INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Gary StogsdillSince 1990 Gary Stogsdill has been a faculty member at Prescott College where he currently teaches courses in humanistic mathematics, science appreciation, and wisdom studies. He has a blog called "Pursuing Wisdom Now", which features articles on contemporary spirituality.


Perennialism and
the Myth of Narcissus

Falling in Love with Mind

Gary Stogsdill

Introduction

Enlightenment is something that exists in the mind of anyone who thinks he or she is enlightened. It is Narcissus looking at his own reflection.

My previous essay, “A Critique of Perennialism: Problems with Enlightenment, Gurus, and Meditation,” explored the version of perennialism that was popularized in the second half of the 20th century, first by gurus from India and then by influential authors including Ken Wilber as well as by popular offerings within the New Age movement. The following teachings were critiqued: (1) The purpose of human life is enlightenment, an attainment that can be described as union of our human mind with Big Mind or God, or as Ken Wilber put it, “Men and Women can grow and develop (or evolve) all the way up the hierarchy to Spirit itself” (Walsh and Vaughan, Paths Beyond Ego, p. 215). (2) The way to attain enlightenment is through a disciplined practice of meditation under the guidance of a guru, one who has already achieved this ultimate state of consciousness.

That previous essay identified substantial problems with perennialism: the blatant anthropocentrism and individualism of enlightenment, the lack of any agreement among those who are supposedly enlightened as to what enlightenment actually is, disturbingly unethical behavior on the part of a majority of well-known recent gurus, and indications that extensive meditation may correlate with psychological decline and that some techniques of meditation may harmfully alter brain chemistry and function. These problems led to the conclusion that perennialism is very likely a self-centered dead end with potential dangers along the way.

This current essay will explore the important question of why such serious problems would be encountered in perennialism. Is there perhaps a common thread linking most or all of these problems, a thread that would help us to understand not only a possible fundamental error in perennialism but also the captivating allure of perennialism that has kept the idea alive for so long?

Narcissus and Perennialism

Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.
Narcissus by Caravaggio.

The Ancient Greek myth of Narcissus tells of a young hunter so enchantingly beautiful that he became inflated with hubris and rebuffed the advances of anyone who fell in love with him because no one could possibly be good enough for his exceptional opinion of himself. The goddess of revenge, Nemesis, decided to teach Narcissus a lesson, so she lured him to a pool of water. There Narcissus saw his own reflection and immediately fell hopelessly in love with it, eventually ending his own life because he could not have the only thing he ever met that was good enough to receive his love: a reflection of himself.

I wonder if lessons from this myth may pertain to perennialism. In light of Narcissus, let's explore the above-stated problems with perennialism starting with the blatant anthropocentrism and individualism of enlightenment. Anthropocentrism means “regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence” (The New Oxford American Dictionary), and individualism suggests that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the needs of the larger community (Individualism). The common denominator of anthropocentrism and individualism is an exaggerated sense of self-importance. In perennialism this sense of self-importance rises all the way to the belief that “I am God.” In the ancient Indian philosophies of Vedanta, Samkhya, and Yoga that gave rise to perennialism, this is stated as tat tvam asi, or “thou art that.” It would be hard to conceive of a more grandiose belief than that our individual human mind can evolve “all the way up the hierarchy to Spirit itself” (Wilber in Walsh and Vaughan, Paths Beyond Ego, p. 215). The anthropocentrism and individualism of enlightenment therefore connect directly with the exaggerated sense of self portrayed by the myth of Narcissus.

Next, let's look at the problem of the lack of any agreement among those who are supposedly enlightened as to what enlightenment actually is. Obviously, this suggests that the experience of enlightenment is perceived very differently by different people. Other human perceptions are closely agreed upon. For example, anyone describing love or anger will use similar words to describe these states of consciousness. The logical conclusion here is that enlightenment is not one state of consciousness, nor is it the same constellation of states of consciousness. Enlightenment is something that exists in the mind of anyone who thinks he or she is enlightened. It is Narcissus looking at his own reflection.

The next problem with perennialism—the disturbingly unethical behavior on the part of a majority of well-known recent gurus—may also connect directly with the exaggerated sense of self portrayed by the myth of Narcissus. The guru model of perennialism originated in India more than 2000 years ago. This model teaches that the guru should be not only respected but also an object of unconditional devotion and obedience because the guru has attained enlightenment, oneness with God. Those who accept the role of guru will tend to already have an exaggerated sense of self just by thinking they are qualified for such a role.

