Two Birds on a Tree: different models of selflessness

Discussing the illusion of self control with a friend the other day, it became clear that the idea of self as an illusion is not for everyone.

Is self truly an illusion?

It depends on what you mean by ‘self’, what you mean by ‘truly’, and what you mean by ‘illusion’. Heck, while we’re at it: it depends on what you mean by ‘is’ as well.

But before we worry too much about precise definitions of terms, it might be worth considering some of the other ways this central phenomenon of selflessness is framed.

I’ve been focusing mainly on the analogy between the illusion of a self who is in control from a Buddhist perspective, and Christian perspective of pride as the desire to be like God in the sense of (paraphrasing Aquinas) desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

But there are other models or frameworks that attempt to describe the same phenomenon of selflessness. One notable example is found in the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture, where the individual human being is shown to contain two ‘selves’: one that is involved in the world, and the other that is conscious but not involved.

two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, are perched on a branch of the same tree. One of them tastes the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the other, tasting neither, calmly looks on.

On the same tree, the individual self (jiva), deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the other as the Lord worshipped by all and His glory, he becomes free from grief.

The site where I found these excerpts from the Svetasvatara Upanishad contains a much better commentary than I could produce. The following explains the meaning of the two birds:

The form of every sentient being has two indwellers–the two Selves just like the two birds. However, they do not have the same experience of the tree. The individual self, the jiva, tastes the fruit of the tree in the form of the inner and outer senses, and according to the quality of that experience is made happy, unhappy, contented, discontented–and so forth. The individual thus undergoes experience sometimes laughing and some times weeping, immersed in thought and bewildered by his own helplessness.

The Supreme Self, on the other hand, tasting neither [sweet or bitter experiences], calmly observes. God also experiences because He is an indweller of all and is aware of all that the individual spirit experiences, yet, He looks on without eating–without being affected or conditioned by such experiences. But He does know exactly the effect and conditioning that accrues to the individual Self. He is experiencing right along with us, but unlike us is not pulled into a mistaken identity with the body-mind and its experiences.

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

There are other models, other methods, and other attempts to explain the central phenomenon. These efforts have their own historical and social contexts. For example, one might view the Buddhist insistence on no-self or anatman as, in part, a refreshing reaction against the Hindu doctrine of atman – the inner self or soul, the ‘Supreme Self’ depicted in the Upanishad above.

The startling idea that we have an inner self that is divine can, over time, be taken for granted and fall far short of the reality depicted in the Upanishads. The Buddhist response reframes that reality in newly-startling terms: there is no atman, there is no enduring, divine, inner self. The nature of all phenomena is sunyata – emptiness.

When you grapple with a problem

In the previous post on sickness and pride I suggested that we should view our frustration with the common cold as pointing to the deeper problem of our pride, or the illusion of a self that is in control.

This false sense of control and the often accompanying sense of frustration is everywhere in life. But it is usually at its worst when we face obstacles and challenges, when we are struggling and feel like life is not unfolding as we’d like it to.

That’s why suffering has special value in religious traditions – when things are going well for us our pride and illusion of self are unassailable. It takes inevitable suffering and disappointment to reveal the sharp edges of these faults.

So we can treat all problems as we may treat the cold: recognise the struggle, the sense of control, and the frustration as illusory. The impression of a self at the center of these feelings is just an impression, not an actual self, so our suffering and struggle can become perfect reminders that we are in the grip of delusion and pride.

A moment of change occurs, in which we see through the illusion, if only briefly.

With this change comes the recognition that it was not brought about through “my” efforts, because the me who feels responsible for those efforts has temporarily vanished.

When it vanishes, so do the problems and the struggles that hitherto seemed so distressing.

I think this is the secret to the Daoist concept of wu wei – acting without acting:

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

Acting without acting is another way of saying that the illusion of a self who is in control becomes transparent.

The illusion of a self who is in control is like thinking that you can manipulate the weather with your thoughts. If you really believed that, your life would be full of pointless struggle and frustration, illusory successes and inevitable failures.

