These are words from an old Beatles song:
Who do you think you are? A star?
Right you are!
A silly song, but it raises the central question at the heart of all spirituality no matter what tradition you follow. Who are you anyway? And then there’s the close question: Who do you think you are? There is the essence of your identity, and then there’s your ego self and the culture around you telling you who you are–feeding you with thoughts, images, feelings, etc. pertaining to a certain identity that it wants you to have. In fact to place an image of yourself before yourself and measure yourself is already to be “lost”; and to be constantly looking in the “mirror” of society for a glimpse of who you are is also to be lost. The truth of your identity is not something that you can perceive as another object among your possessions. Having a “false sense of identity” is kind of inevitable however–Christianity would call it a consequence of the “Original Sin”–or maybe its very essence—and Buddhism would refer it to “maya”, our state of delusion, etc. And a real spiritual journey begins when we become aware of this and when we sense a beckoning to our real home, our true self. But WHO is this that is aware of this “alienation,” this so-called “journey,” this “true self”? So in a sense once we have an awareness of a “falsification” of self we are already there and in a sense no journey is needed. We become lost in a series of paradoxes here—suffice it to say that “something” does happen and there is an “awakening” and most importantly we live by a completely different set of values.
Now in our culture the false identity is exacerbated to the nth degree, and this false sense of identity seems to determine everything. Our whole economy is frighteningly dependent on it–if you look closely at all the marketing and advertising that goes on, you will see it as addressing this deluded need for an image of oneself: as young, as sophisticated, as sexually appealing, as marvelous to be with, as successful, and so on and so on….. If you don’t keep up with the “trends,” it is like going out of existence for all practical purposes. Ah, precisely so!
But there is also a very important dynamic in this regard even when one “gets spiritual.” This “image machine” does not stop; in fact it kicks into high gear and gets really difficult to deal with. There is nothing more deadly from a spiritual standpoint than latching on to one’s “spiritual self-image.” Ask Thomas Merton–he struggled with it his whole monastic life. At first there was this image of being “official Catholic spiritual writer.” When Merton espoused unpopular causes, this got demolished but then Merton struggled against the “Trappist image.” He finally had to go beyond anything that people termed as “being a Catholic monk.” That doesn’t mean that he needed to walk away from these institutions–as he well recognized that was another road into another set of delusions–but he needed to interiorly disengage from the need to draw his sense of self-hood from these institutions. In part this was the drawing power of solitude–to the extent that you are solitary you begin to lose those outward voices that tell you who you are. Then comes the interior images that crumble away because they are not socially supported by friends and institutions and society. That’s why real solitude can only be endured by a truly mature psychology because inevitably, from a psychological point of view, we depend on all kinds of self-image reinforcements in order to function in a “normal” way. This is simple, normal social life. Solitude is swimming in deep waters pertaining to who we really are as opposed to who we think we are. The radical ordinariness of that can be unnerving to someone. Just “chopping wood, carrying water.”
To the end of his life Merton felt a deep attraction to the Carthusian Order. On his trip to Asia, in the last months of his life, he notes seeing a photo of the main Carthusian house in France, and he finds himself getting the chills even then. Even as his own monastic journey had evolved in remarkable ways, there was still this strong admiration for what the Carthusians were doing, their radical bent toward solitude and separation from society. To outsiders there is the mystique of the Carthusians, a real image problem at times, but to those who are inside and living the life, well, there is little there to “enjoy” as a self-image. One is reduced to a kind of nothingness in which one’s ego identity is directly cut out. One lives only by the naked reality of God and nothing else. Not many can take it that straight. (And there are a whole lot of questions about some of the problems the Carthusians have.)
The great modern Hindu holy man, Ramana Maharshi, made “self-inquiry” the centerpiece of his spiritual path. His whole practice was reduced to a simple question: Who am I? After all the false, limited, transitory “answers” became transparent in their inadequacy, the real Self emerged.
Consider this story from Greek myth/history: When the young Alexander the Great was beginning his conquest of all the Middle East and all points all the way to India, he came to this legendary thing in Asia Minor: a huge knot–and the myth was that whoever could undo this knot would rule the whole world. Many men had tried but they could not do it. Alexander examined the knot, saw that it was impossible to untie, took out his sword and in one ferocious swipe cut through it. Afterall the myth did not say HOW the knot was to be loosed! Well, this story can be used as a parable of our problem. The false self is a kind of knot that in fact cannot be undone–our ego self cannot “undo” itself. In a sense we need a “sword.” What is that “sword”? It will be different things to different people. And we have not escaped our paradoxical dilemma–afterall, WHO is this who wields this “sword”?
An existential sign of someone living from the ground of one’s true self: deep compassion, freedom(from compulsion and desire), and a quiet humility. Such a one does not need to point to him/herself–which our culture very much invites and solicits us to do. Credentials. Resume–even a spiritual resume!
Finally, there is this interesting example from literature: the greatest American novel–Huck Finn. The novel begins:
“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another…..’
This is Huck speaking, of course, and he is marvelously un-selfreflective. He says amazing things without being aware of the power of his observations. So he tells us, “You don’t know about me,” and neither does he really know about himself. In reading the book we learn who Huck really is–not the fantasy, romantic, childish version of Tom Sawyer, but the real Huck. And in the process we come a little closer in learning who we ourselves our as our own self and values bounce off Huck. And last of all we get a brilliant insight into an America that perhaps many don’t want to see or at least they look at it through the “rosey glasses” of Tom Sawyer. Another America emerges in the novel–hopefully that is not the “real America.” But Huck does “light out for the wilderness” at the end of the novel–it’s “too much,” as he says, to live in civilization!
One last thing: Huck says, “I never seen anybocy but lied, one time or another….” Interesting. Gregory of Nyssa says somewhere that all people are liars. What both of these refer to is not some lies we tell for social reasons, but rather what this refers to is the fundamental lie in our heart about who we really our. It is that which must die and our true self will emerge/rise from this death.