Tuesday, January 5, 2010

the lower self

The lower self is like a flame both in its display of beauty and in its hidden potential for destruction; though its color is attractive, it burns.

It's always a negotiation figuring out just what books to bring on a trip like this, the balance of weight (in my back pack) and importance-usefulness. My bible of course (though I almost traded in my beat up RSV with its Florentine cover for a new slim leather bound version), and this time I also brought for Western spiritual reading Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation, which the Sangha is going to be studying over the next few months (so expect copious editorializing directed not very subtly at them); and for the Universal Wisdom I have my cherished now worn-in copy of the Bhagavad Gita, which has the Sanskrit and transliteration and The Essential Sufism from Harper. I've already run into a cool little resonance, about the scopos-the goal.

Recall: I am always arguing that between among traditions we often do disagree on how to describe the end, what John Cassian refers to as the telos in Greek in his Conferences. So Christians and Muslims say that our essential self lives on in relationship with the divine; Hindu advaitins say that our self disappears into the Great Self; Buddhism says there is no abiding self, neither of us nor an ultimate Self. But, I argue, where we do agree is on the goal, the scopos in Greek, the proximate thing we are aiming at. We also agree often on how to achieve that goal. The two examples of the scopos I use are, on a practical ethical level, some form of the Golden Rule and all that stems from that socially and personally; and, at the level of personal spiritual development, a certain "death of self," a going beyond what we regard as "self" to our ultimate self.

Thomas Merton refers often to the "false self." I think this is a phrase attributable mainly to him, and I wonder how much he himself was influenced by his study of Asian spirituality on this. In Chapter 4 he is making an eloquent argument for the holiness of all things, and arguing against considering any created thing as intrinsically unholy or evil, including our own bodies. His argument is that we are not supposed to detach from things (or people) so that we can attach ourselves to God; we are supposed to detach from our false selves, because when we do so we can regard all these things in their proper place. Our false selves accommodate everything--relationships and objects--in regard to how they effect "me," or "I" can use them for "my" own pleasure and an upbuilding of the "separate, external, egoistic will." They are not evil, but the way in which I approach them or use them is destructive and blocks my path to full spiritual development. So he sings: "The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our souls."

There is also a marevelous resonance with Zen Buddhism here too. I was recalling Alan Watts' description of spontanaiety in Zen as I read some of Merton's criticisms of so-called spirituality that obstructs or frustrated all forms of spontanaiety with cliches, guilt and arbritrary references to GOd.

For a marvelous explanation of what this false self is, turn to Shiekh Frager's introduction to the Chapter entitled "The Lower Self" in The Essential Sufism. This is what is referred to in Islam, and particularly in Sufism, as the nafs, an Arabic word translated variously as "essence" or "breath," or "ego" or "self" in its symbolic meaning. It is directly related to the Hebrew word nephesh, which is also translated in similar ways, and often simply used as the Hebrew version of the word "soul." Frager prefers to translate it as "the lower self." Remember that the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him!) refers to the conquering of this "lower self" as the great jihad, the jihad al-nafs, and you see we are in the same territory. Here is Frager's beautiful simple explanation:
The lower self is not so much a thing as a process created by the interaction of the soul and the body. Body and soul are pure and blameless in themselves. However, when our soul becomes embodied, we tend to forget our soul-nature; we become attached to this world and develop such qualities as greed, lust and pride.

I'm glad to read that "Body and soul are pure and blameless in themselves." Merton stresses this as well, and in 1961 I would love to know who he had in mind when he wrote that it is equally false to treat either the soul or the body as if either were the whole self: by the first we fall into angelism, by the second "we live below the level assigned by God to human nature." No: the marriage of body and soul is one of the things that make us the image of God: "Soul and body subsist together in the reality of the hidden, inner person." This marriage is also what presents the greatest challenge, negotiating with grace the proper proportion. In some Way I could say that this seems to be the ultimate matter of the practical spiritual life. It would be interesting to see what our Samkhya friends make of this, who tend to speak instead of the separation of the soul nature from the material nature; and yet Yoga as a practical path, embedded in and supported by Samkhya, is a perfect blend of the psycho-somatic realities.

Don't know when I will have access to internet again so I thought I'd get that off right away. I've had a luxurious little stay here at the "Perfect Haven" guesthouse. Now to battle the traffic of Chennai back to the airport, and so excited to be back at Shantivanam this afternoon.