I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with fellow healers and good friends regarding something that I find troubling about Western Culture. This conversation is about the pervasive cult of narcissism that seems to not only be a symptom of an egocentric culture, but also reinforced by education, government, corporatism, and even some health and spirituality models.
Anybody who reads my blog posts knows that I have a bone to pick with anything that leaves out relatedness dimensions of being. I am an existential psychotherapist. Part of my pou sto of healing is the function of relationship as pertains to personal growth. I do not believe that people grow in a vacuum. We grow in relationship to others and the world around us. In this way, I believe that existential psychotherapy is an ecocentric model of health.
Regardless, I have over the years noticed a focus on “self” that seems to not only leave out personal impact on relationships, but also reinforce a narcissistic way of being. I think of the cliché of the 1960s and my prior generation’s quest for self, and freedom through self-expression. Now, I think, here we are, and where did that get us? Being a child of children of the sixties, and a peer of many others, I feel the aftermath of loss, and even more so, loss resulting from a search for an other’s lost “self.” My grandmother used to call it the “me” generation with disdain. Hearing her say this as a teenager when I needed to focus on “me,” I would scoff.
Recalling this as a concerned adult, I think she was really onto something. Although I don’t believe in sacrifice of one’s selfhood to the mercy of a corrupt collective, I do believe that the 60s wasn’t as perfect as the idealized image portrays, resulting in its own brand of “lack of regard” for others and our world.
I hear therapists of adolescents talk about how difficult it is to work with self-centered parents who can’t seem to identify with anyone or anything outside of their own myopic world. We discuss couples who are so disappointed in their partners for being real people who don’t necessarily fit into their vision of marital bliss, sometimes even in the face of very real trauma (fantasy and denial of human emotion and weakness is a huge part of narcissism).
Generally, we see people who not only are inept at being present to each other in the “I-Thou” sense, but also are somewhat consumed with defending themselves and either disengage or numb out. They believe they are being true to themselves, but honestly, I’m not sure these people are present enough to themselves to even know what that truth is. In general, I think truth is not always comfortable. And when we get uncomfortable, we tend to want to find a way out, and it’s not hard to find a belief to support that escape.
Enter Bill Plotkin’s (2008) book, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. Before I elaborate on the central thesis of this book and how it relates to the current conversation on narcissism and Western culture (including our health and spiritual paradigms), I just want to say how great it is to finally stumble across a resource that so cogently puts into words something I have been trying to understand for years. On a silly note, I’m even more excited that the book was published right here in my town of residence, Novato: California. Yes, I’m a dork. But I’m a dork who is proud to live in a community that supports the passing on of the following wisdom.
Plotkin offers a model of human development that he calls soulcentric and ecocentric. These models are designed as alternatives to what Plotkin refers to as the egocentric model of development. Soulcentric and ecocentric models of development incorporate our relationship to other beings and species in the natural world, helping us find our soulful place in nature. Adversely, egocentric models of development focus on the self and/or elite groups at the expense of others, implicitly advocating models of competition and consumption, disengagement from others and the world in order to advance one’s agenda. “It’s a dog eat dog world” is a phrase that emulates this form of thought. A popular therapeutic cliché that also emulates this mindset is “I’m not responsible for your feelings.” Say that to the birds choking on our trash. Say that to your child when you don’t show up for their school play. Say that to your partner after they catch you lying to them. Say that to your team at work when you don’t present an important part of a project you’ve been collectively working on. We’ve taken this way out of context to our own detriment. Originally meant to help people not accept guilt from people who are addicted to a victim stance, this phrase has turned into an excuse for lack of consideration.
Plotkin is not against “ego.” I find this refreshing. He asserts that ego is a tool we use to locate our soul’s purpose in the world and manifest our soul’s work. We spend our first three developmental phases (birth through adolescence) developing an ego that is strong and healthy enough to navigate the tension between our place in the natural and cultural world. Ego is, per his definition, the self/identity and function of self-preservation. Our primary task in adolescence is to solidify our soul’s place and our ego’s function in order to move forward and offer our unique gifts to the world.
Here’s the rub: development of self is crucial. Being present to self in a holistic way that includes not only presence to our unique gifts and talents, but also presence to the more uncomfortable aspects of self and existence, is an important part of being in the world. However, it is only one step on the journey. Developing a self is an essential step towards transcending self and giving back. By knowing our selves and what Plotkin calls the soul’s “place” in the world, we are able to locate ourselves in relationship to others and our natural world. We can also recognize that we are not wholly independent, but rather interdependent beings who help each other in a collaborative brother/sisterhood with our fellow humans and other species.
Plotkin states that contemporary human culture is locked into a state of patho-adolescence. This explains the observation by other healers, friends, and myself regarding the pervasive narcissism we see in other people. Adolescence by its very nature has a narcissistic quality to it, and necessarily so. At that stage of life, it is appropriate and necessary to differentiate one’s self. When done in a wholly present way that does not shelter from “life on life’s terms” (e.g., the hero’s journey), it helps a person deepen their soul, discover their innate capacities, and thus launch into a role that entails taking on responsibilities for aspects of world outside of one’s center.
