I have a confession to make.
I used to be a spiritual narcissist. This means I had a very unhealthy spiritual ego.
My spiritual ego was strongest when living in Los Angeles and going to cacao ceremonies in Topanga. I thought I had it all figured out and I was living on another plane of existence.
I “got it” and so many other people just didn’t seem to be on my level.
It wasn’t about being elitist. It was just about leaving the “old world” in the dust while I rose up to a new realm of enlightenment and spirituality.
But the unfortunate truth was that my “high vibrations” and “positive mindset” were just subtly feeding my ego.
A few weeks ago I visited Koh Phangan in Thailand. It’s well-known as a new age spiritual hub. Memories of my time as a spiritual narcissist came flooding back.
I created the video below sharing my experience.
The comments were so interesting that I’ve now expanded the video into this comprehensive article.
I’ll first explain the spiritual ego trap I found myself in. I’ll then go through three stages of spiritual ego, followed by the 15 most common signs of spiritual ego. I’ll then explain what to do if you have a spiritual ego.
The spiritual ego trap
I had learned amazing things and studied with profound teachers, but instead of really using spirituality to move beyond my constructed ego, I was using spirituality to reinforce it.
It took a lot of reality checks for me to understand that the real spiritual journey isn’t about being better or on some higher level.
Ultimately, my spiritual ego blinded me to my own behavior and how my spiritual progress was making me act around others.
The late Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said:
“There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.”
If I’d read that when I was full of spiritual ego I would have thought: well, lucky that’s not me. I cultivate high vibrations and peace. I love everyone, no matter how basic they might be.
But now I truly know exactly what Rinpoche means.
One of the sneakiest ways spiritual ego gets you is that it tells you by intentionally acting and trying to be humble, grateful, positive and so on you are actually just a little on a better level than those around you who don’t do those things.
But the truth is I’m really not, and neither are you.
We may have many amazing aspects of ourselves and what we do, but the purpose of the spiritual journey is to uncover our true identity and authenticity and to give, thank and help from a place of genuine and voluntary compassion rather than as part of a philosophy or tactical approach.
And I still always have more to learn from everyone I meet and interact with. The idea of an “end goal” or final plateau isn’t on my radar anymore, because I’m not seeking a payoff and I don’t think of spirituality as a competition.
Welcome to spiritual ego-land
So many people are caught up in the grip of spiritual narcissism and spiritual ego.
I’m currently in Koh Phangan in Thailand, which is a spiritual development hotspot and I can see spiritual ego all around me.
This is a beautiful place with some amazing people, but seeing the reality of how dominant spiritual ego can get and how it can create this self-perpetuating industry of “being woke” has been something to see.
New Age Spiritual Narcissism is a growing problem, but its roots have been around for a while.
As the psychiatrist Gerald May wrote in his 1983 book Will and Spirit:
“Simply stated, spiritual narcissism is the unconscious use of spiritual practice, experience, and insight to increase rather than decrease self-importance.”
It’s bringing it all back:
My earlier struggles with spiritual ego and the “I’m so special” mentality.
I see so many “yoga people” and spiritual seekers who are trying to leave the “normal” world behind in Koh Phangan and “overcome” the regular, shitty routine of life back home.
They often cling to gurus or special teachings and believe they’ve finally found the answer to everything.
They look at you with a hint of pity if you don’t share their precise worldview.
They’ve transcended it all…(or they think they have).
Why won’t you do that, too?
Just let it all go, man.
Those I’ve talked to and observed with a big spiritual ego often see life in a black-and-white way.
There’s the good, pure life of spiritual practice and high vibrations and the bad, lost life of materialism, ownership and greed.
If only it were that simple, my friends.
As May says, spiritual ego can often be unconscious. That’s why having someone point it out to you can often be an eye-opener.
So I wanted to create this guide to spiritual narcissism and how to avoid the trap of spiritual ego.
What is spiritual ego?
To explain spiritual ego more fully, let’s first come to a basic definition of spirituality.
Spirituality involves the recognition of a feeling or sense or belief that there is something greater than oneself, something more to being human than sensory experience, and that the greater whole of which we are part is cosmic or divine in nature.
When you’re a spiritual person, you define your identity in terms of the pursuit of the knowledge and experience of something spiritual. You attempt to live your life incorporating a series of practices and concepts to give your life a spiritual meaning and spiritual dimension.
Spiritual ego is when someone becomes overly identified with the pursuit of spirituality, meaning, or purpose in life.
It results when the spiritual seeker believes in what they learned when on the spiritual path and believes that knowledge and experience set them apart from those who have not attained it.
