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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 2

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Last week I began contrasting two aspects of every self: the ego and the essence. Our ego is also referred to as our false self or small self, indicating something less than whole. Our essence is also called our true self or nondual self, indicating something in its wholeness. In contrasting our ego and our essence I describe two extremes of a vertical continuum that extends infinitely in either direction, although the essence is inclusive of the entire spectrum. As human beings we are incapable of manifesting either pure ego or pure essence; rather, we manifest varying degrees of each. In addition, we may act more from our ego in certain circumstances and more from our essence in others. I only characterize the two as separate in order to describe the ends. In reality they only vary by degrees. Our ego manifests a part of our essence; our essence includes but transcends the ego. Our true self is the developmental direction toward which the Spirit invites and encourages us. Our false self resists the urgings of the Spirit, mostly for fear of losing or tarnishing what it mistakenly perceives to be its unique nature.

At the heart of our dilemma is that the world seems to confirm and support the partial truths our ego tells – that the life our senses detect is all there is, that we must live for ourselves and accumulate as much material wealth as we can with the limited time we have on earth. The common wisdom of our world tells us to deny the weaker parts of ourselves, hide our vulnerabilities, and put on a good face for those around us. Ultimately, our ego leads us into a lifestyle that is not true to who we are.  The person we pretend to be cannot exist in any sustainable way.

This dilemma is a problem that is exclusive to humans. Plants and trees make no discernible effort to be something they are not. The same is true for rocks, streams, and clouds. Animals do not make false pretenses about who they are. In his book, Falling Upward1, Richard Rohr identifies two halves of our lives. Our egoic or false self dominates the first half as we strive to build a name for ourselves, establish a profession, start a family, or otherwise enter adulthood. As we age we realize there is something missing in the self-image that has carried us to that point in life. This is when our true self may begin to assert itself, and the ego’s influence over us begins to lessen. As we did in infancy, we identify with our support system, although now we recognize God, working through those around us, as our ultimate support system. We celebrate our interconnectedness and recognize that we build ourselves up by building others up, not by tearing them down. We understand in our deepest being that salvation is communal, not individual – that we are all in this together. We strive to be increasingly genuine and true to who God created us to become.

When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to releasing our ego’s hold over the direction of our life. It can feel like dying; indeed, it is a death. We need to allow that small, selfish, and insecure part of ourselves to diminish in order to make room for our true self to grow. Our essence was never born, nor will it ever die. It is our eternal self. It is where our perfectly unique expression of God resides. Getting in touch with this aspect of our being is especially important as we approach physical death, as our true self is what will survive our passage out of material existence. Contemplative practices help us awaken to our essence. Such practices also assist in seeing the essence in others, even when it is invisible to them. God in us sees and affirms God in others. Namaste. This is true love and is a prerequisite to achieving equanimity within, not to mention peace on earth.

This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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1          Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass, Hoboken, NJ, 2011.

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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 1

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Who am I? And who is God? Francis of Assisi, a 12th Century Catholic Saint, pondered these questions regularly. Indeed, such questions plague us throughout our lives and are seemingly unanswerable. When we are infants, we almost completely identify with our support system – those who feed and care for us. Our world is small, and we are vulnerable. As we grow and become increasingly independent, we realize we have a measure of free will – we can manipulate our environment to better meet our needs. We increasingly find ways to gain control over our lives and cease to accept without question that which our support system offers. Thus begins our identity as a separate and independent being. As we reach adolescence, we become increasingly dissatisfied with those who provide for us. We want our freedom, we want to live life on our terms, and we no longer want to be held back by the seemingly uniformed wishes of parents, teachers, and others who retain annoying levels of control over us. By the time we are in our late teens, most of us have developed a strong and entrenched ego. We find this growth process recorded allegorically in Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. They rebelled against God and left paradise to live as beings separate and apart from God.

