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View From the Pool
"By its very nature, this sickness isolates us from one another and from reality, and it stands between us and all that we can hope to have and be. Its name is narcissism, and it lurks behind many of the social ills that plague twenty-first century America.
- Sandra Hotchkiss
My understanding of the relationship between my emotional life and my desire for self-knowledge was a lot easier to investigate once I left Ananda Marga.
That happened just short of three years after I had joined the organization. Three years in which I had been involved with a very active local chapter, been asked (and accepted) the invitation to work at the organizations’ world headquarters and, once there, had been chosen to participate in a guerilla warfare boot camp run by former members of the Weather Underground and designed to produce "spiritual warriors" (more on this later). Once I left Ananda Marga, the fog from my swoon began to lift, slowly but surely.
As this happened, I realized how much my psychological vulnerability had contributed to my susceptibility to conversion. Prior to Ananda Marga, I had effectively - and mostly unconsciously - employed a variety of psychological defense mechanisms (denial, repression, projection) to override those vulnerabilities. In doing so, I had convinced myself I was fine. These psychological defenses had protected me from directly addressing the painful realities of my mother’s abandonment of me and the neglect and dysfunction in my subsequent family life. So I continued using them when I was in Ananda Marga. Once I left Ananda Marga, however, I was determined to find healthier ways to engage the world.
I knew I needed help to do this, so I found a psychotherapist and began a fruitful and long-term exploration of my psyche. No one I had known during my Ananda Marga years had been in therapy. The unstated message was that everything you needed to address psychologically could be found by throwing yourself wholeheartedly into spiritual discipline. By the time I left I no longer believed this was true. When I embarked on my therapy, I combined what I was learning with the most powerful tool I had discovered in Ananda Marga: meditation.
Combining meditation with an interactive exploration of my life narratives helped me close the gap between painful historical events and the outward strength I had learned to present to the world via my various roles in Ananda Marga. My therapeutic conversations unwrapped the numerous strands of denial, repression and projection that had constricted me during both those periods. Meditation shone a light on those insights and gave me distance from the emotion of my stories, leading to new understandings about how they had affected my behavior.
One of the things my therapy led me to realize was how thoroughly aliveI had felt while involved with Ananda Marga - especially during my first two years. My life had become more energized, purposeful, and rewarding than it had ever been. How was that possible? How was it that the unreal, trance state of ideological conversion – a trance state that narrowed my thinking, my relationships, and my overall awareness – had led me to such a positive frame of mind? This was bewildering and unsettling to me.
Gradually I came to appreciate, however, that "aliveness" was not the right word to describe my experience. The positive feelings evoked during my early years in Ananda Marga had occurred inside a carefully structured ideological bubble, and they simply could not sustain themselves in the wider world. Even evangelizing people - which brought together all the dysfunctional aspects of my psyche to form the most potent barricade I could deploy against this realization - began to eventually lose its potency over time. I had learned that if you can keep even a tiny portion of your consciousness untainted by ideology, then at some point the narrowness of the dogma you've embraced will run into a human desire to honor and pursue a more panoramic awareness of one's self and the surrounding environment.
The emotions I had experienced inside that bubble were quite real, however, and the relief and certainty that came in their wake gave them the sense of being comprehensive. When that sense of totality eventually diminished in my awareness, it led me to adopting the term emotionalized excitementto better describe what I had felt at the time. Embracing that excitement had unquestionably been exhilarating. But it had come at a cost of dramatically accelerating the gap between my private world and the public face I presented to others outside that world. I had begun noticing the consequences of this gap while I was still in the organization.
One of the first things that came on my radar was how much energywas required in order to have a foot in these two irreconcilable worlds simultaneously. Suppressing direct perceptions of the wider world in order to sustain the excitement I coveted required repeated small decisions inside my psyche to sabotage what may be its most human aspect: individual conscience. Doing this sounds - and was - completely wrong-headed, but it's the only thing that consistently allowed me to manage my cognitive dissonance. It allowed me to navigate deeper into the protective field of Ananda Marga’s ideological bubble, and to do so rapidly enough to override any deep reflection. Once there, I could share enthusiasms with other converts, feel energized by a common sense of mission, and unburden myself of having to deal with the complexity of wrestling with dissenting viewpoints.
The most consequential aspect of compromising my conscience in this way was that it moved me further away from trusting the broader internal guidance system all human beings have: a system driven by conscience but inclusive of other psychological, intuitive, and rational capacities that are meant to work in unison with each other. Instead of directly addressing the doubts arising from this guidance system - doubts unlocked when genuine insight accidentally broke though my awareness - I overrode them by willfully inserting ideological maxims to explain why I was behaving as I was.
I didn’t do this because I was stupid. I did it because it felt so good. It felt better than anything I had experienced in my day-to-day reality prior to Ananda Marga. So what if it pushed my inner and outer worlds further apart? As an emotionally ungrounded and psychologically confused twenty year old navigating through a turbulent social era, I was more than willing to make a deep commitment to an ideology that promised a path away from the background distress I had always felt. After having experienced the powerful feelings of inclusion and purpose I got from my involvement in Ananda Marga, why would I do otherwise?
Deepening my commitment required another compromise to my guidance system I wasn't fully aware of at the time. I began to enlist my intellectto aide me in finding ideological lynchpins that would justify the change in my attitude and behavior. I spent any spare reading time I had, for instance, exclusively reading Ananda Marga books. I steered any discussions I was involved in with people outside the organization onto the way Ananda Marga philosophy would address the issue. This served to steadily sabotage my critical thinking capacity, a process I was able to sustain by persistently engaging in Ananda Marga's highly emotional spiritual rituals. These rituals helped me embrace the superficial sense of belonging that comes from surrounding one's self with only like-minded people, and to fervently engage in a never-ending industriousness on behalf of new beliefs.
In other words, I amplified my emotionalized excitement by funneling my thinking and emotions through already existing organizational structures. I then inflated what I called my subjectively experience, labeling it as a "greater sense of aliveness". I further placated any concerns about doing this by reminding myself that I was reading as much as I ever had, engaging with others as much as I ever had, and felt absolutely wonderful. How could I be ‘dumbing myself down’?
