True Self Development
It seems the best explanation why we have difficulties in life is because of our beginnings. As a child we needed to be free to be willful and difficult, demanding and aggressive, and intolerant and selfish. If this was allowed, we could develop a strong sense of self before we had to comply to others wants and needs. Donald Winnicott, an English pediatrician and child psychiatrist was one of the first to fully understand that we needed this time to be wholly and fully ourselves to develop our True Self before conforming to others wishes.
The True Self of the infant eats, sleeps, cries, and laughs when it wants to, not to bargain for love or in the service of others schedules. Gradually and willingly, we could then learn to submit to the demands of others and the world. Thus, the false or dutiful self that evolved in submission to others and the world was not a problem if the child had a time when it could break all the rules and do exactly as it pleased for a time.
False Self Development
But what if our father was a raging alcoholic, mother was anxious and depressed, or another child was sickly and demanded all the attention? Rather than our caregivers and families adapting to our needs, we had to adapt to theirs in order to be loved and cared for, or to avoid criticism, condemnation, or abuse. Unfortunately, many, perhaps most of us have had to conform to others too early and too much. We felt we had to sacrifice our authenticity to maintain a connection with parents, siblings, and others.
We become co-dependent and deferred to others all too often. It is as if we put on a mask and armor and took up shields to defend ourselves from the drama and trauma around us. Some ran or hid from problems in youth (flight), others fought back in the only ways they knew how (fight), and some froze in place hoping to be spared or waiting for the storms and battles to pass (freeze). More about these coping skills further on.
Hope, Help, and Healing
The problematic behaviors of the maladapted child was simply a cry for help, and for the sense of security, safety, and love missing from the family environment that was inadequate or ruptured. Fortunately, good therapy, support groups, and sometimes family or friends can replace the accepting and unconditionally loving environment we may have missed as child to now build a strong and resilient True Self. When we find safe places and people we can be vulnerable and share our dark, disturbing, and difficult thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors, and still be loved. We can express all our grief, depression, and dysfunction in a safe and secure way to rediscover all the joy, happiness, and well-being buried underneath.
True Self or False Self
The playful environment such as when we are engaged in art, sports, and hobbies lets us feel spontaneous, creative, and genuinely alive. This is important throughout life as seen in adult games, roles, and institutions. Winnicott also believed therapy should be a playful environment of kindness, freedom, and cheer to be effective. The healthy child brings its spontaneous True Self to others, unless they finds it unsafe or frightening to do so. In that case the child lives from the false self, pretending to be what others want them to be. This can become so entrenched that the True Self gets buried deeply under fear, shame, or abuse so the child and everyone around them comes to think of the false self they present and the masks they wear as who they really are.
The ”I” of the Storm
We call the selfish “me” ego, a word with a negative feel to it, as if it is a problem to be rid of, yet it actually takes a good sense of self to let the false self go. There is a dark side however, when the ego becomes a control freak willing to do anything to get its way (egomaniac). The deeply selfish part of us is unfortunately incorrigible, and every effort to overcome it only strengthens its grip. It is impossible to improve, defeat, correct, or perfect it, but we can transcend it. What is beyond? A higher and profoundly compassionate and wise orientation and values accessed through a Higher Power, order, law, and truth that we can choose to work in us and through us, yet impossible for us to create or control.
Personal Separation Bias
It is easy to think of “me” as a single entity, but when we look closely, we find a multitude of pieces and parts mentally and physically. The body has arms, legs, torso, and head. Similarly, we have a multitude of perceptions, emotions, feelings, and thoughts to contend with so it is only natural for us to see a multiplicity in most everything. Therefore, it seems our nature is to separate things into a vast variety of subjects and objects, yet our true and deepest nature looks beyond and finds all things in a solemn and sacred communion.
Ego and false self constantly and very intelligently seek to convince us of a “me versus them” duality and reality. Our bodies also conspire to separate us from others and the world as our eyes, ears, nose, and hands work to locate things “out there.” We end up defending “our things” and “our body” from seemingly hostile outer forces. Our hope and work is to turn things around and merge the diversity and dualities of ourselves and our world back into a loving community and “The Eternal One” of our Higher Power.
Many Cognitive and Emotional Biases
Not only do we identify with compulsive and often negative thinking, but the mind plays tricks on us in many ways. Search cognitive bias and you will find dozens of very real examples. This is also true of emotions, as the stronger they are, the more power they have over us. When we take a step back and observe the voice in our heads and feelings in our bodies (as in prayer and meditation), their power over us is diminished and a higher level of consciousness is realized. The mind and emotions are an excellent tool if used properly, but too often we don't use them, they use us in service of often ancient and unconscious imprinting. This is mind and emotions as master, yet the key is not to master them, but to put them in service to higher good, law, and order.
