[Understanding oneself]

Dear Donagh,

…. I suppose I could describe myself as more of an introspective type of person.  I tend to look at what lies behind what I do…. The trouble is that I see different things at different times, and sometimes I see nothing at all.  there seems to be no consistency in it.  Sometimes I think the basic thing in me is cowardice, and sometimes all I see is resentment and anger. Can we ever know who we are?  I'd like to know, because as I said I have a certain interest in the subject.  I'd hate to think that I'm fooling myself all these years.  By the way, I'm in my late 60s, the same age as my wife, and our 3 children are all married.  It’s high time I knew who I was.  I feel you are tuned into psychology, so you may be able to give me some guidance.  Thanks very much.  I like your website.  Dave

Dear Dave,
Thanks for your question.  It’s a good one, and it brings us straight to the place where things happen, if anything is to happen. 

What do we see when we look into ourselves?  Different things at different times, you said, and sometimes nothing.  This is a description of traffic.  When you look out the window you see trucks, buses, cars, bikes… and sometimes nothing.  The nothing is just a pause in the traffic.  Your mental traffic is not you; traffic is just what passes through your mind.  There must be something else ‘behind’ it, to use your own word.  There must be something solid and immovable, like a road, that allows all that traffic to pass over it.  If the real self is not some piece of traffic, it must be a solid, immovable, permanent ‘thing’….  Would you agree?  I hope not! 

A French writer described the human spirit as “the unassailable, unchangeable, indestructible core, the keen point of the soul which alone can approach the Absolute and unite itself with the Divinity” (Jacqueline Kelen, La Faim de l’Âme).  The book is about anorexia, Hunger of the Soul, and perhaps it served the author’s purposes better not to mention emptiness.  But I think we are inevitably brought back to it.  The so-called kernel of the self is emptiness.  This will take a bit of disavowal!
I don’t mean that the real self doesn’t exist.  I'm not saying it is unimportant.  I'm not accepting some kind of nihilism.  I'm not espousing Buddhism…. I'm taking my cue from St Paul, who wrote:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”
 (Philippians 2:5-8)

“He emptied himself.”  Many writers like to use the original Greek here: ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν, and from this they use the noun κένωσις, kénōsis, ‘emptying’.  Perhaps their motive is to make it clear that this is an original Christian teaching, not a derivation from Buddhism.  Over the centuries it appears in the writings of the Christian mystics, along with synonyms such as: ‘nothingness’, ‘the void’, the ‘abyss’, or John of the Cross’s ‘nada’.  There’s an intriguing passage in Meister Eckhart, which scholars suggest is a unique reference to his own experience: “It appeared to a man as in a dream – it was a waking dream – that he became pregnant with Nothing like a woman with child, and in that Nothing God was born, God was the fruit of Nothing. God was born in the Nothing.”  Jesus’ self-emptying is the form of all Christian experience.

This is the death of ego, which is our fixed idea of who we are.  We hear a lot about this today – which is a very good thing: we have to see our false self, if we are to get glimpses beyond it.  In the past we heard the words ‘egoistic’ and ‘egocentric’, yes, but it was in a moral context; it was when someone accused us of being ‘cock of the walk,’ or a know-all, or a prima donna.  The present context is different: it is about spiritual insight into our true nature. 
We are to be empty for God, in the sense that a mirror is empty.  If a mirror had smudges of paint all over it, it could not reflect the face in front of it.  We can't reflect anything of God when our ego occupies the whole space. 
If it is not our true nature, where is this ego?  Is it really in us?  Is it the surface of the self, the façade, the superficial?  Or is it a little outside?  I think it is a little outside, between us and everything.  It is a cloak: necessary at times, and nothing to be ashamed of.  The trouble is that it wants to cover everything at all times, including our eyes.   

Meditation is when you try to see clearly into your true nature.  Annoyingly, the ego will pop up at once, demanding attention and parading its wares.  Calmly ignore it, and live instead from that emptiness, that freedom, that the mystics talk about.  In itself it is easy, but we make it difficult.  For people who are used to analysing things at arm’s length, meditation is very near at hand, perhaps too near for comfort.  The ego is always a little bit ‘out there’, at a (usually) comfortable distance.  That's why in the end it leads to loneliness.  Your real self is much more intimate to you than your ego is, yet it’s not about you.  If you are intimate with your real self, you are intimate with everything.  But don’t look for the ‘content’ of the real self.  Meditation is not some feeling about the self.  It’s only if you want it to be ‘something’ that it looks like nothing.  If you are not trying to pin it down, it appears everywhere, because you are intimate with everything. 
All this is difficult to put words on, because it is closer than close to us.  If what I wrote is of some small help, I'm very happy.  If not, don’t hesitate to ask again. 



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