As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle puts it:
“The ego has many ideas. It says ‘I want to be a spiritual person. I want to be recognized as a spiritual person. I want to be more spiritual than all these people. And I’m definitely more spiritual than you … The essential dysfunction of the ego is still operating. This is why we have the phrase ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ … You have to reach the place within yourself that is unconditioned, that is what I sometimes call formless.”
I don’t want anyone to think that if you find you have spiritual ego you’re “bad” or less developed.
Developing a spiritual ego is actually quite natural, especially when you’re early in your spiritual studies. It’s often just part of the learning process, and all of us get it a little bit now and then. It’s one of those temptations that still hovers in the background for all of us.
In fact, many (perhaps most) self-proclaimed spiritual gurus become trapped in the stage of having a spiritual ego. This usually happens because they achieve recognition based on what they share with others about spirituality.
The list of those who’ve achieved powerful spiritual insights but used them to manipulate and mistreat others or start unhealthy communities full of abuse, control and authoritarian hierarchy is long.
So is the list of people who have been hurt by these kinds of experiences.
That’s why spiritual ego is something we need to be conscious of so that we don’t let it overtake us or draw us into the orbit of someone who wants to milk us for cash or put us on a hamster wheel of spiritual development where we’re never quite “good enough” and they’re always one step above us.
With that, it’s time to go over the various types of spiritual ego.
Types of spiritual ego
So the key point here is about self-identity.
When someone asks a spiritual narcissist who they are, they will respond with an explanation incorporating their pursuit of truth and meaning.
And most importantly, their identity will revolve around having experienced something definitive. Perhaps an aha! moment. A transcendent experience that sets them apart from those who haven’t had that epiphany yet.
Their aha moment will be set in distinction with you. It will assert some kind of superiority.
A vertical relationship where they’re above you, or think they are.
1. The novice stage
This is an incredibly fun time! You have just started your spiritual path.
A chance encounter with someone opened your eyes to the mysteries of the universe.
Maybe you experimented with a substance that reframed reality in a mind-bending but profound way. Whoa, man, I get it now, you think.
You did some yoga and realized it had a big impact on your stress levels.
You read a book by Eckhart Tolle that opened your eyes and spoke to you and made you feel you’ve uncovered the “one truth” that everyone else needs to realize.
A mystic revealed a magical truth that you didn’t ever really consider, or you embraced being “spiritual but not religious” and think that this is the most key and brilliant distinction anyone has ever discovered.
And maybe it is.
But the ego tends to ride very high at this stage because everything is bright, shiny and new.
This is the novice stage.
2. The yogi stage
Yogis have stuck with an approach or a philosophical or spiritual path – be it yoga, Zen meditation, shamanism or hundreds of other practices – and expanded and deepened their knowledge and expertise.
You want everyone to hear about the path that you’re embracing and gaining expertise in and you love debating spiritual topics or being “right” about how the spiritual life should be and about leaving behind the empty and shallow trappings of the materialist life.
You become something of a missionary, opening up people’s minds and hearts to the truth you’ve discovered.
You have confidence it can help others the way it has helped you.
You’re an inspiring person to be around full of knowledge and enthusiasm, but your ears aren’t always open to listen and you can become quite dogmatic.
3. The guru stage
At the guru stage, someone is no longer bound by the method but is able to use their knowledge and experience to speak to everyone’s unique situation.
They can take their spiritual practice and make it apply to your life.
Spiritual gurus are often brilliant and persuasive, which can be good when they are sharing amazing information and practices, but can become dangerous and full of deception, too.
As Psychology Professor and bestselling author Steve Taylor explains of his own run-in with gurus:
“There are countless reports of American or European-based spiritual leaders who have exploited and abused their followers, had promiscuous sex with their female followers, become addicted to alcohol or drugs, and so on. In fact, there are so many cases of ‘gurus gone wrong’ that it is not easy (at least outside traditional Indian culture) to find examples of ‘good gurus’ who have avoided excess and immorality.”
You should always keep a little bit cautious around self-proclaimed gurus, especially ones offering “levels” of knowledge or Scientology-type systems of progress and spiritual unlocking.
This is because the guru is smart enough to see through ideologies and systems but will still often choose to use them in order to control and profit from others.
Always remember that even if you do have a guru you look up to or follow you are an independent person worthy of respect and love.
Dangers of spiritual ego
Spiritual ego can be quite the trip.
And sometimes you don’t even realize you’re on it until you’re talking to a close friend and realize you really feel like they “don’t get it” and you do.
You realize that the religious dogmatism and materialism you thought you left behind has found a way to still worm its way into your new way of life.