But then there’s the paradox once more: that whether you believe it or not is also something not under the control of an illusory self.

Nonetheless, this insight can unfold throughout your life. Maybe it happens suddenly for some. For me it is unfolding slowly, one area of life at a time as I seem to remember or realise that it is applicable in this aspect of life or in that struggle also.

The self that doesn’t exist

Non-dualist sources in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions point out that although we feel like our self is real, when we examine it closely we do not find any single, enduring thing that merits the label.

We find, on the one hand, that we have a consciousness. But this consciousness alone does not seem to have many properties or characteristics beyond simply being conscious.

On the other hand, we find a multitude of thoughts, ideas, impressions and sensations that constitute the many properties and characteristics we think of as “self”.

But if our “self” is made up of thoughts, ideas, impressions and sensations, so is everything else in our reality. Why do we identify with one set of thoughts as “self” and a different set of thoughts as “other”?

More pointedly, what is it that identifies with these thoughts? Is it just another thought?

This is the upshot of the non-dualist analysis: It feels like I identify with some thoughts and not with others, but as we’ve already noted, there is no “I” other than consciousness and thoughts.

So who is doing the identifying?

The conclusion is that this feeling of identifying with certain thoughts and impressions is itself composed of thoughts and impressions. The “I” that feels like it identifies with various thoughts is itself just a thought.

The self is a complex, reflexive knot of thoughts and impressions that maintains the pretence of a substantive existence.

In Christian terms, it constitutes an attempt to “be like God” in the manner expressed by Aquinas:

“he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature”

That is why our pride – this peculiar delusion of a self that suffers and strives – is a vain attempt to be like God, to feel like the hero of our journey and bring that journey to a glorious end through our own merits and our own struggle.

What can you learn from the common cold?

I’ve been sick this past week.

Sickness is always challenging, spiritually as well as physically, because the central theme of our pride and sense of self is to seek pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering and pain.

Sickness is synonymous with suffering, but it is also a direct challenge to our sense of self-control. Painful or unpleasant symptoms highlight the limits of our control at the most intimate border of body and mind. Our fragile sense of self arcs up in response to these threatening sensations and loss of control.

So my recent bout of a bad cold was frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t accept the symptoms, and I kept trying to find ways to avoid them, deny them, or reject them. It was quite pitiful.

At the same time, it was hard to find the mental space and clarity I needed. It was hard to even recall what I believed about my mind and my self. Eventually I gave up looking for meaning and dosed myself with pseudo-ephedrine tablets.

But now that the symptoms are disappearing and I’m returning to normal, I’m retracing my feverish steps and looking for meaning in the sore throat and blocked sinuses once more.

Do you control your body?

One thing that became clear during the sickness was my deeply ingrained sense of control over my body.

I’ve written extensively about the illusion of control, the illusion of “self”, but have been thinking of it broadly in terms of choices and actions. Sickness reveals how much deeper this sense of control goes, because at the meeting of body and mind our emotions and other somatic sensations respond automatically to our mental states without being ‘willed’ or chosen.

This is significant, because although our sense of control is an illusion, it is a convincing one, and our emotions or passions respond as if it is real.

If our mind persists with the illusion of a “self” then our body responds accordingly, eliciting the somatic states we know as desire, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on.

But when we are sick, our body no longer responds as usual. We no longer receive the biofeedback of consistent emotions, and so our sense of control is challenged, as is the consistency of our internal narrative.

Self-inflicted suffering

Ironically, the symptoms of the common cold are all produced by our own immune system, and there is good evidence that stress increases the severity of those symptoms. It’s not the virus that causes your nose to run, your throat to ache and your temperature to rise; these are defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of the virus.

Stress increases the severity of symptoms because the emotional threat of stress triggers inflammatory defences. It’s the old problem of your body failing to distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones.

