For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.Thomas Merton
I read an article yesterday by a spiritual teacher instructing his followers to act from their “highest self.” He was beseeching his readers to be more loving, more kind, more peaceful; not to act on their emotional reactivity, but to take a high-road approach; the approach their “highest selves” would take. This sounds like lovely common sense. It sounds really good, and moral, and righteous. If only everyone followed this advice, right? Things would be a lot more peaceful. The problem is that it’s not real.
In practice this advice is often deeply misconstrued and ends up leading to the opposite result. It’s important to take it apart a bit, and clarify the actual internal direction.
On its face, this advice asks people not to act on their emotions, not to act on their normal drives or feelings, not to seek their vulnerable true self, not to behave authentically in accordance with their true feelings, but instead to identify with some divine, saintly, higher, ideal, spiritualized version of themselves, and to pretend to be that, to behave as though they were embodying that higher self.
What happens to people who do this internally is that they walk around pretending to be something they are not, namely “spiritual.” They have an idealized image of this higher self, which is really an idealized self-concept, and they mimic the words and behavior they believe this higher self would display. It’s a form of play-acting. They aren’t being real, they are pretending to be something they aren’t.
This is fake spirituality. Not only does it make the person’s words and actions feel phony, it makes him feel arrogantly superior to others (because he is believing and acting as though he is “above” them), it causes him to condescend and patronize to others, under the guise of spirituality. This does not lead to any beneficial result, not for the person, and not for those around him. It’s not more peaceful. It’s not more loving. It doesn’t help to avoid, resolve, or minimize conflict. This is generally what someone who is called sanctimonious is doing – he is pretending to be a lofty version of himself, and talking down to everyone else from his perch up above. We generally don’t like being around people like that, mostly because we can tell it’s phony.
One of the problems of imagining an idealized self, and acting in accordance with that self, is that that image is limited by the existing belief system. It’s not an accurate image. It’s a lop-sided fantasy. One cannot imagine accurate attributes in a higher self, if one has not explored his own darkness and shadow. Without going deeply into the darkness, and healing and reconciling those personality aspects, any images of a higher self will be terribly flawed, polarized, and one sided. The mind can’t imagine things outside of (or conflicting with) its existing belief structure, no matter how unconscious. So to reach up above, create a wonderful persona of goodness, and to act in accordance with that image, is kind of silly, but more importantly it has the effect of closing off the learning channels, and stifling further growth.
People who come into contact with their higher selves, in reality, are absolutely shocked, because it’s nothing like what they imagined it to be. They often struggle to reconcile the actually of the higher self, and what it teaches and demands, with their previously held images of what that would be like. They can’t believe the difference, and are quite nervous and upset by the truth. Real mystics, people who are deeply committed to truth and work regularly with various energies of Spirit (including at times their real higher selves), don’t act like saints; they don’t embody their higher selves. They don’t emulate goodness externally, for its own sake. They are far busier, being self-loving, honest, and courageous, than that. They embody their small inner child, living and feeling those truths, and re-raising that child from within, as a person of strong character.
Let’s use a really simple example. Imagine a close friend invites you to her birthday party, but you don’t want to go. The reason why you don’t want to go doesn’t matter much. If you identify with your “highest self,” you would believe that the right thing to do is to go, even if you don’t want to, because it would mean a lot to your friend. You might think something like “I have to show up to support my friend. It would be selfish to say no. Surely, my highest and best self would put my wants and needs aside to show up for a friend. Surely, my highest self is not selfish, and wouldn’t justify hurting my friend’s feelings just because I didn’t feel like going.”
Many of us are indoctrinated with really skewed ideals of goodness. The values we’ve been taught to ascribe to a “good” person, or a higher self, are wrong. Our images of an ideal self are often generous without boundaries, completely selfless, constantly endlessly sacrificing for others, always tender and never angry, infinitely patient, gentle, and compassionate, unconditionally loving and forgiving without accountability, etc. If we imagined an ideal image, many of us would attach those qualities to it, along with many other attributes. But those values are not how the highest self reasons, or functions, or exists at all. We would be mistaken to imagine that our highest self is exclusively this way. It is much more virtuous than this, much more balanced.
But this example is exactly what’s wrong with identifying with some image of what you think a spiritualized version of you would do. It masks the reality with phony spirituality. It’s a new (inaccurate) persona you must pretend to be and live up to. A new identity that you adopt that isn’t real. It avoids the uncomfortable difficult human stuff, with pretend love and fake kindness. It forces you to sacrifice yourself for another, because you believe it’s the “right” thing to do. This is a terrible form of spiritual bypass, which denies the real human experience, and the requisite lessons to be learned.
Even forgetting for a moment the issue of veracity, arbitrarily choosing to behave in conformity with an image, means not authentically choosing to behave as we really feel. This presents the next problem with the instruction – is that identifying with this ideal image of the higher self, the person is wasting precious time not being his authentic self, not cultivating or strengthening the small true self within. He is being good, at the expense of being real. While being real, or struggle to be real, is the hard work of spirituality – that’s what Merton is talking about above. In practice, the only way to derive wisdom, and to figure out how to act with wisdom and love is by going deep within to the true vulnerable self, the inner child, not to the higher self.
The only way to access actual love, not phony “highest self” sort of love, is to go within and get to the vulnerable truths inside. I’m not advocating acting on emotional reactivity or reckless base instincts, but rather going inward and investigating that reactivity, and then acting from inner truth and feeling. Meaning, doing only that which you actually want to do, and saying no when you want to say no. (This seems obvious and simple until you actually try to implement it in your life; only then you begin to see how scary and challenging this actually is…)
While the ultimate truth of us all is love, the actual road to love is very difficult and complicated. And the only way to learn the lessons, and really embody love and act in a loving, wise, just way, is to discover one’s own personal vulnerable truths deep within (not up above), and work tirelessly on building up the courage to live and express those truths to others. Turning upwards, rather than inwards, is a gross mis-direction.