The false self consists of all of the efforts we make to nurture a reputation for ourselves in the mind of others. In our culture, we have a compulsive need to be validated by external sources. But the true self is one that is wholly separate from this fragile image that we try to construct in the imagination of others. The true self is like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand, and comes out only when all is peaceful, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured by anyone or anything, because he responds to no lure except that of the divine freedom.
The problem with the machinery of the false self is that it is so easily disturbed. Without our protective fantasies about who we are, we believe we will experience pure personal nothingness: the dark vacuum of empty inner spaces at absolute zero. Such is the nature of the false self that it is founded on the belief there is nothing beyond its carefully constructed mirages and hopes of external validation. Indeed, in relationships, we want that recognition: men often look for the validation of women and women often seek the validation of men. Children need the validation of their care-givers in order to know they are (and will be) okay and as the children grow up, those same care-givers may also ultimately look for their children’s approval. In organizations, both leaders and followers yearn to be “seen” and appreciated. We wear our costumes and carry out our roles, hoping at the end of the play there will be recognition, applause, good reviews. We base our stature on what we hope is our recognized contribution. Sometimes we are accurate about that legacy; sometimes it may be only as real as a fantasy of winning the lottery.
In Zen Buddhism there are many metaphors that trace the conditions for appearance of the true self. In phrases such as “jumping right down the tiger’s throat,” “finding the bottom of the river,” and “if you find the Buddha, kill him” there is encouragement to go experience that “nothingness” for yourself, and in doing so break the chains that bind us to falseness and external validation. As I read Merton, he’s calling forth in this image of the very shy, wild animal a vision of quite a humble creature — mostly in hiding it would seem — that nevertheless carries a seed of immeasurable strength.
I like this vision because it places our capacity to lead in the category of learning to get past a false self that is addicted to its blindspots. Sometimes we misinterpret with the thought that if only we can numb out our concerns for others and their perspectives, learn to demand, incorporate a certain ruthlessness into our character, then the true self can show up. Sometimes we misinterpret by failing to distinguish between our own problems and the problems of others. In both cases there is a denial of reality. This all seems to me to be the product of a culture that over-values individualism and inner disconnectedness, denying experience. It is the product of a culture that routinely misses the point that the strength of the True Self is in its complete awareness and sensitivity, not the loss of consciousness that is part of some inner emotional disconnection. In fact, it is that very sensitivity that drives enlightened action, not the reverse.
There’s a story about two travelers in a very impoverished country that come upon a very sick child alone by the side of the road. It’s evident that there is really nothing to be done. The child will soon perish — perhaps in only a matter of minutes. The child is begging for water. One of the travelers is ready to take out his water flask, but then quickly puts it away. “I will only prolong the child’s agony,” he says. “The humane thing to do is hurry death, I’m afraid.” The other traveler, however, drops to her knees and immediately gives the child some water. She nestles the child in her arms. She quietly sings to the child and holds the little one close for over an hour until death finally comes. The first traveler asks,”What good did you do prolonging the child’s misery? Now you and I are both delayed in our journeys.” “What good did you do as part of your own journey,” she replies, “by learning to deny this suffering?”
To deny suffering — in ourselves and in others — is to be frightened and to run, avoiding the very shy wild animal that goes by so many names. True Self is only one.