It’s possible that being stressed primes your immune system to respond more aggressively than it needs to. Thus a stressful period in life seems to coincide with illness. In my own experience, the symptoms of my autoimmune condition have always corresponded to some kind of stressful stimulus.

The role of stress and inflammation in a variety of illnesses is a growing area of research with a great deal of promise, and of particular interest to people suffering autoimmune conditions.

Pride is the root of all sin

In Christian terms, the illusion of self is interpreted as pride. Not pride in the sense of feeling good about accomplishments or good qualities, but pride in the sense of wishing to be the author and agent of our own greatness. As Aquinas wrote in reference to the fall of Lucifer:

 he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This desire – this pride – gives rise to all other forms of wrongful desire in the same way that persevering with the illusion of self embroils our minds and bodies in a mess of compensatory and destructive responses.

The emotional link

Our minds keep filling our internal narrative with the recurring theme in which we save the day, save ourselves, redeem ourselves in some form. What this meditation on sickness has shown is that our emotional state responds to this internal narrative, this pride, this illusion of self as if it is true – rejoicing in our triumphs and lamenting our failures, or more often endlessly hoping and dreading about future outcomes.

That’s why pride is often said to make us “puffed up” or inflated. Pride is not merely a false belief, it is also a physiological state.

That’s also why emotional responses like anger, fear, envy, craving and sorrow are often indicators of underlying pride and a self-centered mind. We might pretend to be selfless and humble, because in our pride we wish to be seen as virtuous. But when other people’s successes fill us with envy, or we sit paralysed with fear at where life may be headed, or we crave distraction and escape from our feelings of incompleteness, at those moments our pride and delusion of self are revealed.

This emotional aspect of our illusion of self is significant. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie – you may not always be conscious of it, but the video will seem thin and distant without it. Emotional responses help keep us immersed in our internal narrative, longing for fulfillment while ever vigilant for threats.

The answer, yet again, is to recognise that I do not have control, because my sense of self is an illusion. It is a “puffed up” thought of my own importance, a desire to be like God.

And the paradox, yet again, is that I cannot recognise anything, for that exact same reason.

 

Who is in control?

Yesterday a friend showed me Lamentations 3, and its relevance to my current project amazed me. :

He has driven me away and made me walk
    in darkness rather than light;
 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
    again and again, all day long…

The chapter is ruthless, full of broken teeth, mangled bodies, bitterness and mockery. And it is God who inflicts all this on Jeremiah. When did you last hear that God has “made me walk in darkness rather than light”? It doesn’t sound right, as though all the meanings are inverted. It’s as if someone set out to write the opposite of “the Lord is my shepherd”.

But then it changes:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

Now this is hardly a reassuring message at first glance. It’s as if he’s saying “God beat me to a bloody pulp, but at least he didn’t kill me!” But to me it has a different significance. To me it says that God is in control of everything, and even in the darkest moments of suffering and despair, God is still in control.

This isn’t meant to be soothing or inspirational – it’s radical and transformative. We think we are in control, and that God is this thing or this guy who wants to help us, and if we’re really good or really repentant or practice talking to him often enough then things will start to go our way. And if things don’t go our way, it’s just because we haven’t tried hard enough, or we don’t really believe, or we’re being tested, or we’re not truly penitent.

What’s really going on is that God is in control. Not just in some abstract or distant way, but deeper than our own sense of pride and agency would have us know. “Without Me you can do nothing,” and that’s putting it mildly.

In technical terms, here’s how Aquinas states it:

God moves man to act, not only by proposing the appetible to the senses, or by effecting a change in his body, but also by moving the will itself; because every movement either of the will or of nature, proceeds from God as the First Mover. And just as it is not incompatible with nature that the natural movement be from God as the First Mover, inasmuch as nature is an instrument of God moving it: so it is not contrary to the essence of a voluntary act, that it proceed from God, inasmuch as the will is moved by God.

To say that you have free will does not mean you are like God. You are not able to control yourself, secure your own salvation, or even practice virtue independent of God’s will. Any movement of your will is dependent on God’s will.

