Encounter and presence

Being-presentI continue to enjoy reading David Benner. As I come across passages that strike me as particularly enlightening, I pass them along. As I finish up his Presence and Encounter, a passage from its ch. 10 grabs my attention:

It is now time to shift our attention from presence to encounter. While my primary focus to this point has been on presence, you may have noticed that I have been unable to avoid talking about encounter. The reason is that it is impossible to separate them. There can be no presence without an encounter and no encounter without presence.

Even the act of being present to yourself involves and encounter with your presence. The same is true when you are present to a sunset, a person, your pet, or God. In each case, you encounter something or someone. If you do not encounter anything or anyone, either you are not present or your expectations about what form that encounter should take are getting in the way of it actually happening.

Presence is never, therefore, strictly solitary. It always involves a relationship. More particularly, it always involves a relationship between an “I” and a “Thou.” Presence involves honoring the sacredness of whatever or whomever you seek to be present to. Even presence to ourselves demands this same honoring. Anything approached as an “It” will never be encountered. But anything approached with reverence for its sacredness has the potential to become an encounter.

Every “It” can become a “Thou.” And you hold the key to this transformation. That key is the way you engage it. Engage with honor and its otherness will be revealed to you through an encounter with a “Thou.” But engage with anything less than this and you simply meet an “It.” It all depends on you.

True presence means being the presence of a “Thou.” This is the mode of being in which we encounter the sacred that is the hidden treasure in everything and everyone. We don’t have to look for it. The sacred reveals itself to us when we approach it as a “Thou” seeking to encounter another “Thou.”

There is no reason to suspect that Moses set our looking for the sacred on the day when he suddenly encountered a burning bush that was not being consumed. He was simply going about his daily work, tending the sheep of his father-in-law, but the fact that he noticed not only that the bush was burning but that it was not being consumed tells us that he was attentive to the transcendent. He was attentive to the extraordinary in the ordinary and to sacred presence.

Anyone might have noticed a bush on fire and passed by, but Moses was so sufficiently present in the moment that he noticed that the bush was not being consumed. This led him to come closer, and as he did, he countered not merely a mystery but the Sacred Presence that lay behind it—the Present that revealed itself as the “I AM.” Moses encountered the “I AM” because he approached the bush as the presence of a “Thou.” And his encounter with God confirmed that both he and God were also a “Thou.”

Only in presence is it possible to know presence. Only in bringing the presence of a “Thou” to a meeting can the other reveal itself as a “Thou.” And only in bringing the presence of a “Thou” to a meeting can that engagement become an encounter with the Eternal Thou—the Wholly Other that lies behind all encounters and every other Thou. This is the great mystery and the great truth that is revealed in the story of Moses and the burning bush. Every encounter with an “other” can be an encounter with the Wholly Other. For in each particular “Thou,” we encounter the Eternal Thou.

What does it mean to treat yourself as a “Thou”? And how does this shape the potential encounter when you seek to be present to yourself? The nature of an act is determined by the motivation out of which it arises. This is the source of its meaning. We recognize this when we speak of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. An act of apparent love that does not arise from a heart of love is not love.

An act is made sacred by the intentions that shape it. Being present can be nothing more than a psychological technique, useful, for example, in treating anxiety, depression, or a range of other issues. But the same action of being present can also be prayer. Prayer is not a behavior but an intention of openness in faith to God who is both beyond and within one’s self. Presence as prayer involves a sacred offering. It involves offering myself in the moment, to the moment, and to the possibility of an encounter with what that moment holds.

Sacred acts are free of the instrumentality that characterizes much of human action. It is not true prayer when we expect to get something from the act of openness. Genuine openness in presence means setting aside our hopes and expectations about what we might gain from being present. It is stepping outside our usual mode of doing so that we may return to being.

