Why spirituality can lead to narcissism

There’s nothing more amusing that watching a room full of people sitting squat on the floor with their eyes closed, their hands upturned in the air for no particular reason, while some deluded fraudster bangs a gong. Is this really the path to spiritual enlightenment, or the road to self-serving delusion?


Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master who lived to the grand old age of 48 (he died in 1987) warned that “there are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centred version of spirituality. We can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.” It seems he was right. 

Spiritual training – including mindfulness, meditation, self healing and aura-reading – is supposed to distance people from their egos and grandiose feelings of self-worth. But contrary to all expectation, it has the opposite effect, feeding people’s need to feel more successful, more respected or more loved. It’s ironic that something that is supposed to reduce self‐aggrandisement actually boosts feelings of superiority.

The simple – and obvious – reason is that the self‐enrichment motive is deeply ingrained in all our psyches – it can hijack methods intended to transcend the ego and adapt them to serve its own demands.

Mindfulness for example, a form of meditation which involves emptying your mind and switching off all thoughts, focusing on the present and avoiding judgement, is nothing more spiritual than directed daydreaming. 

Aura reading – the most ludicrous of the ‘spiritual’ practices – involves ‘reading’ the imaginary ‘electromagnetic field’ that surrounds a person’s body. Those that say they can see a person’s aura fall into two groups – those that believe they can see the aura, and those that can’t see the aura but claim they can anyway. The same goes for Aura healing, which allegedly heals the energy field around a person’s head or body. Likewise, ’chakra reading’ – the reading of invisible energy points around the body, is basically the same dance with a slightly different tune. 

‘Past life regression’ – another trick of the creative mind – works best on people with colourful imaginations. ‘Enhancing psychic recall of past lives for karmic energy healing’ is in reality nothing more than good old-fashioned flim-flam artistry and something often practiced by unscrupulous, or worse, delusional hypnotists. People who believe they really have lived a previous life are not only fooling themselves, but can safely be considered borderline mentally ill if the belief starts to adversely effect their behaviour in this life. 

Reiki – the passing of ‘universal energy’ from the hands of the therapist to the patient, supposedly encouraging emotional or physical healing is just suggestion at work, while Shiatsu (finger pressure massage) does have some merit because it is physical and can be very relaxing. 

Haptotherapy – a relatively new piece of woo woo artistry – is a treatment to help the individual be more ‘present’ in body and mind based on the philosophy of haptonomy, a pseudo-science that studies the phenomena of human interaction. In plain language, it’s a poor man’s cod psychology. The object of haptotherapy is to help clients become aware of their natural ability to focus on, and open up to affirmative interaction, the main goal of which is to encourage and restore feelings of individuality and authenticity – gobbledygook for the ability to engage with others while still remaining socially on top. 

Proof of supernatural powers is hardly ever required because they are outside the borders of established science – a cop-out if ever there was one. But the main problem with spiritual superiority is that it encourages er… spiritual superiority. 

Spiritual training encourages people to rise above their private interests, to feel connected with others, but in reality it all too often encourages people to feel superior. No kidding… I have met many of this sort of person over the years and they all have a degree of spiritual snobbery about them, in many cases a front to camouflage their own real feelings of inferiority. 

People who educate themselves in healing and reading of auras and chakras, invariably go on to discover they have remarkable psychic abilities allowing them to ‘see’ things that others cannot. This makes them feel special… and superior. The elephant in the room is that spiritual training often hides true psychological motives and responses that are anything but enlightened, instead, weaponising their spiritual superiority against those who lack the ‘spiritual wisdom’ they ascribe to themselves.

Researchers from Radboud University in Nijmegen, Holland, have discovered a link between spiritual training and ‘spiritual superiority’. They found that spiritual enlightenment can ‘boost feelings of superiority’ by stoking the ego, and that people who were engaged in more bizarre therapies such as ‘aura reading’ were the most smug. This smugness could be because they are secure in the knowledge they will not be challenged because no one can conclusively prove they are making it all up. Aura-readers often equip themselves with special cameras which produce colourful photographs of their clients’ auras, neglecting to mention the cameras are fixed with a special lens that distorts and exaggerate colours. Some of the more expensive equipment are merely repackaged thermal imaging cameras.

The Nijmegen researchers looked at several forms of spiritual training, including meditation, aura reading/healing, haptotherapy and reiki and created questionnaires asking 3,700 people to respond on a scale of 1 to 7 to a series of statements, to test their ‘spiritual superiority’. For example

  • I am more in touch with my senses than most others,
  • I am more aware of what is between heaven and earth than most people,
  • the world would be a better place if others too had the insights that I have now.

The researchers also created scales that would correlate spiritual superiority. For example, the ‘spiritual guidance’ scale noted aspects of spiritual superiority, such as talking about one’s insights, trying to help others acquire the same wisdom, and aspiring to be another’s spiritual coach or guru. It included statements such as 

  • I help others whenever possible on their path to greater wisdom and insight 
  • I am patient with others because I understand it takes time to gain the insights that I gained in my life and my education.

Another scale, ‘supernatural overconfidence’, assessed belief in ‘one’s own paranormal powers’ and included some far-fetched statements. Delusional beliefs included 

  • I can send positive energy to others from a distance… I can get in touch with people who are deceased… I can influence the world around me with my thoughts… I can see people’s auras… when I randomly open a book on a page number that is meaningful to me, this is no coincidence.  

Participants completed the questionnaires and also answered questions about their age, sex, education, religion and spiritual training. Some of the respondents had never undergone any form of spiritual training. The researchers found that those who had taken part in forms of meditation scored higher in the questionnaires than those who had no spiritual training. Specifically, they discovered a gradual increase in ‘spiritual superiority’ from people with no spiritual training to those with mindfulness training and those engaged with energetic therapies such as reiki, aura reading etc.

People who believed that they had been taught to see auras and regress to past lives were the most spiritually smug, scoring about 67% more than people with no training. Those who had undergone mindfulness sessions scored about 50% higher than those with no spiritual training.

The road to spiritual enlightenment is fraught with danger. People may indeed aim to become more successful, more respected or loved by means of their spiritual development, but the process inevitably brain-washes them into believing they are superior human beings. 

Even if this is not their initial motive, they may discover these benefits along the way. They may get a sense of excitement, or wisdom and serenity, and embrace the ideology that brought them this spiritual cornucopia of delight along with its ‘higher values’ and dubious morality – but it is an illusion… Their spiritual renaissance leads to them becoming less open-minded toward other schools of thought. And also a right pain in the neck. 

The Nijmegen study was published in full in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2020. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

andrew newton hypnotist

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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