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Theme:
True Self/Separate Self

True Self/Separate Self

Saturday, September 5, 2020
Summary: Sunday, August 30—Friday, September 4, 2020

Your True Self is a little tiny flame of this Universal Reality that is Life itself, Consciousness itself, Being itself, Love itself, Light and Fire itself, God’s very self. (Sunday)

Thinking creates the separate self, the ego self, the insecure self. The God-given contemplative mind, on the other hand, recognizes the God Self, the Christ Self, the True Self of abundance and deep inner security. (Monday)

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy. —Thomas Merton (Tuesday)

Only our True Self lives forever and is truly free in this world. (Wednesday)

The consistent practice of contemplation helps to uncover our true reality, essential Self, or fundamental “I.” (Thursday)

Awakening—which in Jesus’ teaching really boils down to the capacity to perceive and act in accordance with the higher laws of the Kingdom of Heaven—is a matter of piercing through the charade of the smaller self to develop a stable connection with the greater Self. —Cynthia Bourgeault (Friday)

 

Practice: Lectio Divina

Lectio divina (Latin for sacred reading) is a contemplative way of reading, praying, and taking a long, loving look at Scripture or some other text. In lectio divina, God teaches us to listen for and seek God’s presence in silence. The text for this lectio practice is from my book The Universal Christ:

A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else.” [1]

1. With the first reading, allow yourself to settle in to the exercise and familiarize yourself with the words. Read the text out loud, very slowly and clearly. Pause for a breath or two before moving on.

2. For the second reading, listen from a centered heart space and notice any word or phrase that stands out to you.

3. After a few moments of silence, read the text a third time, reflecting on how this word or phrase is connected to your current life experience. Take a minute to linger over this word or phrase, to focus on it until it engages your body, your heart, your awareness of the physical [and unseen] world around you.

You may want to speak a response aloud or write something in your journal.

4. For the final reading, respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced, inviting the infinite wisdom of God to support you in places of unknowing, confusion, desire, or hope.

Leading in with the quotation below, practice a contemplative sit. You may wish to set a timer or digital prayer bell for 5, 10, or 20 minutes, so that you know when to finish.

Seat yourself in a quiet area. Once you are settled, read the passage aloud again:

A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else.

• Notice any tightness in your shoulders and neck and allow any tension in your muscles to relax.

• Allow your back to rest in an aligned, neutral position.

• Ground yourself and allow your breathing to settle. Then read the following aloud:I am not trying to “achieve” anything. (Pause) There are no goals. (Pause)

I am simply becoming aware of this moment. (Pause) Becoming aware of my presence in this moment. (Pause) As I notice any distractions, thoughts, judgments, decisions, ideas that cross my mind, I let them go for now (Pause), focusing instead on my moment-by-moment experience of being present to What Is. (Pause) God’s Presence. (Pause) The Larger Field. (Pause) En Cristo. (Pause)

• Ring a prayer bell to indicate that the contemplative sit has begun.

References:
[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 33.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: Companion Guide for Groups (CAC Publishing: 2019), 23–24, 25, 172.

For Further Study:
Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cowley Publications: 2004)

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978)

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions Paperbook: 2007, ©1961)

Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad Publishing: 1999, 2003)

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013)

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Thomas Merton
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True Self/Separate Self

Trusting a Deeper Aliveness
Friday, September 4, 2020

I believe a regular practice of Centering Prayer is one of the most effective tools we have for discovering our True Self. Sitting in silence, we become adept at compassionately observing our separate self at work, as it tries to maintain control of the inner narrative. Ultimately, however, with our genuine intention and attention, our True Self is revealed, present to the Presence of God. CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault describes how this happens:

When we enter [into contemplative prayer], it is like a “mini-death,” at least from the perspective of the ego. . . . We let go of our self-talk, our interior dialogue, our fears, wants, needs, preferences, daydreams, and fantasies. . . . We simply entrust ourselves to a deeper aliveness, gently pulling the plug on that tendency of the mind to want to check in with itself all the time. In this sense, meditation is a mini-rehearsal for the hour of our own death, in which the same thing will happen. There comes a moment when the ego is no longer able to hold us together, and our identity is cast to the mercy of Being itself. This is the existential experience of “losing one’s life.”. . .

