Having acknowledged and begun exploration of the universal theme of the "two ways" in our previous session, the next step is to see how these themes become manifest in our human experience. Our earlier study of the human spirit helped us to get in touch with our natural strivings for beauty (in our awareness), truth (for our rational intelligence) and love/goodness (of the will). While our education and socialization can help to form and even amplify these yearnings, they are nonetheless "built in" to our human nature and are found manifesting in every culture that has ever inhabited the planet.
But what of the contrary movements -- away from beauty, truth, goodness . . . toward intensification of self-reliance, control, self-seeking, and so forth? Are these "natural" to human beings as well? What role does our developmental environment play in fostering this development?
Selfishness vs. Self-Love (Rational Self-Interest)
Before responding to the questions above, it might be helpful to note that it is natural for all animals to seek their own good and defend their own territory. Altruism is very rare in the animal kingdom, manifesting primarily in defense of offspring or the herd/group, etc. whose existence is synonymous with the good of the individual. This is as true for the higher primates as for any other group of mammals, birds, reptiles, etc.
Sharing with the higher primates a psychological level of consciousness, we humans find the same natural drives for seeking our own good and defending our territory, whether the latter be identified with private property or country. Because the psyche is "enspirited," however, and thus informed by spirit's higher awareness, intelligence and freedom, what is also natural in human beings is for psyche to operate in the service of spirit. The natural drives and instincts we inherited from our primate ancestors are thus transformed by spirit in such a manner as to serve the interests not only of the psyche and the body, but of the spirit as well. E.g., emotions indicate not only our inner dispositional status, but the spiritual meaning of events as well; images provide the raw material for spirit's conceptualization and higher reasoning; memory helps us to discern where we've come from and what lessons we might learn from our past; the natural instincts for survival and defending one's territory come under the domain of the spirit and are, ideally, experienced and expressed as rational self-interest.
It's natural and even good that we seek our own good and defend our territory, provided we do so rationally. Ideally, what this would entail is full consideration of the consequences of our actions, including how our actions affect other people and the environment. Awareness and freedom would influence this exercise of reason, as would our natural orientation to transcendence. This was probably the situation in which the first true humans found themselves, and we might think of it as a kind of natural self-love cherished in awareness of the needs of others and the creation as well. It was not the narrow, self-seeking exercise of reason we see so often today -- what we might call selfishness. Rather, self-love is a good thing, and its recovery is one of the great gifts of the spiritual journey.
Sin and Human Development
How do you react when someone criticizes you, or just seems unfriendly? Even if you are a healthy, mature person, you probably find yourself putting up some kind of "guard," and withdrawing somewhat from openness to relating with this person. This can happen even with one's spouse or best friend; the perception of ill-will directed toward us leads to a flight from relationship and a kind of constricting of our spirit away from the other. It is only with effort that we resist this movement, and even then it is difficult for a mature person to do so. In the case of a child, however, it is very difficult, and when this happens again and again to a child, the consequence is an inner wounding that leaves them ever on guard and constricted away from relationship.
That child is you!
And that kind of wounding has occurred in every human being's early development, though some moreso than others. To the extent that we have perceived non-love in our lives -- especially at an early age -- we have been wounded. Furthermore, clinical hypnosis has helped establish that this perception of non-love -- even rejection! -- can be traced all the way back to the early days of one's embryonic development. The environment of the womb (and, through extension, the mother's relationships) communicates something of love and non-love through physiological means, imprinting these dynamics of constriction at a primal, somatic level of being. "Is this an OK place to be?" The tissues of the embryo are alert to this question in their own way, as is the enspirited, instinctive intelligence of the embryo and newborn.
The wounding that occurs is experienced primarily at a psychological level, even though, as noted above, its roots are somatic as well. When we finally come to more consciousness and verbalization, we note to ourselves that all is not well within . . . that something is "wrong." Feelings of shame sometimes plague us, as we receive the message that we are somehow flawed, or bad. Anxiety, anger, resentment -- these, too, arise, at times, though more often in dysfunctional families than others. On the playground, among relatives, playing with friends -- the messages continue: "you're no good," and "you can't do anything right." Then there is the discounting, being told to "shut up," or sometimes overly harsh discipline that spills over into abuse. Woundings of all kinds take place in our early development and continue through the years.