Being present to one’s self, or simply being present in the moment, can be a sacred act when it is offered with this openness. Openness means, of course, that we must be prepared to be open to whatever the moment may hold. We can never, for example, be open to God without being open to our own selves. Nor can we be truly open to our selves without being open to the God who inhabits the depths of our selves. There are no closets or drawers in openness. Nothing can stay hidden in a heart that is genuinely open. This is why prayer is honesty and honesty is prayer. All that is required to make presence a sacred act of prayer is to be as open as you can be in that moment. That will always be enough.

When you talk it gets light


For friends I know who are in a dark place.

I promised a passage from Benner’s Presence and Encounter, which I’m presently (pun intended) reading. Just a paragraph or two:

Sigmund Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening. “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.” His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do? You can’t see me?” “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light.” This child was not afraid of the dark but of the absence of someone he loved. What he needed to feel secure was presence. We all need the same; knowing presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us. (Emphasis mine)

A couple of pages later Benner adds:

Because humans are hardwired for presence, we will always be vulnerable to absence. Even Jesus knew this vulnerability. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than in his cry of anguish from the cross when he sensed God having forsaken him. Jesus, like us, had to learn that the apparent absence of God is actually a face of the real presence of God. If the stable knowing of the presence of the one he called Father—the presence that so characterized the rest of his life—could be threatened at such a point as this, who are we to expect that we will ever be immune from such vulnerability?

Carefully then. I don’t really know Benner’s theology, specifically his Christology, well enough to draw any final conclusion from this. One could read him here as agreeing that the Son is abandoned by the Father in some absolute sense that rends the divine nature itself. That would not be a view I’d share. But one can also read him as affirming simply that the Father gives Jesus over to the same circumstances we universally associate with such abandonment. Why would the Father do that? As we’ve suggested: to demonstrate not that in Christ God becomes to the truth of our despair, but to expose that despair as illusory and false, to “talk to us in, or from, the dark.”

I suggest this is what the Cross is (among other things): God talking to us in/from the dark, a darkness we are afraid of but which Jesus faced on our behalf without surrendering (as we do) to the belief that the darkness can become all there is.

What does Jesus say of his immanent suffering? John 16:31-33 (which I’ve explored before):

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Emphasis mine)

Crucial verses. On these I earlier offered:

That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Let us remind ourselves, lastly, of Hebrews 12.1-3, which describes Jesus as enduring the Cross, even despising its shame. What kind of presence of mind could possess such a perspective on such suffering as to despise its shame? If Jesus is despising the shame of the Cross, he’s not succumbing to its threatening narrative. “For the joy set before him” he endures. Permit me another quote from an earlier post:

“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?

This is how I take Benner’s second quoted paragraph there, as warning us that we are not exempt from experiencing within the created ordering of things every possible evidence for the truth of our worst fear, namely, that we really are, or we can be, alone and abandoned. But Jesus, rather than becoming the truth of such despair, disarms the power of the darkness to impose such a narrative upon us and he talks to us from the darkness. And when he talks, it gets light because his talking is light.

Lex orandi lex credendi

ig6mPDon’t freak out on me. I’ve used Alex Grey’s work to illustrate points before. His work can be weird and unsettling, but he’s also impossible to get away from once you contemplate it a bit.

I’m into another Benner book: Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life. I may get around to sharing a passage from it in a separate post, but for now I wanted to share something which reading his book brought to the surface for me.

Lex orandi, lex credendi (“the rule of praying is the rule of believing”) is an expression Christians have long employed to emphasize prayer’s primacy in and over belief and doctrine. Traditionally, it was liturgy (or worship) which led to theology. Theology and doctrine served liturgy as a way to express the meaning of the gospel’s transforming power in life and our celebration of it. One way to apply this to belief and doctrine is to measure the weight and implications of belief in terms of the effects they have upon the lived experience of prayer. Can I pray this doctrine? Can it inform, enrich, and expand my living as an act of prayer? Or—if you’re Fr Aidan—Can I preach it? It’s the same practical-existential concern.

