Enlightened or exalted? (Part 1)

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Feeling superior to others, thinking that you have a monopoly on wisdom and that you are one step ahead of everyone else: in theory, spiritual training such as yoga, meditation and energetic healing could offer a good antidote to this. After all, the purpose of this type of training is to bring us more in touch with the here and mow, including the qualities of ourselves that we are not so fond of. In addition, they could ensure that we develop more compassion for others and have an unconditional positive attitude towards everyone.

But in practice this is easier said than done. Our ego craves confirmation and will use everything to its own advantage. The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader Chogyam Trungpa described it in his classic Cutting through spiritual materialism as follows: “Walking the spiritual path in the right way is a very subtle process; you shouldn't be naive about that. Numerous sidetracks lead to a distorted form of spirituality that revolves around the ego; we can delude ourselves that we are developing spiritually, while in the meantime we strengthen our egoism with spiritual techniques”.

Psychologists also point out that spirituality can actually lead to a feeling of sublimity. According to William James, the founder of American psychology, anyone who masters a self-centered skill runs the risk of feeling better than others. Apparently it's human nature. Spiritual training can make us think that we are growing internally, when in fact it is only our ego that is growing. According to some psychologists, this can lead to the “I am enlightened and you are not”-syndrome. And to a kind of detour where people use their spiritual beliefs, habits and experiences to avoid really having to deal with their mental issues.

Yoga and meditation

But just how widespread is spiritual narcissism? In any case, there are various studies that demonstrate the phenomenon. For example, the German psychology professor Jochen Gebauer and his colleagues conducted various experiments among participants of both yoga and meditation training. In their first experiment, they followed 33 yoga students for a maximum of fifteen weeks. At different times, they compared feelings of eminence among people who had just taken a yoga class and those who hadn't that day.

They were asked, among other things, to what extent they were self-centered during the voga1es. The degree of eminence was examined by asking participants whether they considered themselves better than the average yoga student in their yoga class. They also looked at whether there was “communal narcissism”; a rather unknown form of narcissism in which a person believes that only he or she can save the world and thinks they are more helpful than anyone else (think of a statement like “I will be known for my good deeds”). This form of narcissism is linked to "grand narcissism," research shows - where a person assumes certain privileges and is overly confident and arrogant.

What turned out? Those who had just taken a yoga class were more self-centered and felt more elevated (high self-esteem, feeling better than others, and communal narcissism) than those who hadn't. The researchers also found suggestive evidence that the increased sense of loftiness played a key role in the wellness benefits of yoga, due to its positive effect on participants' self-esteem.

In a second experiment, the researchers followed 162 meditation practitioners for four weeks. Again, they measured their feelings of loftiness and self-centeredness after the meditation as compared to people who did not meditate, who also increased instead of decreased. This time, the researchers also looked directly at its impact on their well-being. The increased self-centeredness appeared to explain why people improved mentally from the training.

The experiments were only conducted among Western participants and not all forms of yoga and meditation were studied. Therefore, the results cannot be blindly translated to all kinds of spiritual training and all groups of people. But the above effect was seen across the board, even among very advanced practitioners. So mind and body workouts that would help to calm your ego and reduce focus on yourself often have the exact opposite effect. Moreover, and this is rather intriguing, that seems to make people feel better after spiritual training.

This is an edited version from Psychology Magazine of an article previously published in Scientific American. Scientific American.

To be continued.

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