Foundations & Fundamentals, Part III, The Self

In a certain sense this is the most difficult and most complicated topic among the “Foundations” of the spiritual/mystical life.  It not only involves and recapitulates some aspects of our previous two topics, but also many of the ones we have yet to reflect on.  It is best to insert it here, even though we shall be coming back to this topic in various ways again and again as we go forward through the other “Foundations.”  Some very important aspects of this topic having to do with the Trinity, the heart, and community will need elaboration later on in their own sections of “Foundations.”

Another cause of difficulty is that this topic is very close “to home” as it were.  I mean we may be quite ready to acknowledge that God is a Mystery, but everyone seems to at least implicitly believe that they are an “expert” as far as their own self goes.  However, this usually proves to be quite wrong in that what we take as our “self” is only a mask, an illusion, a surface of an unreality–so insubstantial it is.  In a very real sense the meaning of the spiritual life can be found in  the “discovery of the true self.”  The question, “Who am I?” resounds through almost all the major spiritual/mystical traditions.  And it can be found both in the beginning and at the end of each and every spiritual journey, as the person descends deeper and deeper into the abyss of this mystery we call “the self.”

In a lovely concurrence we are, in the Catholic tradition, at the beginning of another Lent with Ash Wednesday.  The “repentance” we are called to during this season is precisely the shucking off of false identities and discovering our true self so to speak.  For too many Catholics Lent is this negative thing of “giving things up,” etc.  The essence of this season is lost or at least obscured by superficial penitential exercises.  When the priest puts that smudge of ash on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of how many masks we wear, of how truly insubstantial we really are even underneath the masks, in effect of how truly “unreal” we really are.   We already have gone over some of this ground in a previous posting, so instead of repeating a lot of stuff, I will simply refer to it.  It was Feb. 12, 2010 blog post.

So first of all let us separate our topic into two distinct stages:  the first is the problem stage and this can have at least 3 parts, and the second stage is about the mystery of our true self.  Let us begin with our simple empirical ego self.  This is a given of our existence–just as much as our lungs, our hair, our eyes, etc.   In fact a healthy ego self is important for our overall well-being.  In this we can agree with modern psychology, but in what this “healthiness” consists might be described quite differently by all the great spiritual traditions.  Whatever modern psychology tells us, it is all limited to a kind of ability to function in our given society in some harmonious way.  (In some cases to “function in a society in a harmonious way” could be a sign of a very diseased sense of identity.  Afterall most Germans in 1938 were “functioning harmoniously in their society.”)  The fact is that for the purposes of a spiritual/mystical journey this is not even scratching the surface.  The fact is that the ego self will have to be transcended, or as some traditions might put it, you will need to be liberated from it.  In the Gospel, Jesus talks about “denying onself,” “dying to one self,” etc.  Among the Sufis we find discourse about “annihilation,” “extinction,” etc.  Why such strong language?  And what does this language point to?

Now a contribution from the Moroccan Sufi, Shaikh ad-Darqawi, pointing us in the right direction:

“Extinction also is one of your attributes.  You are already extinct, my brother, before you are extinguished and naught before you are annihilated.  You are an illusion and a nothingness in a nothingness.  When had you Existence that you might be extinguished?  You are as a mirage in the desert that the thirsty man takes to be water until he comes to it and finds it to be nothing, and where he thought it to be, there he finds God.  Even so, if you were to examine yourself, you would find God instead of finding yourself, and there would be nothing left of you but a name without a form.  Being in itself is God’s, not yours; if you should come to realize the truth of the matter, and to understand what is God’s through stripping yourself of all that is not yours, then you would find yourself to be as the core of an onion.  If you would peel it, you would peel off the first skin, and then the second, and then the third, and so on, until there is nothing left of the onion.  Even so is the slave with regard to the Being of the Truth.”

But we have some “nitty-gritty” stuff to cover before we get to the “lofty” things.

