In an earlier post (December 2009?) you mentioned the narcissistic danger of many neo-advaitists in identifying with the mind-created "spiritual self". As an antidote you talked about having a healthy relationship and identity with the body. You even quote Freud and others in the post to support this position. However, in the posts you have written in the last month you talk about not identifying with the body which is more in line with traditional Advaita teachers. Can you explain the difference between healthy and unhealthy body identification (or at least the discrepancy in your positions here)?The earlier post mentioned was, I think, "The Confusion of Self and Self-Image among Western Non-Dualists", in which I explored the difficulty westerners have distinguishing between the Self, the ego, and the ego's self-image.
The short answer to this question is to point out that the proper relationship for us to have with the body is not one of identifying ourselves with it, but to have an "intimate relationship" with it, which occurs when we simply accept the body as it is, and observe it and experience its qualities and characteristics with deep feeling and sensitivity. The body is not our real or true Self, but it is our first responsibility, our first relation, so to speak, and we need to love it and care for it as we would anyone we relate to.
The longer answer requires that we understand the structure of the ego and the psychology of the egoic mind. The first thing we must understand about the ego is that it requires objects to survive. Unless the ego can identify with an object, it will die, because it has no existence of its own. As long as we live as egos, therefore, we will identify with objects, and that cannot be undone without undoing the ego itself. The body is merely that set of objects the ego identifies with, which the ego "conjures up" in the simultaneous creation of mind, body, and world. There is no single entity called the body any more than there is a single entity called the ego. It is merely a set of samskaras and vasanas, tendencies of the mind, attention, and thought which perpetuates itself through ignorance, inertia, and activity.
The ego therefore requires an "image" of itself to survive. That image is what we call the body. It is not limited to the physical body, it is not limited to the subtle mind, it is merely a set of objects which the egoic mind takes to be itself, thereby identifying with the body. All of those objects are merely thoughts, if examined directly, and all those thoughts are rooted in the ego-thought, the "I"-thought, which is the first and most basic step of egoic separation from its own nature. So at the most basic level, the body is our "self-image", and as long as the ego is operative, that has to be accepted by us.
One of the problems with non-dual teachings, as I mentioned in that earlier post, is that many people mistakenly assume that Advaita's admonitions to not identify with the body means that we should cultivate some kind of alternative self-image that is not based in the body, but in the non-dual Self. This is not an unexpected problem, and one should not feel like a total idiot for making this mistake. But it is important to recognize that it is a mistake that can have serious repercussions. The problem with this approach is that it is impossible to create a self-image that corresponds to the non-dual Self, because the non-dual Self is not an object. The egoic self-image requires an object, and that object, however we choose or create it, is what we call the body. So if we try to create a self-image based on the non-dual Self, we are headed for trouble, because we are not recognizing the simple function of the self-image, and its inherently limited nature, being rooted in the body.
The first mistake we will generally make is to disassociate from the body, rejecting that self-image, and to try to create and dwell in an alternative self-image, basing that self-image on various concepts and experiences we may have about non-dual reality. We may try to identify with "emptiness", or with some experience of unity, of love, of bliss, etc. We will reject the body and imagine that the admonition to not identify with the body means that we should identify with one of these other experiences or concepts. And thus, we will tend to live our spiritual life in the mind, in the realm of self-imagery, rather than in the consciousness which inspects the ego and becomes intimately aware of the egoic structure of our own mind.
Papaji used to point out that one of the primary errors people make in trying to practice non-dualism is that they form a concept of enlightenment in their minds, and identify so strongly with it that they actually seem to achieve it. The mind is so powerful that it will create an experience to go along with whatever concepts it holds to strongly enough, and it will even create and sustain an experience of "enlightenment" that will correspond to whatever concept we have of enlightenment. Papaji called this "mind-enlightenment", and warned that it was a serious trap that many would fall into if they were not conscious of this power of the mind. One can certainly see many people among Papaji's western devotees who made this mistake, some of whom even set themselves up as teachers and Gurus giving satsang and claiming enlightenment, so it's not as if Papaji were merely speculating, He was addressing a serious problem that westerners in particular tend to face in our time and place, because the western world is manifesting a particularly powerful narcissistic mindset that imagines itself to be more advanced than any traditional understanding of life, when in reality it is often shallow and lacking any emotional or feeling depth.
