Tag Archives: False Self

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 1 of 3

Thomas Merton has deeply influenced my spiritual journey. Since I think many who are seeking a different, more authentic way of being Christian today will find him compelling, I thought I would write a little about the spirituality of Thomas Merton as an introduction.

Thomas Merton was one of the greatest Catholic spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, and is one of the most well known authors of the contemplative life. While his life led him to become a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, he was a writer by nature and has authored over sixty books and hundreds of articles and poems. One writer once introduced him as “a monk by vocation, a theologian by conviction, and a writer by instinct.”[1] While he may have been all of these things, he is best known as a spiritual guide, a mystic, and a contemplative. His writings have inspired many who continue to find them relevant and insightful for their own spiritual journeys. In following  posts, I will explore Merton’s spirituality, his view of the goal of the Christian life, sin, and salvation.

Transformation of Self

Merton’s spirituality is fascinating. While his view of God, the world, and creation are not all that different from the Easter Christian tradition, his views are new for many in the West which tends to emphasize doctrine and theology over experience. For Merton, the goal of the Christian life is not an accumulation of information or correct doctrines, which is often the case for western Christianity. Reflecting upon Merton, one author writes, “He understood the interior transformation as the meaning and goal of the monastic life and of its solitude and contemplation.”[2] Concerning the inner journey Merton writes, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.”[3] Clearly the transformation of the self, or as Merton states this “inner voyage” is central to his view of spiritual formation.

Merton often contrasted what he called the “true self” with the “false self.” For Merton, exposing the false self and walking into the true self (or realizing one’s true self) is what leads to transformation. Merton defines the false self in the following way:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him…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.[4]

The false self is an illusion, it is not who we actually are. I think what Merton is saying here is that people put on masks and then mistakenly identify themselves with that mask. Merton writes, “The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises.”[5] The major problem is that this mask tells us we are outside of God’s reach, that we are not loved, valued, and accepted as we are. (Notice many forms of religion will capitalize on the feelings of shame and unworthiness that is brought on by the false self.)

If the false self is an illusory mask, the true self is “the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were ‘one Spirit.’”[6] It is precisely in realizing our true self that we experience union with God. According to Merton, our true self is who we actually are; our true self is our self “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”[7] As we expose the illusion of the false self, it is at this moment where we are receptive to God’s love and presence in our lives. This is available at all times and all places and for all people.

True Self/False Self

My spirituality has been so shaped by the idea of the true self and false self I’m not sure I can explain it any better than Merton. I view the false self as the part of us that feels unworthy of love and is full of shame – something I believe every human experiences (for more on shame explore Brene Brown’s work). Unhealthy religion will capitalize on this by pointing out our sin, separation, and unworthiness – often suggesting we need to believe all the correct things or do all the correct things in order to be loved and accepted by God. Healthy religion will allow us to transcend this shame, because we are already accepted as we are.

The false self is that part of us outside of God’s love because we don’t feel like we deserve God’s love. When we step into our true self, we realize that we are deeply loved by God regardless of whether or not we feel worthy. The spiritual path helps us walk into our true self by exposing the illusion of the false self – that part of us that feels outside of God’s loving union, that says I’m not good enough or worthy enough. In other words, the spiritual path allows us to become more aware of reality – the reality that we are already in loving union with God!

For me, this is everything!

 

 

 

[1] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 32.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 271.

[4] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 267.

[7] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 35.

Where Christianity Got it Wrong

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12v24)

Today is Good Friday, the day Christians remember the death of Jesus on the cross. What does this mean for us today?

Christianity has tended to focus on correct beliefs; if you believe the right things about Jesus or God then you will go to heaven when you die. The more I read about Jesus, the more this seems off, and not just a little off – way off!

During our Lenten series at One Church, we have been exploring the idea of the True Self and False Self. Most of this language comes from a Monk named Thomas Merton, but Richard Rohr has also been influenced by Merton and has written extensively on this topic.

