I’m Uncomfortable with the Notion of the “False Self.” Here’s Why.

I’m Uncomfortable with the Notion of the “False Self.” Here’s Why. May 6, 2019

You are going to be fine. As a matter of fact, you already are. Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash.

A reader named Dave recently sent this question to me:

Hi Carl, could you please give me some suggestions on reading for the false self/ego? Just going through early chapters of New Seeds of Contemplation and it’s really gripped me to dive deeper.

He didn’t specify what passage(s) in New Seeds of Contemplation were speaking to him, but it’s pretty easy to see where this topic — the “false self” — shows up in Merton’s work. Consider these quotes (page numbers are from the Kindle edition):

The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls. (page 27)


My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. (page 36)

Of course, to talk about the “false self” leads to a parallel conversation about one’s “true” self. Here’s Merton again:

Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him. (page 38)

To the best of my knowledge, Merton was the first major Christian contemplative author in the English language to write about this “true self / false self” distinction. But he was hardly the last! His fellow Trappist monks Thomas Keating and M. Basil Pennington use this language; indeed, Pennington wrote an entire book on this concept: True Self, False Self: Unmasking the Spirit Within. The concept of the true and false self show up in some of Keating’s most important books, like Open Mind Open Heart and Invitation to Love. Beyond the Trappists, Richard Rohr picks up this language in his book Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self.

Although New Seeds of Contemplation was published in 1962, it is in fact a revision of an earlier work, Seeds of Contemplation, which came out in 1949 — barely a year after Merton’s bestseller The Seven Storey Mountain was published. Merton uses this language of true self and false self in the earlier edition, so the idea had been part of his thinking since his first decade in the cloister.

(Incidentally, if you look up “true self and false self” in Wikipedia, you’ll find an assertion that the language only dates back to about 1960, in the writing of a British psychiatrist named Donald Winnicott. Apparently the editor of that particular page on Wikipedia is ignorant of, or uninterested in, the religious/contemplative use of these concepts!)

Merton’s description of the false self carries a kind of theological harshness that might be expected from a pre-Vatican II Trappist monk. The false self is a “prison” and is linked to sin; in Merton’s dour assessment, “To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self.” (page 35). Thankfully, he goes out of his way to insist that the false self should not be equated to the flesh (the body) — but this disclaimer only appeared in the “New Seeds” edition of the book, not in the original 1949 edition. It makes me wonder if Merton had to deal with readers jumping to that kind of dualist conclusion after reading the original text.

Thankfully, later writers (like Keating) have tended to shy away from equating the false self with sin. In Invitation to Love, Keating uses therapeutic rather than juridical language to describe the false self:

The false self is the syndrome of our emotional programs for happiness grown into sources of motivation and made much more complex by the socialization process, and reinforced by our overidentification with our cultural conditioning. Our ordinary thoughts, reactions, and feelings manifest the false self on every level of our conduct. (page 12).

In other words, the false self is not a sinner who needs to be disciplined, but the symptom of an illness that needs to be healed.

That’s certainly an improvement. But I think it’s still just putting lipstick on a pig. In other words, whether we see the “false self” as either symptomatic of sin or sickness, either way I think it’s language that creates more problems than it solves.

We Have Enough Dichotomies; We Don’t Need to Create New Ones

Recently I had an email exchange with another person about the notion of the true and false self. Here (edited slightly for brevity) is what I wrote:

I, personally, am very uncomfortable with the language of “true” and “false” self. I know it’s widely used — from Merton to Pennington to Keating to Rohr, etc. — but I also know this distinction is very much a product of our time, and isn’t found earlier in the mystical tradition… it seems to me that the language of true/false self is inherently dualistic and sets up a dynamic of judgment (either good or bad, but judgment either way) toward the self. If splits the self off into accuser and defendant.

My correspondent had linked the concept of the false self to the Biblical concept of dying to the old self, as seen in Romans 6:6-8, where St. Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

St. Paul never uses language of “false” and “true” self, although he does talk about the “old” and the “new” self. Still, I’m uncomfortable reading this contemporary concept back into the ancient text of scripture. So I went on to say:

I also think it’s anachronistic to project true/false self language back onto biblical teachings: when we are invited to “die to self” it’s a much more radical call when we refuse to refract the self into the “true” and “false” bits. It all has to die. We are called to surrender without condition or limitation into the boundarylessness of Divine Mercy and Love.