This was all an easy task initially because the freshness of the psychological reward it brought intensified my feelings. But it directly contradicted values I had cherished in my pre-Ananda Marga life: including the willingness to change my mind about important issues when empirical evidence and/or reason pointed me in another direction. The strength of my ability to sustain this aspect of critical thinking did not hold up in the face of my emotionalized excitement. The ideological lockbox I had built in my consciousness, designed to capture and suppress any desire to consider alternative perspectives, was doing its job.
Rationalizing my behavior in this way also reassured me when my anxiety ran high. It allowed me to placate my doubts by convincing me I was acting based on universally true principles that would benefit the spirituality of not just myself but everyonein the most powerful possible way. Weren’t these 'small' compromises worth it, given my new exuberance and confidence? Besides, I increasingly felt as though I had no choice during this early period: changing my attitude was essential if I was to assimilate and re-invest the enormous amounts of positive energy I was now experiencing back into the world. I accelerated this process through teaching Ananda Marga meditation and yoga classes, creating and implementing community service projects, and involving myself more at the international level of the organization. I felt as though I was firing on all cylinders.
Another way of putting this is that in order to sustain my ideological momentum, I had to become very adept at filtering everythingI encountered – good news, bad news, big events and small ones – through Ananda Marga's philosophical lens. I achieved this by patting myself on the back for deepening my commitment to this new belief system. But I was also purgingany attachment I had to any previous perspectives I held. In retrospect, I realized that one of the primary ways a person in the throes of conversion uses to ease the angst cognitive dissonance produces is to falsely equate purging with purification, something I will explore in more detail later.
A seemingly insignificant example of how sustaining momentum during the early stages of conversion enhances the process of embedding a new belief system into one's psyche illustrates a piece of this process. During my first year in Ananda Marga, I received a refund check from the tax department. This was during a time when our local chapter was attempting to launch a new social service project. Rather than just quietly contributing this money to Ananda Marga, I went out of my way to infuse my actions with artificial significance. I declared (to myself, and to others) that by contributing the check to the organization's coffers, I was "doing the will of the guru". Making an attribution in this way - to someone I'd never even met! - began to characterize more and more of my experience. It was a primary tool I used to steer my behavior into narrowly confined corners that served to reinforce my emotional commitment to the organization. Simultaneously, it accelerated the process of squeezing out of awareness any temptation I might have to pause and/or question what I was doing.
Another stage in this process appeared shortly thereafter. I recognized that once I had diminished my doubt sufficiently, I was freed up to evangelize. I began to use any interaction with people outside the organization as an opportunity to persuade them to come to Ananda Marga events. While my infectious enthusiasm did indeed bring more people into Ananda Marga’s orbit, I later noticed how doing so dramatically compromised any panoramic awareness I would normally have applied to such situations: such as really listening to and honoring a person's reluctance when they indicated their disinterest. I became more proficient at ignoring any rebuttals and substituting the laser-like focus I needed if I was to filter the world through the organization’s belief system. The personal will I summoned to do this was more than capable of overriding my doubts, my critical thinking, and my capacity to be genuinely empathic.
When I left Ananda Marga, I felt a deep sense of remorse about the level of self-deception I had engaged in in order to devote myself so comprehensively to evangelizing the wider community. I had pushed any hesitations about the aggressiveness of this tactic outside the earlier-mentioned ideological lockbox. Every idea inside the lockbox was not to be questioned, and every idea outside of it was to be reinterpreted. The interesting aspect of this was that nobody had every directly told me that this was how I should behave. I just “worked it out” and acted as if such behavior was the norm. The unseen power of this dysfunctional psychology was, in retrospect, far greater than I recognized at the time. What was missing - or damaged - in my life that made adopting and fiercely protecting an entirely new belief system so easy?
I had no answers to that question at the time. I later recognized, however, that there were even more layers to this. I had become a less curious person, for instance. Did that bear any relationship to the ease with which I had abandoned my critical thinking? I don't know, but about a year prior to my involvement in Ananda Marga my curiosity had been much more wide-ranging. By the time I reached the evangelizing stage in my Ananda Marga experience, I had whittled the focus of my curiosity down to only applying it to opportunities for furthering ideological aims.
If, for instance, I saw that a new convert was a skillful public speaker, I focused on how that skill could be utilized by the organization. If I turned my attention toward a major social concern - such as world hunger - being discussed in university classrooms and cafes, I started to imagine how Ananda Marga could address that issue in ways that would excite people and get them interested in our group. In and of itself, of course, some degree of this behavior is quite normal for anyone excited about promoting the virtues of his group. It’s a natural way to express enthusiasm.
That’s true, but the intensity and narrowness of my focus was much greater than it ever had been. Some sort of line had been crossed, and crossing it had psychological consequences for the way I interacted with the world. If, for instance, the talented public speaker I had noticed ended up using his skill on behalf of a political organization instead of ours, or if another campus group found an innovative way to bring the issue of world hunger to light, any enthusiasm I might previously have felt about the fact that this topic had at least made its way into public discussion was overridden by a sense of competition. I thought of myself as having failed, because the more important issue of recruiting others to the cause had not been advanced. This narrowing of my curiosity undercut my psychological equanimity.
Diminishing my doubt, dulling my curiosity, justifying my evangelizing by equating it with commitment, and rationalizing the narrowing of my intellect were all ways I dealt with my cognitive dissonance. They all required considerable effort. What had convinced me to make this effort? At what point did I decide to put the internal sentries meant to be watching over my conscience and internal guidance system to sleep? In my early days with Ananda Marga, that slumber was only occasionally jolted by the uncomfortable recognition that the frequency with which I acted on my awareness and values was steadily diminishing.
I've mentioned small examples of the dissonance-reducing strategies that helped me change my behavior and fortify my ideological lockbox. But there were other events during my early years with the organization that evoked a much bigger angst and were, as a result, much harder to manage. These events carried much more powerful dissonance.
For example, I recall when I was first exposed to the practice of Ananda Marga monks recommending wives from Asian countries for male American devotees to marry. I was shocked by this practice. It was culturally foreign to me, and I instantly felt it was wrong. I remember thinking how presumptuous it was for anyoneto think they could know who someone else’s life partner should be. But when I saw 19 year old monks from the Philippines and India recommending brides for 20 or 30 -something lonely American men, the absurdity of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks. Despite this response, I did not voice my concerns at the time.