You’re not free of the ego or the “story” about who you are, you’ve just upgraded it and wrapped it in a nice new fair-trade shirt from the market.
This is the first danger of spiritual ego:
That it makes you feel better than others and distances you from ways in which you could really connect and help them.
The second danger is related:
You begin to follow certain paths or gurus – or even seek to become one – in a dogmatic, self-righteous way.
This is not good and can lead to all sorts of manipulation and disappointment.
The third danger:
Is that you spend so much time thinking and analyzing and “trying” that you forget the most basic thing of all: to just be.
Becoming wrapped up in spiritual ego can distance us even further from our all-important respiratory system and our own body.
We may become convinced that enlightenment and peace lie away from our body and the messiness and wildness of life.
But the reality is that inner peace lies through the discomfort not away from it.
And truly living and being spiritually aware is in the body, not out of it.
Signs of spiritual ego
1. Living in the mind
One of the main signs of spiritual ego is living in the mind.
We have big aha moments that give us all these insights and we make spirituality too intellectual. It becomes about understanding and analyzing to such an extent that there’s not time left for…actually putting it into practice.
It’s like enjoying talking about food so much that you end up three hours into a discussion of the best Italian foods when you realize you are really fucking hungry:
And there’s nowhere left open to buy food or eat out.
Spiritual ego is like this. It can wrap you up so much in your own head and paths and philosophies that you end up forgetting your core aim and what you were even working towards in the first place.
2. Judging someone’s worth based on their spirituality
Spiritual ego can make us see spirituality as a competition. We regard others on a scale of spirituality the way sports fans might judge different players.
It’s an unhelpful mindset.
Often spiritual narcissism makes us so focused on healing and “fixing” others that we end up in codependent relationships or power dynamics where we feel inherently better than those around us.
Instead of doing the crucial work of healing ourselves we notice what’s wrong with everyone around us, or we believe we’ve already done all the work we need to do on ourselves.
When the truth is we’re all still learning and growing every day.
3. A disconnect from the world around you
Another big sign of spiritual ego is when we become disconnected from the world around us.
We may talk all the time about the wonder of nature or the beauty of stillness, but not even bother to pick up trash on the beach or look into ways of cleaner, sustainable living.
The world around us is full of life and vibrant experiences.
It’s full of pain and joy, growth and decay, relaxation and struggle. And it’s all part of the journey that we need to be connected to in order to grow inside.
We may end up denouncing the shallowness and greed of capitalism and the corporate world but then also end up essentially hiding from many of the painful experiences that would actually help us grow or learn to bring spirituality into the big bad world outside.
Spirituality should never be a way to hide from the world or feel superior to it.
It must be a way to transform it.
4. Lots of talk but not much walk
Spiritual ego often leads to lots of talk but not much walk.
You will hear hours and hours of ideas and amazing insights and enlightening talks about high vibrations.
But then the leader of your meditation group will chew out a class member for being late, or scowl like a sulking schoolboy because their girlfriend is mad at them.
What about all that spiritual progress and non-attachment to outcomes?
Well, it turns out that it might have been a bit more about the preaching than putting it into real-world action.
A big sign of spiritual ego is people who walk, talk and look the part, but when the rubber hits the road they’re often even worse at dealing with the real world than any random person from the phone book.
5. Belonging to trendy, exclusive cliques
As June writes at June’s Journal of her experience at a church that became cliquey, the spiritual ideas and convictions of her church leadership started to create a cliquey, cult-like environment:
“If leadership of any church discourages its members from making friends with persons outside of their immediate church fellowship, that is is a form of church cultism or control. A church should not be dictating your social network. That’s scary. And reminds me of many famous cults who had their members also cut themselves off from all others in the world, even family members. Churches like that might as well pass the Jim Jones Kool-aid.”
The exact same thing can happen in any spiritual group or practice, from yoga and meditation groups to alternative communities and retreats.
People start to base their identity so much off the spiritual path they are on that they start becoming cliquey and even paranoid about “outside influences” and purity of staying on the true path.
It’s not much fun at all and it can actually start to significantly slow down your spiritual journey in drama and ego-based conflicts.
6. Getting pushy and dogmatic
Another sign of spiritual ego is having dogmatic beliefs and pushing them on those around you.
It’s not always that dramatic or crazy, but it can start to get tiring.
Even when someone is talking to you about the supposed healing power of crystals, or their absolute certainty that everything in life can be solved by a deep understanding of astrology it can start to become really annoying and aggressive if they don’t listen and keep pushing it.
