The Christ Complex is a psychological term used loosely to describe any individual mentally fixed on superiority and/or the claim of being a savior. It is not exclusive to Christian thought.The idea of a Christ Complex conjures up the thought of a crazed psychotic running through the streets proclaiming his crown to the right hand of God, as in the movie "The Dream Team," where a character enters a church, takes off his clothes and tells the congregation he is Jesus. This type of person is delusional with a brain chemical disorder, and is rarely dangerous.There are many types of disorders in which the Christ Complex comes into play. The worst extreme of this complex is seen in that of a psychopath. Someone that, over time, comes to operate without any regard for other humans. For instance, the most insidious and dangerous psychopaths can become mass murderers or radical cult leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh.However, I want to focus on a more subtle condition that occurs in leaders of spiritual or religious communities which can escape our attention and lead to confusion in those in search of higher knowledge.
The Narcissistic Christ ComplexNarcissism is characterized as a psychological state in which the person has an exaggerated egocentric concern with self and lack of concern for others. Narcissism starts early in the developmental stages of infancy into adolescence. A child whose parents have adored, loved, nurtured, coddled, and encouraged him/her will most likely develop a healthy self-concept. However, the child who was denied this bonding and attention of parents, develops abnormally and carries this lack into adulthood. A healthy childhood involves being noticed as No. 1, being special, important, cute and deserving of love. When most of these things are left unfulfilled, a person can develop an insatiable desire for acceptance and attention. This can lead to narcissism.Narcissists do not understand a normal relationship of giving and receiving love and attention. Inklings of these feelings that they receive from others is foreign, but strangely feels good like a drug. Quickly they learn that creating a character of false importance in themselves fills their void of affection. They lure others into a web of seduction and false promises, seeking out praise and a sense of power. A narcissist manipulates others, in order to keep them under a spell of control. Promises are often not fulfilled as originally pledged, and the manipulations increase. This scenario is similar to a politician's well-organized, methodical illusion of great "promises" that win the vote. This feeling of grandeur is addictive and must be retained. As people continue to be coerced, the narcissist builds his/her sense of authority .Unfortunately, narcissistic people often reach high positions of leadership. This can occur in corporations, art societies, universities, anywhere. Though it is sad, but true, spiritual communities are not spared this misfortune. There are, of course, many wonderful, compassionate spiritual leaders who, within their human limitations, grace this world with their knowledge and strength. However, there are those that present themselves as teachers of spiritual ideals, but they have their own self-serving agenda. Narcissists may begin teaching with what they evaluate as good intentions, and may believe that their methods are somehow helpful to others, but truly they search only to satiate the hunger for acceptance and power. A spiritual teacher who coerces others over time into thinking he/she is the superior or "all-knowing" authority is most likely narcissistic. This type of person has what can be referred to as the Narcissistic Christ Complex.The Narcissistic Christ Complex is an addiction empowered through the manipulation and exploitation of devoted followers.It is a type of spiritual totalitarianism. Authoritarian leaders who have both faultless control and power to make decisions over others' lives cause impotence and confusion in the believer. This oppression banishes the individuality of devotees and undermines any spiritual growth.This Narcissistic Christ Complex is usually overlooked as something other than a Christ Complex. People with this kind of malediction may not necessarily proclaim themselves to be a Savior, but exhibit a self-importance over others, especially over their students. Perhaps they go about, flaunting their wisdom and being profound. Sometimes this type of false teacher will display his/her greatness as having special favor with the gods, being the only one with secret knowledge and rights. He/she may praise or reprimand a devoted follower, claiming to be supported by this higher power.A student wooed by this teacher's intelligence and grace is thankful, feels indebted to give total credence to the teacher for having passed on this divine communication. This qualification and reinforcement of the teacher's actions builds his/her ego, the deception escalates; soon, anything this teacher says is taken as the word of God.Seekers on the spiritual path all have common goals in mind. We all want to know the great mysteries, and find enlightenment. So, we look for a teacher or a community of loving caring people. We fall in love with the idea of a peaceful, illumined world. Perhaps we are looking to heal the wounds in our hearts. When we find a teacher we are full of excitement. We feel eager. When we find ourselves in personal life challenges, a truly compassionate teacher will offer support and encouragement.However, some teachers are not healthy and use our weaknesses against us, gaining power and control. Once, a fellow student of mine asked our "master" teacher for advice concerning trouble she had meditating because