Part 1 of the problem-stage: the ego-self is self-referential.  Or as the saying goes: “It’s all about me.”  This is where “my” and “mine” come from—those strange boundary lines of our existence.  It’s all fictional and unreal, and yet it is all so reinforced socially and psychologically that this dynamic seems as solid as the earth.  It is inevitable that we live within such a matrix of boundary lines that each ego self  and each collective entity of ego selves (like a nation) establishes, but it does not mean that the spiritual person who has discovered his true personhood is going to be controlled by this dynamic.  Desert Father stories abound, and Zen stories and Sufi stories also and others too, that show the holy person totally disregarding these boundary lines, treating them like a temporary illusory reality that they are.  So the holy man will be shown helping the thief load up the goods from his cell, for example….  So for the Catholic monk the sword of wisdom in this case will be known as “the vow of poverty,” and with that he/she will challenge that ego drive.  For St. Francis this was almost the highest of all values.  Of course like all swords it must be wielded with care or else it becomes either a mere verbal formula that is as unreal as the possessiveness of the worldly person or else it can even be turned into another ego credential even in dispossession.  This indicates that we have to go deeper.

Part 2 of the problem-stage: The so-called “healthy” ego self labors under the illusion of its own atomized reality, as if it were totally separate from all other such ego selves.  Furthermore, it labors under the burden of its self-sufficiency, autonomy, independence, solidity.   At a certain psychological  and social level these are valid truths, but at a deeper metaphysical and spiritual level this kind of façade has to be broken through and transcended. What that means practically is that you will see yourself and the world around you differently.   The ego self will no longer be the source of all kinds of masks and superficial or false identities which we carry.  These become “credentials” that we exist, that we are “someone,” that we are worth something, that we are “different” from others, etc., etc–this can even be spiritual credentials, such as being a monk, a person of standing in the Church, etc.  Abhishiktananda relates the story of one of his early Hindu friends:

“One day he decided to take sannyasa.  He bought a length of coarse

cloth, and cut it into two strips.  One piece he put round his waist,

and the other he used as  loin-cloth.  Then he went over to the ashram

and cast himself at the feet of the Maharshi and told him that he had

finished with everything and abandoned the world.  From now

on he was a sannyasi.

‘Aha!’ said Ramana, when he saw him.  ‘The body has taken the dress

of a sannyasi.  But has the heart done likewise!’

And the ‘Bengal Tiger’ had sadly to admit that, despite all his

devotion for Bhagavan, desires continued to make themselves

violently felt in the depth of his heart, and that he was still far

from having truly renounced all.

‘So you see,’ went on the Maharshi, ‘It is no use taking sannyasa, if

it means that now you are enjoying the thought–and also are happy

to inform other people–that henceforward you are a sannyasi.

When you were young, you said ‘I am a student’; then you said ‘I am

a revolutionary’; next ‘I am a married man, the father of a family, an

industrialist.’  Now you say ‘I am a sannyasi.’  In all this, what

difference does it make in relation to that which really IS?  It is

useless to change the attribute so long as the subject remains intact.

It is this subject, the I, that has to disappear when the Self is

revealed.  What you have to renounce is the I, not any particular

state of life.’

In the same vein Bose told me the Maharshi’s reply to someone who

was singing the praises of a certain disciple who spent 8 to 10 hours

daily in meditation.

‘Oh!’ replied Bhagavan; ‘so he meditates, he eats, he sleeps!  But

who is meditating, eating, sleeping?  What advantage is there in

meditating for 10 hours a day if in the end that only has the result

of establishing you a little more deeply in the conviction that it is

you who are meditating.'”

Those of us on the monastic path are thus just as prone to create false identities, credentials, convenient masks as our so-called worldly brethren.  Only in this case these may come decorated with the sweet smell of incense or the deep texture of religious symbols.  There is no escaping credentials; there is only the transcending of them, and each tradition has something to

contribute in that regard (and each tradition has also its weak points in this regard).  But modern capitalist consumer society is especially good at manipulating this ego drive for its own gain and profit.  False identities are its “stock and trade.”  Credentials?  The more, the better.  The ego self becomes like a Christmas tree decorated with all these identities and credentials.  But  the  deep down nagging question(and anxiety) lurks:  exactly who am I underneath all this?  What if I lose all these credentials(and in death I certainly seem to)?