So what happens to us in adolescence? Plotkin says that our adolescents don’t have good role models. We aren’t seeing very many people fit to be elders in this world because most people haven’t successfully moved beyond adolescence themselves. We have people who don’t know how to be present to each other (warts and all) because they are still stuck trying to find themselves. We have parents who don’t know how to guide their children because they are still trying to find their own path. I will say with compassion, however, it is no surprise that these people are, according to Plotkin, among the majority.
In a world driven by consumerism and manipulations, as well as lifestyles that promote numbing out and disengaging as a means of entertainment versus activities that engage and bring revitalized presence to our being, it’s no wonder we are stuck in patho-adolescence. It’s hard to find one’s path when we are raised to live for the agenda of the economic elite and a government that supports it. Our health care industry is being dominated by the pharmaceutical industry, and the pharmaceutical industry does not promote being present to our pain. It promotes the quick fix of numbing. I don’t believe that the medicalization of marijuana is helping this, either. It feels like another quick fix collusion. Add the evening martini, bong toke, and love affair with the porn industry and internet surfing, and we’ve got a lot of people who are so busy being mesmerized by the dazzling lights of Hollywood and the Gap, they have no idea who they are independent of all those influences that are manipulating them to line their pockets.
Sadly, I believe that the majority of people have not found their soul’s place. Until we help people find that place, we are a culture of lost souls operating like machines at the whim of some mogul’s private joke. I can say one thing with confidence (OK, one *more* thing): We do not exist to feed the corporate machine. That is not the place of the soul.
Add parenting that either influences subordination (no space for people to have a self or voice—where children live as extensions of their parents) or that is overly-indulgent, in which there is no tension between self and other that the differentiated ego so desperately needs (parents being their kid’s best friends and never saying “no” at all or having healthy disagreements, which is often also in favor of the parent’s fear of loss: this is a form of neglect per the view of many developmental specialists). Most often, these parents ironically have not located their own soul’s place. The result is often times neglect and abuse. It is very hard to develop optimally under these circumstances.
How do we help people move past this patho-adolescence, as Plotkin calls it? What we have to defeat is a giant of seduction. In his documentary Century of the Self, Adam Curtis (2011) pointed out that advertisers will actually market “individuality” in order to trick people who are looking for their identity into sacrificing their identity to buy their products: we are slaves to fashion in one form or another. The problem is insidious. It also distracts us from things we should be very concerned about, such as a hegemonic government. The only soul this serves is the one in power, and even that is a farce. Soul does not exploit spirit.
Although I don’t believe it is the only solution, I do believe that Plotkin’s model of human development is a step in the right direction. He offers a way of parenting that prepares our children for a successful navigation through childhood and adolescence: parenting that fosters regard and presence for one’s experience and sense of separateness, yet ultimately a sense of identity that can return to the world with a sense of regard for other people and the planet; a sense of regard that understands the concept of “the sun my heart” (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1999). We cannot arrive at the wonders of existence and self without others. In knowing this, we can also come to the sense of our own power in giving our unique gifts that help sustain the world we all share. In knowing that we receive, we also come to know that we can give, and giving is quite empowering.
So, what is the significance of the word “Namaste” and this conversation? Namaste is a word that I hear often in my circles. Much like a greeting or a ritual of closure, namaste means to bow to one’s self and another person at the same time: a recognition that both beings facing each other are a part of something wondrous and great. It is a salutation of mutuality and respect. It is an acknowledgement to the “I-Thou” relationship that Martin Buber (1958) writes of. I believe that this phrase, in its common use, is perhaps not fully understood. Namaste is a phrase that embodies the soulcentric principle of regard for our cosmo’s ecology. When I say “namaste” in a manner that is fully conscious rather than a mindless habit, I am acknowledging that the other and I are valuable beyond what meets the eye and what our agenda may be. I know that I hold infinity within me, and that the other holds infinity within them, and that if I can be humble enough, I can be present to the infinity of both. We can both live together in a way that honors the significance of the other’s soul.
Most practices that end with “namaste” are practices that focus on presence to self. However, presence to self includes noticing the contact boundary between self and other: being aware of how we fit in to everything and how everything is related to who we are in that moment. I believe that these kinds of practices that help us tolerate the vastness of our being, from pleasure to pain, and can help us cultivate a self that can move forward to a stage of service to others: an interdependent world. This can happen through psychotherapy, progressive education, meditation, yoga, dance, art, hiking in nature, or anything else that shifts our consciousness in such a way that our awareness is our own, rather than exploited consciousness.
Additionally, by engaging in these practices of one form or another, we are mirroring, a behavior essential to ego formation via relatedness. In a sense, perhaps we can re-parent each other mindfully. It may be one of our last options.
I don’t have all the answers, but I feel confident that the problems my peers and I notice, as well as Bill Plotkin’s observation of our growth-stunted culture, do exist. I invite people to think together about how we can support our youth and friends who are stuck in finding their soul’s place so that they can be free to move beyond the self into a beneficial service to our fellow mankind. How do we restore this balance? I want to know what you think and feel about this.
Buber, M. (1958). I and thou (2nd edition). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Curtis, A. (Director). (2011). Love and power [Television series episode]. In D. Crossley-Holland (Executive Producer), All watched over by machines of loving grace. London: BBC Productions.
Hanh, T. N. (1999). Call me by my true names: The collected poems of Thich Nhat Hanh. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the human soul: Cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world. Novato, CA: New World Library.
— Candice Hershman