During my 24 years on a perennialist path, I often led meditation groups and spiritual study groups. Because others could see that I was sincere in my spiritual practice, occasionally someone would come to me privately and ask if I would be their guru. I had the gumption to immediately dismiss the idea because I knew myself as a very flawed human just like anyone else. Almost by definition the role of guru requires someone with an exaggerated sense of self, and in the rare cases when someone without an exaggerated sense of self steps into the role of guru, the unconditional devotion and obedience of followers will sooner or later create an exaggerated sense of self.

The textbook definition of narcissism includes “grandiose views of the self,…the assumption that one is unique or 'special,'…desire for admiration, a sense of entitlement…, and little empathy for others and a willingness to exploit them” (Campbell and Foster, “The Narcissistic Self: Background, an Extended Agency Model, and Ongoing Controversies” in The Self, edited by Sedikides and Spencer, p. 116). These textbook narcissistic traits describe virtually every guru discussed in Geoffrey D Falk's stunning expose, Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment, which reveals the disturbing tendency of a majority of the well-known gurus of the past 100 years to exploit some of their followers through unethical behavior.

Finally, the problems with perennialism associated with meditation—indications that extensive meditation may correlate with psychological decline and that some techniques of meditation may harmfully alter brain chemistry and function—may directly mirror the myth of Narcissus. The countless hours perennialists spend sitting in meditation gazing into the unconscious mind (for example, I logged approximately 35,000 hours or four entire years' worth of meditation) may be Narcissus gazing into his pool. We may be falling head over heels in love with our own mind by making it the object of enlightenment by way of meditation.

My older brother introduced me to the perennialist path. He dove into his meditation practice with even more gusto than I did, spending many long hours most days sitting in meditation in search of enlightenment. After a few years of this extensive meditation, he experienced altered states of consciousness that convinced him he was specially chosen to be able to live without eating. This, he was told by the so-called higher awareness of meditation, was his ticket to enlightenment and his example to the world. He died of self-starvation in the prime of his life at the age of 34. My brother was not an unstable person prior to this; he had served with distinction in the military, was a dedicated father, and managed his own successful business. Yet his story is a literal reenactment of the myth of Narcissus, resulting in his actual death.

The feeling of being special is what defined Narcissus; in my experience this is also what defines every perennialist at some point in their practice of extensive meditation. And like Narcissus, this is how perennialists go off the deep end. My brother's example of going off the deep end is extreme; it usually ends in a less literal death. For example, my own 24-year perennialist path left me feeling special for a while, which diminished my ability to enter fully into human life and resulted in the death of authentic spirituality during that time. My personal experience, along with my observation of a few dozen other perennialists, convinces me that the feeling of being special results in a thousand tiny deaths in the ways that we can express our humanity.

Another example of going off the deep end in the pool of Narcissus may be found in Ken Wilber. Scott F. Parker notes in his Integral World essay “Ken Wilber and Intellectual Humility” that “the last time [intellectual] humility has been meaningfully present in Wilber's work” was found in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, which was published in 1995. Soon after writing Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Wilber describes in One Taste (1999) how he began to experience regular periods of an altered state of consciousness that he refers to as nondual awareness and believes to be enlightenment itself. Can it be merely a coincidence that after Wilber's substantial experience of what he believes to be enlightenment he also stopped showing any sign of intellectual humility and began writing as though he could now declare the Truth? Did Wilber become so enamored of what he saw reflected in the pool of meditation that it resulted in the death of an exceptionally promising intellectual life?

Final Thoughts

It would be hard to conceive of a more grandiose belief than that our individual human mind can evolve “all the way up the hierarchy to Spirit itself”.

Perennialism and the myth of Narcissus may ultimately both be cautionary tales about the perils of separating mind from body. Narcissus gazing into his pool and the perennialist sitting in meditation could both be falling hopelessly in love with the depths of a human mind that has been dismembered from its source of embodied life. Even though many perennialists might wish it were true, we don't observe disembodied minds floating around. Mind is always a secondary attribute of embodied life. Humans have long recognized the sanctity of life and created laws against the taking of life. However, we don't hear about “the sanctity of mind” because it wouldn't make sense. By protecting life we automatically protect the secondary attributes that life makes possible, including mind.

What all of this may suggest is that authentic spirituality serves its purpose as a healthy part of human life when it focuses on life itself as the sacred mystery rather than falling in love with a disembodied mind and its altered states of endless reflections in the pool of Narcissus. Such an embodied spirituality would cherish not some otherworldly goal of an enlightened mind that has become Spirit, but rather the sacredness of loving and caring for life on planet earth, the sacredness of contributing to a sustainable future, and the sacredness of compassionate service toward a just society where all humans may one day enjoy the freedom to realize their full potential.




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