Balancing Eastern and Western Spirituality: Loving Self for God’s Sake
If you hang around people who are into Eastern spirituality, you often hear that left-brain concepts like “self,” “ego,” and “mind” are things to be gotten rid of. They only stand in the way of enlightenment, we hear. And there’s certainly some truth to this.
At an experiential level, in order to connect to the right-brain wisdom that we are but drops in the ocean of the infinite, initially we do have to let go of any sense of self for specific periods of time, such as in meditation and deep prayer.
But over time, the adepts tell us, the two ways of seeing can be held at the same time. We can be aware of both realities – we are one with the infinite, and we are embodied selves.
In thinking about this, I’ve returned to a wise master, Bernard of Clairvaux, and his treatise on the four stages of love.
At the beginning of life, he says, we (1) love ourselves for our own sakes. We are individuals looking out for number one, as we say. But soon enough we realize that this selfishness leads to misery, and we begin to (2) love God for self’s sake. We do this, for instance, when we engage in yoga or mindfulness or prayer as a way of making our lives better.
And then we fall in love. Everything changes. We realize that all the good stuff is in the infinite – God, the big Self, “no self.” We get enamored with our blissful right-brain experience. Bernard calls this (3) loving God for God’s sake. And it is in this stage that we hear people say, “the ego is the problem,” “let go of your sense of self,” “get out of your head, ignore the mind.”
But for Bernard, and I would argue for those who have gone far in any tradition, this is not the final stage. Bernard calls the final stage (4) loving self for God’s sake.
“To lose yourself as though you did not exist and to have no sense of yourself, to be emptied out of yourself and almost annihilated, belongs to heavenly and not to human love.”
~Bernard of Clairvaux
In other words, we discover that this limited thing I call “me” has value, in part because it is part of the infinite, and further, because it is through my embodied self that I can love the infinite and love others. Here are the bodhisattvas, the saints – those who have attained enlightenment and yet choose to live in the world for the sake of love.
Ram Dass says it well: “One doesn’t have to beat down one’s ego for God… The ego isn’t in the way, it’s how we are holding the ego… As the transformation changes [you], the ego becomes this beautiful instrument that’s available to you to deal with the world.”
Over time, the adepts tell us, the two ways of seeing can be held at the same time. We can be aware of both realities – we are one with the infinite, and we are embodied selves.
So to those who say the ego is evil, the self is to be annihilated, the mind is useless – to them I say, is it possible you’re on the right track but aren’t seeing the whole picture yet?
Perhaps there’s another stage ahead in which you will come to value your “self” again, because it is the means of loving God and loving others.
You aren’t dead yet. Enjoy your embodied self for the sake of the infinite.
Quotes: Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God 10.27, trans. G. R. Evans, Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, 195.
Ram Dass, Instagram post 8 Feb 2019.