Now we come to Part 3 of the problem-stage: “I” want to be like God!   You may be saying, What is wrong with that?  Isn’t that what it’s all about?  Not exactly!  Not in that way.  There is a kind of “divine inclination” structured in every fiber of our being including the ego self.  That is why we really don’t want to die—divinity implies immortality.  Also, more importantly and more interestingly, there is this “infinite dissatisfaction” in the ego self which nothing can satisfy, at least nothing finite.  The horizon of satisfaction and meaning always seems to be receding, just beyond our grasp.  So the desire “to be like God” seems inescapable, one way or another.  But the catch is that this Reality is already there, and how much “there” is delineated differently by different traditions.  Now what is striking in the account of the Myth of the Fall in Genesis, Eve is tempted precisely in this regard.  She is tempted with what she already has, only she doesn’t yet realize it to a full extent.  Afterall, in mythic language, she IS in PARADISE, and she and Adam “walk with God” in this garden.  In other words, Adam and Eve , made in the image of God, share communion with God.  Their life would be an unfolding of this amazing mystery.  Now the existential manifestation of all this in the awareness and consciouness of the ego self being “outside Paradise,” is a drive toward all those accumulations of masks and false identities (the animal skins that Adam and Eve begin to need) as mentioned above, and a drive for power and control to whatever extent imaginable and possible.  There is then a dynamic toward what might be called “self-divinization” and some “medicine of forgetfulness” for the reality of death.

Any kind of spirituality has to address these kinds of issues one way or another.

Let us consider Jesus for a moment.  The Temptation in the Wilderness, which is the theme for the 1st Sunday of Lent.  Jesus has, just like you and me, an ego self.  Thus he is able to experience that temptation to anything which endows it with “god-like” powers.  Thus he is tempted to “turn stones into bread”; thus he is tempted with “you will not die” if you throw yourself from the pinnacle; thus he is tempted with “all the kingdoms of the world.”  But he has awakened to his true identity and his oneness with that Ultimate Reality which he calls, “Father.”  He overcomes these temptations; he lives from an “I” that is deeper than the ego self.

Now we come to the really hard part, the second stage, the mystery of our true self, that which is deepest in us, what some traditions call “the heart”(about which we will devote a separate blog posting):  who are we in the depths of our being?  In most authentic traditions, to find that is to first “lose” something.  Primarily it is the phenomenal ego self as determinative and controlling of one’s identity.  The Sufis speak more brusquely and call it “fana”–extinction.  Reza Arasteh, the Iranian psychotherapist and Sufi who impressed Merton greatly writes:  “It is the experience of ‘fana’ in which those experiences, which obstruct the revealing of the real Self, are annihilated.  In essence, the Sufi’s task is to break the idol of the phenomenal self, which is the mother idol; having achieved this aim his search ends.  Empty-handed, empty-minded and desire-less, he is and he is not.  He has and he has not the feeling of existence.  He knows nothing, he understands nothing.  He is in love, but with whom he is not aware of.  His heart is at the same time both full and empty of love…. He is no longer an observer of life, but he is life itself.”

And here Abhishiktananda, writing to a nun with some spiritual counsel:  “Take possession of your total freedom, not so much as regards external laws, habits or rules, but as regards that ‘mask’ which seeks to impose itself on you–and all too often succeeds in doing so–and in fact finds allies in very deep strata of your personality.  Discover your real ‘I’….  This ‘non-born’ refers to what is beyond all time, all place, all circumstance; in it alone you have an insight, a glimpse, a certain experience already of the Absoluteness of God.  We have to cut the bonds, the knots of the heart, as the Mundaka says, which bind us to the mask deep within us.  It is a painful business.”