Developing an ego is a necessary and natural part of human development. It helps us identify a place and purpose in the world around us. Our ego dreams of great things and envisions a perfect life, if only we could escape the tyranny of the oppressive others who stand in our way. The ego, however, unchecked by reason and experience, is a deceptive informant. Egos are inherently insecure and narcissistic, protecting themselves at all costs. They portray our problems as the fault of others, so we look external to ourselves for solutions when we should be looking within. Our ego categorizes everything and everyone as useful or useless to itself – she is popular, so I will befriend her; he does not dress nicely, so I will shun him. The ego is a harsh judge and a ruthless critic. In order for one thing to be good, something else must be bad. Our egos strive to carve an important and unique niche in the world. Unfortunately, our egoic special place always comes at the expense of something or someone else.

When we follow the dictates of our ego, we find ourselves saying things, taking actions, and treating others in ways that are inconsistent with how we were created to be. When we reflect on our words and actions, we know we can and should do better. There is a God-given essence within us that the ego finds threatening and tries desperately to suppress. Many authors, Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton among them, refer to the ego as the false self and our essence as our true self. The false self is so called because it only allows a small, self-centered portion of who we are to manifest. Our true self is the part of us that was created in the image and likeness of God. It is who we are at our core. Our true self is directly connected to God by an unbreakable bond. As we learn more about our essence, we simultaneously learn more about God. When our true self attempts to act or speak in ways that go against what is popular or culturally acceptable, however, the false self will seek to shut it down. Our egos cannot bear social criticism.

A contemplative life seeks to allow the true self, the essential self, to blossom – not to destroy the ego, but to put it in its rightful place. We enhance this process of growth through contemplative practices. When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to losing our ego as the primary source for interpreting the world around us. Our egos can be good servants, but they are tyrants as masters. I will focus on our essence next week.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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The Seen and Unseen

 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what is seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18

One of the human afflictions Jesus addressed was blindness. True, he cured those whose eyes did not work properly, but physical blindness was not his primary concern. Spiritual blindness – a lack of awareness of the unseen realities within and around us – was his primary concern. “You have eyes but do not see,” was a common sentiment. We are blind to vast swaths of reality in our typical day-to-day consciousness. In general, we focus on what is seen and ignore what is unseen. From imaginary playmates as children to the communion of saints guiding us as adults, if it cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled, it cannot be real. A contemplative life expands one’s awareness of what is real and important to include both what is perceived by our senses, as well as that which is not.

When we gaze into the night sky, we see planets, stars, and constellations shining back at us. Some indigenous peoples saw patterns, not in the visible lights of the night sky, but in the dark spaces between them. Indeed, as we ponder the spaces around us – the air, the open areas of our rooms, the distance between my body and yours – we assume there is nothing there. Indeed, there is no thing there if we limit thingness to that which we can see, touch, hear, or smell. In so doing, we perceive only a small and often misleading portion of reality. Yet, even in our limited ability to perceive what is happening around us, we experience much that we cannot see. We cannot see or touch the fragrance of a rose but we know it is real because we smell it. We cannot see the signals from our cellular phones but we know they are real because we communicate over vast distances through them. We consistently underestimate the magnitude and impact of the unseen world around us.

It is an interesting and humbling aspect of our physical senses that we are capable of perceiving only a limited range of the vibratory spectrums making up the world around us. As a child, I remember someone with a dog whistle. I heard nothing when he blew it, but dogs nearby whimpered in misery. The sound of the dog whistle was not real to me, but it was painfully real to dogs. Sound waves exist on an infinite spectrum, but we can only hear a tiny portion of that spectrum. We are continually immersed in sound waves, even when our senses tell us the world is silent. The same is true of what we experience as light. We perceive a very limited range of colors because our eyes only receive a small portion of the infinite range of possibilities. Indeed, modern science has proven that we have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. How did Jesus know?

