The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 20: Our Changing Sense of Self

Atman

From Wikimedia Commons. Click image for source

We’re spending a few days unpacking these lines:

Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me. Delivered from selfish attachment, fear, and anger, filled with me, surrendering themselves to me, purified in the fire of my being, many have reached the state of unity with me. (BG, 4:9-10)

I wrote yesterday about how “knowing [the Lord of Love] as one’s divine Self” sparked moral panic among American Evangelical Christians in the 1980’s, and I said that this was due to a deliberate misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding is about what we mean when we talk about “self.” Our understanding of self grows as we grow. In David Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self, he describes the way our understanding of self changes as part of natural human development. As infants, we have little sense of where we end and where our mothers begin. At some point, we discover our hands and the rest of our bodies, and as we develop language we think of this “I” as our bodies. As we grow, we develop a social sense, and our notions of identity change: “I” becomes my reputation or my role, how people around me see me. This is one among many reasons young teenagers are so easily influenced by peer pressure.

Eventually we expand our sense of self to include our larger tribes, which are often defined by beliefs and practices: I identify with my religious denomination, my political party. Or for the more introspective, I may identify with my emotions and my personality: I’m an INFP, or ENTJ, I’m an introvert or an extrovert.

Healthy development at any stage involves recognizing, “I am this, but also more.” At any of these stages, it is also possible to get stuck. Those who get stuck identifying with their body spend their lives chasing pleasure and avoiding pain. Those who identify with their social self, with their reputation and the way others see them, spend their energy preening, worrying, gossiping, or manipulating. Those who get stuck identifying with their beliefs become fanatics and exclusivists, and those who get stuck identifying with their feelings spend too much time in their heads.

The truth is that while you are a body, you are also more than your senses; you are also a social being. While you are a social being, you are more than your roles and reputation; you are also an intellectual and emotional being. While you are an intellectual and emotional being, you are more than your thoughts and feelings; you are also a spiritual being. The point is that in healthy human development, our understanding of “self” is constantly growing.

Here I want to recall what I wrote yesterday, and observe that not only do many Christians get stuck identifying with their beliefs, but many institutions encourage getting stuck. Anxious institutions, like anxious people, believe—wrongly—that their identity and survival depends on maintaining us/them distinctions. Moral panics are a reflexive response to fear of loss of identity. It’s a fear of death.

This is where I think Hinduism and Buddhism have something very important to teach Christianity, but it’s a lesson taught by Jesus himself:

All who want to save their lives [Greek: ψυχή, psyche] will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. (Mark 8:35)

There are three Greek words for “life” – bios (biological life), psyche (mental or inner life), and zoe (life energy). The Greek psyche means both “life” and “self,” or soul. I am increasingly convinced that Jesus intends this wordplay here. We have to lose our sense of self to find it.

Once we realize that we are not our bodies, our roles and reputations, our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, our past or our future, what is left? If I am not any of these, what—or who—am I? Who or what is it that is having this experience?

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
Great I AM, I am a tiny reflection of you.