Tuesday, February 7, 2012


The longer I live the more I am convinced that all of our so-called problems – yes, all of them – arise and present themselves to us as problems because we persist in holding onto imaginary self-pictures in respect of the subject-matter of those problems.

That is not to say that all that happens to us is actually caused by us. For example, whilst we cause some of the sickness which befalls us, other sickness comes upon us through no ‘fault’ of our own. However, sickness only becomes a problem for us when, for example, we hold an imaginary self-picture like---in order to be happy we must always be well. The fact is we can still be happy even if we are unwell. We still have a choice as respects the decision to be or not to be happy.

A former law student of mine – let’s call him Manny [not his real name] – said to me once (about the time of his graduation from the university where I lectured), ‘I wouldn’t feel important if I were a lawyer working for the government---like you used to do.’ Not content with being the person he was, his idea of success was – and still is, I hear – being seen by most others to be a success in the law … and that entails, in Manny’s view, working as a lawyer in private practice and at the helm of his own small firm located, not surprisingly, in the so-called ‘big end’ of town. (In truth, Manny is a ‘legend in his own lunchbox,’ and most of his peers would be aware of that fact. Never mind. It’s his ‘life.’)

Manny is by no means alone. So many people hold these imaginary – that is, false – self-pictures. They must be obscenely wealthy. They must wear beautiful designer label clothes. They must be seen and photographed with the ‘right’ kind of people. They must drive expensive cars. They must eat at the most classy restaurants. And they must find partners who are similarly ‘minded,' as well as being good in bed. Yes, it is all about doing as opposed to being. These people – most people – will do anything in order not to be themselves. For the most part, they lead proverbial ‘lives of quiet desperation,’ but they will go to any length to hide that fact from themselves and others.

For so long as we hold onto imaginary pictures about ourselves, we can never be truly happy. I have written often about the ‘false self.’ The truth is each one of us has hundreds and hundreds of ‘false selves’ within us. There’s the false self which believes that we must be recognized by others to be successful in order to be so. There’s the false self that says we must earn a lot of money in order to be happy and successful. There’s the false self that says we can never be happy unless we are in relationship with or in the company of others. I could go on. Enough already. Now to Emily Dickinson (pictured above), of whom I first became aware---as best I recall---when I first heard the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘The Dangling Conversation’ (some 45 years ago) …

And you read your Emily Dickinson,
And I my Robert Frost,
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we've lost.
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm,
Couplets out of rhyme,
In syncopated time
Lost in the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives.

Emily Dickinson is now one of my all-time favourite poets. She has always been one of the most widely read and well-known American poets.  Although not a Transcendentalist as such, she was well-regarded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other famous Transcendentalists and we know that she was very familiar with their work. Indeed, some of her own writings show the influence of Transcendentalism. Take, for instance, this 1862 gem entitled ‘Me from Myself -- to banish:

Me from Myself -- to banish --
Had I Art --
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart --

But since Myself -- assault Me --
How have I peace
Except by subjugating

And since We're mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication --
Me -- of Me?

Dickinson was clearly aware of the ‘false self’ [or ‘ego-self’] and the ‘True Self’ [or ‘Self’ or ‘non-ego (nondual) awareness’] within all of us, and she is clearly ‘playing’ with the two levels of self. There’s the ‘false self’, which is that little (in truth, illusory) self that most people think of as who they really are. And then there’s the vast, unified Self---the very livingness of Life Itself [‘All-Being’]---which resides everywhere without boundary or limitation (other than Its own ‘Self-limitation’ in its descent into matter), but whose seat or ‘Fortress’ (Dickinson’s word) is in the human ‘heart’ or mind.

Now, despite some apparent uncertainty evident in the above poem, it is clear from a reading of Dickinson’s own life that she did indeed know how to destroy the false self (or selves) without getting rid of the True Self at the same time. See, in that regard, the wonderful book Emily Dickinson, Accidental Buddhist by R C Allen. If more evidence be required of Dickinson's preoccupation with the Self and the 'larger view' of life, read this short poem of hers entitled 'There is a solitude of space':

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself --
Finite infinity.

Back to the 'false self' theme. When I was in recovery almost 20 years ago it was explained to me that ‘self cannot change self,’ the reason being that ‘self’ is simply ‘image’ in us. The sort of ‘images’ referred to above which we believe to be true. Yes, ‘self’ cannot change ‘self’ because, first, ‘self’ has no power and, secondly, self does not really exist---at least not as a separate, independent entity. However, the ‘person’ each of us is can change, and has power to change.

Is it possible to live without even one ‘false’ or ‘imaginary self.’ I ask you, do you really think you are alive with all those imaginary self-pictures? Come now. Get real. These self-pics are preventing you from experiencing life as it really is and from knowing the person you really are. Spiritual psychologist Vernon Howard (pictured left) would often give the following illustration in his talks. The illustration can also be found in Howard’s 1967 book The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power, which is a truly wonderful self-help book despite its ‘over-the-top’ comic book-type title. This is the illustration ...

Mr Howard would say that the way we’re living our lives is very much like we’re standing on a shaky platform watching a passing parade. Now, part of the mind tries to enjoy the passing parade, but another part of the mind is full of fear. It trembles with the shakiness beneath our feet and even interferes with our enjoyment of the parade. We sense that we need to abandon the false structure, but we also fear that will rob us of the passing parade. Actually, it wouldn’t, but because we know only this insecure platform, we are paralyzed in place. But what is beneath the platform? Solid ground---that’s what. All we have to do is stand upon it. And we can then safely watch and enjoy the passing parade. What a powerful story!

Now, suppose, for a moment, you had none of these false selves---that is, no beliefs (or rather misbeliefs) about life, God, the cosmos, happiness and success, no opinions, attitudes, preconceptions or expectations about other people or yourself, and so on. What if you had none of those things? What would it be like? Well, you would, in some oft-quoted words from the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous, come to ‘know a new freedom and a new happiness’ … like you’ve never known before.

Get rid of all your beliefs about how life works or supposedly ‘should’ work. Get rid of all the expectations you have about how others ‘should’ supposedly behave toward you. Get rid of all your preconceptions, predilections and prejudices. ‘Banish’ (Dickinson’s word) the lot of them! ‘Assault’ (ditto) them. ‘Abdicate.’ Then you can start to live authentically---which is the only thing you owe to yourself and others. Is this possible? Why, yes! I have seen hundreds of people do this--- in and outside of recovery. Then, in these words of Emily Dickinson (A Death blow is a Life blow to Some’), you will be free and truly alive …
A Death blow is a Life blow to Some
Who till they died, did not alive become—
Who had they lived, had died but when
They died, Vitality begun.
So, what is holding you back … except a lot of fear as well as inertia? Yes, the thought or prospect of change always generates fear, if only as a sick and ultimately self-defeating way to keep in check the thought or prospect of change. Also, it is easier (but not in the long-term) to do nothing. Be that as it may, come! Launch a frontal assault. Abdicate. Abandon those false self-pics. Drop them. Be the ‘real’ you---the person that you are.

‘The Dangling Conversation’ was written by Paul Simon
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