The response of the spiritual part of our nature is to bring its resources of awareness, intelligence and will to bear on the problem. "Something is wrong," is the signal given by the psyche and its wounded emotions. "Some kind of problem needs to be corrected," reason concludes. "What should be done?" we inquire, activating reason to search for answers in the outer environment. Reason thus becomes co-opted in the task of trying to figure out what's wrong with oneself, and what one can do to become more acceptable to others and less likely to incur their rejection.
Given the nature of these psychological woundings and the messages which accompany them, it is natural for to conclude that what is wrong is "me," and the problem that needs to be resolved is "self." "I'll be OK when . . . " becomes the focus and orientation of our reason,, and it doesn't matter how you fill in the blank (approval, control, rich, good-looking, slimmer, etc.). To the extent that "I'll be OK when . . ." is operating in one's consciousness -- both consciously and unconsciously -- one is under the sway of the false self system. More on this in our next session.
Reflection and Discussion
1. What questions or comments do you have from this session?
2. What connections do you see in your own life between non-love and selfishness.
Phil, I think this is a very important distinction to keep clear in personal and spiritual growth.
I shared a segment of the material with someone who was feeling contracted from relationship for some of the reasons you describe, and it was perfect for his growth at that moment. He was most grateful for the insights. Timing is so important in our being receptive to a different perspective.
We use the information in our helping roles with others as often as with ourselves for many of us who are participating in this class.
Yet, as we help others, we clarify what is needed in our own evolution. Service can take us beyond the self focus that causes us to withdraw into ourselves in the face of conflict or in being a target of someone else's criticism. Naomi
William Shannon, in Something of a Rebel re: Thomas Merton, provides a list of terms Merton used for the false and true self. I also like Rohr's distinction between the small and Big self. I will list them below to help break open our imaginations re: our own experiences of same.
creative, mysterious inner self
deepest, most hidden self
In trying to image my true self, I have found it useful to think in terms of creation. And I am not talking of the act of creation, creatio ex nihilo, that is usually evoked when we hear the word but moreso the notion of creatio continua and what that entails. Not only has all of existence proceeded from nothingness (ex nihilo) but this act of God continues such that every part of creation, including my very self, would not only cease to exist should God not continue to think about us but it would be as if we never were.
So, I don't conceive of immanence or the hidden ground in pantheistic terms but in a much more vibrant and vital way than that. Look at this definition from Merriam-Webster:
In creatio continua, my immanent being is not some extension of God's matter, as if S/he had a materiality, but is, rather, God's remaining and operating with me as I have existence only when I remain in His mind and Her consciousness.
Thus, the Divine Indwelling is no willy-nilly visitation of a God Who now presents Himself and then absents Herself but an inescapable and Hidden Ground, Who remains and operates even when we are at the height of our rebellion or as John of the Cross said, even when we are in mortal sin. Indeed, we are swimming in an ocean of Mercy and can breathe underwater.
Ours is a creative, mysterious inner self always being created by the Mystery. It can only be good, true and beautiful. Our journey is back to the Source. Like James Taylor said regarding the themes to all songs: It's all about going home.
When Merton uses the term contingent self, I'm sure he is not making a metaphysical statement about the contingent nature of our reality but rather is making a theological statement, which is that no matter what we do, no matter where we go, no matter what our disposition toward Him or our fellowman, His love for us is not contingent, Her remaining and operating with us, creating us continually, is not contingent. One cannot make God stop creating us. One cannot make God stop loving and forgiving. One cannot escape God's mercy. And that is your True Self.
To me, this is flat-out astonishing! To see ourselves as God sees us! To see others that way, too! That's why interiority and contemplation lead naturally to solidarity and compassion, why Ignatius speaks of contemplation to attain love.
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