she had been so worried about ability to concentrate and meditate. The teacher told her only that she thought too much and the least she could do was control her own mind stop worrying him with her little concerns. When teachers ignore our sincerity we find ourselves troubled and confused. They abuse our trust.Often, a teacher such as this, will set up double standards for themselves. If we should question the teacher's actions and he/she furnishes us with a double standard, the Teacher is a controlling narcissistic. He/she may become aloof. We may even be shamed for our confusion and be required to pay penance for our infraction. If the teacher is thought to be faultless we may think we are learning humility and blame ourselves for not knowing. Public shaming, shunning and humiliation may be a deterrent for followers not to express their concerns.A maladjusted teacher might advise the entire group to persecute a member who is thought to be a problem. Those who don't conform to and entertain the teacher's demands end up as examples. This can cause confusion in a sincere students. Consequently we become faced with a situation we have put all of our time, money, and aspiration toward spiritual goals, and things go wrong.When I was a young priest and a mother of six, I belonged to a spiritual community with a hierarchical structure of priests, disciples, and masters. I had the unfortunate experience of being shamed during a spiritual retreat.I was enjoying the wooded areas of the retreat camp when I was called into the kitchen and ushered into a broom closet by the master general director who was making a halo out of a hanger and a piece of tin foil . With a cocky smirk on his face, he said he was going to make me wear this halo because I was acting so much like an angel. Shyly, I protested. Unable to give me a specific reason as to what I had done to deserve this disgrace, he countered me by saying it was my duty.I was shocked and humiliated. I was a quiet person, always busy with my six kids. You would think I needed encouragement, a boost of confidence, and a well-deserved, very-needed break. Nevertheless, I made the best out of a bad situation. I wore my halo "crown" around the retreat camp and even went to the beach forgetting that I had the tin foil hanger on my head. Others, seeing my halo, assumed I was there to give counseling and that I did. When I got back to the retreat center, the director was furious and forbid me to speak to anyone.This experience was one of the greatest awakenings in my life. I saw that he was only trying to keep me guessing. I realized that the director was insecure and controlling, was unable to actualize his truth, and feeding off of the power given to him through the manipulation and humiliation of others. This is not the kind of spiritual awakening you would expect to get from a supposedly Realized Master.Narcissist leaders can plague large spiritual communities, cults, and smaller organizations such as New Age groups, small churches, and social cliques. All can experience the same poisonous symptoms. There are many successful spiritual groups but not without strife, tolerance and ethical reform. Even the Dalai Lama who is one of the greatest examples of a good spiritual leader, has found it necessary to create ethical correction in his organization.Honest ethical trust is seldom an issue that is discussed in most spiritual groups because it is thought that it is inherently a part of spiritual doctrine. Although there are some differences from the psychopath, the psychological matrix is similar; the psychopath enacts his deranged fantasies without empathy towards his victims. This lack of empathy in its extreme, involves dehumanizing other people as objects, and the inability to have relationships with peers. The narcissistic enacts his insatiable need for power and control with disregard and empathy for others and is caught up in the dissolution of self importance and power and spiritual groups go awry as a result.However, Spiritual Masters are not always to blame when a spiritual group goes awry. Group dynamics play a big part in the cooperation towards creating function or dysfunction. This entails the sharing of authority, management of property, money, ethics, and the law of land. Ethics is the equilibrium of foundation in any group. No mater how lofty the ideal may be, seekers often bring their baggage or indignity to the group. If ethical standards are not upheld problems may go unchecked and undermine community competence.I once heard a rumor about an admired elder devotee of a well-known Hindu Master. The elder had a close relationship with the Master and the elder was considered one of the most spiritually advanced devotees in the group. The elder had many responsibilities as well as managing large amounts of money. The elder became deluded with temptation and misappropriated large amounts of money from the group and lived in luxury concealed from the rest of the organization. When the elder would visit the Master he would wear old clothes and act humble. Undetected by his master, this elder's conning almost destroyed the group. People in the group commented "He seem to have so much spiritual presence, wasn't he 'Realized?' "Transference and ProjectionTransference is often the reason why people put religious figures on a pedestal to be worshiped.When we are children our parents are like gods to us. We except everything they teach us whether it is abusive or constructive. As a result of our childhood learning we project this perception into life situations and relationships.Masters, Avatars and Gurus become our heroes like our parents, and we expect them to be all knowing, loving, and true. Even when one of these false heroes