Tag Archives: shame

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.

The power of shame

I believe all people have a strong need to experience love and belonging, but there is a powerful, and yet often unnamed, force that keeps most of us from experiencing this – shame.

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I have struggled with shame my entire life, but until recently I had no idea, that is until I read Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. What a life transforming book!

I knew I struggled with perfectionism and I knew that it held me back from taking steps forward. I would often feel I was not good enough, capable enough, or smart enough and there was always people I could think of who would do it better than I could. What I did not connect was that perfectionism leads to shame because I am never good enough, which leaves us feeling unworthy.

Can you see the struggle here?

If I could just lose 25 lbs…

If I could just stop drinking…

If I could just keep myself from loosing my temper…

If I could just eat healthier…

If I could just be more compassionate….

If I could just have get an A….

If I could just get a promotion…

If I could could just be as good as….

What I have found is that many struggle with these loops that replay over and over again. In essence, we believe that we are not worthy.

Brene Brown writes, “If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.”[1]

If I feel an innate need to experience love and belonging, yet feel unworthy of love and belonging due to my focus on perfectionism that leads to shame, then I will be left feeling alone and will continue to spiral down.

Here are four steps that I think we can take to lead us on the path toward freedom from shame.

  1. Surrender our drive for perfectionism.

None of us are or ever will be perfect. We will all make mistakes from time to time and that is actually part of the learning and growth process. The only way we don’t make a mistake is if we never step out and try. Perfectionism paralyzes us and keeps us from taking steps forward. So instead, we should name and own our mistakes. As we do, I think we will find that people appreciate that and are actually drawn to us because they feel they can be imperfect as well.

  1. Separate shame from guilt.
  • Shame tells us we are bad
  • Guilt tells us we did something bad

We can learn from guilt, but we cannot learn from shame. Shame will hinder our lives because what we will hear over and over again is that we are bad, defected, messed up, or broken. Brene Brown defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.[2] Shame needs secrecy and silence to grow and once we name shame and then confess our shame, it’s power over us begins to loosen.

  1. Practice authenticity.

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.[3]

This is a practice, meaning it takes time and the more we practice it the better we become. In order to begin the journey toward freedom from shame, we must journey inward – toward what some have called our True Self. Only after we know our True Self and are able to accept who we are, will we be able to stop the comparing game. I cannot tell you how many times I have compared myself to others, only to walk away feeling shameful because I always found areas of myself where I was not as good as someone else.

  1. Surround ourselves with people who encourage us.

If this is a struggle, it won’t go away over night – it’s a process. Shame is a powerful hindrance to us experiencing well being and contentment in life. Becoming aware of the power of shame in my life is half the battle, but surrounding myself with people who will see who I am an encourage me is essential. The more I experience their love, acceptance, and support, the less shame can hold me and the more freedom I experience.

Once shame is named, exposed, and then these steps are taken, we can walk into the freedom to be who we are and to believe the truth about ourselves – that each of us is worthy!

 

[1] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 23.

[2] Ibid, 39.

[3] Ibid., 50.

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!