I mentioned before the work of Alexander Lowen, M.D., a prominent psychologist who wrote "Narcissim: Denial of the true Self", among many other works. He pointed out that while in Freud's time most westerners seemed to suffer from repressive forms of neurosis, sometime around the 1960s the culture shifted more and more powerfully towards narcissistic disorders which had a very different teleology and required a different understanding and treatment. His studies of narcissisism taught him some very basic lessons that are relevant to our discussion of this issue.
The first point about narcissism that he brings up is that it is rooted in a disassociative impulse. To Lowen, the natural "self" that each of us has - meaning the ego - is simply the body. This is a very good insight, as it acknowledges the basic nature of the ego as identification of the body. Furthermore, Lowen points out that one of the basic structures the mind uses in its everyday life is the creation of a self-image. The sensual mind receives all kinds of information about the world and the body through the senses, but it does not stop there, and merely respond instinctively as animals do. It processes this information in the conceptual and imaginative mind, and creates all kinds of images there which it is able to creatively work with. One of the most important images it creates is what we call the "self-image". This self-image is used by the mind not only in everyday life, but in its own process of self-development and growth. For that process of development and growth to proceed in a healthy and productive manner, the self-image must be a realistic and useful one. To Lowen, that means that the self-image must have a healthy and realistic correspondence to our body, and that the self-image not become distorted or "unrealistic"m which can occur if it is separated from the body, and allowed to develop independently or even in opposition to the body. Even more importantly, we must not succumb to the temptation to abandon the sensual life of the body because of its often painful limitations and dwell instead in the world of mind and self-imagery. If we do that, we begin to fall into the miseries and delusions and inflated imagination of narcissism.
Lowen's understanding of narcissism is that it represents an escape from the body into a world created around a mental self-image. He observed that this was often due to early childhood trauma and pain that made the world of the self-image much more attractive and safe than the vulnerable and exploitable world of the bodily self. Many people develop a narcissistic fixation upon their own self-image in response to the physical and emotional pains of bodily life, and create for themselves an alternative reality within their own mind, in the form of all kinds of images and concepts, all organized around the self-image in the mind, rather than around the body itself. To some, this seems to be a better way of living, and in non-dual circles, this can even seem to be the fulfillment of non-dual teachings, which teach that the body is not our true self, and that we should not identify with the body, but with the "true Self" that is the very nature of our own consciousness.
The spiritual narcissist thinks that the world of our self-image is the "true Self" referred to in the Advaitic literature, because it is not based in the body, and is instead based in "consciousness", or the mind, which is found "within", as all mystical teachings seem to describe. But Advaita is not about identifying with an internal, mental self-image. Nor is the process of transcending identification with the body the same as turning to some alternative reality built upon self-imagery and mental concepts that become reified in our inner experience. The spiritual narcissist makes some primal errors that create an even worse form of delusion and suffering than the simple forms of bodily identification that we all suffer from, and it is often even harder to make one's way past these errors, because the world of the spiritual narcissist is almost impenetrable to criticism or self-examination. The spiritual narcissist will simply retreat into his own world of inner self-imagery, thinking that this is what the Advaitic scriptures have always been pointing to, when in reality that is not their import or understanding at all.
One finds these kinds of spiritual narcissists everywhere, not just in Advaitic circles. We even find them in ourselves. Whenever we become absorbed in some spiritual concept, or some spiritual experience, and identify with that concept or experience, we are flirting with spiritual narcissism. The ego is always looking for an image to identify with, and whatever comes up and grabs our attention will suffice. It's important to know this and directly observe this about our own egos. It's important to be familiar with this pattern of the ego, and not be surprised or fooled by what it identifies with. It's equally important to understand that so long as we live by the ego, we will also have a self-image, and that we should therefore make sure that our self-image has a healthy and realistic relationship to our sensual body, and not succumb to the temptation to cultivate an unrealistic self-image that is disassociated from the body.
