Continuing Brenner’s description of the false selves confronted en route to our true self:
The Soul-Centered Self
The Reflective Self: “I am my experiences”
The first face of the soul-centered self that we encounter is the reflective self. First and foremost, this reflection is built on attention. Attention is our connection to experience. It is the connection between us and what happens to us. But, far from being automatic, this connection must be cultivated. Therefore the practice of attentiveness is the foundation of soulful living. However, because attention to anything opens a window to the transcendent, it is also foundational to spirituality. Attention [viz., “nepsis” for my friend Dwayne] makes reflection meaningful. Reflection in the absence of attention is empty and meaningless. Attention brings experience into focus. Without reflection, we are simply being carried along by the flow of life. Attention momentarily introduces a short pause in that flow, marking an experience with a soul flag that allows us later to come back to it if we choose to reflect on it.
…The focus of reflection is not simply experience but my experience: thus the object of reflection is my self because at this stage of consciousness development, I am my experience. Being my experience is not the same as being what happens to me. Identification with what happens to me, whether trauma or bliss, is a body-self way of organizing consciousness. Experience is not simply what happens but how I sense the event: how it registers on my body in my emotions, and how I process it in my mind. This is quite personal. No one but the individual can speak for the experience of an event; it is this experience, must more than the actual event, that is crucial in determining the impact of an event.
…Because at this stage of development I am my experience, all reflection is also self-reflection. Thus, as we saw in an anticipatory way for the individual self (“I am myself”), the reflective self is also concerned with existential issues such as being myself with integrity and authenticity. Questions of actualization (“How do I become who I most truly am?”) and fulfillment (“How should I be in order to experience the greatest degree of happiness and well-being?”) also become important. In this stage we encounter the first clear expression of a desire to be and to become all one can be. This is clearly a spiritual desire, and the response to this desire forms an important part of the resulting spirituality.
Unfortunately it is quite possible to become lost in this soulful reflection rather than allowing it to be a platform on which we can stand to view the vistas of an even larger self and world. This happens whenever we accept the penultimate identity with too much rigidity. One such possible identity that emerges at this stage of development results from identifying with the soul work I’m doing. The identity that results from this is “I am my issues.” Although it is important to work on those issues if I am to become all I most truly am, my transformation will be blocked if I allow myself to be reduced to my issues.
The Shadow Self: “I am my shadow”
One of the most important matters that we will inevitably encounter as we reflect on experience is our shadow: the disowned parts of self that we are unwilling to acknowledge as “me” because they are either too negative or too positive. Since we have denied and disowned these shadow parts, we project them onto others and encounter them as things about other people that disturb us. When we are ready to begin to recognize our shadow and get to know it, the first place to look is always to the things in other people that we find most annoying, irritating, or upsetting.
A failure to embrace one’s shadow compromises all subsequent developmental possibilities. But this is the hardest challenge that we encounter on the journey to this point. Many who confront this challenge do not ever move beyond it because they seek only to eliminate the troublesome experiences and are unwilling to acknowledge them as parts of their self. Most people, however, know nothing of their shadow self. Even if they develop a reflective self, they remain distracted by the myriad of easier personal issues that become their focus and fail to recognize how these issues represent parts of themselves, not merely problems they keep running up against.
…Embracing our shadow is essential if we are truly to know ourselves. Until we do this, we will never escape the enormous disruptive influence that these lost fragments of self play in our lives when we try to keep them locked up in the cellar of our unconscious[ness]. But when we are finally able to receive them with hospitality as parts of our family-of-self, they can then be integrated with the other part selves, and as a result we can become our whole and true self.
…“I am my shadow” is a distortion of the truth that “my shadow is part of me.” It may feel that my shadow and I are interchangeable because the shadow will often feel quite overwhelming. It will be hard to imagine that it could be merely one among many parts of me. But, brought into the daylight, it inevitably shrinks and can be seen for what it is: a lost fragment of self that was set aside because it didn’t seem to fit with who I thought I should be. Although I never really am my shadow, this is the illusion that we easily slip into when we identify with our shadow…Identification with our shadow is a place of powerlessness. There is nothing pleasant about it. But shadow work is essential if we are to move to higher levels of consciousness.
The Divided Self: “I am not always my true self”
Our shadow is simply one of the many part selves that confront us with the reality that we are a kingdom divided. We try to appear to be the single self we wish to be, but all of us are a family of different selves, and some of these part selves are inevitably in conflict with others. We are not the consistent self we try to present to the world. That persona is but one face of the multiplicity that we are. Until we are willing to welcome the other part selves into the family, we will never be whole.
Becoming aware of our dividedness is a mark of entering this next substage of consciousness development. Now our dividedness becomes a central feature of our consciousness: growing awareness of our lack of wholeness forms a prominent part of background awareness as we gather hints of what it is to live our truth and yet be surrounded by evidence of how little we do so. Although the way of being my truth is now on the horizon and I have touched it enough to know its singularly intense taste, much more of the time my experience is of being other than this wholeness and truth. My self therefore is the one who is not always living the truth of my self.
