This is Post 16 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
In the previous posts about the the Buddha’s Equanimity practice – a practice which aims to bring the Mental Body and the Thinking function into alignment with Consciousness, I have briefly touched on the symbol of the mirror. The mirror deserves more time however, because it is such a profound symbolic pointer to spiritual truth. It is a deeply paradoxical and indeed an ambivalent image – both extremely positive and extremely negative.
As a positive image, we find the mirror as a symbol of Consciousness, as in Zen or Tibetan Buddhism (which I have spoken of in a previous post – here); again in the Ancient Greek myth of the hero Perseus; and elsewhere. The mirror is also a symbol of narcissism – an extremely important psychological concept, and one that has profoundly negative personal and cultural implications.
Perseus and Medusa
The mythic hero Perseus encountered the Gorgon Medusa in a landscape littered with the crumbling remains of countless heroes who had been turned into stone by her gaze. So great was the force of her narcissistic objectification of those who meet her gaze – that they are immediately reduced to literal objects. Perseus manages however, to avoid her petrifying stare by only looking at her reflected image in the mirror shield that he has been given by the Goddess Athene. Only the heroes with divine help succeed – those with the capacity for reflection that Consciousness gives them. All the rest fail.
One of Medusa’s horrific narcissism-related features, that is worth noting in connection with meditation – and within the current thread of reflection on the need to bring psychological integration to the inherently conflicted Thinking function of the egoic mind – was the fact that she is described as having a chaotically writhing mass of snakes growing out of her head in place of hair. In this regard, Medusa may be seen perhaps, as embodying the mental fragmentation and mental hostility that is so characteristic of narcissism – and of a mind that does not know the unifying power of Consciousness.
Narcissus and Echo
We are all aware of the fairy tale images of self-obsessed wicked witches communicating with magic mirrors, but foremost among the negative images of the mirror, is the one in the myth of Narcissus, who we see peering into a mirror-like pool and falling in love with the image of himself. The image of the hopeless and delusional Narcissus has been compelling since its emergence in Ancient Greece. Sigmund Freud first used the term narcissism in his essay On Narcissism in 1914, but the depths of what he was trying to conceptualise have yet to be plumbed.
The tragic-comic image of Narcissus, hopelessly in love with his own image, is as sad as it is absurd. His death by drowning as he tries to unite with his beloved self, is a symbol of what our wiser psychotherapists know as the chronic existential despair associated with narcissism – the root of much the plague of depression that has accompanied western-style development around the world.
The negative mirror experience of Narcissus is itself mirrored by another symbol of hollow reflection in the story of Echo, the sad and absurd nymph who falls in love with him. Echo has previously been cursed by the envious and vengeful Hera, wife of philandering Zeus. The curse means that she can never initiate a conversation and only has the power to repeat the last words spoken by the other – a profound image of the narcissistically wounded woman, that has a stark ring of psychological truth about it.
Narcissistic Identity – A Hopeless Quest Rooted in Despair?
If we are lucky, we instinctively learn to connect with the positive internal mirror of Consciousness, and find a true identity that is rooted in the experience of Being. If we do not, we are destined to spend our lives desperately seeking that identity – but usually looking in the wrong place. And our capacity for deep relationship is crippled. Meditation, if properly taught and practiced, offers a way out of that misery.
Without the positive mirror of Consciousness, and without developing a familiarity with the experience of Being that arises when the Mental Body is in alignment, we cannot help but manifest, at least to some degree, the negative mirror qualities of vanity and pathological self-obsession – a narcissistic self-love that narrows our relational world and threatens our society and our planet.
The Culture of Narcissism
We cannot understand the importance and power of meditation, or build a vision of real personal fulfilment and a sustainable society, without understanding the phenomena of Narcissism. Narcissism is usually understood to be associated with particular forms of childhood deprivation, where parents fail to provide a psychological mirror to the emerging self of the child. I have very briefly touched on this in a previous post in this series (here). Narcissism is much more than this however, and certainly cannot be reduced to it.
Importantly, narcissism also arises from various forms of cultural and especially religious conditioning, and from certain forms of zealous scientific atheism. This is an enormous subject – much too big for this article – but the fact of the matter is that some medical and psychological models actually cause narcissism (the Nazi doctors being an extreme example).
In the domain of religion and spirituality a similar incongruity exists, so that while some religious cultures soothe the pain of narcissism, others only serve to exacerbate the condition. As history has shown so plainly, some religious cultures are appallingly narcissistic, and the religious wars that they promote are always rooted in cultural narcissism – in issues of religious identity, not spiritual truth. Many people look to religion and spirituality for healing of their narcissistic despair, but usually do not find it – or find only a palliative solution.
