Over ten years ago I was sitting in a Sweat Lodge on a fall day in Northern Idaho. Next to me was a big fellow who couldn’t sit still. I’ll call him Frank. Frank would twitch his neck, move his legs, sit up, collapse and generally behave as an ADHD kid on caffeine. Being in a Sweat Lodge not only are you not supposed to speak, you are supposed to be in a reverent space. I was pissed! I would get to a place of peace and the SOB would move again.
This went on for the first and then the second round of the Sweat. Rounds are when new rocks are brought in and a new set of prayers are said or songs are sung. At the beginning of the third round I am thinking, shit I have two more rounds of Frank being selfish, disrespectful, rude, inconsiderate, inappropriate and not reverent – what am I going to do?
Then it hit me. I could accept my state, the real feeling beneath my judgments and control. After the thought was a feeling of expansion and release. Frank didn’t change. I changed. I didn’t enjoy his behaviors. I began to accept them. What was the amazing part was I appreciated Frank. He gave me a gift.
I realized as a felt sense and an experience, more than a thought, that Frank in one way was being me. I had been among other things ADHD. It was as if he was expressing that energy for me so I could accept and release more of it. My control and shame of being like Frank relaxed that day in the Sweat.
I grew up Catholic which meant that I had high standards of perfection to live up to. I’m not Catholic, yet the belief I need to do it right and be right still permeates much of who I am. In that day in the Sweat I learned that I was holding on to how it was to be spiritual, first as a projection on to Frank, then as a realization about myself. Being spiritual was a concept I needed to be perfect at.
The narcissism came in when I took an intellectual concept and made it an escape behavior. I used my concept of being spiritual to be a distraction from what was actually occurring for me. I could focus on the concept of doing it right or not doing it right. The concept was a convenient avoidance from experiencing a deeper and more unpleasant part of me. It was easier to project my frustration at my own imperfection on to Frank than feel it in me.
I see in others and myself how we enhance this projection to be an elitist about our spiritual or religious practice. Our way becomes an easy shield to hide behind. I have it, they are missing it. I am better, they are less than. I got it, they never will.
It becomes all about ‘me’. Not my experience, but my sense of who I am. There is nothing more narcissistic than that.
The way out
If you want a better life – give it up. Give up being right. Give up being spiritual. Admit to the dissidence between what you want and what you have in the moment. It is ok not to be doing it right. Rabbi Alan Lurie writes about his experience with spiritual narcissism while at a meditation retreat where people were complaining about others. It is a human condition. We set high goals – then we have tandems about not achieving them. I am guilty at being spoiled. We all need to grow up.
It is good we have these goals. You need to accept that on the path to achieving them you will fall short. It is neither your neighbor’s fault nor your fault. You are learning. Relax. Give everyone more space to be particularly yourself.
As much as Frank was a pain in the ass, he was one of my best teachers. Who is your Frank? How can you have him or her get you to chill out and not be so righteous? How can you learn to accept those experiences as gifts?