When I say the word “ego,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Maybe “ego” immediately makes you think of a “big ego”—someone who thinks they are a big deal, superior to others, full of themselves, or too cool for school. The mental images associated may be showy or showing off—a seemingly luxurious lifestyle full of fancy things and experiences.
How often do you think of the other end of the ego spectrum?
Many of us may not even be aware of another side of ego. But, desire can manifest itself from different directions:
“Aversion is the flip side of greed, the same desire from a different direction.” — Stephen Mitchell paraphrasing Vicki Chang in Tao Te Ching
Just when we think we may have figured things out and are on the “good side,” we can get trapped by ego in the forms of spiritual, virtuous, or moral superiority.
Regardless of the buzzword—Spiritual Narcissists, Virtue Signalers, Moral Grandstanders, Social Justice Warriors, Slacktivists, (insert whatever term you want)—the common denominator seems to be: ego.
Post Contents: Click a link to jump to a section below
- What is Spiritual Narcissism?
- What is Virtue Signalling?
- What is Moral Grandstanding?
- The Common Denominator (Ego)
What is Spiritual Narcissism?
“You may rid yourself of all worldly addictions and aversions…the most deadly pretension may raise its head. You may begin to believe you are a spiritually superior person…” — Gerald Heard
I learned of the phrase “spiritual narcissism” from Jordan Bates of Refine The Mind and HighExistence (emphasis added in bold):
- “No one ever told me spirituality could be a self-sabotaging ego trap. I spent about three years reading about spiritual teachings and incorporating them into my life before ever learning that spirituality has a dark side.”¹
Enter spiritual narcissism:
- “Spiritual practices become narcissistic, though, when the ego-self hijacks the process and assumes that it is the object of self love, becoming enamored of looking in the mirror and claiming that its reflection is the true-Self. Then we lose our way, forgetting that the purpose of learning to love ourselves is to become more open, kind and effective in interactions with others, and instead of opening our hearts with humility and compassion, we assume a position of superiority — exactly what the ego desires for its safety. Spiritual narcissism sees self-love as the end goal. Spirituality to the ego-self is an object of attainment, much like fame, wealth, an expensive car and a sexy body. Spiritual narcissism creates the pretense of holiness as an ego strategy to mask insecurity, receive approval, or avoid struggle and growth. ‘I’m a spiritual person’ it proclaims proudly. ‘I travel to alternate realities, see auras, heal chakras, predict the future, talk to spirits, commune with angels, manipulate energies, meditate for three hours a day, harness the powers of the Universe to attract success…The truth is that I’m more evolved than you!'” — Rabbi Alan Lurie²
- “Simply stated, spiritual narcissism is the unconscious use of spiritual practice, experience, and insight to increase rather than decrease self-importance…Spiritual narcissism infiltrates our egos when we start to identify with ‘trying to become holy’…Spiritual narcissism…makes the spiritual quest a self-aggrandizing process rather than a journey of deepening humility.” — Gerald May³
Although I wasn’t aware of the term “spiritual narcissism” until recently, I’m familiar with the concept. My first exposure to this idea was from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Book Summary):
- “Trying to become a good or better human being sounds like a commendable and high-minded thing to do, yet it is an endeavor you cannot ultimately succeed in unless there is a shift in consciousness. This is because it is still part of the same dysfunction, a more subtle and rarefied form of self-enhancement, of desire for more and a strengthening of one’s conceptual identity, one’s self-image. You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge. But it can only emerge if something fundamental changes in your state of consciousness.”
- “Without living in alignment with your primary purpose, whatever purpose you come up with, even if it is to create heaven on earth, will be of the ego or become destroyed by time. Sooner or later, it will lead to suffering. If you ignore your inner purpose, no matter what you do, even if it looks spiritual, the ego will creep into how you do it, and so the means will corrupt the end.”
- “Unconscious people – and many remain unconscious, trapped in their egos throughout their lives – will quickly tell you who they are: their name, their occupation, their personal history, the shape or state of their body, and whatever else they identify with. Others may appear to be more evolved because they think of themselves as an immortal soul or living spirit. But do they really know themselves, or have they just added some spiritual sounding concepts to the content of their mind? Knowing yourself goes far deeper than the adoption of a set of ideas or beliefs. Spiritual ideas and beliefs may at best be helpful pointers, but in themselves they rarely have the power to dislodge the more firmly established core concepts of who you think you are, which are part of the conditioning of the human mind. Knowing yourself deeply has nothing to do with whatever ideas are floating around in your mind. Knowing yourself is to be rooted in Being, instead of lost in your mind.”
Here’s a short video of Eckhart Tolle verbally describing the desire to be a spiritual person. The video animation is distracting, so I recommend closing your eyes and just absorbing the audio:
What is Virtue Signalling?
“Signaling virtue is a vice.” — Naval Ravikant
Let’s start with a definition and short video from the person who coined the phrase “virtue signalling” (also spelled “virtue signaling”), James Bartholomew:
- “‘Virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous…It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious…Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.”4
Isn’t it ironic that something people use to try to look positive uses negativity? Virtue signalling almost seems to be like busyness in the sense that it’s an overt expression intended to increase one’s status.
