Unbinding Christian Faith: Free to Be

by Br Denis Gleeson
Reflection, Contemplation

Pursuing Happiness

Consciousness, the False Self and the True Self

The spiritual journey is a journey towards ever greater consciousness and awareness. We begin the journey by looking at ourselves. The great spiritual writers invariably tell us to know ourselves first, if we expect to know God. Honest self-reflection and self-observation are necessary if we are to develop insight into what drives us in life and discover what are our compulsive behaviours, dominating influences and real motivations. We need too to be able to accurately name our wondedness if we are to have hope of bringing it to healing. Necessary as our awareness of all of these things is, it does not mean that we ourselves are going to be able to do much about them, however. I very much doubt if New Year resolutions ever really affected much change in any of us. St Paul says in much quoted passage:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the thing I hate.” (Rom. 7:15)

So, change for the better, spiritual growth, is not a task of the ego, it is a task ultimately best left to God. We can inform ourselves, though, and try to comprehend what growth needs to take place in us and how we can actually allow that growth and healing to take place over time.

Drawing on his own experience of human nature, a profund knowledge of the great spiritual writers and the insights of contemporary psychology, Thomas Keating concludes that our failure to understand our own motivations is one of our biggest difficulties. In early childhood, he explains, in addition to obvious physical needs that have to be met, at least to some basic degree, if we are to thrive. Every child needs love, affection and esteem. Every child needs to feel reasonably safe and secure. Every child needs an appropriate measure of power and control in their lives. When these three instinctive needs are met the child can grow into a healthy and balanced adult. When the demands of our instinctive needs, now become our programmes for happiness, are frustrated, “primitive emotions” will flare up to torment us as “afflictive emotions.”

All of these seems reasonable enough but a problem arises when we over invest in the satisfaction of these instinctive needs and they become insatiable demands. Then we expect everyone we came across to love us and hold us in the greatest esteem. We cannot tolerate anything that we feel threatens our safety and security and we look for power and control over every circumstance and even over the people around us. This, of course, is unrealistic and simply not going to be the case. So, if this is what we expect and the total satisfaction of our instinctive needs becomes our programme for happiness in life, we are going to be severely disappointed. Emotional turmoil will set in, for the instinctive needs operate hand in hand with the emotions. Keating says:
“The emotions faithfully identify the value system that developed in early childhood to cope with unbearable situations. The emotional programs for happiness start out as needs, grow into demands, and finally become ‘shoulds’. Others are then expected to respect our fantastic demands. People can grow up intellectually, physically, and even spiritually while their emotional lives remain fixated at the level of infancy, because they have never been able to integrate their emotions with the other values of their developing selves.”

Happiness is not to be found in blindly and relentlessly pursuing satisfaction of our instinctive needs. That pursuit merely feeds a misguided sense of who we are and the person we are meant to become. It cultivates a false self. It ignores the conscience, rights and needs of those around us and attempts a very poor substitute for a love, security and freedom that can only be found in God.


(Unbinding Christian Faith: Free to Be pp 142-143) by Denis Gleeson

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