We all want to feel special in as many ways as possible. The desire to feel special is a function of our ego, and ego is a very normal part of human functioning. In fact, to be born without an ego would be impossible and might well have a catastrophic impact on our development. At some point in our development, however, ego becomes more of a problem than an asset.
The desire to feel special draws us into relationships of all kinds – friendships, business relationships, love relationships, and in fact every kind of human relationship imaginable. Human beings are social beings. There are very few of us called to live as hermits, and even most hermits need someone to bring them food and firewood and so are also in relationship albeit in a very limited way. We tend to be drawn to our romantic partners because of how we feel when we are with them, though I would hasten to add that lasting love only occurs when we move our focus from how we feel when we are with our partners to their needs and feelings. Narcissists don’t form many lasting relationships with healthy people!
The desire to feel special extends to the spiritual realm as well, and has been a source of controversy and conflict in spiritual circles for as long as there have been spiritual circles. Traditions generally agree that God (a term I welcome you to substitute with your prefered term from your tradition) loves and cares about us, wanting what is best for us. I suspect that just as we all have egos, we in the West also all have a part of ourselves that doesn’t really believe we are worthy of love and acceptance and so doubts that even God, or sometimes especially God, could view us in a benevolent way! In response to this (erroneous) feeling, we look for ways to prove or legitimize our special standing.
Wanting to be special has led some to enter into ministry or other forms of spiritual leadership, though such an unhealthy motivation for ministry or leadership that can be a recipe for disaster in which the people we are supposed to be serving or teaching instead become tools we use to shore up our ego, our sense of being special. We are in essence attempting to work out our own issues at the expense of those we are supposed to be serving. At best that is an ethical problem, at worst it is a platform for abuse of epic proportions. I believe that every incident of abuse by ministers or spiritual teachers is a case of the perpetrator using the victim in a profoundly misguided attempt to prove to themselves they are acceptable. After their act, they recognize that what they did was wrong, increasing their need to feel they are okay, and in a classic cycle of addictive behavior they act out again.
Others seek to prove their specialness through acquiring special knowledge or insight that others either don’t have access to or seem unable to develop. The New Age movement is flooded with examples of this kind of knowledge, and there is no shortage of self-appointed spiritual teachers offering truths of questionable veracity. Those who question these truths are easily dismissed as lacking the insight necessary to appreciate them, a technique seen in the prosperity gospel movement within Christianity. If one doesn’t get rich, it is because one lacks faith. In a similar way, the Law of Attraction has been distorted by some teachers and claims made on behalf of it that simply aren’t reasonable. When followers of those overstating LOA complain that it doesn’t work for them, the built-in answer is that they haven’t applied the “law” properly. These are but two classic examples of subtle spiritual abuse that blame the victim and seek to advance the ego of the teacher at the expense of the student. How can we move beyond these problematic practices?
Can we move beyond our need to feel special in inauthentic ways? We can, but only if we are willing and able to take an honest look at ourselves and our motivations. Are we willing to engage in spiritual practice without expectation of reward, or are we engaging in practice hoping for some kind of special feeling or emotional state? Special states and feelings do happen, but they aren’t any indicator of spiritual progress, authenticity or maturity. Spiritual experiences happen sometimes, and at other times they don’t. Our desire for them can cause them to appear, as is clearly seen in churches and other settings where a particular spiritual experience is required for membership. Those who want to belong inevitably have the experience, which indicates just how deceptive our psyches can be when we want something bad enough.
I find it very interesting that authentic mystics across traditions seldom talk about their spiritual life, and when they do there is nothing about what they say that draws attention to themselves. As our practice matures we come to see that it isn’t about us, it’s about everybody. It’s not that we are special, it’s that everyone is special. We come to a place where we don’t ask ourselves how we can use our insights to make ourselves look or feel better (a tactic that most often backfires). We ask how we might use our insights to ease the pain of others. Mature spirituality always draws us out of ourselves and point us toward others and their needs. We don’t say, “Look what I can do,” but rather ask, “what can I do for you?”
It’s a dramatic but gradual shift that occurs without our being aware it is happening. I believe it is precisely the gradual nature of the change that makes it difficult for many to persevere in spiritual practice. How do we carry on when nothing seems to be happening? We can only carry on when nothing seems to be happening when we understand that “nothing” or “no thing” becomes the goal of our practice. When we don’t want to achieve, when we don’t want to advance, when we aren’t busy compiling our spiritual resume is precisely when we encounter progress in our journey – though it is so incremental that we may not notice until we have taken some significant but incremental steps. One day we look back and realize we are no longer the same person we were a few years ago, and while we cannot point to the precise moment the change took place there is no denying it has happened. We we realize this, we aren’t the least bit tempted to update our Facebook status with the news. Instead we return to practice and carry on.
You may be thinking that this is pretty boring stuff, and you would be correct. On the other hand, if we examine the things we do in our day-to-day lives, unless we are test pilots or human cannon balls we have to admit our lives are pretty boring as well. The thing about peak experiences, whether spiritual or not, is that they are short-lived. That’s what keeps us coming back for more, a sure indication that peak experiences never satisfy humans. We clearly need something deeper and more enduring, and the only way to get it is through spiritual practice. That practice will both take away our need to feel special and lead us to realize we have been special all along.