other. Rather, the goal of the spiritual practices experienced throughout the Journey is to transcend the illusion of the autonomous self that is alone in the universe to find the self-for-the-other that is constituted in the relationality of the Triune God.

The question is not “what’s in it for me?” The question is “what’s in it for all of us, together?”

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