People inevitably want to know what relevance a belief has for their day to day concerns. What difference does it make? And where people fail to see the practical relevance such questions have for life’s relationships, decisions, and vocations, they fail to engage those issues in a meaningful way for any length of time. So in focusing on the implications which a belief has for our understanding of prayer, we bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical everyday concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential support for truth-claims. For me, this is what lex orandi lex credendi gets at. Prayer becomes the primary existential stage upon which any theology may be examined and judged. Evagrius (Egyptian monastic of the 4th century CE) expresses it well: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

More specifically, I want to know if all our living can become prayer, if we can, in the totality of our being and acting, at all times and in all circumstances, become an uninterrupted act of prayer. By this I don’t mean to ask if we can manage to carry on a conversation with God that runs continuously alongside all the day to day conversations and activities we attend to at home and work, like a software program running alongside other programs, as though these are different and competing spheres of engagement we juggle without letting either compromise the other. On the contrary, to say “life is prayer” or “I am become all prayer” is to say the mundane day to day conversations and activities are prayer. They are where I converse with God, and my conversation with God can enfold all those activities within its embrace.

Spiritualpractice-50This is only possible, I think, if God is embraced as the transcendent summum bonum, the end of all desire, whom we desire in desiring anything at all, even if we desire imperfectly. Learning to make God the end of all our conversations and actions begins with seeing God in all our actions and conversations. That vision then transforms all our living into an unending conversation with him, and we become all prayer. We see and converse with Christ perceived in all things. I respond to others in the belief that Christ is receiving the words I say, the actions I do. Is this imaginable? St. Paul seemed to think so. “Whatever you do,” Paul writes (Col 3.23), do it “as for the Lord rather than for men.” Does this mean only that our motivations are observed by Christ as a third party and that our actions, if motivated properly, are counted as ‘good’ because measured by Christ as the measure of the Good? I think he’s saying more, namely, that we can consciously make Christ the object of all our actions, so that what we say and do to others becomes the means of a more fundamental relating to Christ.

This is more than pretending that Christ is truly present in all things and acting accordingly. It’s relating to Christ in all things as offering himself to us and so transforming the mundane into the sacred. If I feed the hungry, I feed Christ. If I do harm to my neighbor, I harm Christ. If I befriend and do kindly to the homeless, I am kind to Christ. And in an important sense, I’m only rude, or kind, or helpful to others because Christ is, first and preeminently, present receiving my saying and doing. God measures our actions as summum bonum by receiving them, not by observing them as a third-party.

So if prayer is a conversation in which I recognize, converse with, and offer myself to God in Christ through the Spirit, becoming all prayer appropriates all created contexts as an extension of that conversation. We don’t pray alongside doing other things. We engage God directly in engaging anything. Again, this is more than seeing God in all things conceptually (which may be just an academic recognition of the truth that everything in our world is being sustained by God). It is meeting God in all things, conversing with him in all things, as personally as we meet him in ourselves, because the God we meet in ourselves is in all things, and how can we not converse with God wherever we perceive him?

All that is real on thee depends
and from thy breath of love extends;
With thee infused all is;
To thee alone all sends
its praise back.
Beautiful. You are so beautiful,
in all things. I see you in their eyes
and deep within their depths I find
eternal surprise after surprise.

Deny nature we can

identity_crisis-291x300I’m enjoying Benner as I continue to read through of his books. I love his identity centered, practical, devotional approach to transformation. I’ve just finished his The Gift of Being Yourself. It’s as basic an introduction as you will find to the issues involved in dispelling the lies of the false self and embracing the self-in-Christ. I especially appreciate his hyphenated “self-in-Christ.” It describes our true God-given identity as distinguished from every possible man-made alternative or false self. Hyphenating it identifies us with Christ absolutely as a single experience of one’s self in Christ and prevents us from mistakenly thinking our true identity may in any sense be formed antecedent to Christ while being only finally confirmed or completed in Christ, when in fact it is from beginning to end his creation. Here’s a bit of Benner:

Christian spirituality has a great deal to do with the self, not just with God. The goal of the spiritual journey is the transformation of self. As we shall see, this requires knowing both our self and God. Both are necessary if we are to discover our true identity as those who are “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17), because the self is where we meet God. Both are also necessary if we are to live out the uniqueness of our vocation.