Had I done so, what would have happened? Would I have been ostracized? That’s certainly what I imagined, but I will never know for sure. What I do know is that failing to stand up for something I had believed in before I joined Ananda Marga made my subjective world a nightmare at the time. I remember feeling both cowardly and confused. I had to work hard to suppress this feeling.
I didn't recognize this at the time, but the toll all these subjective adjustments was taking was to increase my passivity as I committed myself more deeply to the organization's ideology. I didn't recognize this because the feedback I got from inside the ideological bubble consistently expressed praise for my confident advocacy of the organization. But if the confidence I was building via my Ananda Marga activities was as genuine as I was telling myself it was, wouldn’t I have actedon my disagreements rather than just tucking them away inside my head and complying? Instead, the number of times I bit my tongue increased. It was a concern that grew larger when I put it next to the confident, evangelizing Ananda Marga persona I was steadily displaying when I was promoting the organization. Only when I departed was I able to steadily unpack the contents of my ideological lockboxand the questionable actions I had taken/not taken on its behalf during my time with the organization.
That was when I returned to again asking myself questions that were in alignment with my genuine aspirations for self-knowledge. Questions such as ‘Where had the intellectual growth that emerges from the struggle of ideas banging into each other gone? Where had the explorations embracing open-ended curiosity and uncertainty I used to value so much previously gone? Why had I so easily given up being contentious in my thinking and turned instead to mollifying myself with ideas that offered me comfort instead?’ The embarrassment I felt from realizing my numerous compromises were like a slap in the face. I also saw thatthese compromises hadn’t resulted from any dramatic ‘crossover’ experience. They had incrementallycrept into my psyche, taking root bit by bit.
If authenticity was one price I paid for my fundamentalist adventure, another was depth. Ignoring the ever-widening gap between my inner compass and my Ananda Marga persona had required a dramatic simplification of my worldview. That was an obvious compromise of depth. Less obvious was the role inflation had played in the process. Once again I asked myself: was there something about my new identity that had made it so easy for me to cast off my critical thinking? Did living inside the excitement of that identity lead me to conclude that critical thinking was just too difficult to be bothered with? Did the infusion of emotionalized excitement I was experiencing prompt me to throw caution - and calculation - to the wind so I could have the energy to do unimaginably great things on behalf of the organization?
One example of how this inflation played out occurred when I was working in my local Santa Barbara chapter. This was just prior to my departure to assume a position at Ananda Marga world headquarters. During that time, I was in communication with a wealthy man who had a schizophrenic son whose life was collapsing on a number of fronts. The father had not been able to find any social or institutional support for his son that he trusted. During our conversations, I succeeded in convincing him to give me seed money to start a halfway house for 4 - 6 schizophrenics in town, including his son. All he had to do was finance the project. He was very motivated to do so, and my persuasive powers convinced him this was a good idea. He believed me in spite of the fact that I had absolutely zero experience in doing such a thing. Nor did I have a larger plan for involving anyone else as staff for this project. I simply communicated enormous confidence in my singular capacity to pull this huge project off based on my far from adequate background of an undergraduate psychology degree and some time volunteering at a mental hospital. No considerations of psychiatrists, nursing staff, or a path to licensing the facility entered my mind. My modus operandi was confined to willful enthusiasm, an inflated belief in my abilities, and a reckless willingness to dive in and figure it out as I went along. I had convinced a businessman with years of experience to go along with this crazy idea!
Clearly the charisma that pours out of a person infused with belief is incredibly persuasive, and is capable of overriding the critical thinking of both parties. When people are in desperate straits, as this family was, they long for recognition of their plight. They want some hope it can be addressed to appear on the horizon. When someone with an inflationary, charismatic confidence comes onto the scene, it's easy for such a person to quickly become filled with false optimism. His despair can lead him to join the person pitching him in adopting an unrealistic sense of the latter’s abilities. They can then both feed off each other because they've been captured by an idealistic vision for saving the seemingly hopeless situation from imminent disaster. Thankfully, the only 'saving' that happened in this situation was me being prevented from taking the next step in implementing this idea when I got the call from Ananda Marga world headquarters to instead pack my bags, move to Denver, and join the staff there. I can only imagine - with horror - what disaster might have unfolded had I stayed on the path I had initiated with this concerned father in Santa Barbara.
The emotionalized excitement illustrated by this example regularly punctuated my behavior during my Ananda Marga years. It felt so rewarding to think I could do anything. What complicated this issue was the fact that this extraordinary confidence, sometimes, doesoccasionally lead to extraordinary accomplishment. This sort of craziness can actually work, and many who have witnessed it doing so have attributed that to "visionary thinking" and "courage". But when visionary thinking extends beyond any reasonable possibility of accomplishment, it's not really courage that is driving it forward: it's delusion. When does this line get crossed? The near impossibility of answering this question is why visions/delusions can be so dangerous.
What happened in this example had happened a lot in my Ananda Marga life during my early years. My excitement had brought me a freshness of spirit, a sense of certainty, a feeling of belonging, and had significantly reduced my worry and anxiety. This led to the considerable increase in brazen overconfidence on my part. That didn't come out of nowhere, as I'll explore in a moment, but my emotionalized excitement amplified it considerably.
Emotions always feel "real", particularly because of the way our physiology gets activated when we're experiencing them. That doesn't mean, however, that they're connected to the outside world in a way that an empirically-minded person would consistently conclude is "true".
This didn't matter to me, subjectively, in the example detailed above. It doesn't matter to people every day when the hyper-excitement has them in their grip. I eventually elevated my respect for the power of the delusional aspect of emotionalized excitement when I realized that I was in its grip when I aligned myself not with external reality, but with beliefs I considered foundational to who I was. As I learned over and over in Ananda Marga, when I did that I always employed one or more of the techniques described earlier in this chapter to silence any alarm bells that might warn me of the consequences of moving too far out in front of my actual abilities, or of the reality defining my surrounding context. That’s a definition of danger.