abuses our reverence we blame ourselves for our insecurities because it is what we believe about ourselves.Transference is a common occurrence in the psychotherapist office, Clients look to the therapist as a guide to help them through life's troubles, but often a client will project their subconscious attachments of the idealized hero onto the therapist. Therapists are taught how to handle this kind of transference and it is often an important state that with a therapist's help can bring a client to a point of self discovery, confidence and empowerment.Sometimes the client will feel like they are falling in love with their therapists. When this happens an ethical therapist will generally address this false romantic feeling immediately, encouraging the clients to see the therapist as a person and professional. One technique to help the client to see beyond the projections is for the therapist to share some personal problem that the therapist him or herself has overcome, thus allowing the client to view the therapist as a real person.Another category of projection is that of subconscious beliefs projected onto others in life situations. People often project their need for happiness onto others while excepting abuse from others. This kind of projection is linked to what we call codependency. An aspect of codependency is expecting someone else to take responsibility for one's own happiness. The codependent experiences life as one disappointment after another, expecting other people to take up the slack and blaming them when things don't turn out right. If one wants to change unwanted experiences one must change on a interpersonal level.When I was a young student in a spiritual community I had a long-awaited opportunity to go home and visit my hometown. I ran into an old friend who had also been studying in a spiritual community. I always thought of Joan as being a free thinker; she was always investigating new ideas. Joan's father was a hell damnation preacher. To say the least Joan did not get along with her father. She deplored the idea of dogma related to arm waving and praising the Lord.Joan tried to find her own path away from her authoritarian father. I was glad to see her and with great excitement she jumped at the opportunity to tell me all about her newfound path with enthusiasm. Joan told me how she found a great Sufi Master who had taught her many wonderful things. She herself had just been commissioned as a leader in her group. Joan elaborated every detail of her adventure. I could hardly get a word in edgewise. Then she started to indoctrinate me into joining her group. When I refused she began to decree my spiritual path as being the wrong path. She became pushy, judgmental, instructional, and abrasive. I could not believe what I was hearing. Joan had become her father. Even when we find a new path the old one will seep through the cracks of our projections.When transference happens in a student- spiritual teacher relationship and the spiritual master is psychologically unhealthy, deleterious relationships and activities can evolve.In a direct antipode of the victims experience, the false master vampires the student, receiving and almost euphoric rush of power and self importance. If the spiritual teacher is narcissistic, or untrained and unprepared, the false teacher may become addicted to the power and elation received from adoring followers.Spiritual leaders are people in bodies living their lives and devoting their time like everyone else. Truly enlightened Masters are generally prepared, knowledgeable wise, and ethical. But false teachers who do not have the qualities of wisdom ethics and realization may give in to temptation and hazardous self-indulgence.Spiritual abuse is one of the most insidious crimes anyone can survive. I once worked with a young person who had been involved in a abusive spiritual group through her parents. She had the same symptoms as a person surviving sexual abuse. She explained that it was as if the spiritual leader had molested her soul. She described her bad experiences as having a yucky, dirty feeling whenever the spiritual leader was around, even though she had never been physically touched. These feelings are identical to many sexual survivors experiences when remembering their abusers. Soul molestation is an adequate description for those who have been abused at the core of their being. When someone has been spiritually abused it creates a hopelessness and fear of the world and can lead to paranoia depression isolation and bad health.Spirituality is the untapped potential beyond the subconscious, the spirit of awareness itself. This spiritual essence is realized beyond the mind and can be experienced through a meditative state. The soul is the sphere of one's consciousness.The psychological paradigm of emergence theory of the inner child asserts (as a friend of mine explained) that the inner child acts as the portal of the soul during spiritual awakening. As adults we view the soul through a darkened glass. But, as we grow spiritually, spiritual development allows us to realize our full potential behind the innocence of the child we once were.Psychological well-being is essential for the cultivation of mature spiritual understanding. Spirituality has little do with religion and more to do with infinite potential and the connection with the nature spirit itself. Although spirituality can be explained in numerous and elaborate ways, it is the connection to the greater whole. Psychology teaches us about the mind, social expression and relationship. But spirituality embraces the absolute, the higher power, all sentient beings, and the seen and unseen world.Us and ThemSpecial knowledge and secret teachings often are the theme