Mindfulness, narcissism and the solution to self-centredness

Last Tuesday, The Times (paywall) reported that mindfulness and meditation ‘lead to narcissism and spiritual superiority’. That wasn’t just a baseless opinion, but the product of a research project looking into the effects of the practice. They report:

People who take part in meditation and other forms of training designed to place them in touch with the universe and make them less judgmental were found to score very highly in “spiritual superiority”.

The study reveals a paradox behind routines that are supposed to help people resist narcissism — they tend to pump up their sense of self-worth.

The paper goes on to state:

Roos Vonk, a professor of social psychology at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, said: “We know that most people have a deeply ingrained need to be better — more likeable, moral, competent or just more special than others.

“Spiritual training aims to guide people towards spiritual enlightenment, transcending these desires of their ego. They should become wise people who refrain from judgment.”

Surveys of about 3,700 volunteers suggested that the opposite was true… “The result is the exact opposite of enlightenment,” Professor Vonk said.

It reported:

[Professor Vonk] believes that the people who set out with good intentions are hijacked by deep-seated desires. “The ego turns out to be a very powerful force inside people,” she said. “As soon as you’re on the route to more enlightenment, your ego is watching. It’s the bit of you that says, ‘Hey, I’m doing very well, in fact I’m probably doing better than others’.”

In practice, this means a couple of things. First, it transpires this scene from Frasier turned out to be far more accurate than they knew:

But it also puts paid to those who think the church should be learning from such techniques. Professor Vonk – whatever her specific belief happen to be – hits on something telling when she says, despite claims of enlightenment, one’s ego is always watching. In fact, if you watch the rest of the scene from Frasier – rather than just the clipped part – you will see Niles responding in exactly that way. A later scene in the same episode takes the whole fragile ego thing, wanting to be better at enlightenment and inner peace to its logical conclusion.

This is fundamentally the problem with mindfulness and meditation. There is nothing to focus on other than oneself. Theoretically, of course, the focus is supposed to be on nothing, which is about as uninspiring as it gets. Most Secular Atheists recognise that focusing on the nothing they believe in is generally unwise if they are going to avoid living in some sort of permanent, crippling existential crisis. But, even when nothing is the goal, self has a habit of taking centre stage. The goal doesn’t so much become the focus on nothingness, but rather to reach personal enlightenment, which is ultimately just another way to set ourselves apart from others and show ourselves to be better. It is the destructive game of self-improvement by comparison – I know I have improved if I am better than my peers. Ego is always lurking.

The Christian is called neither to focus on self above all nor to try and focus on nothing. Instead, we are to be other-person centred. More specifically, Christ-centred. We are actively called not to look to self – and most certainly not to a focus on nothingness – but instead to centre ourselves on the person of Jesus. We are actively called not to consider ourselves better than others, and not to strive to be seen to be great, but instead to follow Jesus’ example of servanthood and consider other’s needs ahead of our own. Jesus was quite clear that the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour, all the other commands hang on these two. Jesus actively calls us away from ourselves. Paul instructs Christians to outdo one another only in showing love and honour (cf. Rom 12:10). Though they can be an entirely false – even sycophantic – way to do that, it is hard to be selfish and narcissistic when we are actively trying to love and honour other people. The answer to narcissism and superiority is not personal enlightenment and mindfulness, but becoming Christ-centred which, in turn, leads us to be other person centred.

It has been noted before that there is a bit of narcissism in all of us. There is a reason why we like to point out that in the middle of the word sin is ‘I’. Sin tends to put self on the throne, a position only Jesus should have by rights. It is why even the search for enlightenment has a tendency to become quite me-centric. It is our way to showing that we have bettered ourselves and grown beyond others. But a focus on Jesus recognises that, this side of Heaven, we will never be fully like him but, the more we become like him, necessarily means our focus is away from ourselves and centred on the needs of others, for that is what Jesus himself did.

If the heart of narcissism and superiority is a focus on self, the answer is to turn our attention away from ourselves. But if we just focus on nothing, we are always there! If our focus turns away from ourselves towards another person, there is something to focus on and that turns us away from self towards others.