Avoiding that level of danger meant I had to understand the beliefs I had acted on so fiercely. After I had been out of the organization for a sufficiently long enough time, I could do this. I turned my awareness to the organization's history and how it had shaped its philosophy.
Why, for instance, did Ananda Marga devote so much energy to supporting the philosophy of Subhas Chandra Bose? Bose had been a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi in the 1940s. He had felt that the best way to rid India of the British Raj back in that era was through violence. P.R. Sarkar, Ananda Marga’s guru, had been a passionate follower of Bose before striking out on his own, and he embraced this idea. Revolutionary violence is part and parcel of human history, but shouldn’t a spiritual organization be looking at fundamentally different ways to instigate change? Aren't practices such as meditation and yoga meant to encourage deeper reflection? Wouldn't reflection more likely than not move an organization away from, rather than towards, violence?
My confusion about the role of violence intensifies when I observed the willingness of Ananda Marga monks to publicly self-immolate in order to protest the imprisonment of the guru. Did this reflect a courageous commitment the upper levels of the organization claimed it did, or the psychological dysfunction it appeared to me to be at first glance?
Violence outwardly or towards one's self confronted the nonviolent ethos I had always considered foundational to my personal value system. I had never been able to navigate my way through the question of whether, or when, either sort of violence was appropriate. But then again, my young life had never before provided me with any opportunity to consider what might bring a person to a point where he would take his own life on behalf of an idea. Was this possibly the ultimate revolutionary action?
Considering this question generated considerable anxiety for me, in part because if the answer was yes, then more monks might be self-immolating in the future. I was very fond of the Ananda Marga avadhutas giving me spiritual lessons, and the idea that one of them might decide at any moment to take his own life to demonstrate his spiritual commitment was distressing to me. This was not a new idea: the Buddhist monk whose self-immolation protesting the Vietnam War had made it onto American TV screens during the previous decade had been my first exposure to this idea. Tibetan monks are doing this in increasing numbers today. The lines between political and religious ideologies have always ebbed and flowed. Because the upper echelons of Ananda Marga's spiritual and administrative personnel equated self-immolation with noble sacrifice, I heard admiring talk of this method regularly during my days working at world headquarters.
I had never witnessed the sort of passion this conversation evoked before, nor was I immune to feeling it myself from time to time. Nonetheless, my first response whenever I heard validation for this - even in a room with twenty nodding heads surrounding me - was to feel enormously uneasy. I was never able to find a means of reconciling the dichotomy between the violence Ananda Marga supported and the peace its methods of daily spiritual practice encouraged.
Reflecting afterwards on the internal wrestling matches I had during these episodes of cognitive dissonance eventually led me to compare the magical thinking, obedience to authority, self-inflation, and emotionalized excitement of my early conversion stages to the developmental challenges children face in their younger years. Looking at this meant that, for the first time, I considered conversion through the lens of an injured child seeking something from a powerful authority. I recognized that this was what had prompted the line in my earlier poem about ‘the teary eyes of a lost and fearful child,’ something I had written while firmly in the grasp of my conversion swoon. What level of psychological solidity does a person seeking self-knowledge need to have in order to sustain a truly open heart without relinquishing sovereignty over his life?
It was a natural progression from considering things from a developmental perspective to thinking about how ideological organizations relate to vulnerability. What should the ethics standards be, for instance, when converting organizations are persuading others to join their flock? Is there anyconsideration of ethics when evangelizing is a primary motivating force in an organization? In Ananda Marga there didn’t appear to be, despite moral codes we were all expected to memorize and obey. Those moral codes didn't cover the territory of how to deal with the ethical dilemmas that arise when you’re hell bent on persuading others who don’t share your perspective.
I had noticed that most psychological vulnerabilities I, or other members of Ananda Marga, displayed wer either ignored or viewed as an opportunity to apply ideological remedies. In instances where genuine compassion did arise in response to a person's vulnerability, this would often be quickly redirected towards ideological prescriptions. The push everyone in the organization had to be true to the ideology overrode everything else.
This meant that whatever identity strength a person might have had beforehe joined Ananda Marga came under the enormous pressure (mostly, but not entirely, self-imposed) to move from his old life to a new one. This is a demand every ideological organization makes. During my interior battle with this issue I was encouraged to open myself as wide as I could to the ideological philosophy upon which I was building my new life. Although Ananda Marga encouraged openness in thisregard, it had little interest in, understanding of, or experience with the ripped psychological fabric encouraging such openness will expose underneath. The sense of unfairness and/or hurt caused to a convert’s life by important people, or by some societal injustice, was acknowledged - but only as a reference point to demonstrate how much better the world would be once the organization’s ideology was firmly embraced.
Understanding psychological vulnerability in a way that would address it non-ideologically was beyond the capacity or intention of Ananda Marga's authorities. Dealing with any form of psychological exploration of one’s past was simply not part of the organizational culture.
The conclusion I drew from this was that vulnerability was viewed as an opportunity to secure compliance from, and authority over, people. That may seem obvious to someone outside an organization, but that's not how a person captured by a conversion swoon sees it. I had to leave the organization before I could transform my 20 year old naiveté into a more broadly contextualized understanding of vulnerability.
That included recognizing that my vulnerability to conversion itself was far from unique. Yes, there were specifics to my story that were not universally shared: but my overall psychological susceptibility to conversion overlapped broadly with qualities I witnessed not only in Ananda Marga converts but in wider society. I concluded this when I saw and talked to those around me struggling with similar issues, in similar ways, as I had before my decision to join Ananda Marga. I began to wonder: Was there some sort of overarching psychological dynamic in U.S. society that served as a foundation for all this? Was there a central organizing principle fueling the incredible conversion rate to eastern religious movements, fundamentalist Christian groups, psychological groups promising actualization, financial groups promising financial freedom, and others?
This line of thinking reminded me of how Sigmund Freud’s theory linking sexual repression to Victoria-era morality had been seen as a primary catalyst for the underlying mental distress people expressed in late nineteenth century Europe. The stringent emphasis on sexual restraint during Freud's time was widely accepted by the culture of the day. Was there an over arching psychological dynamic of thistime and place: 1970s America? If so, did it influence people’s susceptibility to conversion?