Rohr defines the True Self as the part of you that knows who you are and whose you are, although largely unconscious.[1]

The False Self is who you think you are,[2] and is driven by our ego.[3]

Our True Self/False Self is about our identity. Our False Self can be seen as a mask we wear – usually as a result of our experience with suffering or humiliation. Our False Self isn’t inherently bad, it’s just not accurate – it’s not who you actually are.

Where did Christianity get it wrong?

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that a large part of Christianity got it wrong. There are healthy and unhealthy forms of Christianity, just as there are healthy and unhealthy forms of all religion. Unhealthy religion gets it wrong in that instead of revealing the False Self (our ego), it enhances it!

Rohr argues that our central task as humans is to “consciously discover and become who we already are and what we somehow unconsciously know.”[4] Jesus taught us that our True Self is “a treasure hidden in a field,” and the False Self is “a house built on sand.”[5]

The goal of healthy religion is to reveal the True Self and uncover the False Self, or as Rohr writes, “almost all religions say that you must die before you die.”[6] This, I believe, is what Jesus was getting at in the gospel of John where he talked about how the grain must die in order to bear much fruit.

Christianity, however, has tended to enhanced our False Self – what many call the religious False Self (I often joke that the religious False Self is like the False Self on crack – it’s nasty!). Concerning the religious False Self, Rohr writes:

The religious False Self is the best and most defended self of all. When God has become our personal and group lackey, we can hate, oppress, torture, and kill others with total impunity. The religious False Self can even justify racism, slavery, war, and total denial or deception and feel no guilt whatsoever, because “they think they are doing a holy duty for God” (John 16:2). The ego [False Self] has found its cover, so be quite careful about being religious. If your religion does not transform your consciousness to one of compassion, it is more a part of the problem than any solution.[7]

We can easily see the religious False Self throughout history at it has caused a great amount of pain, suffering, violence etc., all in the name of God. We can see the religious False Self at work in Christianity today in the way that Christians hold their views. When a person believes their way of interpreting, believing, understanding something is the “one and only way” then you can be sure the religious False Self is at work. When a person feels compelled to tell someone else why they are wrong, deceived, or heretical, you can be sure the religious ego is at work.

The religious False Self wants to appear right or correct and will take any differing view as a threat – in reality it is a threat to their ego. (Note: when most people react negatively against religion, I believe they are reacting against the religious False Self. They see through the masks and don’t want any part of it.)

What does all of this have to do with Good Friday?

As I mentioned above, healthy religion invites us to die, but it isn’t a death to our physical bodies, but to our False Self. “Anything less than the death of the False Self is useless religion. The False Self must die for the True Self to live, or as Jesus himself puts it, ‘Unless I go, the Spirit cannot come’ (John 16:7).”[8]

Good Friday reminds us that death precedes resurrection.

Yet, we must also be careful about resurrection, for our beliefs about resurrection can also reflect our False Self.

Up to now, it has been common, with little skin off anyone’s back, to intellectually argue or religiously believe that Jesus’ physical body could really “resurrect.” That was much easier than to ask whether we could really change or resurrect. It got us off the hook – the hook of growing up, of taking the search for our True Selves seriously.[9]

Unhealthy religious bolsters our False Self (religious False Self) instead of leading to the transformation of our identity (discovery of the True Self).

In order to discover our True Self, we must expose our False Self and allow it to fade. When you have met someone who has allowed their ego (False Self) to fall away and has discovered their True Self, you have found a person who is more open, forgiving, patient, kind, compassionate and who is able to act from a place of peace because they are grounded (they have build their house on a rock – the True Self – and not on the sand – the False Self). Anytime we react to something, we can be sure that it is the False Self. Anytime we take offense, we can be sure that it is the False Self. As we become more aware of this False Self, we can consciously choose not to react or take offense – this is the path to maturity.

Healthy religion leads us on a path toward maturity, toward the transformation of the self. It is much easier to argue about theology or correct beliefs than it is to do the hard inner work of transformation (exposing the False Self). Let’s be honest, it’s a painful process – hence why Paul called all who follow Christ to take up their cross.

