At the bottom of this post I am going to include a link to the recording of one of my favourite talks given by Ken Wilber. It explores the vision that when we put the teachings of the spiritual traditions of the East and the psychological tradition of the West together, we see that human beings have two fundamental forms of self – an Absolute Self and a relative self, or what he calls our “True Self” and our “Authentic Self”.
For the Wisdom Traditions, the True Self is our true nature and deepest essence as the one Absolute Reality – called by such names as Brahman, Dharmakaya, Buddha-Nature, Shiva, God, Allah, Ein Soph Aur, as well as others. Awakening to this Absolute Reality has been the focus of the non-dual mystical traditions of the East, such as Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, and Kashmir Shaivism. These traditions offer a path on which one awakens to the true nature of one’s consciousness being the ultimate reality of infinite radiant consciousness arising as the entire kosmos. (In a different sense we could say that developing a deep connection with this Absolute Reality has been the focus of the theistic mystical traditions too, such as mystical Christianity, Sufism, and Kaballa. These traditions teach a path on which one can come into deeper and deeper relation with the presence of this divine reality in the world.)
While the True Self is our Absolute Self, the authentic self is our relative self. It is the unique pattern of thoughts, memories, experiences, feelings, perceptions, and embodiment that make up our individual human self-sense. Every person’s relative self is an expression of the one Absolute Self arising as the many, just as is every tree, ocean, sun, planet and galaxy. Wilber uses the term authentic self to refer to the most whole, healthy and integrated expression of our unique relative self at any particular point in time. The way he uses it refers our physical, emotional and mental personality, but the relative self also has deeper layers, such as the soul, which can come online more and more fully once it is expressing in an integrated and self-connected way.
Developing an integrated, healthy relative self has been the core focus of the psychological tradition in the West. This began with the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud with Psychoanalysis and has continued through the various waves of psychology over time, from Behaviourism to Humanistic Psychology to Cognitive Psychology. Each of these has attempted to explore what it means for a human being to be truly integrated, secure in themselves, and psychologically healthy.
Ken makes the great point that while awakening to our True Self – our True Nature, Buddha-Nature, Dharmakaya, Brahman, Shiva or God – is probably the most fundamental gift of the Eastern traditions, this form of spirituality has also contained a serious blind spot. In prioritising the Absolute Self as its singular focus, it has overlooked and often degraded the importance of the relative self. In its labelling of the whole relative self as ego, bad and to be transcended in favour of the True Self, it has failed to recognise that the relative self can be healthy and integrated (and then it is the authentic self) or it can be disorganised, intensely contracted, and unhealthy (which Wilber describes as the “false self”, which is the distorted expression of our authentic self).
The problem for the Eastern traditions here is that while its true that awakening to the Absolute Self reveals the relative self as not ultimately real, as Western psychology has shown, the relative self is still functionally crucial. Let me unpack this point. It is true that as the non-dual mystical traditions tell us, when we awaken to our true nature as the one Absolute Self or Consciousness, it is innately known that our personal relative self is just a wave on the radiant ocean of light that is our true being – no different from a tree or a flower or a car or any other wave. As the Buddhists would say, we realise the relative self as essentially empty and there is a sense of boundlessly positive equality pervading all creation without distinction.
The unfindable nature of the relative self has actually been confirmed by Western neuroscientific research that shows that when we look for a place in the brain that supports the sense of self, no single location or operating system can be found. What is found though, exactly as the Eastern teaching has told us, is that the relative self is more of a process than it is an entity, being distributed across many brain networks and acting as a nexus of integration for maintaining the whole spectrum of our experience in a coherent way.
This is the functionally crucial aspect of a healthy relative self. As Western psychotherapy shows, when people do not have a healthy relative self, their lives are generally filled with intense suffering (diagnosed in terms of psychosis, borderline personality disorder, narcissism…) as they do not have a coherent sense of themselves to support their experience in the world. And for those on the path of awakening to the Absolute Self, if there is not a stable and healthy relative self there to hold the realisation, it will have nothing to support it. What we have come learn, crucially, is that no amount of experience of spiritual awakening can bypass or side-step the development of a healthy, stable, secure, connected relative self.
In his talk, Wilber then goes on to add how interestingly, the psychological tradition in the West has had a combination of strengths and blind spots that asymmetrically reflect those of the nondual Eastern traditions. Where the Eastern nondual traditions have thrived, the Western psychological tradition has its blind spots, and where the Western psychological tradition has thrived, the Eastern awakening teaching has its corresponding myopia.
As has been said, the Western psychological tradition has cultivated a deep understanding of what makes for a healthy, integrated and thus authentic relative self. The blind spot of Western Psychology, however, is that it has never really understood the reality of the True Self – the Absolute Self or Ultimate Reality that is the Ground of Being. Instead, it has often seen all talk of there being an undivided, unified absolute self as unhealthy and potentially even psychotic regression.
What Wilber points to in this talk is that both the Eastern spiritual tradition and the Western psychological tradition therefore have their great gifts and blind spots. On their own, they are profound and yet also definitely limited in certain ways. When we put them together though, we begin to see a path of growth for human beings that honours and optimises all layers of our being – absolute and relative. This is something no human pathway or tradition has ever truly done. No doubt, it will surely be part of any truly integral global spirituality that emerges in the future to holistically bring together the gifts of the different lineages and pathways humanity has developed.
Here is the link to the talk: http://media-news.s3.amazonaws.com/audio/Ken_on_Authentic_Self_and_Shadow.mp3