In generosity and helping others, be like a river
In compassion and grace, be like the sun
In concealing other’s faults, be like the night
In anger and fury, be as if you have died
In modesty and humility, be like the earth
In tolerance, be like the sea
And either appear as you are, or be as you appear
As the subject of narcissism becomes more popular, the resources for counsel will become more available. Some of these resources will not understand the truth about narcissism. I keep running across writings and videos where the counselors consider narcissism to be simple “self-love” gone to extreme. I have ranted about the idea of “healthy narcissism” in the past, and probably will again, but those who think narcissism is just self-love are wrong. There’s a lot more to it than that.
In fact, if you think of narcissism as only self-love, many observable things won’t fit. The sudden rage, the continual discontent, the lies, the insecurity, just to name a few. You would think that someone who loves himself would be secure and at peace, wouldn’t you? But few who know their narcissists would describe them as secure or at peace.
No, most who have studied narcissism in depth and over time seem to agree that the narcissist does not love what he/she considers to be self. Instead, they create an image, a fantasy self, to hide the reality they believe. Whatever happened to them as children, they decided that the way to handle it was to become something they were not. They believed that they were unlikeable, unworthy, and unable. So they created an image of themselves that was outgoing, successful, and superior. To do this, they learned to mimic the behavior of those they admired. If they saw someone loved by almost everyone, they imitated that person. If they saw someone successful in work or school, they acted like that person. If they saw someone admired by others, they mimicked the one who got the attention. And they found that they could control others by controlling the attention others gave to them.
But none of this comes out of self-love. The image of the narcissist is not the narcissist. He/she wants you to think it is, but he/she does not believe it is. In fact, the reason the image is defended so strongly against challenges is to stop people from learning the truth. The image is phony. The real narcissist is hiding.
Some suspect that the narcissist doesn’t even know his/her true self. Because of the broken childhood (or whatever trauma), the narcissist did not receive the feedback good relationships provide to help us understand who we are. Without a basic understanding of self, the narcissist cannot empathize with others, cannot even see others as fellow beings. Hence, the depersonalization and exploitation of others. So the “self” the narcissist hides may also be false. We cannot know ourselves without heart connections with others.
The living entity is constitutionally pure. Asaṅgo hy ayaṁ puruṣaḥ. In the Vedic literature it is said that the soul is always pure and uncontaminated by material attachment. The identification of the body with the soul is due to misunderstanding. As soon as one is fully Kṛṣṇa conscious it is to be understood that one is in his pure, original constitutional position. This state of existence is called śuddha-sattva, which means that it is transcendental to the material qualities. Since this śuddha-sattva existence is under the direct action of the internal potency, in this state the activities of material consciousness stop. For example, when iron is put into a fire, it becomes warm, and when red-hot, although it is iron, it acts like fire. Similarly, when copper is surcharged with electricity, its action as copper stops; it acts as electricity. Bhagavad-gītā (14.26) also confirms that anyone who engages in unadulterated devotional service to the Lord is at once elevated to the position of pure Brahman:
māṁ ca yo ‘vyabhicāreṇa
sa guṇān samatītyaitān
Therefore śuddha-sattva, as described in this verse, is the transcendental position, which is technically called vasudeva. Vasudeva is also the name of the person from whom Kṛṣṇa appears. This verse explains that the pure state is called vasudeva because in that state Vāsudeva, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is revealed without any covering. To execute unadulterated devotional service, therefore, one must follow the rules and regulations of devotional service without desire to gain material profit by fruitive activities or mental speculation.
Prayer, both ecclesial and personal prayer, thus ranks higher than all action, not in the first place as a source of psychological energy (“refueling,” as they say today), but as the act of worship and glorification that befits love, the act in which one makes the most fundamental attempt to answer with selflessness and thereby shows that one has understood the divine proclamation. It is as tragic as it is ridiculous to see Christians today giving up this fundamental priority—which is witnessed to by the entire Old and New Testament, by Jesus’ life as much as by Paul’s and John’s theology—and seeking instead an immediate encounter with Christ in their neighbor, or even in purely worldly work and technological activity. Engaged in such work, they soon lose the capacity to see any distinction between worldly responsibility and Christian mission. Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognize it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed and humiliated.