After I left the organization, I lifted my head and noticed the explosion of psychological and spiritual workshops, retreats, conferences and seminars occurring throughout the country. What was drawing people to these events in such large numbers? Waves of prominent therapists from existential, humanistic, and transpersonal schools of psychology were dropping in on places such as Esalen in Big Sur to conduct workshops that included - but were not limited to - encounter groups, ingesting psychedelics, collective living experiments, politicized psychotherapy, primal scream therapy, meditation, orgone therapy, and highly controlled synthesized approaches to consciousness raising such as the EST. Psychological and spiritual self-inquiry seemed to be occurring in every conceivable way: gently, confrontationally, in groups, individually, with clothes on or without them.
As the number of people engaged in all these explorations grew, the willingness of people to participate seemed to reach a tipping point. A tipping point where self-examination gave way to self-absorption. Exploring one’s life moved beyond something acceptable to something obsessional, and the signs of unhealthy self-absorption accompanying this shift were popping up everywhere on the workshop circuit. An inflated sense of self-importance, a retreat from the political sphere, and a growing sense of entitlement were three I noticed.
As the decade of the 80’s began, another broad, societal trend began to shape the culture. Before it really took root, however, a canary in the coalmine emerged from the therapy world. That's not surprising, given that therapy was a central tool people were using to deepen their pursuit of self-knowledge. The change was straightforward: the focus of therapy was shifting. It was moving away from encouraging self-knowledge and consciousness experiments, and towards emphasizing success within mainstream society. A therapeutic landscape previously dominated by existential-humanistic schools of thought started embracing behaviorist strategies. These therapies paid lip service to the existence of individual consciousness, placing their emphasis instead on integrating people into the existing society, rather than inspiring them to change what might be wrong with that society.
Initial forays into this territory included modalities such as Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy. But newer, more sophisticated versions of this approach – including a whole range of clinical methodologies that fell under the heading of Cognitive Behavioral Therapies – sprouted up everywhere. These approaches focused more intently on ignoring any links to the political awareness or spiritual concerns that had influenced so many therapeutic approaches in the 70s. No longer was the idea of questioning the rationale behind how success was defined questioned. No longer was its linkage to the ethics of the larger society foreground in the therapeutic landscape. No longer was the connection between politics and psychology a matter of great concern. What mattered now was clearing up whatever psychological issues stood in the way of being successful.
This is not to say that the emphasis on self-examination characterizing the early days of therapeutic revival in the U.S. had not already made a significant shift towards self- absorption: it certainly had. But when therapeutic approaches took the additional step of de-emphasizing questions of meaning, when they narrowed definitions of purpose so that they fell more naturally into a more individualistic, success-oriented focus, something political and something communitarian was lost.
This made it much easier to embrace a rising trend happening outside the therapeutic world: the embrace of economic rationalism. The quest for individual success lay at the foundation of this move, and economic rationalism happily joined hands with a renewed focus on wealth accumulation. This approach is still firmly established in the behaviors and value system of people today. At the time it was more 'resurrectional' in nature, reflecting an energized rebirth of 1950s materialism. It paved the way for many people in the 1980s to abandon political causes, collective well being, and the pursuit of self-knowledge in favor of prosperity. It was a dramatic and noticeable shift, and it was being done wholeheartedly.
Self-absorption was the most prominent thread linking the psycho-spiritual experimentation of the 60s and 70s to the success-oriented strategies of the 80s. Self-absorption had found a way to weave a path from the countercultural experiments of the earlier period right into the heart of the economic rationalism of the 80s. It had gotten to a point where it had become an accepted norm in contemporary society. What did the staying power of self-absorption in these different movements in society, amongst people of very different political and cultural persuasions, indicate about the primary psychological dynamic of the times?
The cultural historian Christopher Lasch noted during the 70s that every age has its own particular form of pathology that expresses, in exaggerated form, its underlying character structure[i]. What was the underlying character structure of this age? What was being normalized and integrated into day-to-day life?
One thing that seemed to be consistently growing was society’s increasing tolerance for inflated, dishonest and irresponsible behavior. Politicians who purposefully lied to their constituencies, for example, didn’t appear to be held to account as fiercely in the 80s as they had been in the previous decade. Not only that, many of them were being admiredif they lied with a sense of conviction and certainty. This was in stark contrast to the example of Watergate, when this behavior was viewed (eventually) as unacceptable - a flaw worthy of impeaching a president.
Deceitful, unaccountable behavior isn't anything new, of course. It's been part of our world since the beginning of history. What was different about what was happening in the 80s, however, is that the outrage over it happeningwas disappearing. That outrage was replaced by two trends which had probably always been around but which were emerging with much greater force during this time.
The first was the growth of a powerless cynicism in the general population. That cynicism ascribed unethical behavior as universally true of ‘everybody,’ and saw no way to do anything about it. It cultivated a defeatist, passive attitude that stood in sharp contrast to the social hopefulness that had characterized much of the 60s and 70s. It also stood behind the sunny appearances projected by everyone who had jumped aboard the prosperity bandwagon, enticed by the rewards this promised. Those rewards aimed to put the satisfaction of individual appetite front and center in the awareness of people. The ease with which wealth could be procured seemed to confirm this aim, and soon led to the notion that social problems would simply solve themselves as the rising tide now in motion lifted all boats.
The second trend gaining traction was the greater brazenness and frequency of Machiavellian power grabs, in politics and in the wider society. People engaged in seizing power illicitly became less concerned about covering it up and, in many cases, were viewed as heroes - particularly if their efforts were accompanied by financial success. Attending honorably to ethical problems slid precipitously off the social radar. The stronger emphasis now was on whether ethical problems would even need to be dealt with if they could somehow pass unnoticed by the wider society. In this conscience-free context, the emphasis on financial success had little trouble asserting its dominance.