- “Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values. Academically, the phrase relates to signalling theory and describes a subset of social behaviors that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious. In recent years, the term has been more commonly used within groups to criticize those who are seen to value the expression of virtue over action.“5
- “It’s an abdication of responsibility with the mask of social virtue…I don’t trust the activist ethos at all. I think everything about it is superficial, and trendy, and too easy, and it externalizes the blame—the evil is always elsewhere—which is a dreadful mistake to make because the evil isn’t elsewhere. That’s the thing that you understand when you’re wise. The evil is not elsewhere. It’s you because you’re not everything you could be. You should work on that before going and telling someone else that maybe they’re not who they should be.” — Jordan Peterson
What is Moral Grandstanding?
“Grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” — Brandon Warmke
- “No matter what we believe about morality or politics, we’ve all used moral talk to project an impressive and morally respectable image of ourselves. Suppose, for instance, that one of us, in an effort to impress his friends with his sterling character, says, ‘I have long stood on the side of the disadvantaged and this case is no exception. I will not tolerate this injustice, nor should any other good person.’ We call this moral grandstanding.” — Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke6
- “Grandstanders want others to regard them as being morally respectable, or even morally remarkable, and the contributions they make to public moral discourse are intended to satisfy that desire. To grandstand, then, is to use moral talk for self-promotion.” — Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke6
- “Grandstanders are moral show boaters. They use public discourse as a vanity project. They’re less concerned about saying what’s true, they might be less concerned about helping other people, they’re less concerned about contributing to a conversation that might be productive. More specifically, someone might want to be seen as having spectacular super human insight into what is just.” — Brandon Warmke
- “Grandstanding is a use of moral talk that attempts to get others to make certain desired judgments about oneself, namely, that one is worthy of respect or admiration because one has some particular moral quality—for example, an impressive commitment to justice, a highly tuned moral sensibility, or unparalleled powers of empathy.” — Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke7
- “According to philosophical accounts, Moral Grandstanding is the use of moral talk to seek social status…Specifically, moral grandstanding was associated with status-seeking personality traits, as well as greater political and moral conflict in daily life.” — Joshua Grubbs, Brandon Warmke, Justin Tosi, Alicia James8
Ego is the Common Denominator between Spiritual Narcissism, Virtue Signalling, and Moral Grandstanding
On the surface, they all have to do with preaching and/or looking the part instead of taking responsibility and living it. Talking the talk, but not walking the walk. “Do as I say, not as I do” syndrome.
On a deeper level, the root is ego:
“One can go far as to say that on this planet ‘normal’ equals insane. What is it that lies at the root of this insanity? Complete identification with thought and emotion, that is to say, ego.” — Eckhart Tolle
These tactics are all just adding content to your mind, identity, and personal narrative in an attempt to build yourself up. There’s a vast difference between looking spiritual, virtuous, or moral and being spiritual, virtuous, or moral.
How do you keep yourself in check?
“Give up defining yourself – to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life.” — Eckhart Tolle
The paradox is that you can’t add anything to be more—you can’t add content to your mind to be more spiritual.
You’ll often find that the truly spiritual humans have no need or desire to broadcast it.
What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.
You May Also Enjoy:
- An Introduction to “Ego Development Theory” by Susanne Cook-Greuter (EDT Summary)
- Seeing through your Programming: “The Way to Love” by Anthony de Mello (Book Summary)
- The Ultimate Truth: “Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing” by Jed McKenna (Book Summary)
Thanks for the excellent article Kyle. Ego can be defined in one word that is “I”. I ness is ego. Whatever we do or think we can’t imagine the universe without this I. Simply we cannot discard this “I” form our life. If we can remove this I we will be immediately enlightened. But how to remove this “I” ?
Imagine if all the humans and animals in this planet are dead then there will be only “Isness” exist.
Then the first query comes “Who am I” or exactly “What am I” .This is the query where our spritual journey begins.
Thanks as always for the deep thoughts, Debabrata! Reminds me of Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth:
– “What those words imply is this: Before you ask any other question, first ask the most fundamental question of your life: Who am I?“
– “There is nothing wrong with psychoanalysis or finding out about your past as long as you don’t confuse knowing about yourself with knowing yourself…Whatever you learn through psychoanalysis or self-observation is about you. It is not you. It is content, not essence. Going beyond ego is stepping out of content. Knowing yourself is being yourself, and being yourself is ceasing to identify with content.”
– “When there is nothing to identify with anymore, who are you? When forms around you die or death approaches, your sense of Beingness, of I Am, is freed from its entanglement with form: Spirit is released from its imprisonment in matter. You realize your essential identity as formless, as an all-pervasive Presence, of Being prior to all forms, all identifications. You realize your true identity as consciousness itself, rather than what consciousness had identified with. That’s the peace of God. The ultimate truth of who you are is not in I am this or I am that, but I Am.”
Absolute insights. You may like this video on “who am I ” as well.
