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Is the sense of self an illusion?


Question & Answer

John from Chian Mai, Thailand, writes:


Would you comment from your Christian perspective on the Buddhist assertion that we have no separate self or separate existence because we cannot understand who we are without understanding who we aren’t, and our separate existence is known only because of everything we are? Is the sense of self an illusion?

Answer: By Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.

Dear John,

Sometimes in discussions between the distinctly rich and complex spiritual traditions of east and west conundrums are created by confusions in language. In broad brush strokes, one might say that whereas the east has focused greatly on the empty transcendent, the west has dwelt upon the fully immanent. The east has explored the emptiness of self and the west has mined the rich fullness of the self becoming divinized. There are important and notable exceptions to this oversimplification, but there is truth here as well.

If we take the concept of “self,” for example, and understand it to mean ego-identity, then we come upon a possibly shared experience and concept of both east and west. For the west, the sense of self in the 21st century is a psychological concept filled with meaning by Freudian psychology, ego-psychology, object-relations theory, and relational psychology, to name the predominant contributors. What these psychological sources often fail to incorporate, from a theological and spiritual perspective, is that the ultimate source of the self is the Absolute (what we also call “God” or “Being” or the “Beloved”). Once we recognize the true source of the self, we begin to use another term to conceive the human of Being, which is “soul.”

Since each and every creature is a manifestation of the Absolute, we can speak of each and every creature as a vibrant soul, the face of the Absolute in time and space. (Meister Eckhart preferred the language of each creature being a word of God.) The Absolute is another connecting concept between east and west, because in both traditions the spiritual masters recognize that the Absolute is empty of ego, which means, empty of any conventional self. And as we are called to realize here and now the truth of our ultimate nature, we are invited in the spiritual journey to realize our emptiness of egoic identity as the ultimate source of who we are.

And yet, to be empty, is also to be full of Being. Spiritual poverty makes space for the fullness of the empty Absolute. The west recognizes that Being is boundless and that Love is boundless. There is no boundary that separates one being of Being from any other. One way in which this truth finds expression is that all creation is the Cosmic Christ – all that is is the face of God continually manifesting moment-to-moment. And yet, the mysterious truth is that only you have your experience as you experience it. As you sit on a cushion in meditation and experience no-self, or boundless soul, it is as you (that human of Being in your location, as some say) that the experience is happening; not in the person beside you. We might say that what transpires in our lives are distinct, yet not separate, experiences of Being.

For the west, the egoic-self is an inevitable and necessary psychological structure on the path of human maturation. It is not evil, nor is it a mistake. What the east reminds the west is the truth that the ego is not the pinnacle of human spiritual maturation. Rather, the point of human existence is to realize that, essentially, we are to know directly for ourselves that we are full of nothing but Being.

~ Kevin Thew Forrester, Ph.D.

About the Author

Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D. is an Episcopal priest, a student of the Diamond Approach for over a decade, as well as a certified teacher of the Enneagram in the Narrative Tradition. He is the founder of the Healing Arts Center of St. Paul’s Church in Marquette, Michigan, and the author of five books, including “I Have Called You Friends“, “Holding Beauty in My Soul’s Arms“, and “My Heart is a Raging Volcano of Love for You” and “Beyond my Wants, Beyond my Fears: The Soul’s Journey into the Heartland“.

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