We find narcissists everywhere—in our boardrooms, with spouses, ex-spouses, family members, bosses, co-workers, friends. Most of us don’t expect to discover them among spiritual mentors and gurus. A number of years ago the great sociologist, Christopher Lasch prophetically announced: “In a dying culture, narcissism appears to embody—in the guise of personal ‘growth’ and ‘awareness’—the highest attainment of spiritual enlightenment.” Many of us make the assumption that if an individual has theological credentials or training in spiritual disciplines, he or she is authentic. Some of the most insidious forms of narcissism are perpetrated by spiritual teachers and gurus.
There are as many styles and levels of narcissistic spiritual gurus as there are spiritual movements. They range from the itinerant preacher type a la Elmer Gantry to the most educated, highly trained individuals who create worldwide movements and success through their foundations, seminars, numerous books, dvds, cds, and media appearances. Being respected in the world does not mean that an individual cannot be a narcissistic spiritual guru who brings psychological and monetary injury to others.
The narcissistic guru (male or female) is often dynamic and charismatic. He magnetizes individuals to him with an irresistible persona that conveys that he possesses unique spiritual gifts and has access to secrets that will lead to higher levels of consciousness. The skilled narcissistic guru assesses which individuals will be receptive to joining his spiritual circle. He fixates his attention on the prospective member, communicating to him that he is special and indispensable. These gurus use riveting eye contact. Their gestures, tone of voice, all of their nonverbal cues are focused on their target. Narcissistic spiritual gurus are superb actors (who often believe their own performances). They appeal to that part of us that is emotionally vulnerable, feeling deprived or unworthy. Some of us are seeking a magic key or formula that will lead us beyond suffering—that ego voice that wants to feel all powerful, without limits—godlike. All of those who fall under the spell of the narcissistic spiritual guru are not ignorant or naïve. The high-level narcissistic spiritual teacher possesses dynamic and intuitive powers that seduce and fool many people. Despite their allure and tempting promises, there are warning signs that a spiritual teacher is more dedicated to making himself powerful and affluent than helping his devotees:
1. Pay attention to the money barometer. Does the guru charge exorbitant fees for his services?
2. Is there continuing pressure placed on members to sign up for ongoing expensive programs? The not so hidden message here is: the more courses you take with us, the holier you will become. This can be called a pay to pray or pay to be holy spiritual scheme.
3. Another observation is that devotees often venerate the guru, reflexively obeying him. Having been deluded by their charismatic leader, they are no longer capable of independent thinking.
4. The narcissistic spiritual guru often uses his closest followers as servants who perform free labor: going on special errands, cleaning their residences, arranging public events. The loyal devotee considers these requests as a privilege and evidence that they hold an honored place in the guru’s hierarchy.
5. Narcissists play favorites. They pit one member against another to maintain ultimate power and control over their members.
6. Devotees are often mistreated. The slightest mistake can cause ugly scenes of humiliation in front of other group members.
7. Followers who question the spiritual leader or are considered dangerous rivals are excommunicated from the group.
8. The narcissistic guru behaves very differently in his personal life than among his devotees. He is often extremely self indulgent, materialistic, greedy, and in some cases, uses drugs and alcohol to excess. He might engage in sexual exploitation with compliant devotees who are emotionally dependent and vulnerable and psychologically fused with him.
Becoming more spiritually awake and heart centered doesn’t cost money. It requires devotion, discipline, and perseverance despite all the obstacles that come in our path. It’s not a short trip; it’s an adventurous journey.