True self vs Ego

Mysticism from different traditions tends to hold some concept of a dichotomy within us, a division between the ego and the true self.

I’ve mentioned previously the Upanishadic model of “the two birds in a tree” where one bird – the individual self – eats and enjoys the fruit, while the other bird – the supreme self – simply watches.

An analogous idea appears in St Paul: “Therefore we do not lose heart; but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” And: “I delight in the law of God according to the inner man.”

Various Christian mystics wrote about Christ being born within us, or finding the part of the soul where God dwells in us.

The point is that our existence is dichotomous, and that we err in identifying with the external, individual, active self rather than the spiritual, internal self that is united with or conformed to the divine.

Likewise familiar analogies that deal with individuality versus unity: We think we are individual, separate, alone, yet this is like looking at the waves of the ocean as though they had independent existence rather than being extensions, creations, or manifestations of the one underlying water.

Perhaps that aligns also with the parable of the man who sold all his possessions to buy a field where he had found a hidden treasure; or the merchant who bought the pearl of great price.

What the mystics point to is an underlying experience of unity that somehow exists in opposition or counterpoint to external multiplicity. The problem of “worldliness” is that the part of our mind adept to dealing with multiplicity comes to dominate. We live as though the self we construct in relation to others is our true self.

In Buddhist terms, we mistake it for an enduring self, when in fact it exists as the illusory product of multiple interactions. And in seeking to maintain the illusion of continuity, we suffer.

When I was younger I managed to find this deeper sense of unity, but it was always interrupted by the ego – the externally-oriented mind. I couldn’t work out how to bring the peace and contentment of the true self into everyday life.

I also had the mistaken idea that the only way to be free was to annihilate, overcome, or somehow destroy that ego. It didn’t help that the patterns I had established were quite negative.

I conflated many different issues, thinking that the solution to all suffering was to let go of that worldly mind and find the “hidden gem” that lay beneath or behind ordinary reality.

Now, as I’m learning to become more positive and optimistic, it doesn’t seem like an all-or-nothing proposition anymore.

Traditions that emphasise suffering and misery left an enduring impression that the ego must be intrinsically evil, that we will never be complete unless we completely eradicate it.

But with a less desperate or afflicted ego, I’m beginning to feel like it doesn’t have to be destroyed (nor could it ever really be). The ego is just the part of the mind that interacts with the multiplicity of life. Without it we couldn’t function at all. It is made of responsiveness to external circumstances.

If the true self is always content, it doesn’t follow that the ego must be always suffering and struggling.

What I’ve observed recently is that we can begin to reconcile the two. We can teach ourselves (the ego) that the true self is always there, that we can always retreat to it, take refuge in it, find contentment at any time.

We can teach ourselves that the ego doesn’t need to be destroyed, that it is just a way of being which should be balanced and supported by the deeper, more enriching way of being that we call the true self, or prayer, or communion with God.

And this true self can lift up the ego, draw it higher, help it become more positive. It can tread more lightly, being assured of the constant presence behind it.

This might all sound confusing, speaking of ourselves as if we exist in two distinct modes, or with two separate entities.

In the past I found it very confusing, and thought I needed to understand it in order to “do” it properly.

But now all I’m trying to do is to feel better, to find satisfaction and contentment and peace and happiness in the present moment. And in that context the dynamic becomes clear.

I can close my eyes and feel better immediately. Open them, and the world intrudes with all kinds of pressing demands and worries.

But those demands and worries only press on me because I have mistaken beliefs about myself and the world.

The truth is that I’m better off taking refuge in that deeper part of me than in trying to manage and control my external reality. My external reality changes according to the filter of my thoughts and feelings, including my beliefs about the nature of the ego, and my true self.

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Do you create your own reality?

Remember the Law of Attraction?

It became popular in 2006 thanks to the book and film “The Secret”, but the idea has been around for a while as part of the New Thought movement.

The Law of Attraction always bothered me because it seemed incomplete. The promise of changing reality simply by changing our thoughts seemed too good to be true, or to be the complete truth.

On the one hand, I’ve seen in my own life that perceptions can, for all intents and purposes, blind me to possibilities and realities that are outside my experience or my expectations.