In all of creation, identity is a challenge only for humans. A tulip knows exactly what it is. It is never tempted by false ways of being. Nor does it face complicated decisions in the process of becoming. So it is with dogs, rocks, trees, starts, amoebas, electrons and all other things. All give glory to God by being exactly what they are. For in being what God means them to be, they are obeying him. Humans, however, encounter a more challenging existence. We think. We consider options. We decide. We act. We doubt. Simple being is tremendously difficult to achieve and fully authentic being is extremely rare.

Body and soul contain thousands of possibilities out of which you can build many identities. But in only one of these will you find your true self that has been hidden in Christ from all eternity. Only in one with you discover your unique vocation and deepest fulfillment. But as Dag Hammarskjold argues, you will never find this “until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.

We all live searching for that one possible way of being that carries with it the gift of authenticity. We are most conscious of this search for identity during adolescence, when it takes from stage. At this stage of life we try on identities like clothing, looking for a style of being that fits with how we want to be seen. But even long after adolescence has passed, most adults know the occasional feeling of being a fraud—a sense of being not what they pretend to be but rather precisely what they pretend not to be. With a little reflection, most of us can become aware of masks that we first adopted as strategies to avoid feelings of vulnerability but that have become parts of our social self. Tragically, we settle easily for pretense, and a truly authentic self often seems illusory.

There is, however, a way of being for each of us that is as natural and deeply congruent as the life of a tulip. Beneath the roles and masks lies a possibility of a self that is as unique as a snowflake. It is an originality that has existed since God first loved us into existence. Our true self-in-Christ is the only self that will support authenticity. It and it alone provides an identity that is eternal.

Without complaint do flowers bloom;
They need not contemplate to groom
   The fields and forest floors.
From first to last their path is rest,
Without striving for the best,
   Their paths are heaven’s doors.
But we a higher calling know,
Deliberate we must to grow;
   Deny nature we can.
But when like flowers of the field,
We rest in Christ and to him yield,
   We are fully human.

Becoming your true self—Part 3

Leunig-Trueself-582Permit me one final post on Benner’s book. Parts 1 and 2 summarized the variety of ‘selves’ (‘identities’) we navigate through in our process of spiritual awakening. I thought it would be enough to describe those, but Benner’s breakdown of human development in Chs. 3 and 4 was so helpful I wanted to bring it out here.

Benner arranges human development along two axes. The first axis consists of the different lines or dimensions of the developing self (toward fulfillment in the Spirit-centered self). The second axis describes levels of development experienced in each dimension.


In the first diagram below we have illustrated the first axis: dimensions of the developing self. I like these because they’re centered on essential, God-given, existential questions that motivate and drive our development and only rest as answered when they rest in their divine ground. Any other resting place constitutes a false self. These first axis dimensions are examined in Ch. 3 (“Growth and the Lines of Development”).


It’s easy to see how connected these 12 dimensions are and how connected they all are to the first. One might say that each presents a perspective on or an aspect of the developing self (the first in series). And as the varieties of ‘false self’ are confronted (Parts 1 and 2) en route to personal fulfillment in Christ, the existential questions at the heart of all the domains subsequent to the first (e.g., “Who am I?”) express aspects of the fundamental concern for our truest and most fundamental sense of identity. As I’ve suggested before: All our choices are either a search for or an expression of ‘who’ we believe ourselves to be. We are either at rest in our God-given, Spirit-centered self, in which case all we do expresses who we are, or we are not at rest in our truest identity in Christ, in which case all we do is an attempt to secure who we wish to be in response to the driving questions (in the above diagram) that irrepressibly propel us toward a satisfying rest. I love the way the domains are grounded in these God-given questions. They provide a nice self-assessment tool together with the second axis.