 

Questions:

  1. How have you seen the religious False Self at work in the world?
  2. How have you seen the religious False Self at work in yourself?
  3. Are you willing to do the hard work to expose the False Self and allow your True Self to emerge?

 

Remember: this is a long process. As you begin this journey you will become increasingly aware of your False Self (usually seen when you take offense or feel compelled to argue). If your like me, you will see this religious False Self all over the place – know you are not alone! Just remember, God is patient with all of us. Have compassion on yourself and others for this is the path toward transformation.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, vii.

[2] Ibid, viii.

[3] Ibid, xvi.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Matthew 7:26

[6] Ibid, 59.

[7] Ibid, 61.

[8] Ibid, 62.

[9] Ibid, ix.

 

The False Self

We all have both a True Self and a False Self.

Being able to tell the difference is everything.

Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves…There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness.               – Thomas Merton

falseself

My spiritual journey has lead me to contemplation, which seems to be the best route (the only route I have found) that exposes the False Self and helps you walk into your True Self – the core of spirituality.

According to one of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, In contemplative prayer we move beyond language to experience God as Mystery. We let go of our need to judge, defend, or evaluate…During contemplation we come to know that there is no separation between sacred and secular. All is one with Divine Reality.

The spiritual journey is meant to be a pathway to discover our True Self – that self that is hidden within, often behind the mask of our False Self. The False Self is that part of us that we prop up that makes us look good to others, hence the image of a mask. It is not actually who we are (our True Self), it is something we hide behind, but it is something we unconsciously fight to keep propped up so we don’t have to deal with all the junk within. If I can’t be as good, smart, or successful as I want to be, I at least want others to think that I am.

The path to uncovering the False Self means we have to be honest and vulnerable in order to expose the weak part of us – no one likes this!

In The Gift of Being Yourself, Psychologist David Benner writes Our false self is built on an inordinate attachment to an image of our self that we think makes us special…Initially the masks we adopt reflect how we want others to see us…Few things are more difficult to discern and dismantle than our most cherished illusions. And none of our illusions are harder to identify than those that lie at the heart of our false self. The false self is like the air we breathe. We have become so accustomed to its presence that we are no longer aware of it.”

The False Self is an illusion, an illusion that is prevalent in every person, and is largely unrecognized. While many non religious people are unaware, religion can actually be a place that bolsters the False Self. I think this happens more times than not.

Immature or lower levels of religion prop up the False Self by creating more labels, divisions, doctrines, and dual (either/or) ways of thinking. Contemplation slowly breaks down these walls and divisions and brings a non dual (both/and) awareness. Often the False Self is that part that feeds off certainty and security. No wonder the False Self is well fed in the religious mind!

  • How do you expose the False Self?

Ask yourself what you feel the need to constantly defend and there you will find the False Self.

Those things, ideas, beliefs, images we are attached to are sure signs of our False Self, hidden within. Dr. Benner writes, “the false self needs constant bolstering. Touchiness dependably points us to false ways of being. And the more prickly a person you are, the more you are investing in the defense of a false self.”

Do you feel the need to consistently defend your own self-importance, self-worth, intelligence, success, views, or beliefs?

Those things we are attached to  are obstacles to finding our True Self – that part that doesn’t need to defend, compare, divide, or fight against. These attachments keep us from becoming vulnerable and keep us from dealing with our own shame, insecurities, and feelings of inadequacy.

My own journey as lead me to uncover my False Self in unexpected ways – in my own insecurities and feelings of inadequacies. I want so badly to appear smart, intelligent, accomplished, and put together. I constantly, and most often unconsciously, compare myself to others who are smarter than I, more charismatic than I, and the list can go on and on.

One of the most helpful tools I have discovered along the way is something called the Enneagram (I will share more about this in the future). I will also share steps to take to enter more fully into your True Self, or at least the path I am on, which is largely a path of knowing and accepting.

Stay tuned!