Likewise, there is plenty of psychological evidence to support the claim that we create – if not our reality – then our fully immersive interpretation of reality, through cognitive and perceptual biases.

But New Thought wants to go much further than that, claiming that reality itself is dependent on the content or tone of our thoughts, with some going so far as to claim that reality exists in order to mirror back to us the contents of our own thoughts.

I wrote some time ago about the paradox at the heart of the law of attraction, but lately I’ve been reflecting on another, deeper paradox, and I think we can now reconcile the two.

While the law of attraction people were encouraging us to write imaginary cheques or bank statements to help us feel rich, or build scrapbooks of our dream home or dream car, dream partner or dream career, what they failed to clarify was that the you who wants to create a more satisfying reality is as much a creation of your thoughts as anything else.

Your thoughts create reality, but on what side of the equation does your sense of self and your many desires fall? Do you create or control your thoughts? Or are you yourself a product of your thoughts and impressions?

It may be true that your thoughts create your reality, but that doesn’t mean you can willfully control your thoughts or your reality.

That’s because your sense of self is as much a construct and creation as anything else in your experience. It has more in common with the objects of sensation than with the subject – consciousness – at the very heart of it.

So let’s revise the law of attraction thinking: your thoughts create your reality, including your own self and identity. This self or identity is a product of your thoughts, not the origin or producer.

That’s why all the encouragement to focus on and think about your desires should be viewed with ambivalence, because it implicitly reinforces an illusory sense of control, the idea that you can have whatever you want if you just want it with enough effort and focus.

Your thoughts create your reality, including the sense of a self who has control over its own thoughts.

That probably wouldn’t sell as many books as promising people all the wealth and success they think they need, deserve, or desire, but it does explain why those promises fell short.

Incidentally, this is why New Age and New Thought sources often invoke the concept of your true self or higher self. It is in part a valid attempt to depreciate your self-centred desires and illusion of control. It’s an attempt to talk directly to the ‘self’ behind the curtain, the real source of your thoughts and impressions.

The higher/true self idea can be found in the far older Upanishads, which describe the self as two birds sitting on a tree.

Some have argued that the same idea is echoed in St Paul’s depiction of the Inner and Outer man.

This is why mysticism contains the theme of enlightenment as remembering who you really are, or realising the source of all your thoughts and impressions as something mysterious, hidden, and divine.  Likewise it is the outer self, the illusory self that must die or be denied – be recognised as a product, a construct, a creation, rather than the creator.

As the commentary on the “two birds” analogy put it:

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.

This doesn’t mean – can never mean – that the deluded, flawed, illusory sense of self is God. But it points to the Imago Dei of the inner man, the “Christ born in us”, the participation of the individual being in the divine Being of our creator.

On not knowing who you are

As children we accept at face-value the actions and reactions of those around us, those closest to us.

What does “at face-value” mean in this context?

It means we don’t consider the hidden motives, considerations, fears, and desires that might be influencing other people’s behaviour.

It’s no surprise that children don’t try to peer inside other people’s minds. Many adults don’t even try, and even trained psychologists can get it wrong, or be ineffectual.

Besides, we tend to assume that other people are like us on the inside. Young children are quite straightforward — for a child, face value is the only value.

The problem with this ‘face-value’ approach is that most adults are not straightforward. So, children are raised in an environment full of disparity.

There’s a disparity of information between the child who takes everything at face-value, and the adult who knows that life is complicated and long and everything has a backstory.

There’s a disparity of power, where the child is dependent on the adult for its very survival.

There’s a disparity of psychological formation, where the events and relationships the child experiences will inform its future with greater impact than the already mostly-formed adult.

In this disparate environment the child makes a serious mistake — it accepts the actions, reactions, and treatment of others as a true and honest reflection of their own existence, nature, and qualities.

We know ourselves primarily through our relationships, but children lack the experience and insight to understand that those relationships are imperfect and sometimes deeply flawed sources of knowledge.

It’s like trying to work out what your face looks like without a proper mirror to help you. So you look at whatever reflective surfaces you can find.