I find it almost unbearably tempting to try to identify how the ongoing process of the night increases our love. Looking at communities, organizations, nations, and the world at large I have to say it is very difficult to discover. If a growing love is there at all, I think, it is hidden beyond my perception. This make me wonder if the dark night really applies only to individual souls. Then I reflect back over my own life, in which it seems I can identify many experiences of both night and morning, and I ask “Am I really more loving now than I used to be?” Sometimes I think I am; other times I’m not all so sure. And then, finally, I remember how vast and incomprehensible real love is, and how terribly limited is my capacity to judge it for myself, let alone for anyone else. My ideas of love have to do with emotional feelings and acts of kindness, and I know these bear as much similarity to divine love as Teresa’s silkworm does to the butterfly. And I am reminded of how attached I am to the idea of progress; I am looking for objective evidence that I am making headway in this spiritual journey. Yet the truth of the journey admits of no such evidence, and it completely transcends my petty notions of progress.
So in the end I am left only with hope. I hope the nights really are transformative. I hope every dawn brings deeper love, for each of us individually and for the world as a whole. I hope that John of the Cross was right when he said the intellect is transformed into faith, and the will into love, and the memory into…hope.
I sense that there is something very special about the transformed qualities of faith, love, and hope. This is very hard to describe, and my attempts always feel shabby, but I must try. In their truly contemplative and transformed state, faith, hope, and love, are tied to no particular ends; they have no object. Contemplative faith is not faith that God exists, that life is essentially good, or that this or that is true. All such things are beliefs, not faith. Faith is, instead, a way of being, completely open, empty, as John would say of all specifics. Contemplative faith is more like a continual fire of goodness, warming and illuminating every breath. Contemplative love is completely beyond comprehension. It is not love of some things to the exclusion of others, for that would be attachment. True love is like some infinite way of being that we become part of: a flowing energy of willingness, an eternal yes resounding with every heartbeat. And contemplative hope, the transformed hope, is also completely open and free. It is not hope for peace or justice or healing; that also would be attachment. Is is just hope, naked hope, a bare energy of open expectancy.
I think I have experienced this kind of transformed hope from time to time in people who have suffered more than anyone deserves. And when I saw it in them, I was blinded. An old priest, abandoned by his community, sick and dying and terribly depressed, lifted his eyes and whispered, “Oh, Jesus, I do love you so.” He smiled at me, his face was filled with hope, and his smile filled me with hope. And in the summer of 1994 I joined a small pilgrimage to Bosnia. I had the opportunity to speak with poor people who had lost everything: homes, possessions, entire families. As they told us their stories through tears of grief, I sensed deep hope in them. Through interpreters I asked if it were true.
“Yes, Hope,” they smiled.
I asked if it was hope for peace.
“No, things have gone too far for that.”
I asked if they hoped the United Nations or the United States would intervene in some positive way.
“No, it’s too late for that.”
I asked them, “Then, what is it you are hoping for?”
They were silent. They could not think of a thing to hope for, yet there is was—undeniable hope shining in them.
I asked one last question. “How can you hope, when there’s nothing to hope for?”
The answer was, “Bog,” the Serbo-Croatian word for God.
Thus I have had some glimpses into the nature of this transformed hope. I believe I have experienced moments of it myself, but I can neither fathom nor comprehend it. Like contemplative faith and love, it evades my understanding. The one thing I can say positively about these transformed qualities is that to discover them, in oneself or in another, brings the deepest reassurance I have ever experienced.
It is usual for people to think of God as the Supreme Being, the Lord and Master of all Creation, the omnipotent Higher Power who is in charge of everything. Such a God is separate from us, transcendent, above and beyond us, and capable of giving us good things and bad things. We naturally pray for the good things we want and for relief from the bad things we don’t want. And usually it doesn’t work. We don’t get all we want, and we get too much of what we don’t want. Logically then, that transcendent, omnipotent, and separate God seems arbitrary at best, unloving at worst.
But the contemplatives, as we have seen with Teresa and John, emphasize God’s immanence as well as transcendence. God is our center, they say, closer to us than we are to ourselves. We are immersed in God, and God is immersed in us. So if the transcendent God “out there” is arbitrary or unloving to us, that same God is being arbitrary or unloving to the God “in here.” An alternative vision, one that I find repeatedly in contemplative literature, is that instead of God’s being unloving or arbitrary, God may not be so omnipotent. Or at least the power of God may not extend to making God invulnerable. Most contemplatives see God as being wounded when and as we are wounded, sharing our sufferings as well as our joys. When bad things happen to us, they also happen to God. This is certainly in keeping with Teresa’s sense of the Holy One’s being surrendered to us in loving and needing us to love, to be loved by, and to manifest God’s love in the world.