The impression that you are thinking and acting and willing independent of God’s will is the illusion we call ‘Pride’. The impression that the buck stops with you is false, and both the cause and symptom of sin and suffering.

God is in control, absolutely. What makes Lamentations 3 so striking is that Jeremiah recognises God’s control, and ascribes to God responsibility for his suffering. He doesn’t succumb to the illusion that God is not in control.

This is radical, but it is also very mysterious. It means that in our sin and ignorance, in the midst of this illusion of self-sufficiency and control, God is nonetheless still in control.

So why do we suffer? Why undergo this whole bewildering drama and illusion if God could stop it right away?

This question has occupied theologians and philosophers for millennia. There are complex and nuanced answers that are beyond the scope of this post, but the bottom line is that God is in complete control, there is a purpose to it all, and that purpose is most definitely a mystery. As Julian of Norwich wrote after a vision:

“Sin is behovely (useful or necessary), but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”

Faith and works and self-delusion

Dtcwee asked a great question about scriptural references to how we work toward salvation.

How can we work towards salvation if “we” are not responsible for our faults and flaws, for redeeming and righting ourselves?

The same problem emerges in Buddhism where the main symptom of delusion is the impression of a self, yet it seems to be the ‘self’ who decides to become a Buddhist, meditates, studies the sutras and seeks enlightenment.

In a Christian context ‘works’ comes from the Greek ergon and can also mean actions, deeds, or accomplishments. Faith, on the other hand, comes from pistis which means ‘persuasion’ as in “God’s divine persuasion“.

It might seem that we are therefore responsible for our works and deeds and actions, but God is responsible for our faith, for persuading us to believe and trust in Him.

The orthodox answer to the problem of faith and works is therefore simple: faith is the cause of salvation, but we should see that reflected also in the person’s works or deeds, i.e. faith without works is dead.

In reality I think the controversy only exists if we accept our separation from God as real.

From the point of view of separation from God, I am the one in control of my beliefs and actions, the one responsible for my merits and my faults. (See “Better to reign in hell?” for more).

From this point of view, whatever I may do to save myself is fruitless. It is only through God’s intervention, through the gift of faith that I am saved.

Yet even then some Christians appear to hold that faith must be accepted as an act of will in the strong, voluntarist sense. In other words, even though faith is a gift from God, I still have to accept the gift in order to be saved. The illusion of responsibility will keep creating a role for “me” to play, because we are terrified of the idea that God is the author of it all.

Yet that is the conclusion we must draw from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

“continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good pleasure”

Your willing and your acting are dependent on God. Your sense of responsibility and control over your willing and acting are due to pride, and an inflated, delusional sense of self.

Christians who cling to their sense of separation from God interpret these themes in terms of opprobrium for their will and acts and the state of their soul. They emphasise how flawed and degraded and sinful they are, how much in need of God’s grace and help.

They’re not wrong, but the flaws and degradation and sin rest on the very sense of separation, the pride that is opposed to God’s grace. The end is not to receive enough help to patch us up and send us on our way, but to realise our total dependence on God and the falsity of our pride and responsibility in the first place.

Consider the words that Jesus spoke to Catherine of Siena, the great saint and mystic:

Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fullness of grace, and truth, and light.

Human beings exist, but our minds contain a strong sense of responsibility, agency, and self-control that we identify as “me”. This is the meaning of “you are she who is not”.

In paradise, Adam and Eve did not know that they were naked. That is, they lacked the self-consciousness and accompanying delusion of self-control that we inhabit.

In Christian terms, this is the root of all sin – pride, the delusion of responsibility and control.

But to overcome this sin, we need to embrace the paradox that we are not responsible for it. It might seem that dwelling on this sin and error and seeking to overcome it is the right path, but this only reinforces the sense of separation, the pride and false self that are the root of the problem.