…Sometimes the true self is presented as if it is hidden in the larger false self and only discovered by peeling away the levels of untruth, much as one might peel away the rings of an onion. Unfortunately, the results are about the same; when the last ring is peeled away, what you are left with is a lot of tears, but not much more. Our truth does not lie in some hidden or lost part of us that must be uncovered: it lies in a way of being. This is why I prefer to speak of true and false ways of being.
…Many turn the quest for their true self into an exercise in self-discovery or self-actualization. It should be both of these things, but unless it is also a response to a taste of what actually is—an encounter with their larger self—it will never be more than a project of the false self. The transcendent is lurking in the background during all stages of the unfolding self, but it comes closer to the edges of consciousness as we move closer to the spirit-centered self. There is always a spiritual component to any genuine self-discovery and self-actualization…But what makes it a spiritual quest is when it is a response to the Spirit, who invites us to live out of the center of our being in God.
The Spirit-Centered Self
The Essential Self: “I am”
The experiential focus of people whose consciousness and identity [are] organized at the level of the essential self is being. We have seen hints of this in the soul-centered self, where being true to one’s self (authenticity) and being at one with one’s self (integrity) are not simply values but are central planks of consciousness. But now that focus becomes not being in a particular way as much as simply being.
It is highly significant that when Moses asked by what name he should be known, God self-revealed as the “I am who I am” (Exod. 3:14), sometimes translated as “I am he who is.” Jewish and Christian theologians have plumbed the mysteries of this name for millennia, but one thing is clear; it reflects an identity that is based in being. This terse statement of being requires no predicate. “I am” requires no qualification. It tolerates no limits. It marks the Deity as eternal, unbound being.
…We too can know that it is to have our identity grounded and centered in our being, to have our self distilled to its essence and to know our self as an “I am.” But notice how naked this stands in relation to all the other “I am” statements we have encountered at each of the previous levels of consciousness development. Up to this point each of the selves we have encountered limit our being by equating it with some object, experience, or state: I am my body, my image, my possessions, my role, my thoughts, my beliefs, my community, myself, my experience, my shadow, or my dividedness. The essential self recognizes that while all of these things may be true, they do not define me. I am much, much more than any of them. I am. My being is not constrained by my characteristics, history, possessions, abilities, or experiences. I simply am. And in realizing this, I am filled with the wonder and the simple joy of being.
…It is quite remarkable how something so fundamental to our existence can be so far from awareness…[But t]here is a noticeable vitality and presence to those who live out of this essential center. The vital presence that they are able to offer others arises from their presence to themselves and from their at-one-ness within themselves. This does not mean that they are thoroughly consistent or completely integrated. But it does mean that there is a simplicity to their being—a kind of elegance and ease of being that comes from living out of a place of such centeredness and distilled essence.
The Divine Self: “I am one with God”
The next manifestation of awakening is that of the divine self. This we see with singular clarity in Jesus when he repeatedly speaks of being one with the Father. His alignment with the Spirit of God is so profound that the apostle Paul describes him as the visible image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). Jesus didn’t simply try to practice a life of alignment with the Father; he lived out of a deep knowing that he and the Father were one.
Being one with the Father seems to have been central to the consciousness of Jesus. His whole life flowed out of this fundamental awareness. I am quite convinced that his was an awareness that had to be cultivated. It makes a mockery of his humanity to think that as an infant he knew he was God. His humanity demanded that he grow physically, psychologically, and spiritually; central to that growth was for him, as it is for us, the development of one’s own identity and consciousness.
Without understanding it, I believe that the oneness with the Father that Jesus experienced and continues to experience as the risen Christ is unique. However, I also believe that his own teachings assure us that we also can and are meant to know a similar oneness. This is the testimony of those who have encountered their divine self. Those who have traveled into the realms of the spirit-centered self on the journey of awakening tell us that the farther they proceed on this journey, the more the boundary between them and God becomes fuzzy for them. They also speak of it being increasingly impossible to fail to see God in all humans, and indeed in all that is.
The Cosmic Self: “I am one with everything”
There is yet on more level of spirit-centered awakening. The cosmic self reminds us that oneness with God is not intended to be a private experience. Because all people live and move and have their being in God (Acts 17:28), it is not just me and God that are one. Even beyond this, because everything that exists is held in the unity that is Christ (Col. 1:15-17), everything that exists is one in Christ. The old joke about the mystic who walks up to the hotdog vendor and says, “Make me one with everything,” misses the point. I am already one with everything. All that is absent is awareness. This awareness is the gift of the cosmic self.
…To be one with everything is to have overcome the fundamental optical illusion of our separateness. We establish boundaries to try to reinforce individuality, but what we get is isolation and alienation. We think we have bodies instead of being our bodies, and the result is the alienation from our bodies. We distinguish between our self and the natural world, and we end up exploiting the environment from which we feel estranged. We think we are separate from other people, and the result is a breach in our knowing of our underlying shared humanity.
…The life of the cosmic self is meaningless apart from love. You cannot see the creation as being held and sustained in Christ and not begin to care for it as you would care for anything or anyone being held by God. Similarly, you cannot see others in God and God in others without an opening of your heart; when this happens, love leads you to know your deep solidarity with all humans as you and they are held in God. As you live in God and increasingly see others through eyes of love, you discover that the ways in which we normally categorize people and set ourselves apart from others are less and less meaningful.