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Friday, January 7, 2011 - Editor: Jerry Katz
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The Allure of
by Rabbi Alan Lurie
Several months ago, my wife and I attended a prayer service at a synagogue that is well known for its spiritual, and spirited, approach. As we entered, the rabbi was leading a meditation. "Close your eyes and breathe in the peace of Shabbat [the Sabbath]." she said. "And on the out-breathe imagine that you are sending healing love to all beings." We passed a man who appeared to be deep in meditation. His eyes were closed, and through a slightly opened smile he slowly breathed in and out. As we moved to our seats, I accidentally stepped on his toe. He quickly turned toward me; his smile vanished and he angrily hissed, "Hey, watch it, buddy!"
In the irony of a person being angry at a stranger for accidentally interrupting his meditation about universal, unconditional love, this man demonstrated the disturbing, alluring and all-too common phenomenon of "spiritual narcissism."
Spiritual narcissism creates the pretense of holiness as an ego strategy to mask insecurity, receive approval, or avoid struggle and growth.
At a seven-day spiritual silent meditation retreat that I recently attended, devoted to nourishing equanimity, attendees routinely wrote messages to the retreat leaders with complaints about others: one attendee complained that two days of progress was "ruined" by another attendee, who sent a note with the words "I love you," and another complained about someone who was walking too loudly on the leaves outdoors.
The desire to control others in order to create a "perfect" environment that nurtures our sensitivities is a calling card of spiritual narcissism. It is not a spiritual feat to feel equanimity only when everything is going exactly as one would like. True spirituality takes place in the holy messiness of the world, in open-hearted relationship with others, and in a kind smile to one who accidentally stepped on your foot. In that moment of connection, one can clearly see that the annoyances and upsets are actually wake up calls pulling us out of our self-involvement and in to relationship.
The holiest prayer in the Jewish prayer book is the Amidah -- the "standing" prayer -- in which we are in soul connection to God, so that we can praise our Creator for the beauty and bounty of the world, ask for peace, health and understanding and express gratitude for our lives. What is surprising to many is that most of these prayers are in the plural form; we do not pray alone and for ourselves, but for everyone. In this prayer are words that are, for me, the summation of an antidote to the lure of narcissism: "Purify our hearts to be of service in truth." With this one powerful sentence we yearn to move beyond our ego-selves, and to know our true-Selves so that we can be a blessing to others. This is why Judaism teaches us to focus on acts of kindness: inviting someone to your house for lunch, treating a stranger with kindness and giving money to charity are the highest levels of spirituality.
Spiritual narcissism can be very appealing. I know because I also feel the tug, and too often succumb. But once we see how we are tempted to use the guise of spirituality to shield us from criticism, impress others and make us feel wise, its appeal begins to loosen, and we even find the humor in this upside-down dynamic. Then, we slowly see this as an all-too-human inclination, and as we forgive it in ourselves we can forgive it in others, knowing that we are fellow suffering, struggling, holy beings. As Martin Buber, author of I and Thou wrote, "When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them."
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The above consists of excerpts. Read the entire article here:
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