I came up with an alternative to the language of “false” and “true” self: I talked about two dimensions of consciousness, which I called survival-mind and playful-mind. As you can imagine, survival-mind is really good at filing income tax returns, managing one’s financial portfolio, keeping the oil changed and the air ducts clean, and so forth and so on. Playful-mind, meanwhile, tends to be better at writing poetry, engaging in contemplative prayer, falling in love, and embracing the encounter with mystery. Like Mary and Martha of Bethany, they are siblings, and they need each other. No judgment!
Contemplation is all about rediscovering the unity that is always already there. So it’s a bit of a detour to get caught up in language that just introduces new types of dichotomies into our thinking.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the true self and the false self. In case you haven’t heard of it, it is a concept which people use to deconstruct their inner landscapes and understand which parts of themselves are ego and which parts are spirit. There are a lot of people who promote the concept within the contemplative tradition, the most notable being Thomas Merton who seems to be the first one to explicitly use the language within the Christian world.
There has been some criticism of it as well and in this article I would like to engage some of that dialogue. Carl McColman wrote an article earlier this year about how the language of true self and false self makes him uncomfortable, it is where the above quote comes from. You can find the rest of the article here. I think Carl has a lot of meaningful commentary to make, but I am going to discuss why I think it is still a valuable tool in the contemplative’s tool box.
One of the things about unitive consciousness or non-dual thinking is that it allows paradox – including the paradox of coming to non-duality through a dualistic understanding.
The human mind understands all things by separating this from that. It is how the creative process works. Like how Wisdom is separated from Folly in the book of Proverbs, or how light is separated from darkness, and woman is separated from man in the book of Genesis. The act of creation is a refinement, a separating of this from that.
The eternity of God, and indeed the eternity which exists in the human soul, contains all possibilities. That is what it means to be infinite. And so, when God creates God separates things from infinity: light from darkness, waters from waters, woman from man. In the same way we are to separate wisdom from folly within ourselves as Proverbs describes or the new self from the old self as Paul describes in many places.
These kinds of dichotomies have been tools used in the Christian tradition for a very long time. Whether the question is faith vs works as described by James and Paul, or action and contemplation as described by so many mystics and theologians, the process of separating this from that is a creative one which gives depth and life to our spiritual lives. Just as God creates the outer world, so do we create our inner world. As in Heaven so below.
I personally believe that contemplation is an act of creation. We are co-creating with God a temple within ourselves. I love language and so I like to pull apart words and discover the cultural wisdom of those who came before us hidden inside them. Con-templ-ation means to make a sacred space. It really means to co-create a sacred space. The root word templum is the same as in the word temple. Contemplation, then, is the act of co-creating a temple with God inside our own being. It is to become a temple where God dwells.
In this act of creation it is good for us to separate what is helpful from what is not. What will be part of our temple and what needs to be shed away. Much like how a sculptor shapes a stone, pieces must be shed away for the art to be revealed.
Michelangelo said this so well:
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work.
It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”
This is what the exercise of separating the true self from the false self offers. When God separated light from darkness, darkness was not evil, but it was in separating them that the light of Christ was able to fill the universe. Both light and darkness existed together before one was separated from the other just as both woman and man were present in the first human before they were separated into two beings.
So, while the true self is the statue which is revealed it is also not truly another substance than the false self. It is simply the aspects of self which one decides to discard in order to reveal the beautiful temple which was always within. Contemplation is a work of art, and the act of identifying the false self from the true self is how we chisel away at the stone. It is less important what is the false self, than what is the true self.
The Temporary Self and the Eternal Self
“The soul is created as if at a point between time and eternity, which touches both. With the higher powers she touches eternity, but with the lower powers she touches time. She works in time not according to it but according to eternity”
I believe that we are, like Jesus, both eternal and temporal. There is a spark of eternity in the human soul, as it says in Ecclesiastes, but we are also mortal. While I am not sure if the mortal self and the eternal self are actually separate selves in the fullest sense, they are certainly distinct aspects of who we are, much in the same way Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. The paradox is that we are both one unified being and also two distinct beings. This is, of course, very similar to the doctrine of the trinity as well, which asserts that God is both three distinct people while also being one unified whole.
Those aspects of ourselves which we identify as the false self are the temporal parts of our being. They are the circumstances of our birth, the roles we play in human society, and the cultural prejudices we all have. These things are false in the sense that they are temporary, not in the sense that they are, in some fashion, unreal or inherently bad. They are very real, and in that sense they are also true. But they are not as true as the eternal self, the spark of divinity so loving placed within us by our eternal creator.
So, the false self is still true – it’s just less true – just true for a fleeting moment – and it doesn’t make a very good material out of which to sculpt a temple for God. One does not build a temple out of popsicle sticks and straw. We should not build our house on the shifting sands of ego but instead on the steadfast rock of that eternal spark placed in our hearts.
This is what Jesus was getting at in the sermon on the mount. He talks all about not giving into the ego in his sermon, then ends with a warning that the gate to destruction is wide and many take it but the gate to life is narrow and many ignore it. I would say his use of the path of life and the path of destruction here is another one of these dichotomies which helps us understand ourselves and create the person we are truly meant to be.
And so, we don’t have to hate the false self. The eternal self loves and has compassion for the temporal self and we should, as well, allow the love of our true self to comfort and nurture our false self. The dualistic separation of false self and true self, temporal self and eternal self, or survival-mind and playful-mind is the chisel with which we can release the beautiful temple that already exists within us.
In this capacity it is a beautiful tool. But, and this is the tricky part, any notion of false self and true self comes from the false self! The true self could never be bothered with such things. We are still our temporary selves, we still exist as people with lives and names and titles. And so we must work our artistry with the tools at hand, and the dualistic mind makes and excellent hammer and chisel with which to carve out a temporal self worthy of adorning the inner temple which we create in contemplation.
Spiritual not Religious
I think this process which can be so helpful in understanding the state of our souls can also be applied to understanding the state of our society. Many people today, including myself, are in a process of deconstructing the faith of our forefathers.
We are acknowledging that the church has been built upon the shifting sands of ego instead of the eternal rock of the Universal Christ. Many of us are separating true religion from false religion in an attempt to correct what is wrong with Christendom.
Bob Holmes talks about this in one of his articles about the false self, which you can find here. He says:
We may be very devoted and religious, but all our prayers and meditations are futile while that borg, the ego is in place. Though our pride may be pleased, it does nothing for entering the real presence of God. At best our religion becomes a finger pointing at God while giving us all kinds of dysfunctional strategies for getting there. Devotional prayer with our ego in place will leave you face down in the dirt.
This is the phenomenon that the growing movement of “spiritual not religious” addresses. While there is arguably no real separation between religion and spirituality, there is still a very real and helpful critique in the dichotomy. Just as the true self and the false self help us understand our souls the distinction of religion and spirituality helps us to understand our religious communities and institutions.
The sacraments and rituals, the teachings and doctrines, the institutions and seminaries of Christianity have too long been products of the false self, of ego, of religion without spirituality. It is time that we turn inwardly and carve away what is not needed within our souls. It is time that we be willing to ask hard questions about Christianity and separate true religion from false religion. What draws us closer to the eternal? What promotes love and peace? What can we chisel away to reveal the beautiful temple hidden within the unfinished rock all along?
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.