It is much better to recognise that none of it has ever been within our control. But even to recognise this is not within our control either. We were never responsible in the first instance for the fault or flaw from which we now run and hide and from which we constantly seek to redeem ourselves, in our own eyes if nowhere else.

This is likewise the meaning of Christ dying for our sins, of him taking onto himself the punishment for all our faults. This dynamic of sin, punishment, and vicarious redemption never made sense to me as it does and has done to many others.

But it has the same effect of unburdening us of responsibility for our fault, our flaw, our fall.

It is, after all, the sense of responsibility for our grievous fault that underpins the subsequent grasping for control, the pride and the misery that accompany us through life.

Are you perfect?

People think they desire to possess things (objects, status, accomplishments, the affection of others) because of some intrinsic quality of those things.  We think this object is unique or significant, this woman or man is special or wonderful, these accomplishments or status are important.

But mostly it is we who make them desirable. That is, we are already looking for things to which we can pin our special labels, to make them “worthy” objects of desire.

Once we have established these objects of desire, we live and die by them. We order our lives by their attainment. If I can just afford it… If she just smiles at me… If I can just win their vote…

We believe that once we have gained possession of these things, we will at last experience a deep, lasting, and secure happiness. We will transpose to ourselves the glory of the office, the grandeur of the home, or the grace and beauty of the beloved.

And then we will be truly happy.

But even if we obtain these things, the happiness doesn’t last. And if, as usually happens, we fail to obtain them, then we remain mired in our usual unhappy state.

Why do we do this?

Well, if those things were truly desirable then the answer would be obvious: we pursue love, property, and power because they will make our lives wonderful.

But if these things are not truly desirable – if instead we bestow desirability upon those things in the first place, then the answer is more complex, more mysterious than we realise.

I believe the latter is the case, because I have read and confirmed through my own experience that the apparent desirability of these supposedly wonderful things is not real. The possessions we once craved lose their allure. The people we once deeply admired eventually lose their glow. Status and accomplishments are soon forgotten. We move from one “wonder” on to a fresh one.

So why subject ourselves to this strange ritual?

The answer is itself a little strange.

We do it because we cannot justify being content with what we are.

What do dreaming about the perfect home, wishing for the affection of a beautiful woman or man, and imagining oneself in a position of power and respect have in common?

They all consist of mental projections of ourselves in a state that justifies feeling wonderful.

Their content is less significant than the emotional narrative they share: if I have that, I will be happy, overjoyed, resplendent.

And by implication: I can’t be happy, overjoyed, or resplendent because I don’t have that.

Whatever that is, the feelings associated with it are a kind of negative image of how you see yourself.

If that is the affection of a person, then I’m willing to bet that the qualities you think you see in that person are the qualities you most feel you lack in yourself, or the qualities you feel would redeem whatever faults you might think you have.

The same applies a little less directly to homes, possessions, status and accomplishments but in general how you feel about those things mirrors qualities you wish you had right now.

About twenty years ago I read all of this, and I reached the conclusion that if I could short-circuit this delusional dynamic I could enjoy all the wonderful feelings exactly as I am. In other words, the things I sought in external reality were just proxies for self-acceptance.

I had thought that I could only accept myself if I obtained these proxies. But if I could accept myself directly, then I could feel joy and happiness directly too?

The problem is that I took for granted that the joy and happiness were real, that I should be feeling those feelings, and if I didn’t feel those feelings then I clearly hadn’t accepted myself fully.

In other words, I turned “self-acceptance” into another proxie, something I had to obtain in order to feel joy and happiness.

I’ve come to see that as a really bad move, because if you have to chase self-acceptance it isn’t really self-acceptance. But if you call it by the same name you might not recognise the difference.

So forget about finding joy and happiness. Forget about trying to attain a state that is different from the one you currently inhabit. It’s a paradox, but don’t fall for it.

Instead, let’s ask again why we saw it necessary to seek perfection externally in the first place. How did we reach the conclusion that we need to redeem ourselves?