It's important to observe the body, the mind, the ego, and the self-image, and see how they relate to one another. The body is not our enemy, and the self-image is not the route to enlightenment. The process of actually transcending identification with the body is not one of cultivating an "enlightened" self-image. It is not a process of disassociating from the sensual body and dwelling in internal conceptual states in which the self-image is based on mental content rather than bodily, sense-based content. The self-image has virtually nothing to do with the spiritual process, except in a very ordinary way based on direct observation of how body, mind, ego, and egoic imagery interact with one another. Having a self-image is natural and unavoidable so long as we have an ego at all, and thus the healthiest form of self-imagery is one in which we form an image based on the sensual body itself for purely practical purposes.
When Advaitic literature speaks of "looking within", they are not talking about looking at one's internal self-image and imagining that this must be transformed into a Divine and enlightened self-image. They are talking about a very realistic inspection of the mechanisms of self and self-imagery that is not trying to escape from the ego's identification with the body, but merely examining it freely. This means allowing oneself to feel and experience the suffering of the body and the mind without trying to escape from it into an alternative reality. The practice of self-enquiry recommended by Ramana Maharshi, for example, is not one of disassociating from the body, and instead cultivating an inner self-image of being the transcendental and limitless Self. It is merely a direct examination of the very feeling and process of self, including seeing how self-imagery is formed in the mind as thought-objects that we also identify with. Rather than forming new self-images, or even "meditating on the true Self", self-enquiry merely examines the egoic self directly, in the body and in feeling, without reacting to it. It merely observes these aspects of the ego, and traces their development back to their source in consciousness, back to the "I"-thought. In the process, the ego is stripped on its self-imagery and self-aggrandizement. It is a "humbling" process rather than a self-aggrandizing one. But it is humble not because it creates a smaller self-image, but because it undermines the very process of creating a self-image at all.
Even so, as long as we have any ego left, we will have a self-image, and that self-image will be based on the body. This is not something we can change, and if we do try to change it, we will only complicate our internal self-delusions. It is the ego that will try to become enlightened through the internal self-imagery, and we have to recognize that this is just how the ego works in response to suffering and threat. The spiritual process can be perceived by the ego as a threat to its very existence, and so it will often try to escape from that process by fleeing to the alternative world of the self-image. It will create an alternative spiritual reality around its own self-image, which may include either an image of oneself as an enlightened being, or the projection of this internal self-imagery upon a Guru, who will then be raised up beyond all egoic status to some superior and Divine Deity whom we can worship and revere as a way to escape our own sufferings. Such paths usually involve a disassociation from the body, from the bodily realities of the world, and often involve forms of exploitation of the body and world by oneself or by others in a manner that is not recognized as egoic, but is often confused with some profound form of self-transcending spirituality. This is how cults are formed, and why they are so difficult to break away from. They are rooted in a narcissistic identification with a self-image that is then projected upon the cult and cult leader and seemingly justified even by some of the most profound scriptural sources, if misinterpreted in this manner. And this pattern is of course not limited to small cults who exploit westerner's lack of familiarity with non-dualism. We see this anti-sensual, anti-body approach even in the largest mainstream traditions of religion, both popular and esoteric. The tendency towards narcissism is a universal one, and it infects most everything in human life if we are not aware of it.
That is why it is so important to have a grasp of this process, and to actually observe it in oneself and in others, so as to not fall into these traps. It's an area that the eastern non-dual scriptural sources have not adequately addressed, at least not for westerners who are trying to grasp these teachings from the perspective of a culture which is deeply entrenched in all kinds of narcissistic delusion. It's very easy for westerners used to our culture of narcissistic self-imagery to form false notions of what the Advaitic process is about, and how it proceeds, and what its goals and purposes and practices are. We have seen over the last 50 years many dramatic lessons about this in the subculture of non-dual spirituality, and I'm sure we've all lost many friends, and even ourselves form time to time, to its temptations.
