Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

First published in an extra edition of "What is Enlightenment?", March 2003, as a response to "Boomeritis & Me: Not just a book review", by Elizabeth Debold.

Busting Boomeritis and the Role of Compassion

A Psychological Perspective

Karin E. Swann

Boomeritis, Ken Wilber

Three cheers for Elizabeth Debold's 'direct from the front lines' and eloquent response to Ken Wilber's recently published Boomeritis. Debold reinforces Wilber's bold perceptions about the arresting consequences of a "me" generation gone slightly mad, and speaks persuasively in favor of a swift kick in the pants to startle us awake from our spiritualized self-absorption. As a veteran of years of flatland study in cultural studies and postmodernism, I left academia with many of the same frustrations that Wilber and Debold foreground. While my initial frustration with boomeritis was avid and vexed, however, my journey since then into and through an integral counseling psychology program -- has reinforced my concern not only with the phenomenon of boomeritis, but also with the sizeable challenges implicit in its transformation.

If, as Wilber suggests, boomeritis is a "supermagnet for narcissism", then what we know from psychology about narcissism about its healing and transformation -- poses a sobering prognosis for those hoping to expedite evolution with this new-found diagnosis. Certainly, the "ah-ha!" experience that accompanies recognition of our own affliction with boomeritis is essential if we are to locate ourselves and our hearts along an evolutionary trajectory. However, real, integrated, and sustainable transformation from boomeritis may involve more than the "choice" to "drop" our narcissism that Debold's article describes.

According to conventional wisdom in psychology (based on the work of Heinz Kohut, Alice Miller, James Masterson, Stephen Johnson, and others), narcissism in its varying degrees is fostered by an adoring parent who mirrors only those "exceptional" attributes in the child that will allow both parent and child to view themselves as somehow superior and gifted in the world. Bypassing many of the child's other qualities or needs (especially their vulnerabilities), narcissistic parents raise narcissistic children who feel the compulsive need to feel uniquely above others, special and exceptional. The child develops an inflated "false self" either grandiose, victim-like, or both and a deflated, hidden-even-to-themselves, and highly shameful "true self". Knock that sense of superiority off its pedestal and a necessary scramble to resuscitate a prized self-identity against the possibility of failure and inferiority will ensue. Needless to say, because fundamentally split at the core, we human narcissists never feel quite whole.

Is it reasonable to link theories on the etiology of narcissism with the narcissism epidemic in boomeritis? Why not? Although boomeritis as a phenomenon cannot be reduced to a problem with narcissism, the narcissistic component is certainly an important dimension. The conditions were ripe in post-WW II America for mothers (and fathers) to raise a generation of narcissistically inclined children. There's no doubt that many a middle-class parent cherished their boomer child's intelligence and promise, (compounding our existing tendency to identify with the intellect, with the defensive and all-consuming "need to Know" characterized so well by Debold). Not surprisingly, then, in scrambling to feel OK about ourselves, a generation of boomers have truly become the hungry ghosts of a spiritualized narcissism. We find ourselves eating, but never quite swallowing or digesting, all the spiritual teachings we can in an endless effort to attain a sense of true being, integration and wholeness. If we assume it's appropriate to apply some of what we know from psychology to boomeritis narcissism, what is really at stake in the healing and transformation of boomeritis? Wilber's Boomeritis and Debold's review do not focus on healing per se, but they imply that, at the least, healing requires the kind of narcissistic blow that Ken's book provides; an existential kick in the pants with the humbling effect that sets in motion a "choice" by boomers to see beyond themselves to the larger call of evolution. In so proposing, Wilber and Debold seek to expose boomeritis as a proud force acting against the evolutionary call from the future. In my opinion, if Wilber's book provides the necessary narcissistic wound to set awareness and transformation in motion it will hardly have been written in vain. But, for us to presume that an impassioned and forceful call to the dignities of evolution will do the trick alone is hopeful and partial at best.

