After writing my last article, On Self-Love, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to explain what I mean by “self,” and to examine some important connections of that meaning with mysticism.
The term self is used in many different ways. In fact, significant confusion and disagreement can happen between people communicating with each other with “self,” often simply because the different parties don’t realize they are using “self” in significantly different ways. The same problems arise with other words like psyche, soul, ego, and even mind. I currently tend to use self, soul, and psyche interchangeably. It is important to note that I say “currently tend to,” because I have not always thought, written, or spoken in this particular way, and I might not at some future time. With these terms I refer to the whole being of an individual human, and not any particular part or function of the whole. My use of “self” is thus essentially equivalent with an ancient Christian use of “soul” in reference to an individual’s totality of body, mind, and spirit. It also seems helpful to point out that the term ego does not equate for me with “self.” Ego is a word I use to describe certain aspects of the self. So, in Freudian terms for example, the psyche is that which contains the ego, id, and superego, and has both conscious and unconscious dimensions. In that respect, I use self and psyche synonymously.
The capitalized “Self”
Sometimes we see the capitalized word Self in psychological and spiritual literature. In Jungian psychology, this term is used in much the same way as I use the un-capitalized “self.” However, like many other spiritual writers, I use the capitalized “Self” to denote a Supreme Identity that transcends individual human existence. This Supreme Identity is a universal and divine Self that is regarded by mystics as infinitely beyond all manifest things, yet nonetheless immanent within the finiteness of all things. In this way, “Self” refers to the whole of the One and All just as “self” does to the whole of the individual human. For me, the capitalized “Self” is thus practically synonymous with “God.”
It also seems useful to clarify that there is a significant difference between the way I use the terms self and self-concept. The most significant point I want to make here is that the self-concept is only one’s more or less specific sense of who one is as an individual human being. By analogy, the self-concept is to the self as a video about your body is to your actual body; one is only a limited representation or reflection of the other. Furthermore, such a representation is always more about how an actual thing was sometime in the past than what it presently is. This distinction is important because when someone speaks in terms of myself, me, or I, one is very often actually referring to the self-concept rather than the self, which is to say one is speaking about particular perceptions of the self by certain aspects of the self. In fact, we so rarely speak of the whole self that we frequently make it a point to highlight that we are doing so by emphasizing the word “whole.”
A fundamental self-deception
This conflation of the self with the self-concept is evidence that most of us live in a pervasive state of self-deception and confusion about our being! In this confusion, habitually thinking and speaking of the self-concept as if it is the whole self, we construct and maintain an illusion that serves as a kind of barrier between our present awareness and the broader range of truths about our being. To some extent, this barrier exists out of simple ignorance, but we can also maintain it because we semi-consciously sense the need to protect the self-concept from realities or potentialities within the self that we regard as unacceptable in some way. Freud’s theory of the ego defense mechanisms is based upon his recognition of this dynamic.
The mystery of the self
When we meditate carefully on the self, it becomes clear that we lack complete awareness of it. The many autonomous functions of our organs are themselves sufficient evidence that there are parts and processes within the self of which we are rarely if ever aware. Further and perhaps even more powerful evidence is found in the mental dimension, where intuition, the storage of memories, and the unpredictable and often puzzling content of our dreams reveal the existence of what psychologists refer to as the unconscious mind. So it is that, even when we understand the distinction between the self and the self-concept, we cannot think, speak, or write about the self with complete knowledge and understanding.
We are often unaware of the mystery of the self, perhaps even blissfully unaware, but it is ultimately an inescapable fact. Sometimes it seems to loom around us, filled with foreboding uncertainties. It is as if we stand upon the edge of a cliff in complete darkness, where any movement at all might send us falling to our doom. Yet, as we touched upon in the previous section, the doom that we fear is in actuality often only the loss of our cherished illusions. Entering into the mystery of the self is therefore essential to liberation from some of the falseness and limitations of our self-concepts. It is the path of freedom in realizing and actualizing more of our unfathomable potentials, for out of this mystery emerges the amazing light of creativity we express in our love of play, romance, philosophy, art, science, and spirituality.
The mystical potentials of the self
According to those who have penetrated most deeply into the mystery of the self, one of its potentials is the realization of mystical union. At first, one may make the rational observation that simply in its mysteriousness the human self is like all of reality, for there is some degree of mystery in everything. Likewise, whatever it is we mean by the word “God,” we must acknowledge that it is significantly interwoven with our sense of the most profound mysteries. In this regard, we can gain a special appreciation for what it means to have been created in the image of God; being mysterious to us is something that both the self and God have in common. Pondering this commonality leads many of us to consider that there might be more to all of this than a parallel of two different mysteries. It is natural for us to wonder if self and God might actually intersect within the single mysterious category of all that is beyond complete apprehension by our sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Indeed, those who have experienced mystical realization insist that such an intersection is real, that it is the deepest crux and universally shared point of reality within the circle of all creation; it is the spiritual heart of the Cosmic Self and all the individual selves It begets. It is here that we discover the unity of self-love, love of others, and love of God, the very oneness of Love Itself manifesting in all Its many forms. The mystic way of the heart is thus the contemplative path of practicing devoted attentiveness and responsiveness to this Heart within all hearts.
What a wonderful exposition of “self” from a Christian perspective, Chuck. It is rare for a Christian author to tackle this very thorny topic. Bernadette Roberts is the only other author I know of who has written fairly extensively on this. You certainly do it justice.
In regard to the “ego”, as it is generally understood in the spiritual life, I am reminded of a story. A Zen master was instructing his students on the understanding of “ego” and “self”. At the end of his rather long-winded talk, one of his students asked: “Master, how much ego can I have?” The Zen master was silent for a while and then replied: “Enough so you don’t get hit by a bus!”
Just a little “Zen” humor.
Thanks, Steve. I’ve read some of her work, and I suspect that we use “self” somewhat differently. She’s certainly one of the most insightful and challenging Christian authors I know of. Love the Zen story!