The east is not without these kinds of problems, to be sure, but here in the west they take on greater urgency due to our general lack of cultural understanding of non-dual spirituality, and the blindness of our own narcissism, which is actually encouraged in much of western culture, and is the basis for so much exploitation here that it's no surprise that spiritual paths in the west are also commonly perverted by gross narcissism. The commercialization of spirituality in the west is just one aspect of this trend, and it too feeds upon the cultivation of self-image rather than the humble inspection of self. It's much easier to sell a self-image than it is a simple and unglamorous process of self-inspection and acceptance of one's self-image as the body. For most of us, our bodies are not very glamorous or exciting, and so we want to create a new sense of self based on something "more" than the body. Anyone who can sell us a method for doing that is going to find gullible consumers of that product. But the real process of spirituality is not glamorous, and it doesn't involve cultivating some self-image that is disassociated from the body. It requires that we accept and love the body as it is, with all its warts and sufferings and limitations. We have to accept our ego for what it is also, and merely observe it as it goes about its business, and not be seduced by the temptation to create endless new worlds on the basis of some other self-image that might be more attractive to the mind.
In the end, of course, this transition away from narcissism isn't really very difficult. It merely involves a return to our ordinary suffering, as Freud used to say about the ending of neurotic fixations. If we examine these paths of self-imagery realistically, and take into account all the troubles they create and the miseries they perpetuate, we can see that their path is actually much more difficult and stressful and harder to follow than merely facing up to ourselves realistically and accepting the simple pains and troubles of the body we have already created and identified with. To move beyond that identification means realistically accepting that identification and dealing with it head on.
If we accept that identification with the body, and allow our self-imagery to simply reflect that identification naturally, we are not then simply trapped in identification. Instead, we are now able to work with it, to inspect it, to feel into it, and to begin to move beyond it. We can begin to feel that identification with the body so deeply that we can feel beyond it, to the source of the body-thought, and even to begin to intuitively understand the true Self. Even so, we need to understand that no experience in the mind corresponds to our true Self, but only to images we might form of the Self. We have to recognize that those experiences are themselves just thoughts, and that there is no profit in identifying with them as an alternative to the body we have already identified with. Until the ego is no more, and the Self is realized, the mind will always center itself on the body, because that is what it identifies with at root. To transcend that identification, we therefore have to attend to the very root of our mind and awareness, and not become distracted by any images that present themselves to us as an alternative. We certainly have to refrain from cultivating an entire path of spirituality based on those images and thoughts. We have to be at peace with the body, including its sensuality, and not reject it.
To begin that process, we simply have to observe the body, mind, and ego as they arise, and not fall into exclusive identification with the internal self-images that are generated by the mind as a natural part of born life. To ease our identification with the body does not mean increasing our identification with that internal self-image. It means merely observing both without identifying with either - or at least while easing our identification with either. To observe the process of our own identification with the body and mind and self-image is the quickest way to ease that identification, and to begin to see and feel beyond it. As we mature in that process, we will find ourselves enjoying a greater freedom in consciousness and life, but we will still be subject to identification with the body, and we have to accept that, and allow our self-image to correspond to the body as well. As our understanding and perception of the body increases, our self-image may even grow, but only in natural accord with the body itself. It needs to always keep step with the body, since that is its source.
Papaji once said that it's best to have no self-image at all, but if one is going to have a self-image, he said why not see oneself as "the greatest of the great"? That may be appropriate if one's understanding of the body is virtually limitless, but it will only lead to spiritual forms of narcissism if one tries to cultivate such a self-image apart from the body. If one can see the body as rooted in the Self, it's true source, then all limitations are off. But that seeing cannot be in the mind and its imaginative concepts, it has to be direct and egoless. The problem with too many spiritual seekers is that they leap immediately to the mind and the images of the self, and don't give the body a chance to reveal its true nature to them. Then they become Gurus who are addicted to the same fascinations that those who are identified with they body exhibit, because they are in reality still identified with the body, they just don't realize it because they are so absorbed in the spiritual self-imagery they have created for themselves. And the power of their mental identification is so strong that it even creates for them all kinds of seemingly profound spiritual experience that seems to validate their notions of enlightenment and higher knowledge. Others may be sucked into their world as well, and imagine it to be real. And so goes the folly of human spirituality.