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Center for Action and Contemplation
Transformation and the True Self
Transformation and the True Self

Letting Go of the False Self and Separate Self

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Ash Wednesday

CAC faculty member James Finley reflects on Thomas Merton’s teaching about the True Self and the separate (or false) self:

Our true self is a self in communion. It is a self that subsists in God’s eternal love. Likewise, the false self is the self that stands outside this created subsisting communion with God that forms our very identity. As Merton puts it,

When we seem to possess and use our being and natural faculties in a completely autonomous manner, as if our individual ego were the pure source and end of our own acts, then we are in illusion and our acts, however spontaneous they may seem to be, lack spiritual meaning and authenticity. [1]

In our zeal to become the landlords of our own being, we cling to each achievement as a kind of verification of our self-proclaimed reality. We become the center and God somehow recedes to an invisible fringe. Others become real to the extent they become significant others to the designs of our own ego. And in this process the ALL of God dies in us and the sterile nothingness of our desires becomes our God. . . .

Merton makes clear that the self-proclaimed autonomy of the false self is but an illusion. . . .

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. [2]

Father Richard Rohr describes further how the false self lives disconnected from God and from what is ultimately real:

Our false self, which we might also call our “small self,” is our launching pad: our body image, our job, our education, our clothes, our money, our car, our sexual identity, our success, and so on. These are the trappings of ego that we all use to get us through an ordinary day. They are a nice enough platform to stand on, but they are largely a projection of our self-image and our attachment to it. None of them will last! When we are able to move beyond our false self—at the right time and in the right way—it will feel precisely as if we have lost nothing. In fact, it will feel like freedom and liberation. When we are connected to the Whole, we no longer need to protect or defend the mere part. We are now connected to something inexhaustible.

To not let go of our false self at the right time and in the right way is precisely what it means to be stuck, trapped, and addicted to ourselves. If all we have at the end of our life is our false self, there will not be much to eternalize. It is essentially transitory. These costumes are all “accidents” largely created by the mental ego. Our false self is what changes, passes, and dies when we die. Only our True Self lives forever. [3]

[1] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 86.

[2] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972), 34.

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 28–29.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1978), 32–33.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Charlein Garcia, Untitled (detail), 2018, photograph, Philippines, Unsplash, free use. Jenna Keiper, Untitled Leaves (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Charlein Garcia, Untitled (detail), 2018, photograph, Philippines, Unsplash, free use. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: The true self is deeper than our egos and eccentricities. At times mirroring the innocence of a child, it awaits our remembering. May we also open, with childlike curiosity, to our own transformation.

Story from Our Community:

I am halfway through reading 50 years’ worth of old journals. I can see the healing and the growth in the words, along with the repetition of the suffering! In the end, I think I get to who my true self is. I am connected to God and all living beings. That is the most important thing I must remember in the midst of suffering, which will surely appear again.
—Barbara J.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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