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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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.