"Asmita": An Eastern Perspective on Narcissism
Narcissism is as old as the Himalayas.
Posted Feb 12, 2018
Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification arising from a sense of vanity and overestimation of one's self-value. Narcissism is the term used in psychodynamic psychology to characterize personality styles that are egocentric, lack perspective-taking, and have impaired empathy and high levels of envy.
The term originated from Greek mythology, where the figure of Narcissus fell in love with his image reflected in a pool of water. Sigmund Freud's classic essay "On Narcissism" (1914) formalized the concept in a psychoanalytic exploration of the positive and negative features of the ego about others.
Western psychology and psychiatry have used various concepts of narcissism to understand and explain the structure of personality and the challenges it faces. Western perspectives have dominated the public's understanding while Eastern views on the subject, that is, "asmi" as the veil or coloring of “I-ness,” have been relatively eclipsed.
This brief article compares Western perspectives with those of the east as used in Buddhism and Hinduism/Yoga.
Western Perspectives on Narcissism
Western views of narcissism are typified in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (current DSM-5, 2013) of the American Psychiatric Association. Since 1968, the DSM has included the concept in its description of the "narcissistic personality disorder" (code: F60.81).
DSM-5 criteria include the following:
- Grandiosity in fantasy and behavior
- Need for admiration
- Lack of empathy
- Preoccupied with ideal power, beauty, and love
- Feels special
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations for favorable treatment
- Tendency to be exploitative
- Lacks empathy
- Is often envious
- Shows arrogant, haughty attitudes and behaviors
The above characteristics show narcissistic personalities as strongly self-centered, lacking broad, flexible perspective-taking, and tending toward negative emotionality. The explicit expression of grandiosity is clear and hides an underlying core of vulnerable inadequacy. Implicit in this is the binary disjunction or splitting pervasive in narcissistic psychodynamic mental functioning.
Hubris, related to narcissism, is a transitional feeling between negative and positive emotions because it is a character trait that often has forceful, manipulative, controlling, and exploitive goals. Hubris as extreme narcissism is characterized by egotism, self-centeredness, grandiosity, lack of empathy, exploitation, exaggerated self-love, recklessness, and failure to acknowledge non-manipulative boundaries.
This hubris state of severe arrogance typically accompanies forceful interpersonal control whether through intimidation or action. A common term for hubris is "pride," which may exist on a spectrum from healthy self-esteem (an uncommon use) to envious hostility and the wish to usurp or spoil another's valued possession.
Eastern Perspectives on Narcissism
In the East, narcissism correlates with the term and concept asmita.
I am using Sanskrit terminology to give you a sense of how developed these psychological ideas have been pondered and characterized. My own referenced text on Ayurveda and forthcoming text on Learned Mindfulness and the text by Dr. E.F. Bryant elaborate terminology and concepts.
Interestingly, the same word, "asmita," is used in two qualitatively different senses, one positive and the other negative. These distinctions come from the classic 2,000-year-old text, Yoga Sutras, by Patanjali, considered the formalizer of classical Yoga as part of orthodox Hinduism.
Asmita, ("asmi" or I am; "ta" or ness) in its positive sense, while retaining the meaning of "I" or individual ego---in a balanced way, refers to the internal object ("I") of meditative absorption. Here, it is not experienced as one's exclusive possession, but as the reflection of pure consciousness (i.e., purusha, atman).
Meditative absorption (i.e., dhyana, samadhi), using the buddhi (i.e., reality-based intelligence closest to pure consciousness) aspect of mind, hovers around the individual self in as close to this pure conscious awareness as possible. Thus, this nuanced consciousness-based realization is called---correctly---discriminative "I-am-awareness" (i.e., asmita).
If choices and behaviors that are more wholesome (i.e., satmya) discipline and healthfully shape Manas (i.e., mental functioning and choice), then the operation of Buddhi, the reality intellect closet to pure consciousness (i.e., atman), will be empowered. This beneficial influence refines the physical, etheric, and spiritual sheaths composing the individual self. This consideration, however, is not relevant in Buddhism because, in Buddhism, there is an axiomatic tenet of anatman (nonexistence of atman, purusha, and permanent self).
Classical Buddhism has an exquisitely developed psychology describing the individual as being a fluctuating aggregation of five factors called skandhas that impermanently hold together giving rise to an illusory sense of self. This self suffers from its central core of desirous attachments to itself and all else it can grasp. This narcissistic quandary is a focus of attention that meditation and mindfulness practices aim to address.
While the intention of classical orthodox Yoga is the cessation of suffering by its active practices aiming to un-embed consciousness from the physical body and material world, obstacles to this formidable task are numerous. Patanjali has proposed five such major hindrances called kleshas. They are the following:
1.avidya (i.e., ignorance/nescience): the root and breeding ground of all obstacles. Patanjali defines its essence to be the mind's confounding the nature of the soul with that of the body.
2. asmita, in its negative sense as an obstruction, is unrefined egoism or confusing one's incomplete awareness as if it were complete awareness, that is, pure consciousness.
Asmita as a klesha or interference toward achieving self-realization is one of the primary forms that avidya takes. Asmita is the quintessential narcissism of egocentric, self-aggrandizing, grandiosity with blunted perspective-taking, if not core envy—the “narcissism” of the East.
3. raga: desire, attachment, and craving desirable objects to experience that one enjoys (i.e., bhoga, an unconsidered, even overindulgent, enjoying of life's experiences).
4. dvesha: aversion, repulsion of objects that one dislikes; the opposite of raga.
5. abhinivesha: clinging to life, fear of death; clinging to the survival of self-identity.
Narcissism: East and West
Human personality has universal, core features. Many of these attributes are traits that have temperamental status and serve as predispositions guiding personality formation. Still, there is the inherent flexibility of human nature. Its sources may be genetic, hormonal, constitutional, environmentally elicited, learned and shaped through supportive, caring relationships, as well as by indeterminate factors yet unknown. The interaction of all these paints the human portrait in surprising, innovative ways at each birth.
Narcissism is extreme self-overvaluation that is an obstacle to a balanced sense of self and an empathetic receptivity toward others. Healthy self-esteem, self-image, self-worth, and self-value are relevant values to achieve. These improvements in one’s sense of self are far from egocentric since the person humbled by healthy self-value knows that empathy, perspective-taking, understanding others, constructive dialogue, mutuality, and sharing are high-value character traits that resonate and benefit all people.
This look at narcissism—-East and West—is one glimpse into the rainbow of perspectives that exists among humankind, making personhood an unrelenting fantastic adventure!
Sigmund Freud, On Narcissism: An Introduction, standard ed., vol. 14 (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 67.
E. F. Bryant ed., The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (New York: North Point Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).
Ninivaggi, Frank John. Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Indian Medicine for the West, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5) (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013), 669.