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On the spiritual path, one seeks to shed layers of ego — but ironically we may end up accumulating more.
Ego is a fundamental part of the human condition. It provides us with the necessary ability to separate and compartmentalize ourselves from the rest of the world.
Our ego allows us to exist in the chaos of existence.
The spiritual path is seen as a way to “escape the ego” and achieve a higher state of consciousness. A state where the confines of the ego no longer hold us back from seeing things as they are and allow us to experience true bliss.
But there’s a paradox to this whole process.
By seeking spiritual advancement, we have to accept that there is something to improve and someone to do the improving.
This suggests that this improvement somehow makes us better than someone who has not achieved similar levels of improvement.
This kind of thinking is inherently egotistical.
As we advance down the spiritual path — escaping the grasp of ego and removing attachments — spirituality itself can end up feeding the ego. Most of the time, we don’t even notice it while it’s happening.
It’s an unconscious process that develops along the way. Only after we notice it within ourselves can we course-correct.
I acknowledge that writing this article is itself an example of spiritual egotism.
Who am I to talk about dissolving the ego? What are my goals for writing this piece? By pointing out the hypocrisy behind having spiritual convictions or goals, am I in some way suggesting myself to be free from these convictions?
I am in no way exempt from the clutches of spiritual egotism — I certainly have not reached enlightenment.
But the paradox is that if I had, I probably wouldn’t be talking about it now.
This is known in Buddhism as the “noble silence.”
The only way to understand what it truly means to “dissolve the ego” is by discovering it spontaneously. It is not something that can be taught.
This is the approach Zen Buddhism takes to reach enlightenment. By accepting that the truth cannot be told, the master does not try to speak it. Instead, the master simply pops the ego of his students as it bubbles up from time to time.
This employs a concept called “the middle way.”
You know that you must dissolve your ego. But you can’t, so trying it is also pointless. The middle way says, “I will do my best to escape my ego, but I accept that I will fail.”
One thing we can do is pay attention to our failings. When you perform a kind act for another person, consider the motivation behind why you did it. Was it for their sake or for yours?
If you’re able to convince yourself these acts come from selfless motives — take notice — your ego has just presented itself.
The Paradox of Spiritual Development
You want to improve yourself by changing your consciousness. But the self that needs to be improved is the same one doing the improving.
This is a paradox.
As egotistical beings, we cannot be without ego.
At its core, the very reason one seeks to dissolve the ego is to improve oneself. Whether it’s to feel well, perform more effectively, or improve relationships with others — the very desire to achieve this improvement is egotistical.
This forms a negative feedback loop. The more we attempt to remove the ego, the more egotistical we become.
Essentially, the harder we try to avoid it, the more we become it.
By choosing to take a path toward enlightenment — we can not reach enlightenment.
The great Alan Watts says it best (paraphrasing):
“As long as you think and feel that you are contained in your bag of skin, there is no way whatsoever to behave unselfishly. You can imitate unselfishness. Undergo all kinds of highly refined forms of unselfishness. But you’re still tied to the gold chains of your good deeds.”
Is There A Solution?
Not exactly, but we may be able to move closer toward enlightenment by accepting its impossibility. Simply allowing ourselves to notice this paradox in ourselves may allow us to redirect course toward the middle path once again.
Let’s look at the story of the Buddha as an example.
Siddhartha was an ascetic for several decades. Acetics of the time would do all sorts of austere techniques. He would starve himself, sleep out in the cold, and purposely subject himself to discomfort and hardship — all an attempt to dissociate from his physical body and, thus, his ego.
The goal was to “reach” enlightenment.
But all the attempts the Buddha made to get himself out of the trap failed.
Siddhartha only achieved enlightenment when he realized that the trap and the trapped are one. By this realization, there isn’t any trap left.
He realized that the spiritual journey isn’t about being on some sort of “higher level.” There is no “end goal” or plateau to reach.
The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle puts it another way:
“The ego has many ideas. It says, ‘I want to be a spiritual person. I want to be recognized as a spiritual person. I want to be more spiritual than all these people. And I’m definitely more spiritual than you… The essential dysfunction of the ego is still operating. This is why we have the phrase ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’… You have to reach the place within yourself that is unconditioned; that is what I sometimes call formless.”