The second axis (from Ch. 4, “Transformation and the Levels of Development”) describes the level or depth of awakening in each of the domains that constitute the first axis. This second diagram of Benner’s below provides a way to view these. The diagram presents 5 of the 12 dimensions for a hypothetical person:


Nobody operates at a single level. As the diagram shows, there is bound to be divergence among the domains of development. Benner suggests that at any given point in time our ‘way of being in the world’ is organized around a single, developmental “center of gravity.” For this hypothetical person of diagram 2, that average level would be “2.” Some domains are beyond this and others are behind it. But most cluster around this level, which is a kind of platform upon which this person stands. It organizes our life. It is (Benner referring to Ken Wilber) our “overall level-of-consciousness development.” But because we stand on it, Benner says, we tend not to see it. We must exercise great intentionality to examine it and such examination always causes it to shift under our feet. Benner writes:

But how then does consciousness relate to the various lines of development? How does growth in the various dimensions of self affect his spaciousness? And how does that affect how we experience phenomena? Wilber offers a metaphor for how this works that I find very helpful. He suggests that each of the lines of development is like a path up a mountain, each offering its own unique view. What each allows us to see is related to the existential question that each addresses. Thus, for example, a the path of faith development rises, one sees more clearly how to trust; while climbing the path of moral development, one sees more clearly how best to make choices. Wilber points out, however, that the view on different paths is similar at similar elevations. Higher altitudes on any of these mountain trails represents broader and more inclusive perspectives. The stages or levels of development therefore represent the perspective from a particular elevation: increasing elevations represent increasing openness to apprehending reality on its own terms. This accounts for the fact that for various dimensions of self, descriptions of the higher levels of development all tend to converge. Just as mountain trials to the top of a mountain all converge as one nears the summit, so too do the higher states on all the various lines of development.

…In summary, therefore, we can say that shifts in our center of gravity represent shifts in our consciousness. At a minimum this will always involve a change in two things: our sense of our self (identity) and our view of life and the world (perspective). Movements up the vertical axis correspond to bigger selves and larger perspectives. At the core of both of these is increased awareness.

Benner addresses the question of how transformation relates to movement up the vertical axis of consciousness development. He describes this along a scale of “openness,” “consent,” and “awareness.” By “transformation” upwards he means four things:

1) increased awareness
2) a broader, more inclusive identity
3) a larger framework for making meaning (how we understand and make sense of our self, others, God, and the world)
4) a reorganization of personality that results in a changed way of being in the world

Benner, again:

With each expansion of consciousness, we do not simply become aware of new things; we also experience a change in how we organize these new contents of consciousness. This movement of increasing the contents of consciousness (awakening) and reorganization of those contents (transformation) is what we will be examining as we consider the journey of the awakening or unfolding self. In psychological terms, what I am proposing is that human development is primarily organized around this expansion of consciousness and the reorganizations of the ways of understanding the relationship of the self and the non-self that are involved in it. Each shift to a new platform on which we stand and from which we view our selves and the world is associated with changes in how we organize our experience and consequently with changes in our identity.

And a last word to the wise:

The journey…is far from linear. Do not trust any map of the journey that reduces it to a formula or leads you to expect a simple straightforward path. The walk is the same from beginning to end: openness and faith that expresses itself in sufficient stillness and solitude to allow you to be a good host to the Spirit, who is the inner engine of transformation. But the path is far from straight and far from simply one long gentle incline of ascent. It is a path that must take you right through the middle of life as it comes to all of us—with its great losses, loves, suffering, hopes, disappointment, disillusionments, and fulfillments.

There is so much more in Benner’s book I wish to recommend but space won’t let me continue. You won’t regret the purchase.

