Buddhism certainly has caught fire in the West over the last couple of decades. As we face ever greater threats to our humanity, Buddhism has become, in some ways, the “go-to” religion for those searching outside the Christian values set forth in western society.
Mark Vernon, in the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” section, recently wrote about his week spent at a Buddhist meditation retreat in the UK. He outlined the process – very similar to ones I’ve experienced here in the US – of silence, sitting, walking, and eating meditations, and also work meditation. Teachers are on hand to begin and end sessions, act as helpful guides, and to intervene if a student is having issues.
Vernon espouses the importance of meditation – central to Buddhism, as most people know – for gaining insight into the idea that life is suffering, and the way to be delivered from that suffering is to accept this “noble truth” and release attachment. He grasps the importance of deepening insight in order to heal ourselves, but then he wonders about the bigger picture of possibly becoming self-absorbed:
Meditation-as-therapy flirts with narcissism when it is devoted to observing yourself, for that can lead to self-absorption and self-obsession. It’s a danger inherent in any community devoted to a particular task, though perhaps more so in one that lacks a reference point beyond the individuals taking part.
Is that what insight religions like Buddhism do? Make us more self-centered?
Is Christianity More Enlightened?
On the other hand, Vernon notes, Christianity – in theory – is about something outside of ourselves, namely God. Christians are in “service to something greater” than themselves – at minimum going and donating to the church, and at maximum living a life in service to God and others. He continues:
But I did wonder whether a God-centred spiritual practice might offer a better way to get over yourself, and in turn offer a more satisfying “therapy”.
I can see a bit of the logic from an “on paper” point-of-view, but what immediately struck me when I read about being in service to God, is that many people do this in order to get to heaven. I’m not talking about nuns or priests, or even extremely devout Christians.
But I am talking about a normal human being who follows certain rules of the religion for the purpose of, and fears around, their own salvation, and not simply because of their love of God in and of itself.
Self-Inquiry Vs. Narcissism
Besides this possibility, I also see this perspective as not seeing the whole picture. As many people who take the time to explore themselves and the “whys” of what they do often say, each of us must understand, love, and feel compassion for what is inside before we can ever truly be of service to others.
And this exploration leads to a balance or contentment that sends out a ripple effect on the world, namely through lacking the anger that so many people carry in our extremely stressed out world.
I’m not trying to say that Christianity, or any other religion, cannot lead to the same insights. In fact, meditation has become (and really, always has been) a large part of several Christian sects. But to me, Buddhism teaches an “all-one” belief system that inherently requires being of service to others, but understanding that you must continue to be in service to the self at the same time.
There is no doubt in my mind that as with all things, extreme narcissism is an option – initially. But if a person really puts time into the process, they won’t end up that way. And in a world where we need each other more and more every single day, giving yourself love is an absolute necessity.
I want to leave you with a video created in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which was yesterday here in the states. I think these quotes describe a beautiful balance between love of self and love of others, and really, how they are no different:
Do you think spending too much time looking inside makes a person self-centered? Share your thoughts below.