Many of those with strong spiritual ego share a distrust of “organized religion,” but it’s ironic that they often become a mirror image of the kind of dogmatism they think they have left behind.
Spiritual ego can have a lack of respect for people’s emotional and psychological boundaries.
7. Toxic positivity
Trying to make yourself perfect or “fix” what’s wrong with you is a losing game.
Especially if you do it by following “law of attraction” type teachers and systems. I know that for me I ended up in a cycle of toxic positivity.
I forced myself to be positive and see the best in things so much that I ended up repressing negative emotions and creating blockages.
The truth is that even an emotion that most of us have been taught in many of our cultures to regard as “negative” like anger can be a positive allow if you learn to embrace your inner beast.
Focusing only on the positive or trying to deny or “overcome” the negative side of life is like voluntarily tying one hand behind your back and then going into a boxing match.
It’s not going to go well.
But spiritual ego tells you that if you can just be more positive than the “normal people” you will unlock all the secrets to life and spiritual growth.
8. Playing the fame game
Spiritual ego talks a lot about being humble and not seeking external validation. However, the irony is that when this leads to external validation it ends up creating a positive feedback loop.
Talk more about being humble, get more praise.
Post inspiring content about the beauty of nature and danger of egotism, get more shares.
Tweet about how toxic a politician is for being a selfish asshole and get thousands of retweets for being so woke.
Spiritual ego talks a big game about humility and not seeking rewards, but it heads toward fame like a moth to the flame.
The spiritual ego is hungry for fame and recognition by any means necessary, including by telling people what they want to hear instead of what would actually help them.
9. Getting hopped up on guru juice
Another big sign of spiritual ego is becoming a self-appointed guru or worshipping a guru.
You start believing in systems and paths and getting so hopped up on guru juice that you rant like a 2 a.m. bus stop drunk at anybody who will listen to you (and even those who don’t want to).
It can become genuinely comical how self-important gurus can get, except they have so much spiritual ego that they often don’t realize how silly it all appears. Instead, they just pay attention to their adoring followers who pump their accounts full of money.
As Taylor puts it, gurus are vulnerable to getting carried away with their own importance:
“Once they are surrounded by hundreds of adoring disciples, they begin to suffer from ego-inflation. They really believe that they are perfect, even that they are divine. They lose their moral compass, believing that the most unethical behavior is acceptable. In the midst of unlimited power — and sexual temptation — they lose any sense of restraint.”
The fact is that being spiritual or advanced doesn’t make you a god of your own little universe. Your actions still affect others and restraint and ethics still matter.
10. Flashing your spiritual Ph. D
Believing you have passed all the spiritual tests of life and figured it all out is one of the brightest flashing signs of spiritual ego.
Showing off your “spiritual Ph. D.” and unloading your massive knowledge all over those you come across is classic spiritual ego.
Yes, you may honestly be a very bright and wonderful person who understands how yoga relates to the prana life force and ancient spiritual wisdom,
A stranger on vacation having breakfast at your youth hostel buffet at 7:30 a.m. may not be in exactly the right mental space and mood to listen to it for 35 minutes as you drape your prayer beads all over them and start offering to demonstrate on the porch.
Spiritual ego, man, it’s a helluva drug.
11. Spiritual materialism and egotism
A comprehensive 2020 study from Roos Vonk and Anouk Visser of the Behavioral Sciences Institute at Radboud University in the Netherlands concludes that some spiritual practices can lead to narcissistic behavior and attitudes.
In particular, those who worked in “energy work” and other areas exhibited higher signs of believing themselves to be spiritually superior and have “figured it out.”
There was a gradual increase in spiritual superiority as one moved from the “no spiritual training” group to the “mindfulness training” group to the “energetic training” group. And again, the results for the “energetic” group were much higher than for both the “mindfulness” and the “no-training” groups.
The study found that people believed they could send positive energy to others remotely and communicate with spirits in ways that they felt made them at a “higher level” than those who could not do such things.
12. “Is she even, like, spiritual at all?”
Like I wrote, we’re all still learning.
But judging the spiritual “level” of others and seeing less spiritually inclined people as “less advanced” is one of the main hazards and signs of spiritual ego.
You may not end up noticing that you’re being judgmental and think of it more as just seeing whether someone else shares your interests.
But the truth is:
We never know what someone may offer us or change us.
I have been around people who said only a few words but changed my whole life with the expression of compassion in their eyes.
And I’ve been around others who talked for 5 hours about existentialism that made me want to board a spaceship off this planet to get away from them.
You can’t know what someone will bring to you – or what you’ll bring to them – by making snap judgments about their spiritual state. Or their political views. Or whether they’re vegan. Or their ethnicity. Or their interests.