For a long time I didn’t really understand how the Crucifixion and death of Jesus was supposed to have redeemed anyone. People offer various theological explanations, but I’m especially leery of the argument that God required a sacrifice. At least not in a strong sense of ‘required’.

It makes more sense if we didn’t need to be redeemed, but didn’t know that we didn’t need it.

We can argue the theology but that’s the net effect of Christianity: we can’t redeem ourselves, nor ever could, so please stop trying.

If you want to go sacrificial: here’s one eternal sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.

This strange ‘happiness’ dynamic we’re looking at is just another attempt at redeeming ourselves. Maybe not with God, but at least privately. We believe we’re not good enough, not right, not whole, not perfect. We reject our flaws and faults, because at face value they’re unacceptable to us.

But we’re only unacceptable to us. In Matthew’s Gospel, in the “love your enemies” section, Jesus says:

He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And just a bit later he concludes:

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.

What kind of perfection is this? It’s a perfection that does not discriminate between the evil and the good, or the righteous and the unrighteous.

If this strikes a chord, you might see how it links in to themes I’ve raised in other posts.

In Taking what is offered I look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the suggestion that our refusal to accept our reality is what separates us from God, and how the path back to paradise is demonstrated in Christ’s acceptance of God’s will over his own measure of good and evil.

In Pride and the delusion of self I touch on Pride as both the cause of the devil’s fall from Heaven according to tradition, and synonymous with our own delusion of authority and control in our own lives.

Finally, in Better to reign in hell? I examine how we wrongly seek to take responsibility both for our faults and flaws and for our redemption. This sense of responsibility is linked to agency, authority, and control as described in the earlier post on pride.

Bringing this final post to bear on the current theme, it is clear that the faults and flaws for which we seek to take responsibility are the same faults and flaws that motivate the ‘happiness’ dynamic I’ve described here.

It is because we refuse to accept our own faults and flaws, we refuse to let the sun shine on the good and evil in us, or let the rain fall on the righteous and unrighteous parts of ourselves, that we seek redemption and righteousness in external things.

We promise ourselves overwhelming joy and happiness, but only if we can win this battle between good and evil within us. We imagine ourselves in ‘paradise’ if only we can achieve or obtain something to outweigh our flaws.

At whatever point in our lives we first became conscious of having flaws, our reality was ripped in two. Our knowledge of good and evil came into effect, and we were bewildered and ashamed to find that the line between the two ran through our own selves.

We still refuse to accept ourselves fully, accept our reality completely. We hold out, seeking to manage, mitigate, and mend ourselves where we can. How could we ever accept the unacceptable? How could we ever accept the parts of us our own minds condemn as faults?

This is why Christianity is called the Way of the Cross, why Christ urged us to “take up your cross and follow me”, and why, in love with God, so many of the saints endured tremendous hardship and suffering.

The cross is not only the suffering imposed on us by the external world, but the suffering and fear we hold for our own hated faults. God wants us to accept our faults.

This is not a superficial message, but a radical one. It doesn’t mean persisting with bad habits, because ultimately bad habits are attempts to hide from or compensate for our hated faults anyway. This is where the Christian motif of dying and being reborn comes into its own. Christ didn’t say “pretend to die so that you could keep on living in pretty much the same way as before”.

On the level of free will and our sense of self, this means recognising that you are not responsible for your faults anymore than you are responsible for your merits. You did not create yourself, and if you get right down to it, your sense of self is just something your mind produces from various thoughts and impressions. To treat it as a separate thing, like a little god ruling over its dominion, is at the heart of what we call pride.

 

 

Brief thoughts on Lucifer

Dtcwee asked a question about Lucifer in light of the previous post.

Could we then say that Lucifer is imagining his own responsibility for his fall?

I’m hesitant to speculate too much about angels.

In the tradition, Lucifer’s sin is pride. That would imply he went wrong in desiring to be somehow equal to God or independent of God. This pride is believed to have been motivated by Lucifer’s own greatness, since he was the highest of angels.