of spiritual schools. However when spiritual schools becomes selective discounting and discriminating, about the knowledge of other teachings or faiths, it creates social ignorance and isolation for its members. This secret knowledge is often thought of as having special favor over other teachings. "We are the only true path."There is no one true secret knowledge. A true spiritual Master will call knowledge and wisdom secret because it is understood only beyond mind, beyond thought, and must be experienced through a quiet unattached mind.You can go to any book store and find a library full of books on secret knowledge. I suggest buying some books on secret knowledge and reading them. You may find out that much of this secret knowledge is baffling and if you think you know everything you read try taking full responsibility for it, and living it. This is why we need a Teacher. Discipline, meditation, contemplation, and prayer are the antidote to realizing this secret knowledge.A true Master has the spiritual sight to see how a student is developing. There is nothing new about secret knowledge, its just not merely head food. Our minds are what gets us into trouble in the first place. Real truth lays under the rubble of our own subconscious deceptions. Every true religion or spiritual path has wisdom.Why follow a spiritual path? Or what spiritual path should I follow? Or why shouldn't I follow many different paths? Discipline and follow through will manifest spiritual growth and a spiritual Teacher can support and encourage your success towards development and we often avoid or do not see blocks on the path. In this case, the teacher can be of great benefit in helping us move through the blocks.Following the opportunities that are presented to us are often the indicator of the path before us, however, we need to choose a path that leads to enlightenment carefully. A good choice is usually the most disciplined and rewarding, but we must follow a path and a Teacher that is ethically and morally balanced. Investigate and make your own decisions. If you follow more than one path you may rob yourself of spiritual experience and undermine developing a disciplined foundation towards success.Many seekers are enthusiastic, but when it comes to disciplining themselves, they become discouraged and look for an easier path. Incorporating other teaching may be okay, but you will find that most ancient teachings connect; there is a common thread running through every true religion. "Truth is what it is an always shall be". All true religions have borrowed from other religions, the Buddhist borrowed from the Hindus, the Sufis borrowed from Islam and Christians borrowed from the Gnostics, and so on.When you find the path that suits you, practice humility, exclude no one, be reasonable, and if you should meet a spiritual friend on a different path, celebrate what is similar and allow differences. Remember your path is not the only path. The path you share with your spiritual brothers and sisters has its foundation in a common kinship towards spiritual goals. If you are confident and empowered on your chosen path, there is no need to defend the your religious principles against another's faith for all true faiths work toward peace and we must attend to the peace we share with our spiritual friends.The Myths of PracticeOne of the most misunderstood myths of spiritual practice is giving total obedience to The Master or Guru. Sometimes obedience is confused with discipline; obedience is to obey without question, and discipline is to follow a specific plan consistently. Obedience to a spiritual Master is acceptable only under certain conditions and should realte to practice, not your personal life. If you are not questioning the teachings given to you by your spiritual teacher then you may be following blindly.Awareness is not blind nor can you prove any spiritual teaching without examination and question. Spiritual knowledge is always realized with careful step by step questioning, taking action, and proving. Spiritual teachers usually give us a practice or formula to follow and if we are following with discipline and expectancy, we usually succeed.The final and most important vow of obedience is to a higher power, and ultimately the powers or energies that be, are divinely orchestrated beyond any earthly teacher. It is archaic to think that being totally obedient to an earthly master will be at all of use to one's spiritual attainment.The fact that masters and spiritual leaders have bodies, are exposed to human nature suffering, and old age, is an indicator that the ideal of human perfection should be accepted with careful inquiry. Even the wisest Zen Masters expect their students to follow with obedience, but if that student should follow blindly and naively, the Master requires the student to start over; for even in the toughest schools students are required to practice from their deepest honesty, understanding, and aspiration; obedience is to the inner voice first.If a Showllin Master asked his students to walk on glass, the students who had faith in their own ability would do so without question. The student being wise to his own limitations, would then prepare himself, toughen his feet and condition his mind? Honor respect and study are a given towards any good and noble Spiritual Teacher. Those who have attained spiritual enlightenment deserve our grateful attention. It is the students who must due the work, be honest in the self, trust the teaching, and discipline the self to awaken to the light beyond the veil.Another myth that it is misunderstood is that of total self abandonment. This sense of abandonment can create martyrs out of people, and although students may think that they are