Attachment, Narcissism and Awakening (Part 1)
One of the ongoing confusions that western Buddhist practitioners encounter on
integrating the paths of Waking Up and Growing Up is within the teaching of no-self or emptiness. This article explores how early psychological attachment wounds, often leading to narcissism, can hinder and complicate the attainments of insight into these areas. I then conclude that modern and post-modern Buddhism may benefit from more thorough emphasis on healthy self-development than the Buddhism that came to us from the traditional East.
The attachment phase of development is from birth to about 18 months of age. Attachment expert and Mahamudra meditation master Daniel P. Brown has indicated that the early attachment phase of development sets the stage, not only for our future relationships, but for all self-development. He says that from the point of view of awareness, when the self-image (sense of who we are) arises, it does so on a “backdrop” of positive, negative or neutral emotion.
Individuals with secure attachment, says Brown, are more likely to experience positive emotions toward the self-image, while insecurely attached individuals may experience negative emotions leading to depression and low self-esteem. But perhaps worst of all cases, indicates Brown, is when no emotion arises with the sense of self, giving rise to narcissistic personality traits.
I’ll return to the issue of attachment later, but for the moment, let’s unpack narcissism as it relates to the challenges of attaining insight into no-self or emptiness. In short, if we have a narcissistic character with little or no sense of self who is also a serious meditation practitioner based on a philosophy of no-self, “Houston, we’ve got a problem!”
We generally tend to think of narcissism as a grandiose self, but this is likely because the shadow part of the character structure is often deeply hidden from the surface. In my experience working with narcissistic traits as a clinician, there’s often a fragile sense of self underneath the seductive or competent persona and an experience of a “black hole” or “void” is reported. For those who look deeper, this is often accompanied by despair, disorientation, numbness, or even terror. So the grandiosity and specialness seeking of the narcissist turns out to be more like a shell with yolk underneath.
Spiritual author, A.H. Almaas, in his detailed book on the subject of narcissism, shares similar anecdotes. He in fact encourages that when students with more narcissistic character traits begin to contend with the “deficient emptiness” that lies beneath the grandiose or specialness persona (with a sense of self that is numb, dead or lacking emotion), that he or she is on the right track of being liberated from the ultimate dualistic separation at the root of the false self, giving way to “emptiness” in the transcendent sense of the word.
The narcissism problem of our time is not soon going away. Rates of narcissism in America, at least, are drastically on the rise and according to some research, since the 1980s narcissistic traits have risen in the American population as much as obesity. And the curve is rising faster since 2000 with up to 1 in 4 college students self-reporting that they agreed with the majority of measures on instruments measuring narcissistic traits.
So, yes, “Houston, we have a problem”. For modern or post-modern Buddhist teachers and students with narcissistic traits, teachings on no-self and emptiness may not only be difficult to digest, they may entirely confuse things. Due to the motivations of a highly dysfunctional sense of self, practitioners may circle around the wrong kind of “emptiness” for decades. Teachers with limited psychological training may also be seduced by the same error and push students in the wrong direction- toward transcending the self- long before the self is healed and fuctional.
And in other cases teachers and students with narcissistic traits who have avoided the messy psychological work in the yolk of the false self and have genuinely broken through to transcendent no-self or emptiness, rise is given to another set of problems. Namely, motivation to build a healthy relative self is negated because the self as a whole is seen as false. Yet we see the continued damage that is done through the shadow aspects of the wounded self which was never fully digested or healed. Post-modern communities have been especially ruthless (though sometimes to a fault in my opinion) taking down any teachers who haven’t cleaned up their act and taken responsibility for using “no self” as an excuse for poor behavior.
Ironically, it may be that because we are more cognitively and psychologically complex than the early traditions where Buddhism came from that we have more attachment problems leading to narcissism. Again, attachment expert Daniel Brown points out that modern and post-modern cultures are less child focused than traditional cultures. Parents today are more inclined to place high expectations inappropriately and prematurely onto children during the attachment phase. It’s true, material and psychological safety may have grown through our evolution but Brown cites that it is not enough to simply do the right things for a child; a good parent enjoys the activity of parenting itself rather than its expectant results. A securely attached parent favors safety, attunement, expressed delight, emotional soothing and fostering healthy individual development over any other agenda.
An entire body of attachment research shows that needs at the attachment level are best met- not rejected- before they can be transcended. And in fact, unmet needs at the attachment level can and will lead to pathologies both in states (Waking Up) and stages (Growing up) on down the road.
I’ll dedicate another article, specifically to working with attachment issues from an Integral perspective. But for now, it is essential that Buddhism continue to be nudged, evolving to include healthy self-development at all levels to be contextualized in a truly integral approach. This should never mean mistaking Buddhism for psychotherapy! But teachers and students will be taking more responsibility for cleaning up their own side of the street and expanding the definition of Enlightenment to include psychological maturity, healthy attachment and addressing narcissism. This requires teachers who are awake and psychologically mature, drawing on broad skills to hold both growing a healthy sense of self while preserving the end goal of Buddhism, to transcend the self.
Here is a rare gem, one of the few practices with a view that addresses Cleaning Up, Growing Up and Waking Up.
It’s Daniel P Brown’s Ideal Parents Visualization: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2au4jtL0O4
Twenge JM, Campbell WK. The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York, NY: Free Press 2009.
Almaas, A.H. The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization. Boston, MA: Shambhala 2000
Brown, D.P. The Attachment Project. https://www.attachmentproject.com/vision