Healing Self and Others
We bring our wounded, lonely, abused, and neglected self, and work to find our compassionate caring and kind self, and give ourselves space and time for healing. Further on, as we become stronger, wiser, and healthier in body and mind, we find connection and unity with our fellows, life, creation, and Higher Power that allow us to touch all the love, peace, joy, and beauty the world has to offer.
I am multitudes
Another aspect of this welcome and wonderful transformation is finding that as our world expands, the small scared, and sorrowful self expands as well, until it takes in everything. “I am multitudes” (Walt Whitman). Our solid, solitary, and static sense of self melts into the dynamic flow of spiritual, physical, and energetic flux.
Isolation and Relationships
Alternately, being self-absorbed in mindless, worrisome mental movies leads to many mental and physical illnesses as we become plagued by anxiety and fear, depression, and hopelessness. The bottom line is we can't be in relationship all by ourselves. Why are relationships important? Because they are what give our lives purpose and meaning. This is not to say alone time isn’t important, it is, but everything in moderation.
Relationships Help and Heal
Science is now proving this ancient truth as an ongoing study since 1938 by Harvard University of adult development found supportive relationships are a life saver and affect health, happiness, and longevity even more than smoking and alcoholism. Other studies also find they are as healing as diet and exercise. One Harvard study director likes to say there are three things that make all the difference, relationships, relationships, relationships. When the researchers asked what people were most proud of, the most common response was caring for others and causes bigger than themselves. This welcome finding points to the power of service in expanding the small self to encompass others.
One Buddhist story tells how a follower asks the Buddha If fellowship is an important part of the path of enlightenment. He answers that fellowship is the whole of the path. So how can we move from the small self to the large and in fact infinite self? Many use meditations focus on the present moment to soften and dissolve the solid and separate self. The skillful means and benefits have been expanded and refined over thousands of years so are definitely worth investigating and trying.
Others find kind and caring family, friends, therapists, and supportive communities most helpful. These safe and loving people and places allow the interpersonal bonds that were broken long ago to be mended that we may at long last discover and resolve the trauma, neglect, and abuses of the past. We are wise to make the time and effort to seek out and utilize the tools and techniques that help us feel the deep heartfelt connection and affinity with others, life, and creation to counteract the cultural and societal calls for more, more, more, and me, myself, and mine.
Home of True Self in Higher Power
This “Home” is the ground of being from which we came and will one day return, yet the True Self never moves from this place beyond the illusion, dream, and play of dualities in the world, and can be realized in moments of stillness and repose such as in prayer and meditation. The outside world is certainly important and must be dealt with on a daily basis, but we are severely limited if we live as if the external world is the only reality available to us. We can describe the physical outer world as the relative, finite, and historical dimension, but there is another realm always accessible to us of primary importance and reality, that of an ultimate, absolute, and infinite spiritual reality.
Dismantling Me, Myself, and I
What is this big deal “me” that we get so upset about anyways? Classical Eastern philosophy sees us as the five skandas (heaps), the five mental and physical aggregates of craving and clinging. They start with the gross material forms such as our body and all things, our things in particular. As you know we can get quite upset when somebody messes with them. Next are our perceptions or sensations which we receive from our senses. Perceptions lead to our basic intuitive and instinctive emotions, which can be conscious or unconscious, unconscious particularly if we have been through traumatic experiences that force them to be repressed.
On the same level, emotions lead to a wide range of feelings that are also affected by the next level, that of mental activities and forms; thinking. Thoughts include beliefs, opinions, and ideas. The fifth and final level is that of consciousness itself and all that entails. Suppressing or denying any of these is like swimming upstream, as it leaves you tired and stressed, and eventually we may drown in them. Now that we have dismantled the self, how do we get put back together again? In service of Higher Power, truth, law, and good.
Compulsive Thinking Creates False Self
In his book Practicing the Power of Now author Eckart Tolle states "Our innermost invisible and indestructible essence, our true nature, is being." Being can also be seen as the “Supreme Being” (Higher Power), but without the religious overtones. He goes on to say; "The inability to feel this gives rise to illusions of separation. Fear arises and conflicts become the norm. The greatest obstacle to the reality of your connectedness is identification with mind and compulsive thinking. It creates a false mind made self that casts a shadow of fear and suffering, an opaque screen of concepts, labels, word, judgments, and definitions that block all true relationships between you and yourself, your fellow man, nature, and God."