The idea of God’s having any needs at all, let alone needing us, may sound like an alien, even heretical idea, yet it is a realization that many contemplatives come to. Theologically, if God is indeed all-loving—if God is Love—then that love must necessarily temper God’s omnipotence. Love always transforms power, making it something softer, deeper, and richer. Conversely, it may be only in our vulnerability, in our actually being wounded, that love gains its full power. Thus true omnipotence may not be found in a distant and separate power over something or someone, but rather in the intimate experience of being wounded for and with.
My emphasis here has been on how the dark night liberates desire by diminishing attachment. The immediate result is expansion of human freedom. Freedom, however, is not an end in itself. It is not just freedom from something; it must also be freedom for something. In the spiritual life, freedom is for nothing other than love. Human beings exist because of love, and the meaning and goal of our lives is love. In Christian understanding, everything that is authentic in the spiritual life points toward the increasing fulfillment of the two great commandments: to love God and other people in a completely unfettered way. Liberation from attachment is only a means to this end.
To experience the pinnacle of the journey, the dawn after the night, is to realize the union with God that has always existed. John says this realization of union is the fullness of love—so much so that the person’s desire is indistinguishable from God’s desire. Now, with “great conformity” between the sensory and spiritual dimensions of the soul, John says to God, “I want what you want, and what you do not want, I do not want, nor could I, nor would it even enter my mind.”
Along the way toward freedom and realization, many other changes are taking place. Desire itself becomes transformed. The twelfth-century abbot and spiritual writer St. Bernard of Clairvaux explains one way in which this happens. We usually begin, he says, by seeking gratification and fulfillment through our own devices. He calls this the “love of self for one’s own sake.” When life teaches us that this doesn’t work, we often turn to God, a higher power, and seek the consolations that are given through grace. In Bernard’s words, this is the “love of God for one’s own sake.” Gradually, we find ourselves falling in love not with the consolations of God, but with the God who gives the consolations: The “love of God for God’s sake.” In the atmosphere of this love, Bernard says we finally begin to discover how lovable we ourselves are:”love of self for God’s sake.”
Another development, which Teresa especially emphasizes, is in the area of self-knowledge. One sees one’s own true nature with increasing clarity. In the beginning of each cycle of experiencing the night, self-knowledge often comes painfully as we confront our pettiness and selfishness. But as Bernard predicted, each time we approach the dawn, when the realization of union deepens and we begin to glimpse ourselves through God’s eyes, we recognize more of our inherent goodness and beauty. Teresa says, “I can find nothing with which to compare the great beauty of a soul…we can hardly form any conception of the soul’s great dignity and beauty.” And John, trying to describe the experience of the soul in realized union, says, “The soul sees herself as a queen.”
Let’s understand, my friends, that true perfection means loving God and loving our neighbor. The more perfectly we keep these two commandments, the closer to perfection we will come. All spiritual rules are nothing but means toward the end of spiritual love.
The dichotomy between an attitude of participation in healing and an attitude of doing the healing occurs everywhere. It is not confined to the doctor’s office. Once can see it clearly in the way one approaches one’s own mind. If some psychological problem occurs, some fear or ambivalence or worry, one naturally does one’s best with it. Usually this involves some attempt to bring things back to normal, to cleanse, and to rest. But often people don’t stop at that. They don’t allow the natural healing to occur. They keep picking at the emotional scab, rewrapping the psychological bandage, re-opening the mental wound. Checking to see if it’s doing all right. Applying this technique or that method. Picking at it again and again. All the time feeling that they are trying to heal themselves.
With this kind of picking at one’s mind, healing may find it difficult to happen. The attempts to make things more natural wind up making things more contrived and artificial. The attempts to cleanse wind up adding more and more contaminants. And the attempts to give rest wind up making greater and greater demands. I laugh at myself in this repeatedly. “Don’t bother me,” I say to my family. “I’ve had a rough day and I’m trying to rest.” Trying very hard to rest. Working at it, even.
But if one simply did one’s best, did what one could do to respond to a problem, and then allowed room for healing—gave space and light and air for healing to happen—that’s when healing can happen. When it’s allowed. This seems to require an element of trust. That with one’s fingers out of the wound, resting instead of meddling, healing just might happen. Or it requires despair. Realizing that no amount of additional meddling will make the healing any better anyway, so that one might as well rest. Either trust or despair is necessary. And either one will permit the healing to happen.
When I was fifteen, I felt it coming; now I was sixteen, and it hit.
My feet had imperceptibly been set on a new path, a fast path into a long tunnel like those many turnpike tunnels near Pittsburgh, turnpike tunnels whose entrances bear on brass plaques a roll call of those men who died blasting them. I wandered witlessly forward and found myself going down, and saw the light dimming; I adjusted to the slant and dimness, traveled further down, adjusted to greater dimness, and so on. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it, or about anything. I was going to hell on a handcart, that was all, and I knew it and everyone around me knew it, and there it was.
