“We were never really born, we will never really die. It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea of a personal self, other selves, many selves everywhere: Self is only an idea, a mortal idea. That which passes into everything is one thing. It’s a dream already ended,” wrote Jack Kerouac in a letter to his first wife, found in The Portable Jack Kerouac.
The concept of ‘self’ is one which nowadays is discussed often, with spiritual gurus bubbling up from the ether (aka the internet), bundling up their own brand of eastern-meets-western style of self-love in an e-course, coaching session, or retreat. Maybe whatever they’re selling works for a little while. But can we find love for ‘self’ outside of ourselves? What is the concept of ‘self’, anyway? And can self-love be bought under an exorbitant payment plan?
Eckhart Tolle talks about two levels of self: the self that exists unchanged no matter what you achieve, say, or do; and the ego self – the illusionary construct we create and continue to prop up through our own thinking.
“As a grown up, you form a mental image of who you are, based on your personal and cultural conditioning. We may call this phantom self the ego. It consists of mind activity and can only be kept going through constant thinking. The term ego means different things to people, but when I use it here it means a false self, created by unconscious identification with the mind.”
Eckhart explains that since the ego self is a false construct, it cannot exist in the truth of the present moment, preferring to cling to the past or the future.
“To the ego, the present moment hardly exists. Only past and future are considered important. The total reversal of the truth accounts for the fact that in the ego mode the mind is so dysfunctional. It is always concerned with keeping the past alive, because without it – who are you? It constantly projects itself into the future to ensure its continued survival and to seek some kind of release or fulfillment there. It says: ‘One day, when this, that, or the other happens, I am going to be okay, happy, at peace.’”
The problem is, when we look to the future for happiness, all we end up with is more of the same – more searching. The bar constantly shifts and we keep pushing our happiness further forwards to another goal, objective, or thing.
Thomas Merton also wrote about the true self compared to the false self, in New Seeds of Contemplation.
“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God—because Truth, Light—knows nothing about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.”
Of course, if you’re anything like me, the word ‘God’ does not sit comfortably since it’s been tainted by religion and our culture. It’s difficult to not associate the word with some form of separateness, segregation, and judgement. But I think of God as the energy of peace, clarity and oneness that is within us all (and perhaps the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) rather a bearded man in the sky who sent us here as one big fucked up test.
Religion aside, most of us agree we have an inner self — and love, peace and clarity is its natural state. It exists behind the ego self we have created and continue to recreate every day, each time we define ourselves, seek to impress, improve, or compete.
So it really begs the question: do we need to find self-love when love is already a part of what we truly are? Or, do we just need to let go of the ego self, the illusionary self which is so eager to do the unnecessary searching?