Reclaiming Our Lost Sense of Self
How can our practice help us develop a healthy and full sense of self? How can we come to true self? There are several aspects of this process to understand. Our initial sense of self or positive ego strength, as it is described in Western psychology, comes from our early development. Our birth temperament or karmic tendencies are shaped by early feedback and mirroring from our childhood environment to create a sense of who we hold ourselves to be. If we have good bonding with and respect from our parents, a healthy sense of self develops. Without it, a deficient and negative sense of self is established. Then this initial sense of self is reinforced by teachers, school, our social condition, and continuing family life. A habitual sense of self grows through this repeated conditioning, layered on our earliest childhood patterns and re-created as we continue to grow in healthy and unhealthy ways. If our sense of self is unhealthy, our spiritual work of self is initially a work of reclamation and healing. This means understanding and releasing a deficient or wounded sense of self and reawakening the lost energy and authentic connection to ourselves. When we have reclaimed some measure of ourselves, the next task becomes the further development of character, of our wisdom, strength, skill, and compassion. This development is described in the teachings of the Buddha as the cultivation of skillful qualities such as generosity, patience, mindfulness, and kindness.
The development of self then leads to a more fundamental level, the discovery of true self. This is the discovery that the positive qualities of character that spiritual life works so hard to cultivate are already present as our true nature. From this sense of true nature, we can also discover and honor our individual or personal destiny, our self for this life, the unique patterns through which our awakening will express itself. Only when we combine the development and discovery of self with a realization of the emptiness of self, do we complete our understanding of true self.
Many of us who enter practice do not have a healthy childhood or a strong sense of self to draw upon. With a weak or shaky sense of self, even when we are able to rise temporarily above our deficiency and touch states of openness and selflessness, we are unable to integrate them and fulfill these realizations in our life. Thus, the first level of self-development for many students is reclamation. We have talked about meditation as a process of healing. In reclamation, we bring attention to understanding the painful conditions that created our weak, deficient, or barricaded sense of self. We begin to see how our own defenses and the wishes of others have eclipsed a true grounding in our own deepest experience. Gradually, we can cease to identify with these old patterns and allow for the creation of a healthier sense of self. As the fearful and deficient self is let go, we must start over like a child, recognizing and reclaiming our own body and heart wherever we were abused or cut off from ourselves. We reclaim our feelings, our own unique perspective, our voice that can speak what is true for us. In this process we may need the help of a skilled person as a guide so that we can use that relationship as a model to learn the love, honesty, and acceptance that create a healthy self. Undertaking this reclamation of our lost self is a major part of any Westerner’s spiritual journey, and much has been written about it in psychological and feminist literature. It may take years of deep work to stop running, to reclaim our unspoken voice, the truth within us. Yet this is necessary to come to wholeness and true self.
The next aspect of the development of self is the development of character. The Buddha very frequently described spiritual practice as the cultivation of good qualities of heart and character. These include such qualities as restraint (restraining from acting on impulses that cause harm), kindness, perseverance, wakefulness, and compassion. He exhorted his followers to cultivate the Factors of Enlightenment and, by repeated effort, to strengthen the spiritual faculties of energy, steadiness, wisdom, faith, and mindfulness. The Buddha’s model of an enlightened being was a noble warrior or skilled craftsman who had developed a character of integrity and wisdom through patient training. We too can choose to develop ourselves, working patiently with the patterns of our mind and heart, gradually shaping the direction of our consciousness. Repeated cultivation is a basic principle of most spiritual and meditative paths. We have seen how we can practice concentration and gradually train the puppy. In the same way we can frequently recite prayers and through them strengthen our faith. In repeated meditations we can learn how to skillfully let go of fearful or contracted identities, how to calm our hearts, how to listen instead of react. We can systematically direct our attention to reflect on compassion, to purify our motivations with each act, and gradually we will change. “Like the arrowsmith who turns his arrows straight and true,” said the Buddha, “a wise person makes his character straight and true.” Whatever we practice we will become. In this way we must rely on ourselves. “Self is the true refuge of self,” said the Buddha. Understanding this, we can choose to strengthen our courage, loving-kindness, and compassion, evoking them in ourselves through reflection, meditation, attention, and repeated training. We can also choose to abandon pride, resentment, fear, and contraction when they arise, leaving flexibility and openness as the ground for healthy development.
As our development of self grows and our heart becomes less entangled, we begin to discover a deeper truth about the self: We do not have to improve ourselves; we just have to let go of what blocks our heart. When our heart is free from the contractions of fear, anger, grasping, and confusion, the spiritual qualities we have tried to cultivate manifest in us naturally. They are our true nature, and they spontaneously shine in our consciousness whenever we let go of the rigid structures of our identity. Once spiritual faculties such as faith and awareness are awakened, they take on a life of their own. They become spiritual powers that fill us and move through us unasked. The pure, clear space of consciousness is naturally filled with peace, clarity, and connectedness; the great spiritual qualities shine through when our fearful sense of self is released. These qualities show our fundamental goodness and our true home.