I was growing and thinning, as if pulled. I was getting angry, as if pushed. I morally disapproved most things in North America, and blamed my innocent parents for them. My feelings deepened and lingered. The swift moods of early childhood—each formed by and suited to its occasion—vanished. Now feelings lasted so long they left stains. They arose from nowhere, like winds or waves, and battered at me or engulfed me.
When I was angry, I felt myself coiled and longing to kill someone or bomb something big. Trying to appease myself, during one winter I whipped my bed every afternoon with my uniform belt. I despised the spectacle I made in my own eyes—whipping the bed with a belt, like a creature demented!—and I often began halfheartedly, but I did it daily after school as a desperate discipline, trying to rid myself and the innocent world of my wildness. It was like trying to beat back the ocean.
Sometimes in class I couldn’t stop laughing; things were too funny to be borne. It began then, my surprise that no one else saw what was so funny.
I read some few books with such reverence I didn’t close them at the finish, but only moved the pile of pages back to the start, without breathing, and began again. I read one such book, an enormous novel, six times that way—closing the binding between sessions, but not between readings.
On the piano in the basement I played the maniacal “Poet and Peasant Overture” so loudly, for so many hours, night after night, I damaged the piano’s keys and strings. When I wasn’t playing this crashing overture, I played boogie-woogie, or something else, anything else, in octaves—otherwise, it wasn’t loud enough. My fingers were so strong I could do push-ups with them. I played one piece with my fists. I banged on a steel-stringed guitar till I bled, and once on a particularly piercing rock-and-roll downbeat I broke straight through one of Father’s snare drums.
I loved my boyfriend so tenderly, I thought I must transmogrify into vapor. It would take spectroscopic analysis to locate my molecules in thin air. No possible way of holding him was close enough. Nothing could cure this bad case of gentleness except, perhaps, violence: maybe if he swung me by the legs and split my skull on a tree? Would that ease this insane wish to kiss too much his eyelids’ outer corners and his temples, as if I could love up his brain?
I envied people in books who swooned. For two years I felt myself continuously swooning and continuously unable to swoon; the blood drained from my face and eyes and flooded my heart; my hands emptied, my knees unstrung, I bit at the air for something worth breathing—but I failed to fall, and I couldn’t find the way to black out. I had to live on the lip of a waterfall, exhausted.
When I was bored I was first hungry, then nauseated, then furious and weak. “Calm yourself,” people had been saying to me all my life. Since early childhood I had tried one thing and then another to calm myself, on those few occasions when I truly wanted to. Eating helped; singing helped. Now sometimes I truly wanted to calm myself. I couldn’t lower my shoulders; they seemed to wrap around my ears. I couldn’t lower my voice although I could see the people around me flinch. I waved my arm in class till the very teachers wanted to kill me.
I was what they called a live wire. I was shooting out sparks that were digging a pit around me, and I was sinking into that pit. Laughing with Ellin at school recess, or driving around after school with Judy in her jeep, exultant, or dancing with my boyfriend to Louis Armstrong across a polished dining-room floor, I got so excited I looked around wildly for aid; I didn’t know where I should go or what I should do with myself. People in books split wood.
When rage or boredom reappeared, each seemed never to have left. Each so filled me with so many years’ intolerable accumulation it jammed the space behind my eyes, so I couldn’t see. There was no room left even on my surface to live. My rib cage was so taut I couldn’t breathe. Every cubic centimeter of atmosphere above my shoulders and head was heaped with last straws. Black hatred clogged my very blood. I couldn’t peep. I couldn’t wiggle or blink; my blood was too mad to flow.
For as long as I could remember, I had been transparent to myself, unselfconscious, learning, doing, most of every day. Now I was in my own way; I myself was a dark object I could not ignore. I couldn’t remember how to forget myself. I didn’t want to think about myself, to reckon myself in, to deal with myself every livelong minute on top of everything else—but swerve as I might, I couldn’t avoid it. I was a boulder blocking my own path. I was a dog barking between my own ears, a barking dog who wouldn’t hush.
So this was adolescence. Is this how the people around me had died on their feet—inevitably, helplessly? Perhaps their own selves eclipsed the sun for so many years the world shriveled around them, and when at last their inescapable orbits had passed through these dark egoistic years it was too late, they had adjusted.
Must I then lose the world forever, that I had so loved? Was it all, the whole bright and various planet, where I had been so ardent about finding myself alive, only a passion peculiar to children, that I would outgrow even against my will?