An important component of the spiritual journey is self-inquiry or self-reflection.
Spirituality invites us to a continuing journey of self-fulfilment and self-transformation so that we become increasingly whole as human beings in the sense of understanding more about ourselves and our place in the world and also able to experience ourselves fully, beyond the constraints of history, personality and trauma.
In the Christian context this is reflected in ideas and experiences including “being born again”, “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” [2 Cor 3].
For many this is a lifelong process though some people also experience more immediate transformations too. On this spiritual journey and the journey of self-awareness and transformation there is the need for language to describe all of this. In this context there are a number of terms in common psychological and spiritual usage which can be quite confusing. These include ego, false self, true self, authentic self, unique self and to these we might add persona, and shadow. These terms do have varied usage so we need to understand how they are being used within any particular discourse.
At the moment, I think of these terms in the following ways, taking into account particularly the work of Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, Ken Wilber and Marc Gafni.
1. I take the term Ego to refer to psychological self-identity. The ego is the body-mind that has a sense of individual identity, a ‘separate-self-sense’ that allows the possibility of functioning in this world as an individual, usually with a set of relationships to other beings and other things. This is our ordinary everyday self.
[As an aside, we can never expect to destroy our ego but it is possible to embrace yet transcend it in the sense that our perspective can move from a limited ego perspective to a larger True Self and also Authentic Self (or Unique Self) perspective.]
2. I think the term False Self refers to the human experience of the embodied self (the ego) as being frail, vulnerable, ‘sinful’, weak, fearful and mortal. The False Self lives with those limiting characteristics in the front of its mind, affected by shadow in its responses. The False Self is a distorted or unhealthy expression of our separate self (ego), often based on false core beliefs.
3. I take the term True Self to refer to the discovery (sometimes through peak experience or awakening experience) that our true identity is that of being part of a divine whole! The realisation that despite the experience of living as a separate embodied individual on this earth we have an identity which is one with everybody else’s true identity. Some people experience it as an expanded consciousness that includes everything and is one with God. So there is only ever one True Self, not many, and that True Self is to be found within the Reality of God. The invitation is to live beyond our ego, beyond separate self and false self in order to realise our true identity as True Self. Our own personal expression of True Self is our Unique Self (or Authentic Self).
4. The Authentic Self can also be called the Unique Self and equates to a person with ego living with full awareness and experience of True Self. A person who has realised their True Self nature and is becoming a personal expression of the divine. In the Unique (or Authentic) Self God lives in us, as us and through us (as in the case of Jesus) as a unique expression of divinity. Unique self carries forward the gifted personality and consciousness of each of us that is uniquely part of the wider True Self consciousness.
5. Our Shadow is the weakness, limitation and flawed-ness of our ego that we try to hide from ourselves and others. It is that which is split off from ego to create a false self that is influenced by shadow in terms of how we think, feel and act. Jung, the Swiss analytic psychologist, described the shadow as the part of our personality that is unknown (and in that sense ‘dark’), consisting of tendencies that may be considered unwelcome and therefore repressed. The shadow may hold fears, guilt, shame, prejudices and core beliefs that may be to some degree unexamined and unknown.
6. Persona is equivalent to False Self. It is the personality and social role and characteristics that one presents to the world, influenced by both unconscious and conscious factors. Persona reflects the ego and shadow interweaving a social presence in the world.
Being aware of some of these terms can be helpful for discussion but also being aware of how you are functioning yourself. It can be valuable to realise where a particular thought, feeling or action may have its source, especially when examining negative aspects.
It will also be helpful in the nourishing of positive states of awareness and practice. Your true and unique self is always present but our ego is easily caught up in anxieties that draw us into in-authentic ways of thinking, feeling and acting. A simple practice is simply to pause frequently through the day to remind yourself of God’s presence with you and to be aware of that truer clearer presence of your true and unique self out of which you can choose to live.
Spiritual practices such as centering prayer or meditation cultivate the awareness of the presence of your true and unique self, held in the presence of God.
Jon Jelfs, August 2015