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a Sufi scholar:  “…the person who aspires to reach God must break all the idols in his heart and sweep away everything in it so that God alone can be present therein.  God is one and therefore does not manifest His Presence where there are idols.  Alas, the heart of how many  even believers is like the Ka’bah during the Age of Ignorance, full of all kinds of idols.  Those who seek to follow the spiritual path in Sufism are taught…when first embarking upon the path, that they must reserve their heart for God alone, for He alone is the master of the house of the heart.  As the Arabic poem says, in response to someone knocking on the door of a Sufi’s heart:  There is no one in the house except the Master of the House.'”

So the Absolute Mystery abides in the Heart, but it fills the whole person–only the ego self is unaware of this.  The whole person is like the Burning Bush in the Book of Exodus–it is “on fire” with this Reality, and thus the whole person and each person is really transformed into Absolute Mystery—recall the Desert Father story, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”  You cannot say they are “two”; you cannot say they are “one.”  There is no numbering here.  There is only the Absolute Mystery and it unfolds more and more as we descend deeper and deeper into the self.  But there can be in all this a deep experience of a “dark night” as John of the Cross put it; a deep disorientation and sense of loss as we no longer count on the ego self to find our way; a sense of a vast desert in which there is nothing to satisfy one or quench one’s thirst, one’s vague desire  if for nothing else but life.  Listen to Abhishiktananda:  “In the desert I have lost myself, and I am no longer able to find my way back to myself.  And in the desert I have lost the God that I was seeking, and I can no longer find any trace either of him or of myself.  God is not in the desert.  The desert is [emphasis mine] the very mystery of God which has no limits, and nothing either to measure him or to locate him, and nothing to measure myself and locate myself in him, in relation to him“[emphasis mine].

A favorite hadith, much beloved by the Sufis, has Allah saying the following:

“When I [Allah] love my servant…, I become the hearing with which he hears, the seeing with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, the feet with which he walks, the tongue with which he speaks.”

Michael Sells, an Islamic scholar comments:  “For the Sufis, the condition indicated by this hadith cannot be attained as long as the Sufi is seeing, hearing, walking, touching and speaking for and through himself.  Through a quest for a life beyond egoism,…the Sufi arrives at the taming or “passing away” of the ego-self.  When the ego-self passes away, the divine sees, hears, walks, touches, and speaks, through the human faculties.  Divine names (such as ‘the seer,’ ‘the hearer’) are no longer ‘predications’ of an exterior deity but realizations that occur at the moment the duality between human and divine is transcended.”

For those of us in the Christian tradition, we have to orient ourselves in this regard in relation to Jesus and his experience of God.  As mentioned above, Jesus in being truly a human being and not just a “mask” for divinity has a true ego self.  He has the usual identity matrix.  He is of a certain nationality and locality  and of a certain religion, etc.—he is a Jew who worships Yahweh, the absolutely transcendent realization of God and so transcendent that His very name cannot be pronounced and someone who is conceived as totally other.  However, Jesus awakens to a deeper sense of self in his heart.  The ego “I” rests on a foundation as it were of a much deeper “I”.  What is “beyond words” and what can only be related in myth and symbol is how that deep “I” is in a profound and indescribable communion with that Absolute Mystery which we call God.  The Baptism narrative in the Gospels may be a mythic representation of that awakening.  In any case, Jesus is portrayed as hearing those words: “You are my Son,” or “This is my Son.”  This marks a new sense of identity, beyond the limitations of the ego self.  It indicates an intimacy and a communion that would be unimaginable to the normal worshipper of Yahweh.  Jesus is a person who has totally discovered, realized his mystery.  As Abhishiktananda so insightfully points out, “Abba, Father” is the Semitic version of the advaita experience.  In discovering the Father, he has not found an “other.”  And so Jesus can say:  “I and the Father are one.”  Note, Jesus does not say, “I am the Father.”  This would be a reductionism to what religious philosophers call monism.  But neither are they two!

