“There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that the superficial ‘I’ is not our real self. It is our ‘individuality’ and our ‘empirical self’ but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God. The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes his own reactions and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ. It is at best the vesture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown ‘self’ whom most of us never discover until we are dead. Our external, superficial self is not eternal, not spiritual, far from it. This self is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney.” — Thomas Merton
Horseman Sam Harris discusses the illusory nature of our personality amalgams-constructs as well and his take on what it means to transcend them through meditation. Check out the interview on his website: Meditation and the Nature of the Self.
Dwayne is particularly interested in this. He writes:
“An implication of inner discovery via meditation is simply this: Our present conscious experience is not exhaustively limited to our sense of individuality and personality traits. We confuse consciousness and the power of self-relationality for the contents of those things, thereby making an optical illusion of sorts and so we self-separate and believe that we actually are separate from the universe of which we are integrally a part. In my view this also separates us from the present reality of God’s constant presence, causing even further removal from reality. When we realize that we are more than our personality amalgams of thoughts, feelings, memories, and imagination, we are more able to tap into human perception that is always available. When we are trapped in thinking without awareness, we are not truly experiencing all the freedom and peace allowable to us at any given time. We often become little more than walking billboards for our families, ethnicities, nationalities, religious traditions, etc., rather than genuinely freely choosing beings experiencing the joy and freedom of being. Many different wisdom traditions come to this same truth.”
There’s a genuine point of agreement between Merton and Harris regarding the illusory nature of the ‘self’ as a mental construct. But they’re quite different on what ‘self-transcendence’ means. As a materialist, Harris’ ‘transcendence’ is just the truth of the deepest possible illusion, another construct, like other constructs, whose truth is merely a more fundamental repetition of the same search for transcendence, for however deeply one perceives, materialism remains. Every self is merely a mental construct for Harris, no matter how appreciative it is of its present well-being within the truth of the connectedness of all things. All materialism can hope for is a transcendence of constructs that are partial and limited by a more inclusive construct which in the end is simply the sum of all the others. All that is transcended is the claim by more limited constructs to be the whole truth of the self or even the most important truth of its existence. Transcendence for Harris is the totalizing summation of a tautology, the transcendent truth of the material unity of all illusory constructs. This is materialism’s mysticism. In the end transcendence isn’t “Waking Up,” it’s just “Expanding the Dream.”
Self-transcendence for Merton is quite different. Merton agrees with Harris (or rather Harris agrees with Merton, for the illusory nature of the self was known to religious mystics long before neuroscience) on the illusory nature of the ‘self’ as the personality amalgam, but by this Merton means the existential futility of any understanding of ourselves within terms of the givens of the created order. So long as the ‘self’ seeks its truest identity in terms of any narrative (partial or all-inclusive) of the material order, frustration and failure reign, for everything in that order, including the order in its entirety—i.e., ‘that’ it is at all—seeks the same explanation every conscious subject within it seeks, and you can’t derive a personal transcendence from that which, like you, seeks its own transcendence; the whole can’t tell any part or member within it ‘who’ or ‘why’ it is since the whole stands in need of explanation as much as any part of it. But this is precisely where Harris’ meditations deposit us, in a transcendence which is no transcendence at all. Merton’s point is that one only possesses one’s truest ‘self’ transcendently when one is possessed of/in/by an uncreated, personal, conscious benevolence which is present to/in the created order (present in our own seeking) but which is not that order nor any part of it.