When the border between Poland and Russia was being drawn, a farmer was asked which side he wanted to be on.  “I'll stay on the Polish side,” he joked, “I don't think I could stand those Russian winters!” 

From the air the world of course does not look like a coloured map, you would never know that there was such a business as politics and national frontiers.  The contents of the world, so to speak, are natural but the format is artificial. 

Is it the same story with the mind?  Can you speak of a format?  Yes, I think.  Our mental maps divide the world into inner and outer, me and not-me, subject and object.  The subject (‘I’) has its own territory and protects it as best it can, because there is danger to it on all sides.  Well, nearly all sides: there are a couple of safe stretches of border and I can cross them whenever I like, to make a change from home, or to get something I want, or to know that I can expand myself.  That frontier has been so in place that I may seldom think of life without it.  It is an account of life.  But there are some realities it is unable to take into account: death for one, and God. 

Trying to see that map is about trying to see how we actually picture ourselves and our relationship with the world.  Even putting it like that is tracing the same frontier again: as if we existed first and set up a few relationships with the world afterwards.  It is very hard to open one’s mouth without confirming that frontier.  The very structure of our language does it for us: grammar makes some things as solid as rocks, and other things it makes invisible. 

Compare, for example, “I have a euro in my pocket” with “I have an idea in my mind.”  They seem just the same: in each case there appears to be a thing that I keep in some place.  But an idea is not a thing, and the mind is not a place.  Even after we have adverted to this it remains difficult to think of them in any other way.  We may tell ourselves that they are activities, but grammar calls this word a noun, and at the other end of every noun we somehow expect to find a thing.  We can be very clear and explicit in most of what we say, but when it comes to very basic concepts we may retain a vague diagram derived from grammar, or even geometry.  We may ‘think’ of an activity, for example, as a long thin object!  Of course we would never say such a thing seriously, but it might be better if we did.  Then we would see how artificial were our maps of the ‘inner’ world. 

The problem with the subject/object frontier is that it does not appear artificial.  It has an appearance of natural necessity by running very close to the physical distinction between my body and the things around me; besides, in logical thought the subject/predicate distinction is fundamental.  That gives us the impression that the ego has some sort of separate identity.  And it makes no profound sense of God or death. 

It makes no sense of death because it has made the ego used to seeing itself as an outsider, an outsider accumulating experiences, knowledge and the rest.  It offers no wisdom about losing everything and losing oneself; it has nothing to relate this to.  The ego cannot face death, though ironically it itself is made of nothing.  Knowing nothing about giving itself away, it longs for permanence. 

And God?  Well, the ego would itself like to be God, so it has this difficulty with God.  All God's attributes have been collapsing into the human ego in western philosophy, so there is rivalry between them and no peace. 

With a different format, all the content would remain just the same!  I would still work and eat and sleep, and talk with my friends.   But I would ‘die’ every moment: I would give myself completely, and there would be no ego trying to profit by everything.  I would not even find myself trying to be ‘wise’ in the way we usually imagine it: like a bee collecting pollen from everywhere and turning it into honey.  Because I would give myself completely to everything I would have no interest at all in making a distinction between inner and outer, between what is ‘me’ and what is ‘not-me’.  Every step of my day would be a step into the void, and in that void I would know God in the dark way that mystics know: the way of not-knowing. 

Donagh O'Shea


These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.