Knowledge of yourself will preserve you from vanity
~ Miguel de Cervantes
Recently, a friend of mine laughed about the piety he observed at his local dharma center. “True self is no self,” he mused, “yet here we are trying to sit the right way, bow the right way, give the right answers and get enlightened. Before meditation we were just full of ourselves. But now the mask of righteousness hides us from ourselves.”
His observations on the quest for no-self reminded me of Rousseau's comment about freedom born free but found everywhere in chains.
Spiritual practice can definitely serve as a mask that hides us from ourselves. This is particularly true when the self is weak. The weaker we are, the more prone we are to narcissistic defenses that compensate for our feeling naked and exposed. They are inversely proportional to ego strength.
In our “culture of narcissism” (as Christopher Lasch once called it), hiding from ourselves has become the rule rather than the exception. And so, imported Eastern practices like yoga and meditation that are supposed to help us transcend the self, are marketed and sold as self-help tools that, paradoxically, reinforce it! Even in practice centers where the “spiritual” aspect of Buddhist practice is taken more seriously, the dharma is still being used as a subterfuge for narcissism. Go to Tricycle and have a look at all the self-promotion going on there. Compared to, say, Roman Catholic priests, preachers of the dharma have a much higher public profile. If they're lucky, they might even land a Wikipedia article that describes in detail their life and contributions to spreading the dharma.
Rather than open us up, Buddhist practices can really shut us down or, worse, like my friend above observed at his practice center, feed on self-delusions while disguised as a quest to transcend them. Ken Wilber describes this travesty of the dharma in the West as “boomeritis Buddhism”:
Boomeritis refers specifically to a form of the pre/post fallacy whereby post-conventional/worldcentric levels become infected with pre-conventional/egocentric levels. Most commonly, this takes the form of a green/red complex, whereby red, narcissitic impulses are relabeled with green, postconventional names. Though this dynamic can occur with respect to any tradition, Buddhism in the West has been particularly susceptible to it; thus the term Boomeritis Buddhism.
In order for Buddhism to become truly “green”, Buddhist teachers and institutions need to take the lead by peeling away a few protective layers and getting naked themselves. Then perhaps there can be a shift away from narcissism and toward a living model of inter-connectedness.
* When I looked up “meditation + naked” in Google images, all I got were glossy poses. The only real depiction of nakedness was a literal one of sadhus in India that I downloaded for this blog.