Just as in meditation [and contemplative prayer] we participate in the death of Christ, we also participate in his resurrection. . . . For twenty minutes we [i.e., our ego or separate self] have not been holding ourselves in life, and yet life remains. Something has held us and carried us. And this same something, we gradually come to trust, will hold and carry us at the hour of our death. To know this—really know this—is the beginning of resurrection life. . . .

Virtually all the great spiritual traditions of the world share the conviction that humanity is the victim of a tragic case of mistaken identity. There is a “self” and a Self, and our fatal mistake lies in confusing the two. The egoic self . . . is in virtually every spiritual tradition immediately dispatched to the realm of the illusory, or at best, transitory. It is the imposter who claims to be the whole. This imposter can become a good servant, but it is a dangerous master. Awakening—which in Jesus’ teaching really boils down to the capacity to perceive and act in accordance with the higher laws of the Kingdom of Heaven—is a matter of piercing through the charade of the smaller self to develop a stable connection with the greater Self . . . becoming intimate with our spiritual identity, the sense of selfhood carried in our spiritual awareness. . . .

Through meditation [like Centering Prayer] it gradually becomes ingrained in us that “losing one’s life,” regardless of the action that may ultimately be required of us in the outer world, entails first and foremost a passage from our ordinary awareness to our spiritual one, because only at this deeper level of non-fearbased, wholistic perception will we be able to understand what is actually required of us.

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cowley Publications: 2004), 81, 82-83.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Thomas Merton
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True Self/Separate Self

Separateness Is Suffering
Thursday, September 3, 2020

The idea of the two “selves” within every individual—the True Self and the separate self—is a part of the perennial wisdom and a pathway for transformation in most faith traditions. I share the thoughts of two writers, a rabbi and a Sufi Shaikh (elder), on why this teaching is so central to mature spirituality.

From Rabbi Rami Shapiro:

The term “perennial philosophy”. . . refers to a fourfold realization: (1) there is only one Reality (call it, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Dharmakaya, Brahman, or Great Spirit) that is the source and substance of all creation; (2) that while each of us is a manifestation of this Reality, most of us identify with something much smaller, that is, our culturally conditioned individual ego; (3) that this identification with the smaller self gives rise to needless anxiety, unnecessary suffering, and cross-cultural competition and violence; and (4) that peace, compassion, and justice naturally replace anxiety, needless suffering, competition, and violence when we realize our true nature as a manifestation of this singular Reality. The great sages and mystics of every civilization throughout human history have taught these truths in the language of their time and culture. [1]

From Kabir Helminski:

Education as it is currently understood, particularly in the West, ignores the human soul, or essential Self. This essential Self is not some vague entity whose existence is a matter of speculation, but our fundamental “I,” which has been covered over by social conditioning and by the superficiality of our rational mind. In North America we are in great need of a form of training that would contribute to the awakening of the essential Self. Such forms of training have existed in other eras and cultures and have been available to those with the yearning to awaken from the sleep of their limited conditioning and know the potential latent in the human being. [2]

These are key reasons that the Center for Action and Contemplation is dedicated to reinvigorating the teaching of Christian contemplation. The consistent practice of contemplation helps to uncover our true reality, essential Self, or fundamental “I.”

Unfortunately, separateness is the chosen stance of the small self which has a hard time living in unity and love with the diverse manifestations of this One Reality (i.e., ourselves, other people, and everything else). The small self takes one side or the other in order to feel secure. It frames reality in a binary way: for me or against me, totally right or totally wrong, my group’s or another group’s opinion—all dualistic formulations.

