God in Everything
Bede Griffiths, the monk and Hindu spiritualist, wrote, “I was no longer the centre of my life, and therefore I could see God in everything.” 
What does it mean to be the center of our lives? How do we stop doing living there? How do we learn to see the mystery that lies beneath the surface of the simplest things, like the wind jostling the branches of the kiwi vine, the red-breasted house finch plucking seeds from the borage, the sweetness of butter on toast, the stickiness of clay? Even within the sharpness of ice, the roughness of dirt, the coarseness of fitful snores there is life. Something throbs beyond the mechanical and temporal. What keeps us from seeing that?
If Bede Griffiths was right, it is being caught up in the center of our lives. That sounds a lot like being caught up in our egos. A lot is written these days about letting go of our ego, of our self. Yet what do we mean by “ego”? What is our “self”?
The Ego and the “Real Self”
In psychoanalytic terms, the ego overlaps with what James F. Masterson calls our “real self.”  The ego mediates between our subconscious impulses and our conscious thoughts and desires, while also helping us make sense of reality.
According to Masterson, those of us who grow up in “good enough” families develop a resilient ego. This allows us to believe in ourselves and have confidence in our future, while also tolerating the ups and downs of life. We don’t need to hide from our feelings or capitulate to the impositions and unrealistic expectations of others. With healthy egos, we can develop a “real self” with mature loves, reasonable hopes, and honest emotions. We can pursue that which fits who we are. We can commit to careers and to families. If our egos are healthy, we can tolerate disappointment, admit mistakes, and change course. Indeed, change doesn’t threaten us because, regardless of how much our fortunes or our environment changes, no matter how much we grow and mature, something within us stays the same. An internal identity sustains us. 
If, on the other hand, we don’t have a “real self” to begin with, if our ego is fractured and fragile, we don’t dare let go or surrender to that sacred wholeness. Seeing God in all things won’t feel blissful. It will feel scary, because it will seem too much like being consumed. Besides, if we lack a sense of self, what is there to give up?
A Real Self Can Accept Others
Masterson explains that such fear drives the dysfunctional and cruel behavior in people with personality disorders. Because they constantly project their needs and imperfections on others, they don’t see the reality that is before them. The people around them seem more like objects than human beings. Thus, they can’t engage in loving relationships. Instead, they cling, manipulate, flee, numb themselves, and destroy others. Griffiths said something similar when he wrote that “the need to overawe people and demand obedience from them is powerful and seductive.”  The thrill of conquest feeds our unhealthy ego and makes us believe we have a “real self.”
In her mystery novels, Louise Penny does a fine job of contrasting her fictional inspector with her other characters. Armand Gamache, whose healthy “real self” allows him to combine strength with kindness and to see into the hidden places of people’s souls without condemning them, has faced his own inner demons and learned to accept them. By doing so, he learned to tame his darker self. He can thus accept the woundedness of others.
These others include the complex villains that Penny creates. They are hard, brutal, wise, wounded, and thoughtless. Imperfection is part of who we are. For Penny, this is not shameful, but for many of her characters, it is.
Without a Self
For instance, Irene Finny, the matriarch in Penny’s book, A Rule Against Murder, cannot tolerate faults in anyone. She is cruel to everyone, even to her children. Without being obvious, and certainly without being physically abusive, she demeans with hints and reminders, indirectly condemns. Though she can be caustic, she is careful never to leave herself open to challenge. Her children are both attached to and repelled by her. They long for her love, but also hate her. 
In spite of this, her second husband loves her. He sees her softness, her loneliness. For years, she has endured excruciating neurological pain, silently and secretively, though she cannot hide it from him. Because of this, he sometimes reaches out a hand to her, then let’s it drop, for she rarely allows him tenderness.
Yet Penny shows us a moment when she stands before him in her nakedness, her bitterness dropping away. In her vulnerability, she becomes whole. She cannot sustain it for long, though, for without conquest, she is nothing. Thus her acerbic nature returns.
If we want spiritual fulfillment, Griffiths taught, we must detach from the self, from that part of us he called “the principle of reason and responsibility.” The self makes us who we are. From our self comes our freedom, including the freedom to let go. To find God, we must relinquish this identity, this person, this ego.
Yet how could Irene do this? She didn’t even have a self to let go of.
Lost In the Center
I witnessed a similar struggle in one of the patients I visited at the hospital. The man was dying, and he knew it. On some level, he accepted it. He was Christian and understood there was a heaven, one open even to such as he, for though he was unworthy, he did have faith. He trusted that would be enough.
Yet he lacked a “real self.” Ashamed and bitter, he could find no peace. On the surface, he was angry. Years ago, his wife had had a stroke, and he’d become her caregiver. Nothing he did was good enough, yet he kept trying. Hoping against hope that he might please his family and his God, he was impeccable in his care for his wife. So rigid was he that no one else could meet his standards, and he ended up doing everything himself and feeling resentful about it. No one dared “mess with” him and his methods.
“But,” he cried out, “God is messing with me!” God was making it so he could no longer take care of his wife. It wasn’t right, and he wasn’t ready to die. Yet he wasn’t ready to live, either, and probably never had been.
Caught In the Center of Our Selves
During our visits, family and friends came and went. The first time I talked with him, his son and his fiance were there, waiting for their minister to come marry them. Since the father could no longer sit up and might not even make it home to die, they would have the ceremony in his hospital room.