No Self, No Suffering
Much of ancient Eastern philosophy works to achieve self-lessness or
ego-lessness. This is stated simply as “No self, no suffering”. The hope is
that by leaving personal concerns behind, we may enter into a sacred communion
with all others and life. The four noble truths acknowledge how first, life has
suffering. Second, that clinging to the self is the cause of our pain. Third,
as we come to “know thyself” and care for it, it loosens its grip on us as our wise and True Self emerges. Last, living in line with greater good is a
possible, doable, and highly satisfying way of life (see Eight-fold Path). This
is another of life’s paradoxes, and although it may seem simple, it is often
not fast or easy finding and keeping balance amidst life’s difficulties.
Emptying the Mind
The other aspect of shunyata is that
we are “empty” of any solid, singular, or permanent personal reality, as all
things are contingent on all other things, so that in truth we are all
completely interdependent beings. Thich Nhat Hanh taught that a piece of paper
contains not only the tree it was made from, but the rain, soil, and sunshine
that made the tree, as well as the logger, his family, and the breakfast he ate
the day he took the tree. So too, and so true for each of us. This shows that
we too are a necessary part of all that is, but completely interdependent with
all life and creation.
Taming, Training, and Transforming False Self
A powerful and moving image is Manjusri the Buddha (enlightened one) of
wisdom and insight that uses a flaming sword to cut through ignorance and false
beliefs of ego to realize transcendent wisdom free of the entanglements of
self-created obstacles. He is often depicted riding a ferocious blue lion
representing the wild and untamed mind. We can manifest the spirit of Manjusri
and do our best to cut through illusions and egotism to tame, train, and transform ourselves.
The Ancient Paths of Wisdom and Loving Service
It is worth mentioning that of the two main schools of eastern enlightenment, the first seeks personal freedom through egolessness based on self-discipline and meditation. The second path finds devotees vowing to stay engaged in the world of sorrows in order to help others toward their own freedom and enlightenment. These persons become a “Bodhisattva,” meaning one with an awakened heart and/or mind. Both are worthy pursuits, yet the hope is that all of us will eventually find peace and wisdom as well as heed the call of loving service and engage in loving service to help those in need.
Caring for Pain and Suffering
Just as “We are multitudes” of archetypes, personalities, and energies we must care for, we are also wise to acknowledge the difficult parts such as pain, suffering, anger, and sadness as necessary parts of us in this whole, so that we may accept and embrace them rather than trying to deny, diminish, or destroy them. They need to be heard and held like a sick, tired, or cranky child until they can relax and rest. Even the negative, difficult, dirty, smelly, and embarrassing parts of us deserve to be loved and cared for as much as any other part, perhaps more! They will likely be less troublesome for us if we do honor them in this way.
Fluid and Dynamic Self
Another way we distort reality is to see things as solid and unchanging. We like to think our bodies and health will stay good through-out our lives, but old age catches up with us all eventually. Same with our possessions and even our beliefs and opinions, yet if they never changed, how boring would that be? So, we find that life and everything in it is actually fluid and dynamic, and that makes life a lot more fun, interesting, and precious. The key is to acknowledge, accept, and embrace change rather than try and hold on to things as they are with a death grip. We will find life to be ever juicier and more alive.
Perception Creates Reality
One way to realize this is to recognize that we each create our own reality as we process sensory input in our minds. The world seems so real to us with all its colors, textures, sounds, smells, and flavors to enjoy, but it’s really all taking place in our heads. Image how a bat or dolphin uses sonar to “see” in the dark, or a tree that feels it’s way through life. The point is to stretch our imagination occasionally so as not to be stuck in our own way of thinking and feeling so that new doors will open in our minds. Knowing our experience is a fabrication and construct can make all the difference and give us great peace through adversity and change.
Step Back and Find Freedom
Taking a step back to simply observe not only our world, but ourselves, all our actions, thinking, beliefs, and opinions also has a very freeing effect. Normally we feel caught up in the drama and storylines going on in and around us, yet simply observing non-judgmentally is liberation. The outside world and other people seem to “make us” angry, frustrated, depressed, etc., yet from the viewpoint of observer we can see it all as child’s play, very energetic and dramatic, but we can choose how we will react.
How can we then reconcile “no self” of “no self, no suffering”? Also, where is the “spiritual self” in communion with Higher Power? And where is the soul, what we consider the best part of our human self that loves children, flowers, and sunsets, and feels compassion, caring, and kindness for people, animals, all life, and creation? It’s all True Self, and it’s a mystery. Even the mean, angry, and evil side of us, it’s all in there. Even more mysterious, awesome, wonderful, amazing, and beautiful, but isn’t that how life should be? That’s the True-True. A beautiful mystery. Enjoy it!