“A Modern Expression of a Very Old Mistake”

Well, the language of the false self makes me uneasy, but let me give credit where it is due: the British solitary Maggie Ross was the first person I encountered whose dislike for this language actually helped me to realize that I, too, am uncomfortable with it. Here’s what Maggie had to say in her book Silence: A User’s Guide Volume I:

False self/true self are commonly-used phrases suggesting that there is part of the person that needs to be excised, suppressed, or destroyed; the assumption behind them is that the self is static and linear. This is a procrustean notion of the self. It is a modern expression of a very old mistake. Its modern use in the discussion of old texts is anachronistic. It is antithetical to notions of incarnation, and alien to pre-Reformation Christianity… it is a self-judgement that takes place entirely from the very limited and skewed perspective of the … virtual/conceptual self-conscious mind; this alone makes its claims untenable. … The paradox of intention—and witnesses through the ages—suggest that we can never know who we are, much less make such a judgment.
The deep mind, where the person’s truth continually unfolds out of sight, is not directly accessible, although it receives, discerns, and incorporates the decisions and attitudes categorized by self-consciousness. …engaging and entering our wounds and what we most despise about our selves are fundamental to trans-figuration, to wisdom, practice, and compassion. The message of the Incarnation is that nothing is wasted. (Kindle location 1532ff.)

To put it more simply and concisely: whenever we label part of ourselves as “false,” we are disobeying Matthew 7:1, where Jesus instructs us to refrain from judgment. Even when we sin, we need to keep our focus primarily on God’s redeeming and forgiving love, which is always greater than our disobedience or our harmful actions.

Trying to split ourselves into a “true” and “false” dimension — even in the interest of understanding the difference between sin and grace, or sickness and health, at work in our lives — just creates a bigger problem than it solves. Maggie Ross’s concept of the “deep mind” is a reminder that there are dimensions to human life and experience that remain inaccessible to our wills or even to our understanding.

Merton wrote about this, in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, talking about what he called le point vierge: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.”

The Deep Mind and Le Point Vierge: Where Survival Mind and Playful Mind Remember That They Are One

I believe Maggie Ross’s concept of the “deep mind” may be equivalent to Merton’s concept of le point vierge: it’s a place at the center of our being where the dichotomy between “true” and “false” self simply no longer matters: for it is a place of pure love and compassion, mercy and forgiveness, continually inviting us into reconciliation and renewal. At the surface level, the so-called false self “sins” and the so-called true self “judges the sin.” Unfortunately, both of these positions miss the mark. But at the level of le point vierge, the deep mind, we recognize that both false and true self stand in need of mercy and forgiveness, both are renewed in the light of grace and love, and both are made one in Christ: one with Christ, and even one with each other.

In my very first book, Spirituality, published in 1997 (that long ago?!?), I came up with an alternative to the language of “false” and “true” self: I talked about two dimensions of consciousness, which I called survival-mind and playful-mind. As you can imagine, survival-mind is really good at filing income tax returns, managing one’s financial portfolio, keeping the oil changed and the air ducts clean, and so forth and so on. Playful-mind, meanwhile, tends to be better at writing poetry, engaging in contemplative prayer, falling in love, and embracing the encounter with mystery. Like Mary and Martha of Bethany, they are siblings, and they need each other. No judgment!

There are things that survival-mind does really well, and other things where it falls flat. The same holds true for playful-mind, but in different dimensions. Each can be judgmental of the other. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a lot of the rhetoric that we see written about the problems of the “false self” sounds like the playful-mind expressing its criticism of the survival-mind! Imagine the parable of Mary and Martha if it had been Mary complaining about Martha rather than the other way around, and you might get a sense of what I’m trying to say here.

Another approach to this distinction between our everyday awareness and the deep mind — that’s much more academically rigorous than my old book — can be found in a book called The Master and His Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Ian McGilchrist. Read it along with Ross’s book to get an in-depth sense of what she means by “the deep mind” and how it is distinct from, and yet intimately related to, our more ordinary rational consciousness, which is analogous to my concept of the “survival-mind” — or, I believe, what many people may be referring to when they talk about the “false self.”

I know that I have no business daring to criticize the many great contemplative writers of our time who talk about the distinction between the true and false self. But like Maggie Ross, I’m just not very comfortable with the language. I worry that it’s too easy to misunderstand it and lapse into dualistic thinking around these notions. Maybe the playful/survival model could be a more helpful way of thinking about how we sometimes embrace and sometimes reject dimensions of ourselves. Maybe the notions of the deep mind and le point vierge can help us to remember that there is something bigger and deeper at work than just rejecting a part of ourself that we’ve labeled “the false self” (or “the ego” or “the older brother” or “self-righteousness” or whatever).

So… this is a very long-winded reply to my friend Dave, who just asked for a few book recommendations! Obviously, I’d suggest you check out all the books I’ve mentioned in this post (the highlighted titles will take you to Amazon if you want to purchase any copies; please do follow the links because then I get a small commission off of your purchase, at no extra cost to you). But I hope that you’ll take Maggie Ross’s critique to heart. Contemplation is all about rediscovering the unity that is always already there. So it’s a bit of a detour to get caught up in language that just introduces new types of dichotomies into our thinking.

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