Self, Reality, Truth and Language – Part III: Psychological Development vs. Spiritual Transformation

Over my last couple of posts I have been writing some thoughts about our sense of self. One way to think about our sense of self is to see that it is formed by a self-border – a line that separates our psyche into the ‘me’ and the ‘not me.’ On the outside of the boarder are thoughts that we recognize to be just thoughts. On the inside of the border are thoughts that we experience as ‘my’ thoughts or ‘me thinking.’

Those thoughts that exist on the inside of the self boundary appear to tell us who we are, and therefore we tend to compulsively respond to them. They do not appear to us to be just thoughts; in fact they feel like us. We appear to ourselves as sentences in our heads.

One way to get a sense of this is to look at the sentences that you use in response to the question, “Who are you?” The most common answer will be, “I am (insert your name).” If you probe beyond just your name you will start to come up with a string of other sentences. Some of these sentences will describe you as nouns such as; “I am a man.” “I am a mother.” “I am a carpenter.” – etc. Other sentences will describe characteristics that belong to you such as; “I am industrious.” “I am lazy.” “I am intelligent.” “I am stupid.” – and on and on.  

Psychological Development

What psychologists have discovered is that our sense of self is made out of thoughts in our heads and they recognize that some of the thoughts that arise on the inside of the self-boundary are harmful to us and others. We may have developed habitual thought patterns that tell us that we are stupid, lazy, or worthless and these cause us to act in destructive or self-destructive ways.

The job of the psychologist is to help us break these habitual though patterns and replace them with healthy ones. It is much better for us to believe that we are “intelligent,” industrious” and “worthy” because then we will tend to act that way and be happier with who we are. Psychologists have helped millions of people live much better, more fully integrated and happier lives by pushing unhealthy sentences outside of the self boundary and attract healthier sentences into it.

Spiritual Transformation

Some spiritual masters will tell you that this psychological approach to development misses the more fundamental issue. In essence what they are saying is that although a healthy self sense is better than an unhealthy self sense, it still limits us to sentences in our heads. We are still left with a false sense of being a something that is the object of all the sentences that we hold about that something.

Let’s go back for a moment to the question who am I? When you ask me who I am and I answer “I am Jeff” what I mean is that I am the entity that the name Jeff points toward. Imagine meeting someone and asking them, who are you? They respond saying; I am the entity that my name indicates. How infuriating is that? If they go on to list all of the nouns and adjectives that describe them you may still feel that they are not getting to the essences of who they are. Saying “I am a carpenter.” is just a way of stating that I am an entity that has certain skills and performs a certain function in society – but what is the entity that has the skills and performs the function?

One way to understand what spiritual transformation is all about is to understand it as letting go of all of the sentences in our heads that describe us and coming to a direct realization that we were, are and always will be, the one that is aware of the sentences. There is no sentence that can capture who we are because we are not a sentence and we are not an object that can be described by a sentence. The great spiritual realization is that we are the subject. We are the source of all sentences and the knower of all sentences. Sentences in our heads can never capture us and hold us in place because we always exist behind all of the sentences in our heads.