Regardless of what teaching heritage you follow or how your faith shapes your beliefs sooner or later you will have to settle in to deal with the matter of ‘self’.
I grew up with an Evangelical Christian background and part and parcel to the teachings was our being saved and going to heaven when we die. From the beginning, for even then I was a bit odd, not assuming what I was told was the whole story, I wondered: What part of me goes to heaven?
It was pretty clear that it wasn’t my flesh and bones body. Dust to dust and all that. But within me there was a non- material nature and part of that was continually being preached about as not being an acceptable aspect of the Christian life. The self had to be put down, denied, crucified, and all manner of final things so that the life of Christ, the mind of Christ, the Spirit of Christ could become dominant and a self-less life could be lived.
All well and good but the question still remained: if the self wasn’t signed up for the trip what in me that was ‘me’ …was?
Time passed. As a young man attending Bible College I was less than satisfied with the teachings I was receiving on the nature of Humankind. It was often a matter of theological debate as to the actual make up of our human condition. It was obvious that we were comprised of two basic aspects: material and non-material. That much was pretty much agreed on. When it came to understanding the non-material, or spiritual, part of us the waters became somewhat muddied. I have no doubt that somewhere someone has dealt with this matter in a satisfactory manner but I hadn’t come across it so I had to find my own way for the most part. Part of the confusion came from sloppy semantics. The words “soul” and “spirit” were often used in discussions regarding our spiritual nature but so often used ambiguously or interchangeably as to be rendered useless. So I did what I usually do, I made up stuff.
Okay, not really, but I did assign working definitions to keep the concepts separate and distinct. They are a bit arbitrary (like my definitions of faith and belief, two other frustrating words made more so by their sloppy semantics) but I think the ideas are sound. The “soul” I define as that aspect of our spiritual nature that deals with the material world we live in. The “spirit” is another aspect that deals or interacts with the non-material world. Seeing us in this light actually began to make sense of what I was seeing as our lives are played out in this world.
The soul has access to nearly overwhelming stimuli. It works through the senses seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. Moreover it has access to the mind to process the sensory input, assign value judgments based on pleasure and desire and to engage the imagination forming thoughts, imagery, dreams and delusions. As our non-material, our spiritual resources are more and more commandeered by the soul the spirit seems to become little more than a nagging presence and reminder of the Eternal. As the soul is allowed free reign in this carnival of material existence it becomes very loud and dominant …and willful …in its role of provider and protector. It becomes so engaged, so involved that it begins to identify with the objects it discerns in the world around it.
I think it is good to interject here that I believe that our spiritual nature is not a real dichotomy with distinct separation, two spiritual forces residing within us, but rather one nature with two needed jobs: maintaining our connection with the source of all existence and maintaining our existence in the material world in our material body. The problem develops when, ignorant of our true nature, and devoid of balance we are deluded into believing that where we connect with the world is who we are.
Enter …the Self.
Here we are with a spiritual nature that is tasked with eternal connection and mortal maintenance that has become so distorted (the Buddhists say insane) that we have lost all perspective. Our soulish aspect goes ‘native’ and becomes so attached and identified with the sensual world around us that we come to believe that connection defines us. We feel so the feelings are us. We think so the thoughts are us. We cling, we grasp, we own, we possess, we desire, we hate, we abhor, we fear, we need and all these things and more are ‘us’. We see any threat to this convention of the worldly components of our identity as a threat to who we are, to our very existence. This constructed illusion of who we are, this self, is as mortal as footprints on the beach and seeing ourselves thus we find our greatest fear looming before us: death.
And, finally, I understand what is meant by ‘redeeming the soul’. The soul is lost, lost midst the sensual overload of mortal existence. Deluded into believing the lie that the false self is real and allowing all the energies of our existence to be spent serving the self, protecting the self, glorifying the self. And it is here that truth must prevail. It is here that eyes must be opened and the heart awakened. It is here that the words come true: “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.” Self must die and our true identity be allowed to step into the light.
And how do we do this?
It begins with our finding a ‘new’ paradigm in our understanding of the nature of the world and our association with it. This world view is found in the teachings of Jesus. It is also found in the teachings of Buddha as well as those of Lao Tsu. This is not an endorsement of one system of belief over another ( I have my preferences but I am not evangelizing here) this is, hopefully, a beam of light into the process of ending the false self and centering in our true being. This world view is that this world contains nothing permanent. Nothing. Change is the name of the game and we have to play by the rules that are set. If everything is changing then its hands off, no clinging, no attaching! We can no more attach to the things of this world with impunity than we can take a flaming brand into our hands without being burned. We are in the world but not of it. Our identity is not to be found in any element of this world or any place we interact with it.
To come to this realization is at first (and to some extent continually) unsettling. All of our conscious lives we have found our solid ground in this present world. To detach from that, to accept that nothing is solid and unchanging, is to find a sense of groundlessness and emptiness that is as unnerving as sudden free fall.
That fear is centered in the ‘self’ and is not real. That ‘free fall’ is our natural state, our true state of being. If it were at all threatening to our true existence then we would be in deep trouble. But we aren’t. What seems like free fall is in fact the spacious openness of infinite potential. That everything is changing means anything is possible. The self needs certainty to have identity. To walk in truth is to know there is no certainty in this world. Where the self sees change as death and ending …the truth reveals infinite new beginnings.
There is more of course, the Universe is big and existence is …well, bigger. What continues on after death? Me, but not me as in ‘self’. Me as in spirit forever connected to my Source. Jesus said, “My Father in me, I in you…”. Connection and continuation. Selfless and free falling, forever at home. That takes faith I suppose. But doesn’t everything?
*** Next up: “Self …less” ***