Sandcastles And The False Self, Finding Your True Center

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Photo by Dallas Reedy on Unsplash

A few days ago I found a caterpillar crawling up the spine and curving its body daringly down into the open page of one of my favorite books. I had grabbed the book and opened to a random page, but now stopped to snap a picture of the little pilgrim because it seemed both so out of the ordinary and yet apropos that a caterpillar would make it into my closed meditation room, and that such a creature should be found on that particular book. And although the photo won’t win any awards, the title of the book is still visible, Open Mind Open Heart, by Thomas Keating.

If you’ve never heard of Thomas Keating, he was a Trappist monk and priest, living in my home state of Colorado for many years until his recent death in 2018 at the age of 95. Keating is most famous for his revival of the contemplative prayer tradition, helping bring this long practiced prayer out of the shadow of the middle ages, up into our modern times, along with a psychologically up-to-date refresh of the technique. That practice is called “Centering Prayer” and it’s become a bedrock of healing in my own life, helping me find the forward momentum I’ve been seeking through therapy over the years.

The basic premise of Centering Prayer is this: what we know of ourselves in our conscious life is really only about five percent of who we really are. The rest are mostly unconscious processes which go on under the surface, and yet have a profound effect on our daily lives. But we are not stuck with these processes, we can let go of them in meditation by using certain techniques. This is what Thomas Keating calls the “unloading of the unconscious.”

Of course, some of these ideas you’ve probably already heard at some point in your life, since we are all the recipients of post-Freudian thought in some way or another. And these, some of Frued’s greatest discoveries, the notion of the unconscious and the ego, seem to find their way into many places, even if we aren’t explicitly aware of it. Now, I’m not a psychologist so I won’t try to explain any of these in great detail, but I am a theologian, and so I find myself drawn to different ways of looking at the personality and the nature of consciousness.

According to Ken Wilber, a philosopher with an interest in transpersonal psychology, the roots of the psychological endeavor itself are inextricably bound up with our religious histories both in the East and West. And that leaves us in the interesting place of trying to understand the nature of our being itself, that which is somehow “under” the surface of our consciousness, and yet has an intimate connection with our understanding of God.

Thomas Keating uses the metaphor of a river when talking about our thoughts. We can get under them and watch them go by as if we are sitting on a river bed. We don’t necessarily have to get involved in each thought, we are free to just simply let go and allow the thought to float down the river. This is a profoundly freeing way to begin living life. And in fact, it’s not only freeing, but it’s also incredibly healing for what Keating refers to as the “accumulated emotional damage of a lifetime.”

In fact, these emotional traumas reside in the unconscious and according to another famous monk named Thomas Merton, these can be the basis out of which a “false self” arises. But this is a subject worthy of it’s own full length book, and of the theologians, philosophers and psychologists that talk about a false self, there is not an agreement as to whether this is just the ego functioning poorly, or something that must always be transcended altogether.

Now, to me the term “false self” almost seems a little misplaced, to think that we are all unconsciously living out of a place of falsity. You might say to yourself, no, I know who I am, I like this thing and that thing, and I am from this city, I’ve got that degree and I’m in relation to these people… And you would be right of course, those things about yourself are well known to you. But what if there was something deeper than just the external places you’ve been, the likes and dislikes, the groups and other identifying structures that seem to make up your life? I think this is fairly common knowledge for most people, if they really stop and think about it.

What then, about this “false self” talk, why should it be “false”. I think it might be easier to think of it more as an unstable, or fluctuating self. A self that is like what Jesus said of the person that builds a house on the sand versus building on the rock. When wind and waves come and beat against a sandcastle, it’s not going to last very long. We’d have to take some extreme measures to keep mending that sandcastle, and indeed we’d likely be busy our whole lives working on some new part of the castle that has fallen down. Add more sand to this side, now that side — sounds exhausting. And in many ways doesn’t that seem like our life when we live in a daily place of understanding ourselves from the vantage point of our smartphone, or the latest drama at work or with friends? We find that we are always on the lookout for some aspect of ourselves that needs propping up, otherwise we’re afraid we might completely fall apart and wash away.

In that respect, what Thomas Merton referred to regularly in his writings as the false self, is really the unexamined, egoic self. If you remember back in grade school you might have heard the saying from Socrates “The unexamined life is not worth living…” If you’re anything like me you may have intuitively understood that at some level, but weren’t always sure what it meant to examine yourself. I mean, it’s one thing to fret over the friends that may or may not like you at the moment, or the stupid thing you said some social event, or some other truly difficult or maybe tragic situation in your life. But how can we really examine ourselves and how would this lead to a life worth living, or at least a life that feels more stable, more like you’ve got your feet firmly on the ground?

This is where the Centering Prayer practice came in for me. At the time when I came across Thomas Keating’s book, I was going through a very difficult personal experience, one which was so difficult that it caused me to doubt many of the most basic things in my life. It was a time of personal darkness, where common and relied up support structures were being pruned away through a very painful process. But rather than being alone in this experience, I discovered that this is a common thread among “mystics”. That’s a term that probably isn’t very well understood in our time, but as the writer Richard Rohr often says, mystics are just those that see everything as part of a larger whole, or in terms of a unity rather than dualistically — but not only that, they’ve had an experience with the Divine.

And according to Rohr, you only need one such experience of the divine to become a mystic. From that point forward, no matter what you do, you’ll always seen things a little different. You’ll begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said “Do not judge, and you will not be judged…” And also, “With the measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.” I’ve read these scripture references so many times I can’t even count, having grown up going to church. But it wasn’t until passing through that difficult time in life I mentioned above, that these verses began to leap off the page.

That’s because this way of thinking is a kind of entrance way into what Rohr and others like to call the “non-dual”. As a matter of fact, I really shouldn’t call it a way of thinking at all, but more a way of seeing. Because once you’ve had an experience with the Divine, you can’t help but begin to see all that is, as part of a greater whole. And that includes the totality of myself and others, both in our collective joy and pain, as all part of the same unity in God. And it becomes very difficult to judge others from this place of connectedness. The great mystic Meister Eckhart has been often quoted as saying “the eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” Sounds a little like Bob Marley too.

And this brings me to the central point. As Richard Rohr has also said elsewhere in his writings and speaking, we are somehow inducted into the mystical life, and in this way it is something that is “done unto us.” What he means is that there is usually some precipitating event or period of time that causes us to begin the journey into the mystical way of seeing. Rohr says that the two most common experiences are both “great suffering and great love”. Either of these category of experience have the power to thrust us into enough discomfort that we have an ability to escape the magnetic pull of our everyday lives just long enough that something rather transformative happens. And it is from this place that we begin the journey toward wholeness, where our innermost being can be gathered into a unity and remembrance of our true nature, and we find love, healing and acceptance begins to flow out from that place — which is our center, our heart.

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Entrepreneur // Software Engineer // Great Dane Enthusiast // Graduate of Fuller Seminary // Speed Reader Of Slow Speed // Tinkerer // Mediocre Skier

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