All he talked about that time was how bad he was. His voice was faint and fragile. I had to lean over to hear him. Nonetheless, whenever his son noticed him complaining about not being good enough, he would tell his father how wonderful he was. Soon a neighbor came in. She, too, tried to talk the patient out of his guilt by reminding him of all he’d done for her husband when the husband had been ill.
It didn’t work. The man was mired in shame.
Finally, I said, “You can feel guilty if you want to. That’s okay. You might want to let it go before you die, but you don’t have to. But your son’s about to get married, so I suggest you stop thinking about yourself for a while and focus on him and his bride. They’re the ones who matter right now.”
Sadness and Pain
During our second visit, the man felt stronger, and his voice was firm. Though we talked for quite a while, the man never lost his disgruntlement. The son was there again, giving his father the usual pep talk, which had as little effect as ever. Yet even when the son left, the man seemed unable to work through his pain.
I saw some signs of movement, though, so I stuck with it until some friends came to see him. They said hello, and the man ignored them. He just kept talking to me. Twice I mentioned that they were there. I suggested he pause and welcome them. He didn’t. Not knowing what else to do, I left, hoping then he would have no choice but to face the people who thought they were his friends.
The man’s inability to focus on anything but his own pain saddened me. In spite of his tireless care for his wife and his support of his neighbor, he was the center of his own life. Everything he did, he did to prove to himself and others that he was worthy. He couldn’t accept the love God had for him all this time. Though he claimed to believe in God, he couldn’t see that God any more than he saw his friends. Certainly, he didn’t see God in everything.
Such deep wounds, he had. I prayed that the process of letting go of his body, his family, his life might help him, at long last, to release his pain, to abandon his ego, and to see God in something, if not in everything.
Confidence and the Beginner’s Mind
Life tears us apart. It’s what life does. This tearing can provide us opportunities to blossom and grow and become bigger and kinder and more open-hearted. It can also shatter us, leaving us empty and afraid. That’s what happened to Irene Finny. It happened to the man in the hospital. Because they had no “real self” to begin with, they couldn’t surrender their egos. Thus, even if they believed in the sacred mystery, they wouldn’t have been able to connect with God. They couldn’t connect with anything. When we become one with a lover or a child or a friend, we risk losing ourselves. Connecting requires faith in the integrity of our being. Neither Irene nor the dying man had that kind of confidence.
While talking about the “beginner’s mind,” Gary Zukav describes some qualities of “true artists and true scientists.” These are ones whose work transcends boundaries, shatters conventions, and changes the fabric of our universe, if only a little bit. Artists and scientists believe in the importance of “nonsense.”  They can admit what they don’t know, so when reality shows itself to be different from what they expect, they can go with that. Curious about life, they don’t need to hold onto what they think the world should be once it shows itself to be something different.
To be so open, however, requires self-confidence. These artists and scientists, Zukav tells us, believe in themselves. People might tell them they’re wrong, even call them heretics, but they know what they know, and their work reveals the truth of their vision. The line between madness and genius is thin, but it is there.
The Gift of Ego
So must we give this up in order to touch the divine? Ego holds us together, makes it possible for us to have a “real self.” The paradox is that the real self, the confident ego, does not fear annihilation. The real self has a real connection with other people, and this gives it strength and courage. The real self knows that feelings do not kill, that time passes, that all is impermanent. Life tears us apart, but we can go on. Even death, when it comes, is okay.
That’s because, when our ego is strong enough to be abandoned, when our true self is secure enough to dissolve into the totality of everything, we can connect with Source, with all that exists. We can see God in everything, and we will not be afraid. In this way, we become ever more fully ourselves.
Finding, and Losing, Our True Self
If we cling to our life, we will lose it, but if we surrender it, we will find it.  Similarly, if we cling to our selves, we will lose everything, yet if we let go of everything, we will find we are still there. Our self will be a little different. If we are fortunate, it will be wider and gentler. It will see beyond surfaces and understand compassion as something deeper than helpfulness. We will not be perfect. Our foibles will remain, hopefully ameliorated a little, but still annoying.
So if we need to first find our true selves, fine. Let’s do it. I don’t care if it’s therapy, meditation, encounter groups, prayers, chanting, trips to the beach, whatever. If it works, engage in it. Then, when we feel the wholeness of life and love within us, we can open ourselves to the letting go. We can relinquish the ego and discover something more sacred and beautiful than we could have imagined.
As the Zen saying tells us, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” When we find our real self and lose it, life is both the same and not.
After we cease to be the center of our lives, after we learn to see God in everything, we will feel the sacred love at the center of existence, and that will not be taken from us. Though life may shatter us, and though it may bring us joy, that which is sacred and beautiful and true will hold us through it all. Everything will be the same, and it will also be different.
In faith and fondness,
- Bede Quotes from Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/102487.Bede_Griffiths, accessed 7/13/19.
- Masterson, James F., The Search for the Real Self: Unmasking the Personality Disordersof Our Age, New York: Free Press, 1988, 24.
- Ibid 25.
- Penny, Louise, A Rule Against Murder, New York: Macmillan Audio, 2016.
- Zukav, Gary, “Beginner’s Mind,” Carlson, Kyogen, “Drifting Clouds, Flowing Water,” Rabinowitz, Ilana, ed., Mountains Are Mountains and Rivers Are Rivers: Applying Eastern Teachings to Everyday Life, New York: Hyperion, 1999, 24-26.
- Paraphrase of Matthew 16:25.
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