The lack of any forceful objection to this trend was worrying because it highlighted the fact that what was deemed acceptable was being redefined. Certain values in the society - values previously considered foundational - were shifting. Self-centered behavior has always been present in American society and there has been just as much of it, if not more, happening in earlier eras as there was in the 80s. It's the increased normalizationof such behavior that has contributed to the growth of a trait that goes far beyond mere self-absorption: a trait widely viewed as dysfunctional in earlier eras. A trait which fits easily into a society where the accrual of wealth and the deification of individual success are primary goals, and where the time and value placed on community building and selfless service to others is considered subservient to these goals. This trait cuts a wide swath through more serious mental health concerns, often working in concert with them. It is a trait whose momentum picked up in the 60s but which burst into full bloom in the 80s: narcissism.
The U.S. social fabric, with its disproportionate emphasis on individualism, wealth, and excessive consumption, has provided a fertile breeding ground for the explosion and subsequent normalization of narcissism. Narcissism is frequently seen as synonymous with self-absorption, but conflating the two is an oversimplification. Doing so erases the significance of other critical factors defining narcissism: a sense of entitlement, acting without regard for personal boundaries, envy, magical thinking, arrogance, shamelessness and exploitation. These factors fill out the definition of a phenomenon that goes well beyond self-absorption and make it easier to see how widespread all of these qualities have become.
Developmental psychologists have always emphasized that successfully navigating through narcissism as a young child is necessary if a healthy sense of confidence is to blossom in adult life. Narcissism, in other words, is a natural stage of growth: a temporary phase of a young child’s mental and emotional development, one requiring the skillful involvement of a child’s caregivers if it’s to be successfully negotiated. If it isn’t it can, and often does, result in some form of enduring narcissistic injury. The nature of that injury will include damage to a person’s capacity to live his life in a way that allows him to straightforwardly express his natural abilities. He's more likely to be plagued by an inability to live a life in accordance with the skills and aspirations he genuinely has. The extent of that damage varies from individual to individual, but usually expresses itself in some combination of the seven characteristics of narcissism listed above playing out in the injured person’s life.
Developing in a healthy way requires that the narcissistic stage of development be navigated in a way that leads to the emergence of a self-discovered personal identity. A solid identity built on self-discovery emerges when a person’s confidence increases through his steady mastery of the world around him. Navigating through narcissism successfully also means not getting stuck in looking exclusively to others for self-definition. When that happens, a person can develop the habit of endlesslyadoptingidentity rather than discoveringit through a combination of experimentation, reflection, and feedback. Navigating through narcissism successfully also teaches a person to value restraint, so he can stop short of the shamelessness, magical thinking, envy, aggression, exploitation, violation of boundaries and sense of entitlement now widely tolerated in American society.
As narcissism established its hold on U.S. society, many of the people writing about it were doing so because they saw fewer and fewer people passing through this stage in the healthy manner just described. Psychoanalytic theorists such as Otto Kernberg and Melanie Klein warned of the corruptibility of a narcissistically damaged personality, and its debilitating impact on a person’s conscience. Journalist Tom Wolfe saw the rise of narcissism aligning with a third great religious revival in American society. Cultural historian Christopher Lasch saw narcissism as a force that eroded society’s sense of historical continuity – its increasing inability to do things in the present for posterity (such as addressing climate change). Lasch also saw the increase in narcissistic behavior as an outgrowth of a growing resignation people had about the survival of society itself: a step in the direction of the most extreme manifestation of narcissistic disorder, suicide.
But even if we temporarily put the idea of suicide to the side, what else does it mean that narcissism has become normalized in U.S. society? One thing it has meant is that all the narcissistic character traits listed above continue to increase. The consequence of this is that narcissistic behavior has ceased to be something people consider unusual, or to be something a person of good character should avoid. It is tolerated not because it is pleasant, but because it is everywhere.
A second consequence is equally significant. As narcissism has become normalized, the value ofdiscovering identity has diminished. Little if any value is being placed, societally, on the self-reflection the discovery of identity requires. Narcissism can make a person strategically brilliant, but incapable of reflecting on his life honestly. Reflection is replaced by endlessly adopting identity from external sources. A person gets in the habit of ‘shopping’ for who he is. Anyone caught in this cycle never establishes a solid sense of self. The philosophical maxim of Socrates to ‘know thyself’ is replaced by something like ‘assume any identity it takes to impress others, be successful, and hide your weaknesses’.
The reason clinical and developmental psychologists give for this cycle gaining traction is the failure of the care giving environment to allow a child the necessary freedom and emotional nourishment when he is young to experiment freely with his capacities within safe limits defined, and provided, by those caregivers. Devoting the time and energy to getting this right is a challenge many parents simply find too difficult. That difficulty often leads them to direct their child to behave in ways that accommodate theirexpectations instead, setting up a huge obstacle to their child ever engaging directly in the process of self-discovery. This usually reflects the stresses those parents may be experiencing at that time, or perhaps their own unhealed narcissism. It is often the case that they, too, have lived life out of a false sense of self and are now projecting their own unmet needs onto their children.
In a healthy environment where caregivers have solid identities and the capacity to love and nourish their children, something else happens. Parents allow a child to fully experiment with separating from them and trying out his own ideas. They allow him to come back to them for emotional nourishment when vulnerabilities and limitations are exposed via his life experiments. Doing both these things sets appropriate limits without undermining exploratory spirit. It nourishes and loves the child when he crashes. The caregivers attend to the child’s needs while still insisting he show propriety, respect, and empathy towards others. Through this mirroring process, the child grows up in a healthy way, eventually gaining the necessary confidence for his real identity to emerge, solidify, and transform as required.
The tricky part about all of this is that the public face of a person who has been narcissistically injured looks like that of an extraordinarily confident, self-assured person. One difference between narcissistic confidence and genuine self-assurance is that the persona of the former has a strong element of bluff running through it. A bigger difference, however, is the interiorexperience of the narcissistically injured person. The confident image he has adopted is based on a form of desperation: the need to mask a subterranean reality he experiences every day. That reality consists of ongoing feelings of low self-worth and terror at the prospect of being shamed if he is discovered to have done something inappropriate. An interior wall gets built to prevent shame from ever registering in his psyche. Psychological researchers have theorized that the dread of shame has its genesis largely in the emotional abandonment a person experiences from his caregivers. The devastating impact of abandonment is reinforced through the decision narcissists make that the only way to navigate a path to identity - and to acceptance from others - is to manufacture and live through a false self. Ironically, this decision reinforces his sense of abandonment because it signals the narcissistically injured person’s abandonment of himself.