None of this predicts what they could bring to your life and what you could bring to theirs.
It’s a wonderful mystery to explore, so stop trying to get out a scorecard and predict it.
13. Engaging in spiritual debates (rather than dialogue)
Let’s face it:
Spirituality is super interesting.
You wouldn’t be here on this site if it wasn’t. I find it fascinating, especially how it brings together so many fields like psychology, history, religion and even economics (how people believe and relate to the spiritual can have a major impact on how they trade, produce and buy and sell).
Discussing spirituality is amazing and I love it.
But when I was deep in spiritual ego I loved to debate spirituality.
I was hooked on being right or pointing out this clever, brilliant thing that my friends or those around me hadn’t thought of.
I wanted to drop a knowledge bunker buster on everyone I came across and wow the shit out of them with something I’d learned from a new guru.
At the time I think I was just full of enthusiasm, and that’s true.
But I was also overstocked on spiritual ego.
14. Your curiosity about the world around you fades
Spiritual ego can feel like being part of a small exclusive club that only few get into.
You look around at the outside world and feel like it just doesn’t get it. As a result you often begin to lose interest.
Your friends tell you about interests that don’t align with your “higher” interests and you tune out.
Your family asks about practical things or your future plans and you nod and smile. Sure, sure. Lost in the materialist game you think. (Then a month later you’re asking your dad to bail you out with a check for this month’s rent).
Spiritual ego can make your curiosity about the outside world fade because you think the higher world you’ve found is so much better.
You may even drop relationships and friendships that no longer seem at your “level.”
But the thing is that the world outside you – despite its mundanity at times – is a treasure trove of spiritual lessons and experiences from your morning cup of coffee to your goodnight walk.
Looking around and “smelling the roses” doesn’t make you a superficial person, and sometimes even the most profound Zen master has advised people to let things be what they are.
Sometimes the deepest level of all is right where you are experiencing your daily life.
15. Lacking humility and openness
Believing you are spiritually better than others is a dangerous trap that people fall into, especially gurus and self-appointed leaders of spiritual communities.
The lack of humility and openness can be one of the main warning signs of spiritual ego.
You just close off to new ideas and begin to see yourself as immune from the confusion and troubles of the world.
You get it and others don’t. You can fix people, because you’ve attained some upper echelon of human spiritual progress.
The unfortunate part is that even if you have achieved amazing things in inner growth and spirituality, by using them from the egoistic side you are losing a lot of the most potent benefits for humility and solidarity and the growth that comes through that.
As Bhardwaj puts it:
“Everyone is a seeker, even the ones who call themselves “masters.” We’ve given them the role of “spiritual teachers,” but even they have their own ego issues to work out. How can they be expected to fix something in others that they are struggling with themselves?”
How to get beyond spiritual ego
Spiritual ego is based on an identity about having found a path to enlightenment.
About having superior qualities for being on this path.
It’s not a permanent state of being and once you realize you’re in it there are ways to move on to a deeper spiritual experience.
What to do about it?
If you have the spiritual ego, it’s essential to shift from vertical to horizontal relationships in your life.
It’s essential that you rebuild your identity not around yourself but around your service to others. Experience yourself – your flow – as an intricate part of the web of life.
Find your intuitive expertise and tap into it to enter the flow state.
Begin to share your gifts with the world and experience the joy of helping others without judging their “level.”
I also highly recommend this free self-healing meditation from the shaman Rudá Iandê. It uses the power of your breath to bridge the divide between your conscious and unconscious, integrating, empowering and healing the blocks and traumas that are so often stored in our system from past experiences and fears of the future.
What about people with spiritual ego around you?
This can be another confusing situation:
If you’re surrounded by people with spiritual ego…
There’s another trap! Don’t shut them off. Don’t think they’re any worse than you.
It’s completely normal for people on a spiritual path to get excited about newfound knowledge and insights.
They can get a bit annoying or overbearing for sure, but you don’t need to see them as unworthy or “bad.”
So I suggest just seeing them as adorable yogis.
They’re lovely! Usually full of love and peace.
It’s amazing being around people that try to be so loving all the time.
Just respect them. Try not to abuse them. They’re really easily manipulated so keep the respect up high.
Spiritual ego is a way that even sensitive, intelligent people can wander a little bit off course, but it’s all a natural part of the path to becoming a more caring, humble and aware person.
Part of overcoming spiritual ego is to see those at all stages of life as the beautiful creatures they are: worthy of love and respect even if you don’t always agree with them or share their same approach to spirituality.
At the end of the day we’re all in this together.