War and Narcissism; Narcissism and War
Whole cultures can become narcissistically wounded, especially by war, as Germany was by First World War. Hitler, himself narcissistically wounded, was perfectly attuned to the wounded pride in the German psyche, that had been deliberately traumatised by the extortionate and destructive reparations imposed by Britain and France after the first war.
Even cultures that are overtly extremely successful like that of the modern United States of America, can fall into extreme cultural narcissism. The repeated wars to support US economic interests and maintain global hegemony at any cost, are blatantly immoral, and could only be sustained by the extraordinary collective narcissism of that self-obsessed nation.
Modern warfare is cosmetically managed at every level, by vastly resourced psy-ops (psychological operations), covert operations, propaganda and public relations operatives – together with the compliant echo chamber of the mainstream media, always ready to pander to government, and to the narcissism of its audience and advertisers. The citizens of the enemy country are systematically objectified and dehumanised in the eyes of the home population (and in the eyes of the world) long before the war begins – so that the inhumane and criminal actions of the nation’s high-tech warriors can be a source of national pride rather than shame.
Narcissism Sells Products – But it Cannot Create Sustainable Culture
Narcissism appears to be built into our modern Western-style culture because it can be relied upon to sell advertising and products, and to attract votes in elections. While the psychotherapists of the world try to cure the impenetrable tangle of narcissistic anxiety and despair that they find in their clients, and struggle to meet desperate needs for empathetic and affirming ’mirroring’; the horribly brilliant psychologists of the advertising and public relations industry do a much more effective job harnessing that same misery and cultivating it. The advertising industry is the far stronger force, and everywhere mentally-created narcissistic identity-related needs take precedence over real needs.
The Western-style culture that has spread around the world is a deeply ambivalent force in world history. Along with the problems that are inherent in technological and economic development (and debt), it has brought a spiritual disorientation that is poorly understood. While the narcissism of the West drives it to extraordinary accomplishments, there have always been a horrific hidden costs – costs that have usually been borne especially heavily by the ancient cultures that are less narcissistic and less driven.
Leaving Behind Narcissism and Gaining an Ethical Sensibility
The modern world in generally not aware of the extent to which our modern, predominantly mental, way of constructing identity is inherently narcissistic and dysfunctional – and unsustainable because it undermines our ability to function ethically, and finds endless justifications for violence. Perhaps therefore, the most important dimension of the transformation that follows from resting as Consciousness is the ethical one.
Ordinary egoic thinking is, by nature, continuously self-referencing, so that our capacity for ethical reflection is always undermined by rationalisations, judgements and self-justifications, and by erroneous ways of thinking, which disconnect us and deny the humanity of other people, while amplifying our own personal identity-needs over the collective dimensions of life.
Thankfully, the integration, even in a small way, of the mirror-like objectivity that resting as Consciousness brings, also precipitates the development of the personality qualities that we associate with a natural ethical sense – honesty, integrity, community-mindedness, a concern for others, and a sense of solidarity with community and society.
Ultimately only the positive mirror of Consciousness can protect us against the hell-realm of systemic narcissism that pervades our world. Whereas the egoic Thinking function tends to lead to distractedness and disconnection, the Thinking function that is aligned with Consciousness is inherently relational, solution-focused, and engaged with the task of meeting real needs.
By the practice of resting as Consciousness, we naturally become capable of being more fully present and connected. This capacity for clear thinking that is also relational, is present in all healthy people, and is enormously important for our world – an objectivity that does not objectify, that does not reduce human beings to objects.
Śīla (Ethics) – Samādhi (Meditation) – Prajñā (Wisdom)
Within the Buddhist tradition it is usually understood that the Buddha taught ethics (Sanskrit: Śīla) as a foundation stage of the path, as a basis for the successful practice of meditation (Sanskrit: Samādhi), which would in turn give rise to insight or wisdom (Sanskrit: Prajñā). It seems probable however, that the Buddha’s presentation of these three elements of the path was somewhat more complex than the subsequently created written record might indicate, and that the subtleties of this obviously over-simplified formulation have been lost.
In the modern world, it could be argued that the reverse order is just as applicable – if not more so. We need to apply a non-dual wisdom, such as that taught by the Buddha, in order to know how to practice meditation effectively, and we need to meditate in order to gain the qualities of ethical sensibility and psychological wholeness that are necessary if humanity is to meet the moral challenges of the modern world. We cannot reverse the current narcissistic trend until a critical mass of individuals learn to rest as Consciousness and know the joy of living for the sake of the whole.