Narcissism: The Human Condition
I will always keep coming back to this theme, over and over again, because it is fundamental to our situation. If man is the sick animal and his world is a sick world, it is because of narcissism. And narcissism is, fundamentally, the attempt of the ego to ground itself in something permanent, which is unreal because this world of our experience is a world of flux, transience, relativities, and impermanence. Most especially narcissism is the attempt of egoic being to ground itself and sustain itself in a self-image, summarised and focussed in the named entity we are as social beings.
This is idolatry. Yet, it is the very meaning of the myth of Narcissus and Echo. Because the narcissist feels inwardly dead and empty, he compensates by seeking “to make a name for himself”, as they say. He believes that to be is to be perceived and to be recognised, even if it is only as notoriety. The fame he craves, even as notoreity, is his narcissistic attempt to ground his sense of self in and through an external or phenomenal — even as honour or reputation — by making a name for himself that he can then lodge in because he has no inner life of his own.
This is the meaning of the “vampire” theme so prevalent today — a dead thing that can only be revived and resuscitated by continously feeding off the life-blood and energies of others. It is the golem of Jewish legend. His “handle” becomes his identity. He is moved, but he does not act. People fret anxiously today about “identity theft” because one’s identity has been invested in externals. (And such “identity theft” is a problem in a society where identity is externalised, and the impersonator can function because society has become impersonal. But impersonation is not literally “identity theft”).
Idolatry is unsatisfactory. It is another form of dukkha (dis-ease, malaise). The idolator suffers from a lack of an inner life through attachment to the phenomena, particularly as possessions. He requires external stimuli to feel animated. Divesting oneself of one’s possessions, in whatever form these may take (private property, ideology, self-interest, self-image, “honour”, “dignity”, “reputation”, “principles”, etc) is the hardest thing for the egoic being to do, because it is experienced as diminishment and as a little death. A rich man loses his possessions, like the lover loses his beloved, and he commits suicide. He jumps off tall buildings or throws himself in front of speeding trains.
The narcissist invests himself in his possessions, which he calls his “interests”. He flows out into them and these then become his power objects and idols (he may even call these his “principles”). These idols are sustained in their power by this efflux and influx of energy, which is called “sacrifice”. As the idols become more powerful and more demanding, the energies and resources of the inner life are correspondingly diminished and depleted (apathy). This is often cited as a common symptom of narcissism — feelings of deadness within, feeling like a computer or machine, an inner emptiness, weariness, fatigue. These feelings he then calls by names like “absurd” or describes in terms of “meaninglessness”. This was Andy Warhol’s paranoia, too. He dreaded waking up one morning, looking into the mirror, and seeing nothing there.
A rich man once came to Jesus for instruction. Why did the rich man come to Jesus to seek instruction? Because he felt spiritually, inwardly unfulfilled. He felt a deficit in his life despite his wealth and possessions. Jesus gave him his first lesson. “Give up all you have”. The rich man went away sorrowful, because he was very attached to his wealth. He didn’t realise that Jesus had given him the most powerful spiritual lesson he could have. The rich man had invested himself in his possessions, and that was the cause of the absence of a rich inner life, his sense of deficit. The richer he became in externals, the deeper the deficit in internals. Jesus diagnosed the man’s “dukkha” or malaise precisely — his attachment to his wealth, in which he had invested his being and identity, was his obstacle to entering into the Kingdom of Heaven right then and there.
Ernst Becker once wrote two books. One was called The Denial of Death. The other was called Escape From Freedom. I have not read these books (except in brief summaries) but I can already determine from the titles that the one follows from the other. The false self falsifies, because it exists through continuous self-deception. Everything that people today call “freedom” is the exact opposite of its meaning and is itself tainted by human narcissism, particularly where freedom is defined through the institution of “private property” in which egoic being invests itself, which then becomes “sacred” principle. More self-idolatry. At best, in the social context, we can speak of certain “liberties” (personal possessions being one of these) but not of freedom in the fuller sense, which is the meaning of absolution (and Absolute). It would be good if we distinguished between liberty and freedom, because they are not the same (and that confusion, too, is a result of narcissism).
Private property is not sacred. It is a secular institution. It is even the opposite of sacred. Anxiety and paranoia are the inevitable fate of any soul that tries to ground itself and its sense of being in and through external things, for all these things pass away in time.
A Zen master, returning from a night-time stroll, discovers his house has been burglarised. “Too bad I couldn’t give the thief this beautiful moon”, he muses. That man is free, which is why he is a master. A lesser man would take offense at being so violated. Did the Zen master forgive the offense? No and Yes. To forgive, in human terms, means, first to take offense, but afterwards relent. In the case of the Zen master, there was no self left to be offended, so there was nothing to offend and therefore nothing to forgive. The covetousness and avarice of the thief was his own slavery and dukkha. While the theft may have caused an inconvenience, it did not cause a sense of loss. No one, for example, could steal anything from a man like Rumi.
