Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Stranger to One's Self

 Humankind is unique because we are conscious of our consciousness. So far as we know, no other species is capable of this self-reflection, And while this has allowed all that we know of culture - from philosophy to physics - to flourish, when it comes to the individual most of us are more or less blind to our inner realtities.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
The great 20th-century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the famous "Serenity Prayer," once observed:
" . . . (M)an, alone among all animals, stands in contradiction to himself. The possibility for this contradiction is given by the self-transcendence of the human spirit, the fact that man is not only soul, as unity of the body, but spirit, as capacity to transcend both the body and soul."
[Niebuhr, "The Nature of Man," vol. 1 page 30.]
For his part, the great Swiss psychologist Car Jung, wrote:
"Most people confuse "self-knowledge" with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. Anyone who has ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them. In this respect the psyche behaves like the body with its physiological and anatomical structure, of which the average layperson knows very little too. Although he lives in it and with it, most of it is totally unknown to the layman and special scientific knowledge is needed to acquaint consciousness with what is known of the body, not to speak of all that is not known, which also exists."
[Jung, "The Undiscovered Self," pages 14-15.]
Man, thus, stands in contradiction with his or herself, because most people know but little of their psyche, and almost nothing of their essence, an essence which is beyond both psyche and the soul. Few, indeed, even look. And this fact, seems to be a truth of all inner religious teachings.

For example, the great Buddhist master, Tulke Urgyen Rinpoche, observed that, "Buddhas become awakened because of realizing their essence. Sentient beings become confused because of not realizing their essence. Thus there is one basis or ground and two different paths."
[Tule Urgyen Rinpoche, "As It Is," vol. 2, page 43.]

Sufi teachings, the esoteric, inner teachings of Islam, are also based on this rarely realized "essence." "All dervish teachings," writes Idries Shah, "is based not on the concept of God, but on the concept of essence. . . . 'He who knows his essential self, knows his God.' Knowledge of the essential self is the first step, before which there is no real knowledge of religion."
[Idries Shah, "The Sufis," page 309.]

It is also recognized in the Christian scriptures, where the Book of James, notes that, "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8) And, in the Katha Upanishad, one of the most ancient of all the Indic scriptures, advises that: "The wise should surrender speech in mind, mind in the knowing self, the self in the Spirit of the universe, and the Spirit of the universe in the Spirit of peace."

But the Katha Upanishad also famously notes that few look past the egoic self in a search for the truth of man's being. "Sages say the path is narrow and difficult to tread," says the ancient teaching, "narrow as the edge of a razor."
["The Upanishads," Penguin Classics, page 61.]

Very few, it seems, truly walk the 'razor's edge' it seems; for, as Jesus advise his disciples: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it."(Matt, 7:13-14)

It is, of course, notoriously difficult for an individual to plumb his or her inner depth. Over and over, in all traditions there are warnings, the crux of which are that 'the inner spiritual journey is a lonely path." For most people, who are not bothered by existential questions it is far easier to ignore the subtle yet disturbing questions of 'who' and 'what' we really are, and 'why' we are here.

Even religious institutions,  Jung observed, for the  most part, only address the outer conditions and needs of man.
"The Churches," writes Jung, "stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their own inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it. The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the latter. Belief is no adequate substitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which comes miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously."

"People call faith the true religious experience, but they do not stop to think that actually it is a secondary phenomenon arising from the fact that something happened to us in the first place which instilled nous into us - that is, trust and loyalty. This experience has a definite content that can be interpreted in terms of one or other of the denominational creeds. But the more this is so, the more the possibilities of these conflicts with knowledge mount up, which in themselves are quite pointless. That is to say the standpoint of the creeds is archaic; they are full of impressive mythological symbolism which, if taken literally, comes into insufferable conflict with knowledge."
 Thus, for the rare individual who wishes to 'walk the razor's edge,' settling for the outer teachings of the various creeds and denominations is unlikely to suffice. With the "capacity to transcend both the body and soul," that lonely spiritual traveler will need to take the "inner way" that leads from the lower self-consciousness of the ego, to the higher God-consciousnes of his or her essence. He or she will have to become a Buddha, or at a minimum, a Bhodisatva, foregoing ultimate enlightenemnt until all beings become enlightened themselves.

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