The behavioral result of all this is a life characterized by an ongoing and desperate search for identity. Waiting in the wings for a person with narcissistic damage are individuals and organizations ready to provide him with that identity. False identities provided by predatory ideological organizations are available everywhere a person turns, ready to secure his allegiance, money, and obedience.
In the consumer world, this means convincing people that purchasing a product will fill the void a person feels inside. In the religious world, it means offering a way of life that promises an identity linked to enlightenment or salvation. These promises are ‘read’ by a narcissistically injured person as opportunities to heal his wounds. Usually they are pursued intensely, fueled by an inflated view of self, and disconnected from reality. It is easy for such a person to believe that the right philosophy, the right image, or being in the right group is all that’s needed for fulfillment. This shrinks identity down to the roles a person plays, roles that benefit those in power who have prescribed them for the person. Roles adopted in this way are superficial in both the secular and spiritual world. They leave the narcissistically wounded person scratching his head when he comes up against their limitations, wondering why his sense of emptiness still remains.
In the course of my therapy sessions, I began to grasp how this cycle worked. I recognized that narcissistic injury had underpinned much of my own behavior leading up to and through my involvement with Ananda Marga. When I had thought I could start a half way house for schizophrenics and run it myself, for instance, I was demonstrating the inflated self-regard narcissistic injury inspires. When I couldn’t find the strength to challenge how Ananda Marga’s arranged marriages went against my values, I was displaying the lack of self-worth hiding behind narcissistic inflation. Acknowledging moments such as these was unsettling, but I could not longer turn from them. There was little comfort in observing that the same phenomenon appeared to be operating in most people. Nobody seemed to think twice about people acting out narcissistic behavior in their organizations, in part because much of that behavior was now seen in a positive light. A person with narcissistic damage can project inspiration, charm, intelligence, and wonderful humor: sometimes within the space of 60 seconds.
There is, of course, nothing dysfunctional about such qualities on their own. It’s when they mask the terror that accompanies the lack of a solid, self-discovered identity that the situation quickly turns pear-shaped. Clues that expose narcissistic strategies in every day life are often small, such as the way a person might surreptitiously manipulate others in his work or community out of envy. Or when he arrogantly withholds information from colleagues knowing full well that it will slow down their efforts but advance his own and, when it does, shamelessly shows no remorse about it. Even when the clues are more obvious - a person in a position of power violating the boundaries of those working for him to the point of verbal or physical bullying, for instance - such behaviors are increasingly tolerated by many organizations. The response to those who point out the inappropriateness of such behaviors is often one of ridicule or disinterest.
It disturbed me when I realized that the role-hopping aspect of narcissism had been a major motivational factor in my decision to join Ananda Marga. Identifying myself as a seeker had put me squarely in the cross hairs of an organization offering the ultimate goal of enlightenment. If I didn’t come to terms with my own narcissism and stayed enmeshed in this false "seeker" identity, I was unlikely to be advancing towards genuine self-knowledge anytime soon.
It was also discouraging to look out on the larger society and see that the predominant forum for engaging in narcissistic behavior had jumped from psychological and spiritual forums to a fevered pursuit of prosperity. Pursuing prosperity through adopting an identity that ‘aims to please and stops at nothing to achieve’ clearly formed as solid a foundation for the growth of narcissistic qualities as the previous era’s often excessive self-absorption on psychological and spiritual growth had done. Now that I had this awareness, I was confronted by the reality of having to deal with my own version of it. How would I do that?
My own narcissistic behavior had definitely thrown my desire for self-knowledge off the rails. It had done so without my even recognizing it. Disentangling my genuine desire for self-knowledge from the false identity I had adopted started with dropping the latter.
In the world of ideological fidelity, ‘identity’ requires cultivating enthusiasm for a manufactured persona. This gives a person a foundation upon which he can build a sense of purpose. He convinces himself that purpose is a product of his own thinking and desires - but it’s not. As the figure below indicates, adopting an identity someone presents to you in exchange for compliance undercuts personal agency.
HOW NORMALIZED NARCISSISM IMPACTS IDENTITY
• False certainty
• Desire to impress
• Sense of unreality/
• Compliance with
• Transactional relationships
• Confidence based
• Critical thinking
• Curiosity about the
• Empathy for those with
• Depth of self understanding
• Overall sense of
agency in the world
• Willful execution of
• Never allowing
anyone to see shame
• Exploration of the
complexity as a challenge
Adopted identity turns a person away from the uncertain, risky, and frightening task of genuine self-discovery. The hidden needs of a narcissistically injured person can remain in the shadows when he concludes that an easier path to fulfilling his needs can be taken through adopting the false self offered by an ideology. This makes him more susceptible to the emotional manipulations engineered by converting organizations. They will ceaselessly tell him he has at last discovered the truth about who he is and what his purpose in life is. The intensity of emotion that is applied to a person to get him to adopt their beliefs, surrender to a ‘born again’ experience, and embrace their sense of certainty will erase, temporarily, a person’s lifelong habits of doubt. It will make him feel wonderfully alive. Then he can be steered towards a fanatical and energetic promotion of the group’s ideology.
Funneling emotion into organizational obedience consolidates the movement that takes place during the conversion process. The content of the ideology doesn’t matter. Cultural differences might at first, but can be overcome. Both take a back seat wherever narcissistic injury exists, because conversion looks so enticing. Emotional conversion to a cause of any sort indicates a narcissistically injured person seeks identity through the process of attaching to an appealing idea or person. He achieves this through a relentless pursuit of a mirroring process he never received growing up.
The genuine identity I had hoped to discover through my involvement with Ananda Marga had been derailed by my conversion. The lure of the golden world, reinforced by narcissistic injury, had made it easy to compromise my own judgment, override my doubts, and embrace conversion. My insights about this came after I left, but even if they had occurred at the time they would have been insufficient to pry me away from Ananda Marga. Not so long as I was excited about gaining some sort of identity, however shallow and temporary that identity might ultimately prove to be. My Ananda Marga identity felt absolutely terrific at the beginning of my involvement, and deflected any initial inclination I had to abandon it until much later.