Becoming our true self—Part 2


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.

Becoming our true self—Part 1


While getting clear on James Loder’s thought, I’m enjoying several good reads right now, one of which is David Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He has excellent insights, though I think I better appreciate Loder’s (and even Donald Alexander’s) way of understanding the nature and function of the human ‘spirit’. Not that there are real disagreements between them; just a matter of emphasis. But I do appreciate Benner’s description of varieties of the false self in human development (‘awakening’) toward the true self, though I always get a bit uncomfortable when the final levels (upcoming in Part 2) approach over-identifying the human and divine (typical of all mystical experience, which Benner relies heavily upon). His book also has helpful case studies and Q&A sections in each chapter that help process and apply his points.

I thought I’d briefly present (or let Benner present) his developmental stages of personal becoming under four main categories, each having distinct stages of its own. Benner begins:

The human self is a vaporous and insubstantial thing. Unlike the body, the self lacks form, and its substance can be shaped in a great variety of ways. It is no wonder that it is so hard to define and so elusive when we search for it. This insubstantiality makes it easy to lose the true and authentic self by confusing it with imitations of our own creation. Thus false selves are simply proxies for our true self, poor imitations of the authentic original. In some deep part of our knowing, we sense that we are a unique reflection of our Source, but we are easily seduced by the urge to be our own source.

The varieties of false self are then described in terms of their fundamental framework for self organization. Each is dysfunctional when seen as “source” of the true self, though each level does reflect a broadening or awakening of consciousness. The four frameworks are:

  • The Body-Centered Self
  • The Mind-Centered Self
  • The Soul-Centered Self
  • The Spirit-Centered Self

We’ll outline the first two here and the second two in Part 2 forthcoming.

The Body-Centered Self
The Body Self: “I am my body”
The first option for an organization of consciousness of self is expressed in the sense of being my body. At this earliest level of organization of the self, this means that there is no room for any other competing identifications because at this stage “my self” is synonymous with “my body.” As long as my body remains the framework for the organization of my self, any other identifications that may develop over time will be relatively minor.

Two quite different body experiences seem to be associated with this level of self-organization: the body as a source of pleasure, and the body as a source of pain. In both, that pleasure [e.g., with sexual additions, and Brenner’s comments here are insightful] or pain [as with cases of childhood abuse and neglect] is the person’s primary identification and strongest attachment. It is the experience that is most characteristically “mine.” It therefore becomes “me.”

The Public Self: “I am my image”
The way of relating to our body that usually emerges next involves the adoption of an external perspective on our self. No longer is it simply a matter of me identifying with my body but, while my body remains the primary focus, I now view it from the perspective of others. Now my primary identification becomes my image: how I am seen from that external perspective.

…All of us know how easily we can be drawn into compromising our authenticity by worrying about what others think about us. This is just another potential false way of being my true self. For, while it is a developmental gain to be able to view my self from an external perspective, I am not reducible to my image or my performance. Sadly, however, those at this level of development do not know what. Their identity is their image, and their consciousness is now filled with the anxiety that is associated with any performance before an audience that they seek to please.

The Material Self: “I am my possessions”
The thing many people most closely identify with is their possessions. No attachment to anything or anyone is as strong as their attachment to the things they assume they possess but that in reality possess them. And, not surprisingly, there is nothing they think about more than these same things.

The Role Self: I am my role”
There is one other major form of self organization that also serves as a potential transitional place between the body-centered self and the mind-centered self. We see this in those whose identity and consciousness are centered on what they do (vocationally) or can do (by virtue of talent, training, or role). Think, for example, of the way one’s identity can easily be organized around being a mother, physician, poet, or comic. While identities based in what we can do leave us vulnerable when we can no longer perform at our peak, overall the transition into the role self represents another quantum expansion of consciousness and identity. Now we shift from identifying our selves with how we look to identifying our selves with what we can do. The center of consciousness is still the body because our roles, at least initially, are still body based. But movement from the public or material self to the role self involves broadening the perspective we take on the world and ourselves.