Spiritual Arrogance is a Blind Spot on the Path to Enlightenment
Spirituality can help you release the firm grasp your ego has over you, but it can also reinforce it.
Spiritual arrogance arises when someone develops an identity about seeking a path to enlightenment. It’s sometimes referred to as “spiritual narcissism.”
It’s what happens when you feel like people just “aren’t quite on your level.”
“High vibrations,” right?
As the psychiatrist Gerald May wrote in his 1983 book Will and Spirit:
“Simply stated, spiritual narcissism is the unconscious use of spiritual practice, experience, and insight to increase rather than decrease self-importance.”
Spiritual arrogance emerges naturally as we engage on the spiritual path. We fool ourselves into thinking that by taking steps to become more “enlightened,” we’re in some way superior to those who do not.
We leverage spiritual practices — like yoga, meditation, or other forms of spiritual self-care — as tokens of our supposed enlightenment or moral superiority.
We may use our "spiritual" identity to look down upon others who don't share these practices or beliefs, to dodge personal responsibilities or interpersonal challenges, or to create a persona that earns us social capital.
This condition damages both the individual, who is missing the opportunity for genuine spiritual or personal growth, and the community around them, which may be subjected to their judgment, manipulation, or neglect.
The presentation of spiritual arrogance comes in all shapes and sizes.
Let’s say you join a church group or other spiritual group. Members become spiritually proud. They believe they are the ones who have the right teaching. Everybody else is a bit off the track.
Then someone comes and one-ups them. “In our circles, we’re very tolerant. And we accept all teachings and all ways as leading to the one.”
But they’re just playing the game of “we’re more tolerant than you are.”
In essence, they become a victim of their own spiritual practice — they’re blind to the paradox of the spiritual path and become lost in their own egotistical beliefs that their “way” is somehow better than everybody else’s.
Of course, the other side of this paradox comes from noticing the people around you who demonstrate signs of spiritual arrogance. Looking at someone in their arrogance can make you feel like they’re inferior.
It’s another trap — but it comes from the completely opposite angle.
We cannot escape it.
Can Spiritual Arrogance Be Avoided?
Probably not, but by learning to recognize it, we may be able to re-align ourselves towards the middle path when it inevitably appears over and over again throughout our lives.
Here are some ideas to think about for avoiding the paradoxical nature of spiritual arrogance:
1. Find your intuitive expertise & learn to flow with it
Taoists call this practice “wu-wei.” Zen Buddhists call it “mushin.” Both loosely refer to an absence of striving. It’s the constant striving to improve or reach “higher vibrations” that causes this paradox to manifest in a big way.
2. Stop judging others based on their “level”
Spirituality is not a competition; you are not here to “help” others on their spiritual journey.
3. Remain skeptical about ideas, mentors, & gurus
Nobody truly has it figured out, and if they do, they certainly aren’t talking about it.
4. Embrace the beginner’s mind
Avoid bringing your preconceptions and opinions to new ideas. Act as though you’re a child experiencing everything for the first time.
5. Be conscious about your use of social media
This is especially important when it comes to sharing your spiritual development publically. By sharing with others, you’re feeding the ego hiding behind the curtain.
6. Avoid over-intellectualizing spirituality
This comes at the expense of direct, personal, or experiential understandings of these concepts in daily life.
7. Beware of toxic positivity
This is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. This invalidates an authentic human emotional experience and is a form of spiritual bypassing.
Quotes on Spiritual Arrogance
“The biggest ego trip going is getting rid of your ego.” — Alan Watts
“If it’s so easy to lose Jim Carey, who’s Jim Carey?” — Jim Carey
“If an organ is working properly, you don’t feel it. When you’re thinking clearly, your brain isn’t getting in your way.” — Alan Watts
“To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.” — Confucius
“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“No matter what the practice or teaching, ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.” ― Chögyam Trungpa
Zen Kaons About Spiritual Arrogance
The beauty of Zen koans is that they can be used to “impart wisdom” that can’t otherwise be explained by words.
They’re told as a sort of joke — only the punchline isn’t spontaneous laughter — but spontaneous glimpses of enlightenment.
They all deliver some form of unexplainable wisdom that you either get at the punchline or you don’t. Just like a joke, if the koan has to be explained, it loses its power.
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