Part of the inward journey is the discovery that the self we are in the world – in our work, our relationships, our daily activities – is not all there is to us. Some wisdom traditions speak of the true self, that inward, God-connected self that is different from the false self we present to the world. The false self, in this way of thinking, is the mask we wear in the world, the roles we play, the façade we put up to prevent our flaws and weaknesses from being known. This false self is seen as the work of the ego, that part of us that is concerned with our individual safety and well-being. In this view, part of our job is to overcome the promptings of the ego and live as fully as possible in our true selves. Our task is to let go of the demands of the ego for security, status, achievement, approval, and pleasure, and live and act out of that true self that is connected to God.
I have some problems with this way of thinking. It’s too much like dualism, which argues that the material world is bad and only the things of the spirit good. Dualism requires the rejection of much of life and experience. If the concrete, physical elements of my self are bad or weak or false and I am to overcome the flesh and the world, and live in the spirit, then I must reject a major part of myself.
I’d rather look at it all from a more inclusive perspective. My world-self, the self that lives in a world full of challenges, competition, struggles, relationships, loss, deprivation, fulfillment, and enjoyment, is a very real part of me. That self can be petty, negative, frightened, anxious, and judgmental. It can lead me to live in ways that are spiritually and physically destructive. It makes a lot of mistakes. It’s dominated by the self-protective story-maker we call the ego, and it’s very selfish.
Behind that self, its foundation and support, is my soul-self, the image of what God created me to be. When I recognize and come to know that soul-self, I can learn to put my world-self in context, and my experiences in the world in perspective. My goal is not to empty myself or put away all that I am in the world. My goal is to accept my world-self as a part of me, and to allow my soul-self to fill up all the empty places in my world-self, fill out its flawed and limited outlines, so that I become more nearly complete and able to allow God’s Spirit in me to flow out into the world as I encounter it.
The world-self is not evil. It’s not even bad. It’s probably necessary for our survival in the physical world. But it doesn’t have to be in charge of who I am and what I do. Its fears and anxieties don’t have to dominate my life. The more aware I become of my soul-self, the more I live out of that inner self, the less important the demands of the ego become. I can accept the losses, threats, suffering, pleasure, and excitement of ordinary life as part of what is, and part of me – and let them go. When I understand and accept all that I am, I can choose to allow love and connection to dominate my actions and responses. When that happens, I can begin to see God in others. When that happens, I become part of the great flow of giving and receiving, emptying and filling, that is the truest and most real form of living.