That is the best the small egotistical self can do, yet it is not anywhere close to adequate. It might be an early level of intelligence, but it is not mature wisdom. The small self is still objectively in union with God, it just does not know it, enjoy it, or draw upon it. Jesus asked, “Is it not written in your own law, ‘You are gods’?” (John 10:34). But for most of us, this objective divine image has not yet become the subjective likeness (Genesis 1:26‒27). Our life’s goal is to illustrate both the image and the likeness of God by living in conscious loving union with God. It is a moment by moment choice and surrender.

References:
[1] Rami Shapiro, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent: Sacred Teachings—Annotated & Explained (Skylight Paths Publishing: 2013), xiv.

[2] Kabir Edmund Helminski, Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam: 1992), 6.

Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 70.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Thomas Merton
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True Self/Separate Self

Trusting in the “True You”
Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Our separate self is who we think we are, but our thinking does not make it true. It is a social and mental construct that gets us started on life’s journey. It is a set of agreements between us as individuals and our parents, families, school friends, partner or spouse, culture, and religion. It is our “container.” It is largely defined in distinction from others, precisely as our separate and unique self. It is probably necessary to get started, but it becomes problematic when we stop there and spend the rest of our lives promoting and protecting it. This small and separate self is merely our launching pad: our appearance, education, job, money, success, and so on. These are the trappings of ego that help us get through an ordinary day.

Please understand that the separate self is not bad or inherently deceitful. It is actually quite good and necessary as far as it goes; it just does not go far enough. Too often, it poses and substitutes for the real thing and pretends to be more than it is. The separate self is bogus more than bad. We need the temporary costumes of our egoic selves to get started, but they show their limitations when they stay around too long.

When we are able to move beyond our separate self, it will feel as if we lost nothing important at all. Of course, if we don’t know that there is anything “beyond” the separate self, the transition will probably feel like dying. Only after we have fallen into the True Self, will we be able to say with the mystic Rumi (1207‒1273), “What have I ever lost by dying?” [1] We have discovered true freedom and liberation. When we are connected to the Whole, we no longer need to protect or defend the smaller parts. We are connected to something inexhaustible and unhurtable. The True Self cannot be hurt. I said that at the National AIDS Conference one time, and it was one of the most healing lines for that crowd. I got letters for months afterward; they realized the “True You” is indestructible. All our hurts and feelings of being offended come from our separate selves.

If we do not let go of our separate self/false self at the right time and in the right way, we remain stuck, trapped, and addicted. (The traditional word for that was sin.) Unfortunately, many people reach old age still entrenched in their egoic operating system. Only our True Self lives forever and is truly free in this world.

References:
[1] Rumi, “Tell Me, What Have I Lost?” in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, trans. Robert Bly (Harper Perennial: 2005), 339.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 27‒29, 36; and

True Self/False Self, disc 1 (Franciscan Media: 2003), CD.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Thomas Merton
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True Self/Separate Self

The Illusion of the Separate Self
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

CAC faculty member James Finley studied under Thomas Merton as a young monk in formation. While many have been influenced by Merton’s writings, few have had the opportunity to learn from the mystic himself. Today, Jim reflects on the insights on the True Self and false self that he gleaned from Thomas Merton.

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

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

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.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. [1] . . .

The false self, sensing its fundamental unreality, begins to clothe itself in myths and symbols of power. Since it intuits that it is but a shadow, that it is nothing, it begins to convince itself that it is what it does. Hence, the more it does, achieves and experiences, the more real it becomes. Merton writes,

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. [2]

Richard again: Our false self is how we define ourselves outside of love, relationship, or divine union. After we have spent many years laboriously building this separate self, with all its labels and preoccupations, we are very attached to it. And why wouldn’t we be? It’s what we know and all we know. To move beyond it will always feel like losing or dying.

References:
[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions Paperbook: 2007, ©1961), 34.

[2] Ibid., 34-35.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978), 33, 35, 36.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 36.

