False Self, True Self In the Words of Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh and Others

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh (Photo credit: Leonard John Matthews)

Buddha was not a god.  He was a human being like you and me, and he suffered just as we do.  If we go to the Buddha with our hearts open, he will look at us, his eyes filled with compassion, and say, ‘Because there is suffering in your heart, it is possible for you to enter my heart.—Thich Nhat Hanh from The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching

As I wrote about deconstructing my false self in my last post, I thought it might be useful for readers to consider another reason there is a  need for such deconstruction for someone on a “spiritual” path.

Often people engage in the spiritual quest to— understandably— escape emotional pain.  They believe  that a path, like Buddhism, should be sufficient of its own for healing emotional wounds.  They imagine they will rise above them or detach from them and be free from their influence.    This is called “spiritual bypassing.”  John Welwood, a Buddhist and psychologist writes about this phenomena and its danger in his  article The Psychology of Awakening published in Tricycle Magazine.

“It can be difficult to understand or appreciate why we might need to resort to psychological work when many Asian spiritual practitioners have found liberation solely through the profound teachings and practices of Buddhism for thousands of years. But it helps to recognize that the highest, nondual Buddhist teachings, which show that who you really are is absolute reality, presume a rich underpinning of community, religious customs, and shared moral values that the West mostly lacks. Modern Western culture is marked by social isolation, personal alienation, lack of community, disconnection from nature, and the loss of the sacred at the center of our lives. And the Western self is riddled with inner divisions—between self and other, individual and society, mind and body, spirit and nature, or the guilty ego and the harsh, punishing superego—that were mostly unknown in the ancient cultures in which the meditative traditions first arose.

Many Western children also grow up lacking close, sustained early bonding with their parents, in contrast to the practice in traditional cultures, where parents often hold young children continually and even let them share their bed. Developmental psychologists argue that children with deficient parenting tend to hold onto the internalized traces of their parents more rigidly and develop parental fixations that haunt them in later life.

Thus Western children often grow up without the support of what the psychologist D. W. Winnicott called a good “holding environment”—a context of love and belonging that contributes to a basic sense of confidence and to overall healthy psychological development. Children who grow up in fragmented families, glued to television sets transmitting images of a spiritually lost, narcissistic world, lack a meaningful context in which to situate their lives. As a result, many Westerners suffer from what the psychologist Harry Guntrip considered to be the emotional plague of modern civilization: ego weakness, the lack of a grounded sense of oneself and one’s place in the world that shows up as self-hatred, insecurity, and self-doubt.”

(Stay posted for future posts on spiritual bypassing!)

In my last post I attempted to give  a synopsis of a book my sangha has been working with during the past three months in an  intensive called Deconstructing the Myth of Self.  For the next three months we will also refer to Eckhart Tolle’s work, A New Earth in which he also  talks about schemas, but his term for them is “the pain body.”  Below are some excerpts that speak to the same investigation of false self/real self.

“Any negative emotion that is not fully faced and seen for what it is in the moment it arises does not completely dissolve.  Children in particular find strong negative emotions too overwhelming…and tend to try not to feel them…Unfortunately, the early defense mechanism usually remains in place when the child becomes and adult.  The emotion still lives in him or her unrecognized and manifests indirectly, for example, as anger, anxiety, or even physical illness.  Most psychotherapists have met patients who claim to have had a totally happy childhood, and later the opposite turned out to be the case….Even if both parents were enlightened, you would still find yourself growing up in a largely unconscious world”  (Tolle 141-2).

“It is only when memories, that is to say thoughts about the past, take you over completely that {memories} become a burden…and become part of your sense of self.   Your personality, which is conditioned by the past, then becomes your prison.”  (Tolle

“In most cases when you say ‘I,’ it is the ego {false self} speaking, not you…{I} consists of thought and emotion, of a bundle of memories you identify with as ‘me and my story,’ of habitual roles you play without knowing, it, collective identifications such as nationality, religion, race, class, or political allegiance. It also contains personal identifications, not only with possessions, but also with opinions, external appearance, long-standing resentments or concepts of yourself as better or not as good as others, as a success of failure”  (60 Tolle).

Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, writes about the importance Buddha put on knowing oneself, “The Buddha faced his own suffering directly and discovered the path of  liberation.  Don’t run away from things that are unpleasant in order to embrace things that are pleasant.  Put your hands in the earth.  Face the difficulties and grow new happiness….Buddhas and bodhisattvas suffer, too…(42 Nhat Hanh).

The conclusion of all three of these teachers is the importance of mindful loving-kindness  for yourself as you look deeply at your false self and its stories. “Use the energy of mindfulness all day long to be truly present, to embrace your suffering like a mother holding her baby.  As long as {non-judgmental} mindfulness is there, you can stay with difficulty” (37-38 Nhat Hanh).  Of course, he also encourages us to seek out the support of a sangha and friends who can be present for you as you seek for your true self.  He adds that keeping your suffering to yourself only makes it grow larger.

The moment  you know how your suffering came to be, you are already on the path of release from it—Buddha

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