He who attempts to act and do things for others and for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them only the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, and his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. Thomas Merton
So this is my first of ten important thoughts for spiritual reflection. For the last year, I have been influenced by the incredible wisdom and gift of the 12-Step movement throughout the world. One of its core insights, indeed the thought akin to many forms of contemplative religions including Christianity for which I am a part, is the key idea that the violence and problems of human society and systems, comes from within each one of us.
Many have written about the importance of the human ego as an essential tool for survival. But it is a two edged sword. The human ego can also be that which becomes obsessed with the seven deadly sins of Greed, Anger, Fear, Lust, Envy, Pride and Sloth. If we become fixated with these things, then we literally become ‘adult children’ and we literally become distorted and addicted to these various intense behaviours that lead to forms of insane narcissistic violence.
This is why in the Christian contemplative tradition, forms of Buddhism, Sufism and other mystical religious traditions, the taming of the ego is an essential human discipline, because if we stay too aligned with the ego it leads us to put our identity into a false-self.
Merton makes clear that the self-proclaimed autonomy of the false self is but an illusion:
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.
This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.
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.
We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34-5.
In fact, what ever we do no tame and immerse in the love of God to enable us to find spiritual freedom in our deeper true-selves, then we will unleash egoic violence on those around us and the natural order. What ever we do not own from within ourselves, we wreak on others and the natural order of this world. This is why we have so many adult children who struggled with boundaries and power in the world of Donald Trump and Boris Johnston as examples. This is why we increasingly find ourselves in forms of society with increasingly authoritarian regimes. This is why we have seen forms of the worlds religions formed for being vehicle’s for the love of God, human cooperation, peace and for the stewardship of nature, have been distorted by the violence of religious fundamentalism advanced by the egoic tendency to the deadly sins. This is why our human societies seem impotent to face the drastic threat of global warming and ecocide. We are destroying the planet and self-harming all people and all life through the deadliness of the unrestrained human ego, which ultimately has to be expression of madness and evil, and we are often so ensnared we can not see it.
I believe the only true escape is by appealing to the Higher Power of the 12 Step Movement, the God of world religions, that through the love of God, and through our desire and intention to live another way, that we can reveal and face the consequences of egoic selves through self-awareness, prayer, meditation and spiritual practices, and then through forms of healing and formation, shift our focus of life away from the ego to the true self, or away from the brokenness and self-harm of the deadly sins, to the virtues or the focus on the true-self, through endurance and by being immersed in the love of God. without this focus, I have no hope for this planet, as the evil dark violence within us, can only be subdued through the power of love and humility.
This is why I am so committed to the Christian contemplative tradition and the 12 Step Movement. Both have been for me essential for me to shift away from a life time of self-harming egoic forms of behaviour and living, to something more self-loving, more peace-giving, and more in harmony with the natural order of things.
If we do not face this, then we will continue to destroy, setting up even more despotic regimes, violence to all living things, and an insatiable and unmeetable hunger for power, experience and greed.
I do believe this is what people mean when they say they are spiritual not religious, because they are seeking to go deeper with this striving to take the egoic into the the true self, but I don’t believe you can only do this out of self-will, this is the lesson of the 12-step process. And we are so obsessed with our thinking and feeling and blind to our delusions, that we need forms of loving contemplative spiritual practicing communities who are transformed by the love of God. This is my one hope and trust.
The essential truth is, that only true surrender of the human heart and will can lead to non-egoic spiritual freedom, for which, we all need to do the work.
But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasure and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 35.