Here is the fundamental paradox at the root. If one becomes nothing, nothing can be stolen from nothing and there is nothing to take offence or suffer violation. At the same time, in becoming nothing, one becomes everything (the “One”). And where one has become everything, also nothing can be stolen.
(In the meantime, though, the practice of forgiveness is necessary until such time as one reaches the station of total freedom (the Absolute) where one realises that, where there is no-thing to take offense, there is no offense to forgive. This station is called “innocence”, which is different from what people normally understand as “innocence”. This is a divine innocence which knows nothing of sinners and guilt, for as is said, God has forgiven your offences already even before you ask).
Here is another description of this, already familiar from Rumi’s poem cited in the last post. This describes a satori of a Buddhist monk,
“Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I saw people coming toward me, but all were the same man. All were myself. I had never known this world before. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos. No individual existed.”
This is the realisation of the Buddhist teaching of anatman or No-Self. “No individual existed”, and yet “I was the cosmos”. Although some call this realisation “cosmic consciousness”, it is the result of losing the human form and escaping beyond the boundaries of the self. This has been called “becoming nothing” or “empty mirror” (or the perfection of wisdom, or “stopping the world” or “stopping the wheel of time”).
And yet, “I was the cosmos” would seem to be the ultimate expression of a thorough-going narcissism (and some critics have called this “cosmic consciousness” precisely that, without much understanding). This paradox exists because of Omar Khayyam’s insight that “only a hair separates the false from the true”. This is why Almaas (Hameed Ali) writes of “the transformation of narcissism in self-realization” (in his book The Point of Existence). You are the world. The truth is very subtle (but so is the falsehood). It is very easy to confuse narcissism and self-realisation, or false self and true self, because they are closely connected as (little b) being is with (big B) Being. You cannot really separate the one from the other. It is the very attempt to do so that makes for human narcissism.
The paradox, the ironies of it all, are captured by a wonderful Zen proverb I (re)discovered today
Ten years of dreams in the forest!
Now on the lake’s edge laughing,
Laughing a new laugh.
“Ten years of dreams in the forest!” — This is narcissistic existence. The image of the forest is also Dante’s “deep, dark woods”.
“Now on the lake’s edge laughing” — Entering the clearing. This lake is the sea of awareness. It is Rumi’s “ocean”. It is self-realisation in the form “I am the cosmos”.
“Laughing a new laugh” — this “new laughter” is the free laughter of the self-realised, not that of the narcissist. This is “the laughter of the gods”, as it has been called. It is the laughter of Nietzsche’s “free spirit”, the bemused laughter of one who has suddenly realised that “only a hair separates the false from the true”, and that Man has ever played a great joke upon himself. What we call “happiness” (or pursuit of happiness) is just a shadow of this kind of joyous laughter that comes from the depth of Being. Happiness is only the shadow of the joy, which shadow we call “the unredeemed”. But it is “unredeemed” because it is but cheap coin compared to this “pearl of great price”, as the Sufis call it.
Narcissism is shadow-boxing taken all-too seriously. Our image of God is quite mistaken. God’s Being is laughter from end to end. The man who stood by the lake’s edge laughing, and laughing a new laugh, was the laughing God’s laughter. We call that kind of real laughter “belly laughing” because it comes from the depth our being. Have you ever seen the image of the Laughing Buddha? He has a huge belly. That’s what it means. His joyous laughter comes from the depths of Being. He must laugh. Our image of God as stern and heavy is because we are ourselves heavy with our own self-importance. In fact, we are so heavy with our own self-importance that we even believe that the eye of God is on us all the time. That’s how self-important we think we are. Self-important people take offence at everything. Consequently, our God mirrors our own sense of self-importance by glaring back at us — offended.
It would be far better for the world if God were perceived as the Joyous God. “The Laughing God” should be one of the names of God. God’s creativity is his eternal joy and laughter. Our world would change immediately if we were to know God as this eternal laughter as did that Zen monk.
This, actually, Nietzsche tried to do. He called this new God by the old name Dionysos — the Laughing God. But, by any other name, Dionysos is just another one of the names of God.
That, actually, was the beauty of yesterday’s rally in Washington — the Rally for Sanity (and/or Fear). It was held in the presence of the laughing god. The reactionaries were offended, of course. They take themselves very seriously (and they expect you to take them just as seriously, too). Comedians, they declared, should stay out of politics. But actors, it seems (Ronald Reagan, Schwarzennegger) are OK because they’re conservative actors.
Well, that’s just narcissism for you.
(I tried to find an image of the Laughing Buddha on the web. I couldn’t find any good ones. I think that just goes to show that we aren’t yet there, when we can’t effectively depict or symbolise divine joy imaginatively. It would still seem to be beyond our capabilities. No man can look upon the face of God and live…. because he would die laughing).