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Self, Non-Self, and God-self

Photo by Mindy Olson P on Unsplash

My Dear One,

There is something we learn as a baby that we eventually need to unlearn if we are to make much progress at all as spiritual beings. Ironically, a critical skill that once helped keep us alive, as we age, becomes the instrument of our spiritual death unless we learn to let it go. And as we survey the landscape of the world, this appears to be critical work to emphasize these days.

Let us begin with a couple of analogies.

Have you ever paid close attention to a very young baby learning to interact with its environment? It is in the process of learning to distinguish self from non-self. This is a healthy and necessary part of the development of the human brain. If we are to learn to eventually walk, we need to be able to determine where our body ends and the ground begins. If we are to learn to eventually talk, we need to know the difference between the sound our voice makes and the voice of another person. This process is called self-differentiation and it is a major task of the child’s brain from birth to the age of two.

The distinction of self and non-self is at the core of human intelligence. The more self-aware an animal is, the more intelligent it becomes. Humans are very self-aware, self-conscious animals. This awareness allows us to interact with our environment in increasingly sophisticated ways.

This self-differentiation mimics what our bodies are doing on a cellular level as well. During that same period of time, from birth to early childhood, our immune systems are in overdrive reacting to all the self and non-self entities it finds in our bodies. As germs and viruses make their way into our systems, our immune system is responsible for recognizing the difference between our own cells and foreign cells, and learning how to kill or build immunity to any potentially harmful foreign cells.

It is vitally important that our bodies learn to do this well. Self-tolerance is the reason why our immune system does not attack our own body. It recognizes the self and lets that cell exist. It recognizes the non-self antigen and attacks it. When a body cannot do this well, we have what are called autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, are when the body can no longer recognize itself and will begin to attack its own healthy tissue. This is a life-threatening situation.

But there may come a time when that same awareness of self and non-self is no longer helpful and actually needs to be overwritten. For example, if a person has an organ transplant, we must find ways to get the body to accept the non-self tissue and refuse to attack it. The body presumes attacking it would be the correct course of action. This tissue is a foreign invader and therefore must be rejected. Or so the body thinks. This is its natural inclination because it has served the body so well up to that point. But we know better because we see that this is a healthy organ that is necessary for the body’s survival. We are replacing a piece of the self that no longer works with a new piece that will work. Our bodies will protest. But the survival of the transplant patient depends upon it.

This same process happens on a spiritual level as well. Early on in our lifetimes, it is a healthy development to determine the difference between self and non-self. It is what gives us a conscience. It helps us to learn a sense of personal responsibility and the need to be accountable for our actions, which have consequences. It is the grounds for all morality.

But unless we are to treat everyone and everything else as mere resources to be used for our own greedy purposes, we soon must learn to go beyond this primitive distinction. Sadly, not all choose to take this step. Learning to respect the right of the non-self to live independent of us, even if they threaten us in some way, is a key spiritual progression. You may make me angry or even hurt me but that doesn’t give me the right to hurt or kill you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Jesus (in Matthew 5:43-45)

Jesus here is suggesting a spiritual heart transplant. Early on in the development of human civilization, our survival depended on us sticking together and not attacking our neighbors. We had to learn to love them, or at least tolerate them, for the sake of the survival of our tribe. But attacking another tribe was entirely permissible, especially if that tribe posed some threat to us. The extension of self vs. non-self out into the world continued to be necessary for survival. This has been a completely acceptable mindset for the entirety of human history. It remains so for many people and nations to this day.

But if we are to follow The Way and “be children of your Father in heaven” then we must learn to override this instinct. We must learn, Jesus says, to love our enemies, to love the foreigner among us, to accept the right of the non-self to co-exist with the self, even if the non-self seems threatening in some way to the self. We must pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who seek to do us harm.

There is no such thing as someone else’s war.

- Jason Isbell, from the song “White Man’s World”

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men [sic] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...

This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

- Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Learning to unlearn the finally false distinction between self and non-self is foundational to The Way.

We cannot do this without a radical reorientation of the Mind. We must shift the paradigm so that we are no longer about “loving the self with all our Mind” but rather about “loving God with all our Mind.” This is the gateway into the eventual escape of the false dichotomy of the self and non-self, which in the end proves to be a rather poor way of living in the world.

The apostle Paul had much to say about the need for followers of The Way to let go of the self vs. non-self dichotomy. Consider just these two passages:

4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. The Apostle Paul (in Romans 12:4-5)

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. The Apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

This recurring theme of the unity of all into the body of Christ was Paul’s vision for the beloved community of the saints. He too could see how the body was a perfect metaphor for this work. We can speak of things such as a hand distinguishable from an arm and from a shoulder and from a torso. But all of these parts are bound up into one body and the utility of the body depends on the ability of the member parts to function in harmony and concert with one another. It is a lengthy passage but well worth the read:

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. The Apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26)

As we live in a world of increased protectionism and isolationism, with fear of the other rampant, and racism and white supremacy on the rise, the need for the disciples of Jesus to demonstrate God’s alternate Way is as needed as it’s ever been. Without an ever-increasing movement towards mutual preservation and a deeply spiritual sense of inter-being between self and all we perceive as non-self (humans, plants, animals and all of creation), the world is destined for self-destruction. To wish the destruction of others is ultimately to destroy ourselves. Hatred towards the other is the auto-immune disease of humanity.

How can you demonstrate this kind of unity in the midst of diversity in your own life? How might God be calling you to grow deeper in your tolerance of the non-self? What of your own health is depending upon you learning to do so?

This is incredibly challenging work. But where this really becomes revolutionary is when we consider the implications it has not just for our understanding of who we are but more importantly our understanding of who God is. More on that next time. Until then…

following The Way,



This week’s Elder: Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the best teachers of the truth of the interconnectedness of all beings is Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He invented the word “interbeing” to help us understand that one thing cannot exist without all things. Here is a beautiful story that illustrates his point:

"If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the pre-fix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too.

When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is here and mind is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here- time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat.

Everything coexists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to be inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper, is because everything else is. Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without “non-paper elements” like mind, logger, sunshine, and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as his sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

- Thich Nhat Hanh, excerpt from Teach Breathe Learn by Meena Srinivasan 


Our Practice this Week: Interbeing with Nature

Interbeing with other humans is a higher level skill. Perhaps we should start on an easier level. This week, spend time in nature, even if it is a houseplant or a leaf. But if possible, go sit outside surrounded by air and trees and birds and bugs. With your in-breath, soak everything in and give thanks. With your out-breath, extend yourself in love to all that surrounds you. Recall how each thing depends upon all other things for its survival. Using the story above, deeply consider your connection with the rest of creation. Feel its presence within you.


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