Through our senses and our early training, we think we are surrounded by mostly empty space in our immediate environment, in the atomic structure making up that environment, and in the galaxies surrounding our planet. The important point is not that we understand the physics behind the reality, but that we recognize the limitations of our senses. The empty space around us is not empty at all but is filled with a reality our senses cannot detect. Even so, these unseen realities impact our life experience as much or more than do the seen realities. Our world is vaster, more mysterious, and more beautiful than we can imagine. When our seen life experience leads us into despair, there is hope and reason for optimism in the unseen world. This is not wishful thinking, but faith-guided trust and surrender.

A contemplative life looks beyond what is seen, trusting that God is at work in all things and all situations, even and especially when God’s work is invisible to us. Such a life does not limit what is real or possible to the tangible information coming through our senses. As we become willing co-participants in God’s work through us, we find joy and purpose in whatever is, and we experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Action and Contemplation

 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  Ephesian 2:8-10

When we speak of a contemplative life, some people mistake that to mean a life of inactivity, of continuous meditation, or one of staring aimlessly into empty space. While some who consider themselves contemplative may follow such a path, an effective contemplative life is one of action guided by contemplation. The two paths are not contradictory; they are complimentary. In biblical terms, contemplation helps to build our faith, and action produces our works. The former is a type of prayerful understanding, and the latter refers to active doing. Ephesians 2 states that we are saved by faith and that faith is a gift of God so we cannot take personal credit for it. A contemplative life does not create faith, but it illuminates and strengthens the God-given faith already present in each of us. Even works, according to this passage, are not cause for arrogance. God created us for good works to be the product of our lives. They are not a way to earn God’s favor but are a natural expression of who we are. Good works grow out of faith, and right action grows out of contemplation.

Whether we consciously chose it or not, our lives are a combination of action and contemplation. Even monks who choose a life of solitude and silence have jobs around the monastery they must accomplish. We only differ by degrees. The typical Western life tilts heavily to the action-side of the scale, largely neglecting a contemplative focus. The downside of this pattern is that our actions tend to become unconscious reactions to whatever we experience, as opposed to consciously determined actions that have a plan and purpose behind them.

Yet, if we believe contemplation is only about planning and purpose, we deceive ourselves. Contemplation is about aligning ourselves and our actions to the unique expression of God we were created to become. It is about applying a holistic knowledge to our lives, utilizing the totality of our God-given centers of intelligence. Such knowledge develops from information collected by our heart, body, and mind. While it is true that contemplation is largely an intellectual exercise, it is only effective to the extent it is informed and guided from the entirety of our being. Heart knowledge is emotional intelligence. It derives information from emotions present in the environment. Head knowledge comes from thinking and processing what we experience.

Bodily knowledge is knowledge from the senses – what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. For most of us, this is our least developed intelligence center. Our body is the only intelligence center that keeps us grounded in the present moment. When we focus on information coming through our senses, we are in the moment. The type of information received from the body is intuition. We know something to be true, but there is little emotional or intellectual backing for it. Our head and heart centers easily fall prey to past longings and regrets, or future worries and anticipations, removing us from the moment. Each center of intelligence takes in, processes, and responds to information from the environment in unique ways. People in close relationship often misunderstand each other because their primary centers of intelligence process and respond to the same environment in different ways. One is not better or smarter than the others, only different. Each center by itself, however, provides only part of the truth – a partial glimpse of reality – and limits the range of responses we are likely to consider.

There is a saying among carpenters, “Measure twice, cut once.” It means to gather and check one’s sources of information before taking an action that may be difficult or impossible to undo. A practical contemplative life receives information from all centers of intelligence as it considers the most effective action to take. Awakening our lesser utilized centers is part of what contemplative practice seeks to accomplish. Contemplative knowing is holistic knowledge that helps assure the actions we take will be consistent with our status as God’s children. Contemplation and action are two sides of the same coin, given to us by God for the purpose of accomplishing God’s good work.

This is the 3rd in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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