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.