If I’m right about original sin, then we could argue that human pride is different because it is motivated by suffering and separateness, a condition we inherit from our parents.

This difference in the motive of pride is what makes me hesitate in case I’m missing something important.

That aside, the devil is just another creature, and the conditions of his existence are essentially the same as ours. I very tentatively suggest that his “responsibility” began through contemplating his own greatness in the created order. As I mentioned in a previous post where I quoted John Cassian:

he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity

This is the point where tradition tells us the highest creature in existence succumbed to pride. A self-consciousness of his own greatness was the cause of Lucifer’s false sense of “responsibility”, which initiated his subsequent fall.

Cassian concludes:

On account of which being forsaken by God, whom he fancied he no longer needed, he suddenly became unstable and tottering, and discovered the weakness of his own nature, and lost the blessedness which he had enjoyed by God’s gift.

So the only reason I would demur from accepting dtcwee’s suggestion is that Lucifer exhibited a kind of “positive” responsibility. He was so great, he identified with his greatness and in that moment embraced a false self-sufficiency. Responsibility is the corollary of that.

My only other caveat is that the word “imagined” should be taken as an analogy. The sense of responsibility may be false, but in calling it “imaginary” we shouldn’t underestimate the impact this false idea has had on our existence.

Furthermore, our normal use of “imaginary” implies that we are under a misapprehension. The conclusion I am working toward is that we are a part of that misapprehension as well. Responsibility is not just something you are imagining, it is something that underpins our sense of self.

Better to reign in hell?

There’s a famous line in Milton’s Paradise Lost where Lucifer says:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Taken literally it illustrates the devil’s pride and bitterness at having been cast down from Heaven. He would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.

We’re not so different. Even when it makes us miserable we prefer to be in control, to feel responsible for our own suffering.

At some point in our early lives we encounter circumstances of life that conflict with our desires. For some people it comes in the context of terrible abuse or trauma, while for others it comes in “normal” aspects of life like having to move away from friends and relatives, or everyday battles of will with parents and authority figures.

The key point is that we find ourselves conscious of having desires – a will – that conflicts with external reality.

Our desires and the external world are both equally real. But for some reason at the point of conflict between the two, our perspective changes and we begin to feel responsible for one aspect of reality – our desires or will – and not for the reality of the external world.

On one level it seems obvious that in a conflict between our internal desires and the external world we should be responsible for the part that exists inside our own head.

But we don’t create our desires, nor do we choose them. We are not responsible for them in the sense of being their author. So why do we feel responsible? We may feel we are in control of our own will, but this just begs the question.

Our sense of responsibility flows into other psychological states. We find ourselves trying to reject unsavory aspects of external reality. We seek to compensate for our unfulfilled desires. We sulk. We get angry at the world for failing us, and at ourselves for failing to get on in the world.

Above all, we feel that the conflict is ultimately our fault. Not that we necessarily caused the conditions of the world that so disappoint us, but that it seems we ought to have within ourselves the power to overcome or resolve this conflict.

Again, Milton has Lucifer say:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

So we feel, and so we are often told by others, especially by parents and authority figures who would simply (and understandably) prefer that we not protest or complain.

We believe it is our fault, our failing, to have desired something we cannot control. We believe that our desires are, or should be, within our control. Alternatively, we believe it is our own fault that our desires lack efficacy in the external world.

This belief in our own failing burdens us with a sense of responsibility, faulty responsibility for our own unhappiness and dissatisfaction in life.

Thus we reign in hell.

The paradox is that the worst of the suffering comes from thinking that we are responsible, that it is somehow up to us to correct our faults, to achieve righteousness, to make ourselves right again through our own efforts.

That’s what reigning in hell means, I think. In the moment of conflict between our desires and the external world, we take command, responsibility, and therefore blame for the whole conflict.

At the same time we fear to surrender this responsibility and illusion of control because it keeps alive in us the hope of repairing the situation. We own our fault, in the hope that we may repair it.

