4 Oct 1999 –13 Nov 2003 Victoria, BC –
from Transcript of Audio Recording of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Commentaries on:
Living Presence by Kabir Edmund Helminski

The first person, so far as we know, to use the term “false self” is Thomas Merton but Thomas Merton uses it in a way that is really consistent with the inner tradition.  He uses it to mean all kind of egoic functioning and all kind of efforts by the lower system – by the lower self – to think that it is reality.  So he talks about the false self in opposition to the true Self that can only be known as a complete mystery by yielding into it.  So [the way] he used the term was a classic use of the term.  It’s very, very traditionally in line with inner teaching.

But then along comes Thomas Keating and he puts a very important new spin on it.  For Thomas Keating, the false self is always dysfunctional.  The false self, as Thomas defines it, amounts to the sum of our complexes, defences [and] neurotic covering positions that we develop in response to perceived threat usually early on in life.  So he teaches – you’ve all been through this, I’m sure, his teaching on how we develop a false self – how it tends to have the configuration of if we’re wounded in our basic sense of security and survival we tend to develop a false self that’s very obsessive about making sure things are secure; and if we’re wounded in our basic sense of self esteem and self worth we will tend to develop programs that are all about getting the love we want, you know, through co-dependency, abusive relationships, being the first in everything – all that sort of stuff; and if we’re wounded in our basic sense of acceptability, control, that life won’t let us get into the ball game, we tend to become control freaks and we develop programs so that we write the rules and we make sure that we have a place.

So Thomas [Keating] has developed quite a teaching on this but since he has positioned the false self as basically equivalent to the lump sum of our deformations and wounds, it’s very, very easy to make the inference, therefore, that the true Self is the same thing as the “healthy ego” – you know, whatever the term “healthy ego” means.  But it’s too easy to think that if we just do our psychological work – confront our issues, confront our wounds, confront our agenda – and develop an ego which is reasonably in touch with reality and reasonably alert to the needs of others without being a door mat – voilà!  We have our true Self!

We have this term that you will see a lot – and Helminski uses it – called the “healthy ego”.  I’d simply have to point out that from the point of view of traditional psychologies there is no such thing as a “healthy ego”.  It’s an oxymoron.  It’s like “a rainy, clear night”.  It doesn’t exist, because the ego in all traditional literature is synonymous with nafs – with the lower passional soul – and its tricks and its mistakes.  It’s, by nature, provisional.  It only lasts for the duration of this life and all attempts to find your identity there are doomed.  That’s ancient teaching.

But just to mention another myth that has really fallen into place in our own time, a sort of psychologically-driven myth, which has created untold discord with the ancient tradition, is the myth of having clear boundaries.  This is almost an obsession in our present-day culture where it’s “our psychic hygiene and we don’t want to invade people’s spaces” – there’s all this kind of posturing and language around it.  There’s nothing wrong with that because, in some sense, gross core codependency is a problem.  People who don’t know even in a kind of provisional way where they end and the universe begins are in trouble.  But what we discover is that if we get too fixed on nucleated boundaries we forget that in our Gospel tradition the core unit is not the individual but the collective.  “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  “Dwell in me that I may dwell in you” – the beautiful image of the Body of Christ and the limbs and the bodies.  This sense of nucleated individuality being us, if we get too protective about it, cuts us off from taking the step which is where real religious life begins, which is with merging, dissolving.  We don’t even know what these terms mean if we think that we are the individual unit.  So we need to move back from this hard-edged, nucleated “individuality” that our culture has gone down the primrose path of.

One way of kind of easing the tension between the two of these is to realize that modern psychotherapy began as a study of pathology.  Freud was really interested in the gross deformations, emotional and psychological, that kept people functioning at a sub-normal level.  What we have tended to do in our own culture is to take a sort of quasi-science based on pathology and use that as our computing model for an invitation to Divine life and it doesn’t work.  And there has been quite significant damage done to the path, as it has been passed on from generation to generation, by these confusions that have been introduced at fairly recent vintage.

Just to give you some sense of what the traditional Sufi paradigm for wholeness and the essential self is – I think this is a marvelous paradigm and I keep going back and re-orienting myself on it because in a very simple way it makes sense of the pieces without dumping any of them out – if you can imagine a triangle, a little trinity [and] just for fun let’s have the triangle facing down.  At your upper left corner put nafs – and you can put in there essence, personality, ego, soul [and] all that stuff – that’s the “you” you think you are.  When you go around assessing your characteristics, assessing your feelings, checking in with yourself to see how you are and going to your counsellor to see how you are doing – you are working with that [nafs].

Over on the right-hand corner of this triangle put Spirit, and you can go right back to thinking about Thomas Merton and his beautiful words on the point vierge.  I don’t know whether I brought the Merton book along so I can’t read it verbatim but remember there is in each one of us a Divine spark, something that belongs truly to God that is not at our disposal – and that’s a real key insight Merton got.  It’s not at our disposal, but from it God disposes of our lives.  He says it is not at the mercy of the brutalities of our will or the fantasies of our mind.  In other words, we can’t put our hands on it.  But, he says, this spark of pure God within is written within us as our poverty, as our nothingness.  So [as] it’s entered it even appears to us as that complete, invisible nothing.  You know, we can’t touch it but it is a core or golden kernel of pure, Divine life at the very, very heart, the innermost heart of our being.  Meister Eckhart calls that “the foundation of the soul”.  And in that wonderful passage where he is saying, “There is that in the soul which dwells in God and there is that in the soul by which God dwells in the soul.”  He’s being very theologically careful there.  He’s not quite saying the same thing as the Hindu would say:  that the innermost core of the soul is itself Divine; that I am, essentially, God.  He’s not saying that.  But he is saying that at the very innermost secret of my being is a place where God actually inhabits and moves out from that as the foundational life of my being.  So that’s Spirit.

Now very often traditional psychologies will then get into this kind of dualistic, oppositional thing where what you have got to do is subject the “poor, dirty old psyche” – nafs – to the Spirit – you know, all that athletic stuff like “destroy the flesh and the Spirit is free”.  But the Sufi psychology has a much more tolerant, compassionate understanding of this.  That is, there’s a third point down there [on the triangle] and the third point we call “heart”.

I have read you the definition of “heart” so many times that you can probably recite it by memory:  “We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using.”  (This is page 157 in Helminski’s book].)  “Beyond the limited, analytical intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities, intuition, wisdom, a sense of unity, aesthetic, qualitative and creative faculties and image-forming and symbolic capacities.  Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification because they are operating best when they are in concert.  They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection to the Cosmic Mind.  This total mind we call ‘heart’.”

So he’s talking about an infinitely huge, sensitively attuned, perceptive faculty.  He goes on a little bit later to say, “The heart is that antenna that receives the emanations of subtler levels of existence.  The human heart has its proper field of functioning beyond the limits of the superficial, reactive ego-self.  Awakening the heart or the spiritualised mind,” (and he uses these [terms] synonymously) “is an unlimited process of making the mind more sensitive, focused, energized, subtle and refined, of joining it to its cosmic milieu, the Infinity of Love.”

Thomas Keating refers to what is essentially the parallel of this – our spiritual awareness.  [This is] the sense in us that we have something God-given whose particular capacity is to hone in on Spirit – this indwelling Light – to listen to it like Mary listening to her Master in the Gospel story; to hone in on it, to listen to it, to adore it, to obey it, to receive its impressions and then to mediate that back to the essence – to the ego-self, to the lower – so that the three are held in a wonderful, dynamic, reconciling relationship.  So it’s not a matter of destroying the flesh or destroying the psyche, but of nurturing the heart whose capacity is to mediate these things.