One book I return to time and time again is Gerald May’s book, Will and Spirit. I find that book so helpful, because he develops what he calls in the subtitle a “contemplative psychology.” Until his recent death, May was a psychiatrist who founded and ran a spirituality center in Washington, DC. He spent most of his adult life working at the intersection of psychology and spirituality. He works with some basic concepts in ways that I find quite illuminating.
One such concept that intrigues me and about which he helped me understand some things, is the concept of the “self.” This idea of self is an important one in spirituality work. And it is also central in psychological thinking. In effect, to talk about the “self” is to talk about ourselves. It concerns identity: who am I? At one level, most of us would claim that we know exactly who we are. At another level, perhaps few of us really know who we are! I fall into that latter category.
Of course, I can tell you many things about me. I am a father, a son, a spouse, a friend; I have degrees, am a professor and on and on. But I am not sure any one of these really nails the question, who am I? They tell you a great deal about me; I am not sure they tell you who I am. May helps me get to the core: the real me. He does this with the idea of “self image.”
The minute May introduced the idea of “self image” into the conversation was the minute I realized that perhaps my “self image” and my “self” were not the same. Let’s use a couple of sentences from May to explore how he understands “self image.” In effect, we construct or build our self-image. May says, “Self-image is the product of a complex process of self-definition associated with one’s sense of body, of will, of relationship with others, and of desire or aspiration. It includes intricate combinations of memories and behavior patterns, habits and needs---everything that one could use to describe or characterize oneself.”
This does not mean that our self-image is false. It may be quite accurate as a description of how we see ourselves. And it may relate closely with how others see us. It makes sense that part of my self-image has to do with how I perceive my body. For me this means my self-image is of a man who is getting older. My relationship with others also goes a long way to shape my self-image. And all the rest of May’s definition rings true to me.
So self-image is a good “view” of who I am. But it is not who I am. In fact, it may well be true that I have no real clue who I really am. Thomas Merton, famous monk of last century, talks a great deal about the “true self.” By that he meant something deep, interior and core to who we are. I always resonate with that idea, even if I am not sure if I know my “true self.” I tend to think the “true self” is the same thing as “soul.” I don’t have a soul; I am a soul. That seems central to me.
So where does this take us. For me it has meant that I need to be careful and not assume my “self image” is the same thing as my “self.” To put it simply, my “self” is the real me---the “true self.” My “self image” is the picture I paint of myself. It could be fairly realistic. Or it may be more like those impressionistic painters who were intriguing, but not real to life.
The next thing this means to me is the spiritual journey can only happen with the “true self.” No doubt, much of the early phase of the spiritual journey is coming to have some clue who the “true self” is. In many ways I still am in that early phase of the journey. There is a great deal of unknowing to be done in this early phase. I have to learn that the “self image” is not the “real me.” That does not mean it is bad; it is just not the “true self.”
Then comes the next significant phase of the spiritual journey. At some point, the “false self,” as Merton calls it, might be set aside in order to discover and live into the ‘true self.” That sounds easy enough on paper. But in real life, it can be challenging and, perhaps, threatening. Jesus put it strongly when he told the disciples they had to die to the old self in order to be born to the new or “true self.”
In effect, this means a kind of death to the “self image.” To be spiritual means I cannot be self-defining. I need to be willing to become God-defined. In Christian terms this means getting to the place where I can truly say, “not my will, but thy will.” This normally begins with the “self image” and spells the end of that same “self image.” The joy is discovering this is not finally death, but ultimately life---real life.