The Mind-Centered Self
The Mental Self: “I am my thoughts”
The first expression of the mental self is our attachment to our thoughts. Speaking for all who know this attachment, Descartes famously asserted cogito ego sum—“I think therefore I am.” Just as I previously attached to my body, and it became the center of my identity, so now I attach to my thoughts, and they define me. They now become my most treasured and wonderfully private possession. I examine my thoughts, review them, and feel the pleasure of identification with them. They are me, and my identity shifts from the public sphere of my role self to this more introspective sphere of my thoughts.

…The mental self can take many forms because there is such a broad range of mental processes and products with which we can identify. Consequently, people at this level of consciousness development can appear quite different from each other—and are quite different from each other. The identity of one may be based on his excellent memory, penetrating analytical skills, or seemingly flawless intuition; that of another may be based on her strategic planning abilities, creative writing, or well-informed opinions and beliefs. The common core is identification with what I can do with my mind. For many people, this provides such a powerful grounding of identity that it remains the organizing center of their self for the rest of their life.

The Ideological Self: “I am my beliefs”
Eventually, thoughts, judgments, feelings, and understandings coalesce into opinions, opinions become beliefs, and, for many people, beliefs begin to form a stable core of a personal framework of meaning. Once again, the nature of their ultimate treasure shifts as they invest their primary attachment to their beliefs. And once again, this becomes the core of their identity. Who am I? I am now my beliefs, not merely my thoughts, imagination, or other mental process or products.

…Christians sometimes find their spirituality reinforcing a mind-centered self when their faith has been reduced to beliefs. This has potentially very costly implications since it can impede further unfolding of consciousness and compromise development of important dimensions of self…I know personally about the way in which beliefs form a small platform for identify and self. For years I defined myself by my theology and clutched my beliefs in a manner that represented an idolatrous substitute for God.

The Communal Self: “I am my community”
Although beliefs can be private, once we make them the center of our identity, we generally seek out others who share them. This in turn strengthens and refines our beliefs and opens a portal to a transition from the mental self to the communal self. Passing through this portal, I am no longer simply my beliefs: I am my community.

The Individual Self: “I am myself”
The Spirit is always wooing us to further development. For someone with consciousness and identity organized around a communal self, this might take the form of a growing sense that while I am my community, I am not just my community. Increasingly I may have the sense that there are other parts of me that can’t be easily explored within my primary community—parts of self that might, for example, be rejected or experienced as a threat. This is one of the reasons why many who sense an invitation to notice and respond to the way in which their community may be curtailing their future development often hold back from exploring this territory out of fear about where it might lead them.

Yet some feel no option but to walk through the next portal. The parts of them that seem more than their community-based identity press so hard for exploration and expression that they know they must discover what they represent. As they pass through this portal, they discover not a single identity but a seemingly endless range of possibilities. It is dizzying to contemplate all the ways in which I might be myself. And yet I know that I am myself and that my challenge is to live the uniqueness of that self in community and in the world. And so I launch forward on the next great adventure.

…this level also has its land mines. That dizzying array of possibilities for my unique self represents a vast range of ways in which I can lose the truth of my being and confuse the truth of my created self, being allured by a self of my own creation. And so in the quest to become my individual self—not define by family, community, culture, race, or religion—it is almost inevitable that I become seduced by false ways of being. The risks of loss of authenticity are great, but so is the call of the Spirit to discover and be the truth of my self.


You are who and what you are,
Fount of all things, near and far;
In you all things come to be,
And being, come in you to see
Their ‘who’ and ‘what’ and ‘why’ as one—
To be sons in the Son;
“Person,” “Self,” and other terms,
All say what the one heart yearns,
To know one’s self as known by you,
As known, and loved, and lived by you.