False Self and True Self, Part I

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 6

False Self and True Self, Part I
Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I learned the terms “True Self” and “False Self” from Thomas Merton—words he used to clarify what Jesus surely meant when he said that we must die to ourselves or we must “lose ourselves to find ourselves” (Mark 8:35). This passage has caused much havoc and pushback in Christian history because it sounds negative and ascetical, and it was usually interpreted as an appeal to punish the body. But Jesus’ intent is personal liberation, not self-punishment. There is a general Platonic denial of the body in most religions. Centuries of Christians falsely assumed that if they could “die” to their body, their spirit would for some reason miraculously arise.

Paul made a most unfortunate choice of the word sarx, translated “flesh,” as the very enemy of pneuma, Spirit (for example, Galatians 5:16-24). Now we would probably translate sarx as “ego” or “small self,” which would be much closer to Paul’s actual meaning. Remember that Christianity is the religion that believes “the Word became flesh” (John 1:13), and Jesus even returned to the “flesh” after the Resurrection (Luke 24:40)—so flesh cannot be bad. If our spirituality is in any way anti-body, it is never authentic Christianity.

Merton rightly recognized that it was not the body that had to “die” but the “false self” that we do not need anyway. The False Self is simply a substitute for our deeper and deepest truth. It is a useful and even needed part of ourselves, but it is not all; the danger is when we think we are only our false, separate, small self. Our attachment to False Self must die to allow True Self—our basic and unchangeable identity in God—to live fully and freely. [1]

Merton beautifully describes the True Self in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. I quote this lengthy passage because of its importance for Merton.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . 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. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.

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 like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could 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. [2]

Gateway to Silence:
“We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time.”  —Thomas Merton

References:
[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 38-39.
[2] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday: 1966), 140-142.

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