Psychologically speaking, narcissism is forged in childhood when we split off parts of ourselves, lose sight of our needs, and develop as less than whole in our being. The terrible-two's-like rant identified by Debold that " Nobody tells me what to do!" is an artifact of both the entitlement cultivated in a narcissistic child and, ironically, the child's real self fighting against the needs of an all-too-lost, (all-too-human!), insecure, and demanding parent. Recovering from the experience of being used to make a parent feel whole translates into real pain, and if it smacks of victimhood, it is often because narcissistic wounds cut deep into the source of our being. When the spell of our sense of uniqueness is broken, (which is inevitable), and these wounds are exposed, the ensuing depression "I am not perfect, I am not OK" can be devastating and deeply shameful. Tantamount to the mother's abandonment, it can feel like death. Such a feeling is avoided at all costs and further underscores the importance of a book like Boomeritis to burst our bubbles of resistance.

Given this volatile ego-structure, it's no surprise that the boomer's first steps in the direction of healing from narcissism are into the characteristically self-absorbed, subjective exploration of feelings arising from past trauma. In fact, A.H. Almaas has written on the spiritual dimensions in the transformation of narcissism (The Point of Existence) that it is the energy of our narcissism itself that fuels our commitment to its transcendence. It is the part of us that thinks highly of ourselves, in spite of our depressions and defenses, that brings us to the spiritual path. Certainly, that helps to explain something about how boomeritis is what it is. The question remains, however, how do we move a generation from the early stages of this journey of self-unfolding into its full spiritual, evolutionary fruition?

My answer? Healing requires the help of others, it is necessarily intersubjective, (e.g. it does not happen from anything we "figure out" on our own). It requires a slow pace, along with smart as opposed to idiot compassion, and in authentic integrative fashion, it calls for due recognition of both the call of ascent, or evolution, and the integration in descent, of our past. It is, after all, when we forget or deny both the possibilities of our future and the often painful truths of our past, that we forget and deny humanity. Debold is dead on, then, in pointing to the role of the heart in overcoming identification with the narcissistic "need to Know", but this heart opening needs to be informed by the details of our karmic inheritance, as much as it opens to the vast expanse of humankind and its evolutionary call.

Authentic Integration and the Role of Therapy

To be sure, there's no doubt that us boomers can get "stuck" in endless quests to reinforce a victim identity through therapy and workshops rehashing our past, but I don't think this should be license to throw out the baby of subjective exploration with the bathwater of boomeritis. In order to assume an integrated and stabilized "second tier" (In Beck and Cowen's language) way of being beyond boomeritis, we need as much subjective, in-corp-oration in the underworld of our psyches, our bodies, and our emotions, as we do opening to the vast potentials of a heretofore unrecognized future. Furthermore, integrating a stabilized way of being free(er) from narcissism simply does not happen outside of the context of shared experience and this deepening, authentic relationship to our past.

Along these lines, I disagree with Wilber and Debold that in our current condition "there is no way back, nor is there a 'back' to go to." (Debold) Certainly back is not the only way to go, but it is at least as important, if we are to ground ourselves ethically and authentically, as any movement forward. I also question Debold in her characterization of therapy as "a life of safety [on] the couch with endless exploration of everything that [we] already know." Good, transpersonally oriented psychotherapy is not just about navel gazing and telling the same stories over an over about how something is wrong with us. Good therapy provides a safe container and the right support and challenge from a fellow traveler in finding and facing existing wounds and seeing beyond them; good therapy helps us learn humility through living towards our strengths through our weaknesses, it helps us learn how to take responsibility for meeting our own needs discovering them through the pain in their not being met which is a necessarily prerequisite to "caring beyond ourselves". Rather than dismissing therapy as simply "ego-building" and therefore, pre-spiritual, transpersonal psychotherapists know that it is through learning a deeper form of self-love, self-care, and through cherishing what A.H.Almaas refers to as the "pearl beyond price" of our existence, that we become truly able to open to the brilliance of humanity at large. If we skip this deeply subjective dimension, we run the risk of spiritual or intellectual bypass and/or a spiritualized codependence. It is here that we are reminded that spiritual openings can and do happen all the time with anything but the kind of psychological grounding and integration necessary to sustain their promise.