Other people can be very imperfect, very limited reflective surfaces. From them we try to piece together a self-image. But if we don’t know that these reflections are so imperfect, the self-image we infer from them will be horribly distorted.

Children who grow up with abuse, neglect, or dysfunction are often said to be damaged by their up-bringing, and in a sense that is true. But it’s important to also recognise the nature of that damage.

A significant portion of the damage is contained in a distorted self-image, inferred from a face-value perspective of their formative relationships.

Why is this damaging?

Because if the people closest to you — the ones who know you best — treat you badly, then the face-value explanation is that you don’t deserve any better than this bad treatment.

If the people closest to you betray, humiliate, threaten, or harm you, then either there’s something wrong with them, or there’s something wrong with you.

The truth is that there’s something wrong with them, but children lack the knowledge and experience to understand this. They take the other option by default, thinking that they must somehow deserve, or even inspire such awful treatment.

Imagine how awful that must be: to feel that the people who know you, the people you depend on, the only ones you can depend on, react with displeasure, anger, envy, ridicule, neglect, or a hundred other foul responses to you; and to have no other way to explain it than to conclude that these must be honest, authentic responses to who you really are.

The truth though, is that children do not inspire such responses from healthy, happy, sane people. Generation after generation act out their own damaged formation on their children, and the dysfunction is passed down like a curse, like original sin.

The fact is that most of us don’t really know who we are, because our self-image is inferred from our relationships with others, with the childhood assumption that the feedback we receive from others is honest and authentic.

It’s not.

People don’t really know you. And if your self-image is formed from their flawed and selfish responses to you, then you don’t really know yourself either.

Granted, there are moments of real knowledge and real insight and authentic relationship, but that doesn’t mean the whole can be taken at face-value, especially where there is abuse, neglect, and the kind of dysfunction we might only recognise as mature adults.

I think this is where the desire to know our real self, our inner self comes from. It’s a desire to break from the conventions and continuity that has shaped our false self.

Whether we intend it or not, this desire seems to lead to the deeper self-reflection of the mystics, sages, and saints. The people who have realised the falseness of their conditioned, inauthentic self-image and gone looking for whatever truth lies beneath it.

Incidentally, this is why orthodox Christianity teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin, kept immune from it. So pervasive is the effect of our inherited dysfunction that it required divine intervention to preserve a single human from it.

In this context, it implies Mary’s relationship with God preserved her from a psychological formation corrupted in untold ways by the defects of her own parents. Original sin is more than just bad parental modelling, but the two are intimately related in light of our relationship with God.

These ideas — inherited dysfunction, a false self, a true self, an unfulfilled relationship with God — put into context the need to be “born again” in the model of Christ. In that sense, the symbolism of the incarnation — God born as a child in the humility of a stable — represents the divine born in us.

We hear of being “born again in Christ” so much from a particular brand of Protestant culture, but the mystical tradition speaks of Christ being born in us. As Angelus Silesius, a Franciscan mystic and poet wrote:

“Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until He is born in me.”

 

Just one look

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I came across this website recently where a guy put forward what we might call a quasi-spiritual theory and practice.

His theory is that all our psychological unease and strife is caused by a subconscious “fear of life”. This fear of life is linked into a desire to know ourselves as we are. I don’t know which comes first, the fear or the desire. It doesn’t really matter at this point.

We go looking for this ‘self’ everywhere…here we insert the usual spiritual story of seeking peace and happiness in material possessions or power or self-image.

The usual spiritual story would encourage us to look within to find our true self, and find in that all the happiness and peace we wrongly sought outside ourselves.

The problem with this approach is that instead of just looking inside and going “oh, there I am”, we implicitly reason that given how desperately we pursue happiness and avoid suffering in life, this ‘self’ we need to find must be pretty spectacular. It must be magnificent and intoxicating and profound in direct proportion to our desire for happiness and our aversion to suffering.

That’s where this “Just One Look” idea comes in. The guy who runs the site claims firstly that this “find your self” theme is not meant to be a mystical spiritual quest. It would probably be better presented as a simple psychological method. In fact he refers to the “fear of life” problem as a “psychological auto-immune disease” for which the act of looking within is simply “medicine”.