Beautiful insights! I have been thinking about this topic a lot recently, and the ways I have used and continue to use morality as a safety blanket for my ego. I recently read a fantastic article on this topic. Unfortunately it is in Dutch, but Google translate does an okay job at translating the message of the author, in case you want to check it out:
Thanks for sharing, Clarissa! That was a good read, and Google Translate wasn’t too bad! Definitely shows the dilemma we can all find ourselves in simply trying to be “good.”
After publishing this article, I discovered the book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa. My interpretation of Chögyam Trungpa’s concept is that acquiring anything (from possessions to beliefs) is the ego. While physical materialism is mainstream, it seems like these other forms of non-physical materialism are less well known (but arguably more dangerous).
“The universal tendency…is to see spirituality as a process of self-improvement.”
“The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use…even spirituality.”
There’s a Wikipedia page on spiritual materialism that breaks it down like this:
Physical materialism: belief that possessions can bring release from suffering
Psychological materialism: a philosophy, belief system, or POV will bring release from suffering
Spiritual materialism: a temporary state of mind is a refuge from suffering
I have really been enjoying your blog , and have been blown away by the one on Untethered Soul. And I hate for this to be my first comment but after reading the comments I urge you to look into Chögyam Trungpa latest history because he has been accused of horrible abuse that exemplifies physical, psychological, and spiritual materialism. I believe you are doing good work and I just want to give you a heads up. All the best!
I appreciate the kind words and the heads up, Ian! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I wasn’t familiar with Chögyam Trungpa until discovering his book, but it’s always a bummer when you hear about things like that. There’s also plenty of controversy surrounding Sadhguru. The true spiritual leaders advise to separate the message from the messenger; that the spiritual leader is just a guide or signpost pointing the way (and less important than the way itself). In that case, we can still learn much good from the messages of these people (which all seem to point to the same or similar truths). Thanks again!
I hear ya, yet I believe one must also question the doctrine if it somehow created an atmosphere that allowed the leader to victimize the followers in the first place. One must then investigate what principles could be used to trap a victim to adhere to whatever the speaker of the doctrine says.
So now I look at those who propose a spiritual way but do otherwise with way more than a grain of salt. Constant bad example=twisted doctrine.
Yes I have actually heard someone say “Do as I say but not as I do”, but he was a constant bully and his conduct was systemic in the group. That is when one needs to be alert and ready to question and challenge the doctrine, because it ain’t working.
Incidents like these can cause people to stop seeking the spiritual altogether.
It is tough to separate lies from truth in spiritual principles that are made with the ego still ruling. Were the concepts made in order to manipulate a follower to get what the author’s ego wants? Or were they made before he went off track lost and fell into his situation? I think these are healthy questions.
Yes, don’t follow the finger, but make sure it’s pointing to the moon in all its glory and not the obscured cravings of someone’s ego disguised as the moon.
That’s why I read and stay away from groups, at least for now. I have been looking for new perspectives and your site has shown me so many facets that I find myself pondering upon and many times relishing. I really appreciate the in-depth synopsis for each book, there is a refreshing real sense of seeking here. The discoveries have been exciting!
Thank you again. All the best, Kyle!
Thank you again, Ian! No shortage of perspectives here; turns out “Perspective” is the #1 post category on the entire site. Glad to have you along for the journey, and I appreciate you sharing interesting perspectives. I also spend much more of my time in solitary contemplation vs in groups (both offline and online groups). Not necessarily by design, it’s just what I gravitate toward given my introverted nature.
I once heard fame described as simply amplifying one’s personality that already existed before fame (why some famous people stay humble and grounded while others seem to lose themselves). Not sure if there’s any research to that, but it seems to make sense in theory. So, you could think the same for spiritual leaders/teachers (is their newfound fame just amplifying what was already there?).
I agree that we should always look at behavior as the source of truth for words. One thing I constantly remind myself about spirituality is that it’s not about doctrine. As soon as it becomes doctrine/dogma, it becomes what it was trying to avoid all along.
Here’s to the next step in the journey!
Very well written, you write clearly about the ego temptations in the path of awakening, you are correct that those who live spiritually don’t have to boast about it. I read a book where the main character was teased that the only vanity he had was how proud he was of not being vain, this finally is real to me. Thank you.
Thanks for the kind words, Roger. That’s a great example. What book was it?
I really wish people understood more about basic psychology. I love the way Tolle elaborates on NARCISSISM in order to deflect any concern over his own narcissism. Clever. ID is the infantile “I”. SUPER EGO and EGO function in concert. Tolle is functioning more as a Super Ego to crush the EGO, the exact opposite of being healthy. Black Sun and Cult Education has good material on this toxic mess.
It’s possible, Sandi. I haven’t ruled out that Tolle is himself using spiritual bypassing. I’ve actually written about this somewhere else, but I can’t seem to locate it at the moment. Essentially, Tolle had a rough childhood. He then desired to be a leading intellectual but was depressed. And, now he’s a leading spiritual teacher. It’s possible that he had a massive dissonance moment that forever changed him (like he says). It’s also possible that he saw a way out of his thoughts/feelings through suppression/bypassing. It’s likely only he will know the truth about himself. Either way, I think there are things we can take from his teachings.