Is Meditation Narcissistic?

01/25/2013 10:38 pm ET | Updated Mar 27, 2013

Is meditation narcissistic? The short answer is: it depends. The act of sitting in silence, eyes closed or facing a wall, attention focused on the inner landscape of breath, body and mental activity, could at least be characterized as self-absorbed -- some might call it navel gazing. The term "navel gazing," which the dictionary defines as "useless or excessive self-contemplation," was originally a concentration practice of Hindu Yoga. Jack Engler , a psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher, has written extensively about the wrong use of meditation by psychologically unbalanced people. In the book "Buddhism & Psychotherapy," he speaks of those who "practice meditation in the service of defense, rather than self-awareness." Engler's contributions are part of a growing literature about the many ways that the goal of true meditation can be subverted by those with a distorted motivation.

Motivation indeed is the key. While "right meditation" is the eighth spoke in the wheel of the eight-fold path, "right motivation" is the second. When Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, confronts Mara the Tempter, he dismisses Mara by saying, "You are not striving for the welfare of the world." In other words, Mara -- who could be seen as the narcissistic shadow of the Buddha -- lacks correct motivation. Mara wants the fruit of spiritual practice to satisfy his own selfish needs for power, status, security or perfection. Perhaps today's Western practitioners leap a bit too quickly into the innerness of meditation without a thorough grounding in all the other spokes of the Path -- "right view," "right intention" and so on.

These days I am growing less fond of this prefix "right," which is a legacy of 19th century scholarship. To my ear "right" is a bit superior-sounding and moralistic. I have come to prefer simply "Buddhist" -- Buddhist view, Buddhist motivation, Buddhist action, Buddhist speech, Buddhist livelihood, Buddhist effort, Buddhist mindfulness, Buddhist meditation. There are other paths; this is the Buddhist one. Each of these eight spokes are important; each supports the others and helps keep Mara-like self-absorption at bay. Emphasizing one at the expense of the others is not salutary.

The prince Siddhartha left the palace and took up the life of a monk not because he needed more adulation, wealth or influence (he already had those things) but because he wanted to clearly understand the causes of suffering and how to assuage it. In many places throughout the Sutras, the Buddha says this, "I teach suffering and the cause of suffering." In other words, Buddha strives for the welfare of the world; that is his work.

This concern for the suffering of others is not an idea; it is a deeply emotional response. Siddhartha was upset by the suffering he saw, a powerful emotional reaction that changed his life. This is described often in Buddhist scripture. The Vimalakirti Sutra begins with the news that the Bodhisattva Vimalakirti is sick. When the disciples of the Buddha go to visit him, Vimalakirti explains that he is sick because all sentient beings are sick. And in the "Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life ," Santideva says that while an ordinary person experiences the suffering of others like a grain of sand in the palm of the hand, for the Bodhisattva it is like a grain of sand in the eye. Suffering is painful; the Bodhisattva feels that pain on behalf of others.

Meditation practiced in this spirit and with this motivation is not at all narcissistic; in fact, it is narcissism's opposite. Neuroscientists are now looking at the brain scans of people with strong narcissistic tendencies, and are seeing anomalies in the region of the frontal lobe having to do with emotional response. It is not clear yet how this might relate to Buddhist practice, but it supports Jack Engler's observations about people who practice meditation to armor themselves against feeling.

Buddhist Motivation is not some elementary or preparatory practice to be left behind once meditation begins. Cultivating Buddhist motivation is a lifelong endeavor, because the tendency to slip into self-aggrandizement does not necessarily diminish as one's spiritual prowess grows. In fact, it can increase. In many meditation traditions -- including my own school of Zen -- every period of meditation begins with a recitation of the four Bodhisattva vows, and concludes with a dedication to the welfare of all beings. Buddhist meditation doesn't happen in a vacuum. It is not navel gazing; it is deeply relational.

The Eightfold Path was designed to be practiced as a seamless whole. Otherwise things can go awry. Any single practice or effort can go off the rails. Mara's stratagems are indefatigable and ingenious. The ego constantly looks for ways to bend the benefits of the practice back toward the self and its selfish needs. It helps to have other people -- practice companions, good spiritual friends and teachers -- to watch you and point out where you might be veering off.

One contemporary Japanese Zen teacher, when asked by a student what was the most important principle of Zen practice, replied, "Look under your own feet." We must ask, are we standing on solid ground, or on quicksand? This question is the continuous life koan of every seeker of the truth and every aspirant for wisdom.