For a deeper exploration of Thomas Merton’s teachings, tune into James Finley’s podcast, “Turning to the Mystics,” produced by the CAC.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Thomas Merton
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True Self/Separate Self

The Glory of God in Us
Monday, August 31, 2020

Today we begin with Thomas Merton’s classic description of the True Self as written following his “conversion” at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. [1] It is so inspired; I want to quote it at length:

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 so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our [birthright]. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would 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. . . . I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. [2]

Most people spend their entire lives living up to the mental self-images of who they think they are, instead of living in the primal “I” that is already good in God’s eyes. But all I can “pay back” to God or others or myself is who I really am. This is what Merton is describing above. It’s a place of utter simplicity. Perhaps we don’t want to go back there because it is too simple and almost too natural. It feels utterly unadorned. There’s nothing to congratulate myself for. I can’t prove any worth, much less superiority. There I am naked and poor. After years of posturing and projecting, it will at first feel like nothing.

But when we are nothing, we are in a fine position to receive everything from God. As Merton says above, our point of nothingness is “the pure glory of God in us.” If we look at the great religious traditions, we see they all use similar words to point in the same direction. The Franciscan word is “poverty.” The Carmelite word is nada or “nothingness.” The Buddhists speak of “emptiness.” Jesus speaks of being “poor in spirit” in his very first beatitude (Matthew 5:3).

A Zen master would call the True Self “the face we had before we were born.” Paul would call it who we are “in Christ, hidden in God” (Colossians 3:3). It is who we are before we’ve done anything right or anything wrong, before we even have a conscious thought about who we are. Thinking creates the separate self, the ego self, the insecure self. The God-given contemplative mind, on the other hand, recognizes the God Self, the Christ Self, the True Self of abundance and deep inner security.

References:
[1] Walnut has since been renamed Muhammed Ali Boulevard.

[2] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday & Company: ©1965, 1966), 142.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad Publishing: 1999, 2003), 76‒78.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Thomas Merton
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True Self/Separate Self

True Self/Separate Self
Sunday, August 30, 2020

The thing that we have to face is that life is as simple as this. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true. —Thomas Merton

I learned the terms “True Self” and “false self” from Thomas Merton (1915‒1968). These are words he used to clarify Jesus’ teaching of dying to self or “losing ourselves to find ourselves” (see Mark 8:35). 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—or what I am calling lately the “separate self,” disconnected from Divine Love—is simply a substitute for our deepest truth. It is a useful and even needed part of ourselves, but it is not all of us; the danger is when we think we are only our small or separate self. Our attachment to the false self must die to allow the True Self—our basic and unchangeable identity in God—to live fully and freely.

Thomas Merton said that the True Self should not be thought of as anything different than life itself—but not my little life—the Big Life. [1] Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus (c. 1266‒1308) said that the human person is not different or separate from Being itself. This is not the little being that you and I get attached to and take too seriously, but Universal Being, “the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being,” as Paul put it to the Athenians (Acts 17:28). We Franciscans call this “the univocity of all being (speaking of all beings with one consistent voice), “that all may be one” (John 17:21).

When you’ve gotten too comfortable with your separate self and you call it Life, you will get trapped at that level. You will hold onto it for dear life—because that’s the only life you think you have! Unless someone tells you about the Bigger Life, or you’ve had a conscious connection with the deepest ground of your being, there’s no way you’re going to let go of your separate self. But your attachment to that separate self must “die” or “the single grain of wheat remains just a single grain” (John 12:24).

Your True Self is Life and Being and Love. Love is what you were made for and love is who you are. When you live outside of Love, you are not living from your true Being or with full consciousness. The Song of Songs says that “Love is strong as Death. . . . The flash of it is a flash of fire, a flame of YHWH” (8:6, Jerusalem Bible). Your True Self is a little tiny flame of this Universal Reality that is Life itself, Consciousness itself, Being itself, Love itself, Light and Fire itself, God’s very self.

References:
[1] Merton writes about the true self throughout New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions: ©1961).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, True Self/False Self, disc 2 (Franciscan Media: 2003), CD; and

Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 38‒39.

Epigraph: From “A Life Free from Care,” Merton’s final talk as novice master (August 20, 1965). See Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, ed. Christine M. Bochen (Orbis Books: 2000), 70.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Thomas Merton
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