Understanding this went a long way towards addressing the question about the link between psychological vulnerability and spiritual awareness. My vulnerability had exposed psychological flaws in my character, and it was clear that the self-knowledge I sought was not going to be available to me until I dealt with those flaws. An understanding of my personal psychology could not simply be sidestepped by efforts - no matter how committed - to embrace an ideology. This was a first step in realizing that it takes considerable time, effort and support to recognize the pervasive influence of unresolved narcissism, and to learn to operate outside its influence. I could see how easy it would be to continue to self-deceive and remain in false identities my entire life. Because narcissistic inflation carries with it a hyperventilated aliveness, it sustains one’s false sense of self in a fantasy world that is superficially invigorating but ultimately devoid of authenticity.
The normalization of narcissism in American society also gives the lie to the assumption many people make that a person who has already passed through childhood will have less susceptibility to conversion simply because his maturity and critical faculties will have advanced to the point where reason rules the day. This ignores the fact that all forms of persuasion depend on vulnerable receptivity, and that vulnerability can exist no matter what a person's age is. Conversion makes inroads whether the receptivity encountered is a reflection of youth, psychological injury, or a genuine desire for self-knowledge mixed with a dysfunctional psychology. Vulnerability is woven through whatever sense of self a person possesses at a given point in time. Social scientists have for years demonstrated that life experience is no guarantee of the ability to resist being persuaded, influenced, or converted by other people later on in life. If identity is shaky, a person is susceptible to surrendering identity to someone or some organization he perceives will be able to provide solidity to him. This is as easy to do as an adult as it is for a child in an early developmental stage.
Put another way, an adopted identity provides too thin a foundation for a fulfilling life. Many people inherently recognize this. A person may be uncomfortably aware of the fact that his identity lacks the foundation necessary to promote a realistic understanding of his possibilities and limits. His conscience may point out that he has secured his identity through a passive rather than active process. He may be perplexed by how the emotional exhilaration that first
accompanied his sense of having ‘found himself’ later vanishes from his life.
Unfortunately, people who have not had the experience of discovering identity will not necessarily know what to do with their unease. As a result, they often return to some external source to provide identity to them - even if they’ve had insights to the contrary. What else do they know how to do? This facilitates an ideological organization’s ability to prey on a fractured and underdeveloped sense of identity, and to profit by this damage. This holds true regardless of whether the predatory organization is spiritual or secular. Both count on the fact that people will look to adopt identity when they don’t have the experience of discovering it themselves. This external orientation, in combination with the thinness of identity that results, makes people susceptible to conversion their entire lives.
None of this means that a person can’t heal narcissistic injury through the provision of love, security, and the meaningful activities he is drawn to as an adult. This is especially true if he has a commitment to work through problem areas in his life history in an aware and transformative way. Approaching the issue with a brave but humble heart will give him the opportunity to structure his adult life and identity in appropriate ways. A person’s sense of identity is meant to strengthen and expand as he goes through life. It is meant to incorporate qualities such as a critical intellect and common sense. Healthy narcissism is not an oxymoron; it’s the end result of a stage a person is meant to pass through in his early years. If it’s not done then, it can be done later. The real identity that emerges from doing so assists a person to subsequently discover values central to his life: values formed through the combination of experience, reflections about that experience, and the integrated feedback of other trusted and respected people he listens to and incorporates as he sees fit. When identity is discovered and expanded in this manner, it serves its intended function of protecting a person from conversion to extreme perspectives.
How common is it that people have this sort of solid identity? It’s rare enough that ideologies continue to rope in converts willing to follow their leaders in large numbers. It’s rare enough that most people in the U.S. define themselves primarily through their wealth, their possessions, and their career rather than through something that runs more deeply beneath these things. Ideologies fill the gap left in a person’s development when he fails to recognize the importance of discovering his identity because those around him during his childhood were either unable or unwilling to provide the containment and encouragement necessary for this to happen. How many families are capable of providing the kind of healthy psychological environment a child needs growing up? As Lasch puts it,
One of the gravest indictments of our society is precisely that it has made deep and lasting friendships, love affairs, and marriages so difficult to achieve. As social life becomes more and more warlike and barbaric, personal relations, which ostensibly provide relief from these conditions, take on the character of combat.
A child can grow up in an environment where his needs may be at least partially met through the efforts of dedicated and psychologically aware parents, hardworking schools or devoted community members. But even when this is the case, those efforts can be undermined when the larger culture is excessively tolerant of narcissistic behavior. In such an environment, the value of bringing people to adulthood whole rather than as stitched together pieces is pushed to the side. This greatly increases the likelihood that large numbers of children will enter adulthood with a strongly operational narcissistic character strategy or, more severely, a full blown narcissistic injury.
Securing one’s identity is both a fragile task and one that requires incredible courage.
Its pursuit is something a person needs to persist in throughout his life. Successfully doing so provides the foundation stones every person, family and community needs. This cannot be the case when society’s focus is fixated only on competitive self-interest and the accrual of power. That attitude undermines the work many families do in loving their members regardless of their flaws, putting appropriate boundaries around a child’s experience, and enabling that child to discover his identity through ultimately venturing out beyond those boundaries.
Converting organizations intuitively know these societal weak points, and are always ready to exploit them. They so this by promising to provide what has been missing in a person's life. The most powerful missing element they have discovered is that of a healthy family. That is why ideologies devote so much time simulating a healthy family environment. They do this through providing through faux families: sociological cut-outs of the real thing, designed to convince their flock that the intimacy and connectivity the families they came from were meant to provide is still possible. The allure of that promise is amplified in a context where socially sanctioned narcissistic behavior has been normalized.
In my desire to further understand how the weave of psychological vulnerability and spiritual aspiration was impacting me, I turned my attention to another question that had played out during my involvement in Ananda Marga. What role had the organization assumed as a faux family during that time? Was what I had been offered too good to be true? Probably, but I needed to find out why.
Any doubt that such trends still have great currency in contemporary U.S. society can be addressed by looking at the presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016. Sexual harassment, financial dishonesty, opaqueness, and a persistent bullying attitude towards others did nothing to slow his momentum during his campaign.