That’s why, like Milton’s devil, we prefer to reign in hell. Our reign is hell, you might say, because it is a delusion, it doesn’t exist, we are not in control and we are not responsible. But admitting we are not in control is too frightening. It would feel like dying, the death of the illusory self who rules over our faulty existence.

It would mean accepting our reality totally, both the external world and the desires and will that conflicted with it in the first place.

It sounds a bit like “Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it, shall preserve it.”

Pride and the delusion of self

Seeing parallels between religions as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism depends on a familiarity with the themes expressed in their mystical and esoteric writings.

For example, it is thought by many that Buddhism denies the existence of a soul and that it aims at a nihilistic destruction of the psychological self.

Likewise, many believe that Christianity focuses on heavenly rewards for earthly virtue, through a peculiar filial relationship with a supernatural being, mediated by arcane, seemingly arbitrary laws or commandments.

The reality is that Buddhism and Christianity are neither the same, nor are they entirely different.

But after many years of reading the commonalities have come to the fore, and the differences seem much less significant. I don’t spend time worrying about how reincarnation can be reconciled with the Christian afterlife, because in terms of my own practice these questions are not significant.

What are significant are things like the Christian perspective on pride in relation to the Buddhist perspective on the illusory nature of the self.

Here’s one of my favourite passages on pride, from the 4th Century ascetic monk, John Cassian:

For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall.

What he’s describing is the fall of Lucifer, who was the greatest of the angels but succumbed to pride and so fell from heaven.

Cassian describes the sin of pride in terms of Lucifer’s false belief that attributed his own greatness to himself rather than to God. Cassian goes on in the context of the subsequent fall of man:

For while he believed that by the freedom of his will and by his own efforts he could obtain the glory of Deity, he actually lost that glory which he already possessed through the free gift of the Creator.

The logic of pride and the fall is the same. It is a mistaken belief in one’s own powers and self-sufficiency. Cassian draws on scripture to demonstrate the contrast between pride and the corresponding remedy of humility:

For the one says, “I will ascend into heaven;” the other, “My soul was brought low even to the ground.” The one says, “And I will be like the most High;” the other, “Though He was in the form of God, yet He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death.”

Finally, Cassian describes how we can overcome pride:

And so we can escape the snare of this most evil spirit, if in the case of every virtue in which we feel that we make progress, we say these words of the Apostle: “Not I, but the grace of God with me,” and “by the grace of God I am what I am;” and “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

That last line is especially significant, as it undermines the freedom of the will and sense of agency that are themselves the greatest symptom of our pride.

This is where I see a direct parallel with Buddhist teaching on the nature of the self. An important part of this teaching is that our sense of self and our cherished identity are a delusion that we take for real. Enlightenment amounts in part to seeing that these selfish thoughts and impressions are not substantial, that there is no self who sits in control of our will and actions.

This is what “puffed up” means in Cassian’s words. Pride is an inflation of our sense of self, til it obscures the reality of our total dependence on God.

The problem with the Christian teaching on pride is that we often interpret it in very limited, human terms. We think pride is just about arrogance, and selfishness is about being inconsiderate of others.

But taken to their extreme we see both in the nature of the fall and in the remedy that pride is much more profound than this. On a spiritual level, pride is a mistaken belief in the primacy and power of our own will. Or to put it more strongly, it is a sense of ownership and control over our will, when in truth “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

Christianity is predominantly a devotional religion, focusing on the individual relationship with God. Yet in the depths of this relationship the mystics report a sense of their own negation in God’s love. That is, they experience a union with God that totally changes their own sense of self and agency.

Buddhism is not typically a devotional religion. Instead it focuses on this experience of the negation of the self, without attempting to express in devotional terms the reality into which the self is subsumed.

But in both cases, the obstacle to this insight is the delusion of control, of will, of self-sufficiency. Buddhists will not talk of it in terms of pride and humility, and Christians will not talk of it in terms of self and no-self. Nonetheless it is my belief that they are speaking of the same thing.