stepping out of a world of chaos they may be stepping into a life of disassociated behavior. Although it may be the ideal to become detached from worldly things, it is equally important to manage the world around us.Sometimes this disassociation is the result of being isolated from the greater community. A false Teacher will often require the students to separate from family and friends, and in so doing isolate the students from the outer world. This can be dangerous because people who worship a leader will often follow almost everything in the promise of a better life. This so-called better life often will involve re-programming, like brain washing. Isolation guarantees the false teachers need to control or to brain wash and induce individuals to the point where they are functioning only for the purpose of the teacher, and not for the greater good.The transformative process of total self abandonment or higher levels of spiritual absorption are for those who are extremely mature practitioners. And you will never hear an enlightened, or God realized Master brag about his or her levels of enlightenment. Before one gives one's mind body and soul, one must first give up one's greed, anger projections and false pride.The idea of a Guru can be just as much a myth as the old fairy tales of great Kings and rulers. This is a romantic idea and misinterpretation carried over from the eastern teachings to the West. A true Guru is born from a long lineage of gurus. The model of the eastern lineage tradition is suitable for the Eastern Way, but the Western mind and social construct is different in many ways from an Eastern social construct. So when a Westerner or tries to become a guru they can often end up becoming a dictator.In the East, a Guru is considered to be a personification of God endowed with spiritual qualities, as a deity from a higher world manifest into the earthly world. All knowledge and spiritual teaching is believed to pass through the Guru to earthly beings. In the Western world a Master is an individual who has attained full realization, enlightenment, or as the Gnostics put it, God Realization. This sacred knowledge passes through the masters enlightened mind in the form of an oral teaching or as a transmission of spiritual empowerments to the student.Westerners should act like Westerners carrying the teachings through their own lineage of spiritual Mastery; this has been a much misunderstood. Although there are many similarities in all the ancient teachings one must be careful not to misinterpret the tradition. This does not mean that a Westerner cannot become a Buddhist or a Hindu practitioner for instance, but that everyone is conditioned to the origins of their own tradition and its actual teaching.In a free society in this western world where we have the choice to share leadership, it is absurd to think that one person has all the spiritual knowledge necessary to enlighten the rest of us. In my experience with the director general, he alone made the rules, decided what would be taught and was free to be a dictator of his own will onto others without inspection.It is ridiculous to think God would disseminate spiritual rights onto one person. Director generals, cult leaders, masters or gurus who think they are the only one with the secret teachings are fooling themselves. Those who have through many years of practice followed a spiritual discipline towards realization, must obviously see these false teachers and cry or maybe laugh, for it is an embarrassment and insult for those who have attained a true level of enlightenment and mastery.It is with broken hearts, true humbled masters look upon these troubled souls. They see their indignant behaviors perpetrated upon innocent seekers as blocking the door to true spiritual development. Spiritual sanctity can only be attaining through humility and, humility can only be attained through honest introspection, compassion loyalty, patience, and practice, practice, practice. "The Dalai Lama once said I am just a simple monk". It would be better for one to become a movie star, then to use the ancient teachings and spiritual knowledge to make one feel special.In a book called A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield suggest some key questions to ask when considering a spiritual community :"In the spiritual community, are you asked to violate your own sense of ethical conduct or integrity?
Is there a duel standard for the community versus the guru and a few people around him [or her]?Are there secret, rumors of difficulty?Do key members misuse sexuality, money, or power?Are they mostly asking for your money?Are they asking for your body?Are you not allowed to hang out with your old friends?Do you feel dependent? Addicted?Is the practice humorless (This is an important sign.)Does the community have a heaviness and an anti-life feeling about it?Are you asked to believe blindly without being able to see for your self?Is there something powerful going on that may not really be loving?Is there more focus on the institution and membership than on practices that lead to liberation?Is there a sense of intolerance?When you look at the oldest and most senior students, are they happy and mature?Do they have a place to graduate to, to teach, to express their own dharma, or are people always kept in the role of students and children?
(This article was written with the hopes of educating Teachers and spiritual practitioners as to the human condition when gone awry with power in spiritual communities. This article is an excerpt from a book that is being written.)
Mara Sophia Ellen Weis R.O., ThD.D.
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Copyright © 1998-2007Infinitum
Mara Sophia Ellen Weiss, R.O., ThD.D.