His method is, first, to recognise that you can move your attention around at will. Second, that you have a feeling of what it is to be “me”, a feeling that you can either discover directly just by looking for it, or indirectly by going to a normal childhood memory and remembering what it felt like to be you at that time.

This feeling of “me” is not mysterious or esoteric. It’s pretty straightforward and we typically take it for granted, chasing after emotions and external or internal stimuli.

But according to the theory, this “me” feeling is what we actually desire. It’s something that never really changes, and once we look at it with our attention (intentionally, I presume), it sets in motion a gradual but more thorough psychological change.

As far as I can tell, what happens is that when we look at that feeling of “me” while understanding that this “me” is the antidote to the fear of life, all our fear-based psychological habits become superfluous. They don’t vanish overnight, but their motive force – the fear – no longer has such power because you now know that this “me” is your unchanging and consistent internal reference-point.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. It has a great deal in common with elements of spiritual practice in Vedanta and Buddhism. And to be fair to the ‘spiritual’ side of it, spirit and soul are proto-scientific terms. Psychology is, after all, the logic of the soul.

In Vedantan or Buddhist terms, I think this little method is picking up on the theme of misidentification: that we wrongly identify with impermanent or illusory things, whether they be ‘external’ like reputation, career, etc., or ‘internal’ like positive or negative emotions, thoughts, intellectual process, etc.

Some methods teach us to disidentify or ‘see through’ those objects, those false selves or idols. Others focus on finding the ‘true self’ within. But as the author notes, this has accrued a great deal of spiritual baggage along the way.

It is my experience that there is one desire that drives us all and that is the desire to know what I am. This desire, in most lives, for most of the time, is wrongly understood and projected upon objects of acquisition or aversion. It is projected upon objects of acquisition like relationships, power, money, position in the herd, education, and understanding. The seeking after understanding as a way of quenching the thirst of this desire to know what I am is a huge mistake. The nature of this desire is denied, is unrecognized. It is not recognized to be the desire to know what I am but it is easy to see it in operation, as we are continuously trying to understand our story, to put it in a good context, to fix it, to shape it, to get rid of the things that cannot be if I am to be what I must be, in order to accept myself.

The endless effort to run the memory tape of my life, so I have a consistent and coherent structure that I can call “me,” which, of course, always fails. Moment to moment, it fails. This story about what I am, the story that entails and incorporates all of my emotions and feelings, unconscious urges, the things that I do in the world, the things that I have done, even the thoughts that come to my mind, this is an endless backbreaking doomed-to-failure effort to provide a structure, a face, a shape that is stable and safe, and that I can say, “That is me.” There are always these things about me popping up, that I have to say “It’s not me.” But that is the desire that drives it all and the culture is porous to this reality. It shows up all the time. “Be all that you can be.” “That is not who I am.” “Let me be who I am.” It is porous to the understanding of what is really driving us.

Even so, it’s very easy for people to pick up this non-spiritual theory and turn it into another spiritualised practice. I can see traces of it already, where people grab hold of key phrases and imbue them with significance that says implicitly “If I can just follow this practice, then I will be happy”. It’s entirely possible to fall into the trap of thinking “If I can only realise that happiness is not contingent on anything, then I’ll be happy!”

It helps that the guy putting forward this theory does not have the usual trappings of a guru or cult-leader. It’s very easy to not be invested in something I’ve just read on a website written by some American guy I’ll never meet.

Maybe that’s why it worked: there’s no implication that this “me” you need to look at is esoteric or religious or whatever. It’s just a psychological base that, when identified, provides stability and a frame of reference to undercut our hyperactive and otherwise all-absorbing emotional and cognitive states.

It’s like discovering that you don’t drink enough water…and then a bunch of other issues and behaviours turn out to be caused by moderate dehydration.

I would say that “fear of life” is likely derived from the sense that life’s fluidity and unexpected changes can profoundly effect us. The sense of “me” is like a built-in safety-mechanism that prevents us from being totally overwhelmed or overrun or changed. But like any safety-mechanism, it can’t reassure you if you don’t know it’s there.