Needless to say, as a therapist in training, I hope to bring to my practice a commitment not to feed the hungry ghosts of boomeritis narcissism, but to help with this tender and essential process of spiritual growth and integration. Towards this end, it will be ongoingly necessary to empathize with real victimhood without fostering its dangerous calcification. Nevertheless, while good, transpersonally oriented therapy can certainly help, I don't mean to suggest therapy as a necessary prerequisite to the future of human evolution. The sort of grounding and integration I describe here can happen in many ways. Disciplined participation in communities of practice or with a teacher which assists in the integration of body and mind, of doing and being, of masculine and feminine, of our imminence and transcendence, and which honor emotions and sensations not as end-points in themselves, but as stirrings in a deeper, broader story, will probably draw forth much of the same material and more.

Growth Takes Time

Second to the importance of integrating the past in healing narcissism is the acceptance that this process takes time. Stephen Johnson's work on healing narcissism refers to the process as "The Hard Work Miracle" for good reason. Just because we "get" our narcissism, it doesn't mean we're anything close to off the hook. Thinking about boomeritis, writing about it, identifying it around us, and even in ourselves, being vexed by it, even having the keenest understanding of what and how boomeritis narcissism works, is no guarantee that any kind of deep transformation is happening. In fact, I would say that one of the important lessons at this stage of development and healing is that here we just begin to learn and internalize processes of self-reflection and self-deconstruction, which we will ideally apply over a lifetime. A weak euphemism for endless navel-gazing? I hope not. Rather, a cautionary and conservative reminder of the challenge implicit in integrated psychological and spiritual growth.

So, the insidious thing about narcissism is that we recovering narcissists can be acutely aware intellectually of our condition while all the while, it is the water in which we swim. Hence we often believe, as Debold points out, that by naming the problem, we have managed to prove our transcendence of it. No such quick fix possible (although our intellects are marvelous at running circles in front of us, claiming to have reached the latest finish line). Certainly, we need that jolt of self-recognition to shift us from our indulgence and delusion into the necessary depression and self-questioning that begins the process of transformation. But we should be cautious not to presume that this will happen over night with a new and improved perspective or a heart busted open in prayer. Seeing boomeritis as the problem naming it, seeing it in ourselves is just the very beginning of our journey into the future. (The transformation of narcissism is a slow process even under the most enlightened conditions. In the Ridwan School, Almaas reserves the teachings on narcissism for senior students, believing that the ultimate healing, integration and transformation of narcissism is best received by those who already have enough awareness of their fixations to afford their letting go.)

In sum, curing America of boomeritis requires books like Wilber's to wake us up from our generation's dogmatic slumber and a parallel recognition of the care and time taken to cultivate a wider embrace of compassion for ourselves, our parents, our generation, and life at large. In fact, without this compassionate embrace that starts with ourselves and moves out from there, we run the risk of becoming impetuously bound to our own vexation with the newly witnessed shells of our former-selves. We should beware, then, even of the type of narcissism that can show up at the level of boomeritis bashing itself, one that fails to have compassion for the "stage" or phase or egoic fixations that one has recently seen through; one which, consequently and ironically, creates an alienation between those who have the right idea about evolution and those who don't in short, a kind of blindspot that divides the past and the present, thereby perpetuating the evolution of unconsciousness into the future.

Amidst all this cautionary language, however, there is promise. Boomeritis is not only a cultural, or only a psychological problem, but as both cultural and psychological its emergence as an affliction presents us with a complex yet promising moment in the evolution of consciousness. If we see the glass as half full, boomeritis is far more than the affliction of an American generation of adult-children too self-absorbed to grow up and take responsibility for our evolution. It presents us with the opportunity to begin healing and transforming from generations, centuries, epochs of narcissism. If we meet the work of our evolution with the right vigor, care and patience, it can ideally humble our egos and the social and political convictions they propagate in ways that will have very important significance for our (and the planet's) future. And if, according to Theilhard to Chardin, evolution involves rapid phase changes followed by slow periods of stabilization, then while Wilber's Boomeritis may play an important role in catalyzing such a phase change, integrating its impact may still take some time.

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