The False Self
Welcome to Episode 8 of the podcast Peace Be With You.
In the last episode we discussed going “below the line” to unearth a party’s interests. We went below the line to clarify a party’s motivation. We wanted to know WHY they were fighting.
And we discovered that going below the line promoted creative solutions. Impasse was overcome.
But what if the party’s interests would lead to destructive outcomes — for themselves or for others? What if the interests they expressed were flawed? What if their interests were not consistent with their true nature? What if we could see their interests would not result in lasting satisfaction? What then?
This line of questioning is important — because we discover that ALL conflicts involve one False Self becoming entangled with another False Self. We arrive at a basic truth: All conflicts are the result of two or more False Selves becoming entangled in opposing intentions.
What is this False Self that marches out ahead of our best instincts? Let’s take a look.
The False Self is a cluster of ego traits that do not reflect divine nature. It is an ego self, a worldly persona.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk known for his writings that shed light on contemplative practices, was acutely aware that the presence of a False Self was an impediment to a spiritual life. James Finley has written a wonderful book I highly recommend titled Merton’s Palace of Nowhere. The following quote is taken from that work:
“Merton leads us along the journey to God in which the self that begins the journey is not the self that arrives. The self that begins is the self that we thought ourselves to be. It is the self that dies along the way until in the end “no one” is left. This “no one” is our true self. It is the self that stands prior to all that is this or that. It is the self in God, the self bigger than death yet born of death. It is the self the Father forever loves.”
Finley’s analysis is worth taking up in reflection. Perhaps the next time you go on a retreat you will take the quote with you for personal reflection.
In any event, it becomes clear, fairly quickly, that when we dive below the line to explore interests and motivations, we must engage in some housekeeping. Interests must be carefully evaluated. Will satisfaction of an interest benefit the person? Or are we only satisfying the desires and demands of an ego personality? Will we merely satisfy the false self that smothers the soul with worldly desires?
Benedict XVI offers guidance when it comes to the false self. Consider the following quote from his work, Called to Communion:
“Saint Bonaventure … explains the path by which man truly becomes himself with the help of the likeness of the sculptor. The sculptor, says the great Franciscan theologian, does not make anything, rather his work is “ablation” — the removal of what is not really part of the sculpture.”
The quote continues with an emphasis on removing that which is false:
“In the same way, continues Bonaventure, man, in order that God’s image may shine radiantly in him, must first and foremost receive the purification whereby the divine Sculptor frees him from the dross that conceals the authentic figure of his being… “
When we call on the divine sculptor to remove the dross and reveal the divine form within, we enhance the task of going “below the line.” As we explore interests we strip away false-self interests to expose our true interests — those interests that reflect divine self.
In this process, we begin to recognize the synergy between mediation and spiritual direction; for in spiritual direction we sculpt away the layers of false self that taint our interests.
We can turn once more to Finley for a description of the challenge we take up in spiritual direction:
“Once the false self gives birth to its own dark gossamer existence as cut off from God, it begins to function as its own God by passing final decisions and judgments upon everything under the sun. A whole system of formulas, laws and ideologies is created to form not only one’s relationship to others but to God as well.”
Thus, during mediation, even though parties identify their interests in order to negotiate more creatively — the result will always be less than optimum — unless they make sure their interests reflect divine self rather than false self.
In your personal reflection, recall times when you found yourself in a conflict and then later you looked back and said, “That wasn’t like me. I wasn’t being myself. What was I thinking?”
That indicates you assumed a false-self identity. In fact, the perceived interests of that ego self most likely fueled the conflict in the first place!
Until next time, may peace be with you.