Jesus discovers the very I AM of God (recall the Book of Exodus and the Burning Bush) within his own deep “I am”.  His whole self now rests on a foundation of Absolute Mystery, and his very “I” is bottomless so to speak, and so the deeper he plunges into it, the more of the Mystery unfolds.  Thus Jesus is portrayed as having said to some hostile Jews, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”  No wonder they tried to stone him!  Something similar happened to al-Hallaj who said something similar and this got him tortured and crucified also.

Now in the death and resurrection of Jesus, his “I am” is totally liberated from any and all limitations of any ego self with its identity matrix–being a Jewish male of the 1st Century Semitic culture.  He is now the Mystery of  the Christ, and as we awaken to our “deeper self,” our true “I am,” we awaken at the same time to the Risen Christ in our hearts in whom and through whom we find the “I AM” of God in the depths of our own limited being.  In fact the spiritual journey will bring us to the realization and the awakening that our deepest “I am” and the “I am” of the Risen Christ are one in an unimaginable and indescribable unity.  That’s why we have nothing to be afraid of and nothing really to lose—not even death can take away that who we truly are—it is the house built on rock, not on sand.   And we can say with St. Paul, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”   And the Absolute Mystery addresses us also: “You are my child.”  For most Christians this is metaphorical language, a nice saying of sorts; but truly it is an existential and mystical knowledge that should be operative at every level of our being–not just an idea in the head.  With this selfhood we plunge into the very Mystery of the Trinity and our participation in Jesus’ communion with the one he calls “Father.”   But this is an unfathomable  mystery that takes infinity and eternity to unfold–and endless unspeakable bliss.

A few more comments from Abhishiktananda:  “In awaking to himself at the center of his being, Jesus, the son of Mary, also awoke to the Father.  But this child of a Jewish maiden is pre-eminently the representative ‘Son of Man,’ and therefore the whole of mankind rightfully shares in everything that he does and in all that he achieves.  When deep within himself Jesus awoke to God and learnt by direct experience that he ‘comes from the Father and goes to the Father,’ then all his brethren were taken up into this awakening; as he soars up to his Father, no member of the human race is left behind.  To use another metaphor, it is as if waves radiated in every direction from the fine point of his spirit, gradually filling the whole universe…. The simultaneous awakening of Jesus to himself and to the Father at the center of his being includes also every man’s discovery of himself in the apex of his soul and at the same time his awakening to the Father….  Every person who awakes to himself is therefore called to share in the experience of Jesus as the Son and to sing with him to the Father the ‘Abba’ which fills eternity.  This participation of course takes place at very different levels of awareness, ranging from the soul’s first wonderment at glimpsing on the horizon of its thought its own inner mystery to the final rapture of the Christian mystic born away by the spirit to the heart of the mystery of God.”

In conclusion, a critic might argue: All this talk of “self” smacks of New Age spirituality and American individualism.  What about community, the Church, and your fellow human being?  Truly a good point, and there is a great danger lurking here if we misunderstand.  We will have to address these issues in another posting, but suffice it to say that the deep self, the heart, is the foundation for a true community and real communion.  The ego self can never be that by its very nature.  You might be able to “pen” people together through fear (as in “eternal damnation”); you might be able to hold people together through rules, beautiful rituals, or various antidotes to the isolation of modern life; but none of this is real communion and community.  A church that offers only externals and “gimmicks”—and oh yes they may very well be dressed up in pious and beautiful language–such a church will ultimately not be able to gather a community and open people up to real communion.  In any case, we will give Merton the last word.  This is from his account of one of the key moments of his life, of a mystical experience if you will, of an epiphany that happened on a visit to Louisville.  And this was long before his extensive Asian studies and encounters, but already he had been studying the Sufis and al-Hallaj—there is a veiled reference to that in the account.  It illustrates how an authentic inner discovery is always related to a manifestation of one’s “connections” to one’s fellow human beings:

“Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all these people and that none of them were or could be totally alien to me.  As if waking from a dream–the dream of my separateness….  Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes….  Again, that expression, le point vierge, (I cannot translate it) comes in here.  At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.  It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship.  It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.  It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely….  I have no program for this seeing.  It is only given.  But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”





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