I’ve always been curious about different spiritual points of view. Even though there are many, they seek similar things, like liberation from suffering, salvation or enlightenment, and choosing the right path through life. The self in spirituality — that is, the nature, importance and reality of the individual self— is one topic almost every spiritual seeker considers at some point.
Recently, I had a conversation with a Christian friend who told me Christianity is ultimately about self-sacrifice. A Buddhist meditation class I’m taking focuses on the idea that there is no static self. In yoga, we often talk about leaving our small self or ego behind as we aim to connect with our higher Self.
Do these viewpoints mean our ego self is insignificant, nonexistent, or in some way a mistake? How should we see the self in spirituality?
Self-Sacrifice as A Spiritual Ideal
I do see and mostly agree with self-sacrifice as a spiritual ideal, but I think it’s often misunderstood. For Christians, the ideal is based on Jesus’ sacrifice and what it means for his followers. It’s reasonable to believe they should strive to do the same. Still, something about the phrase self-sacrifice bothered me, and I thought about it for quite a while after our conversation.
My friend made the comment in response to something I said about contemplative practices and how valuable they are on a spiritual path. I’ve been delving into the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Shamata and noted that I didn’t learn practices like these growing up as a Christian. For me, that’s unfortunate since they make a huge difference in my ability to “be still and know God.”
I want peace. And I want my mind to get quiet so I can hear God. I want to hear God so I can have a better life. And I’d like that better life while I’m still in human form. I know, too, that a better life means a life that doesn’t center around me — or I, me, mine — as wisdom teachers often say.
The “No Self” View of Self in Spirituality: Do We Even Exist?
A goal in Buddhism is to recognize that there is no inherent self. This contrasts significantly with the Christian view, at least on the surface. And it’s worth exploring without rushing to take sides.
The concept of no self doesn’t mean we don’t exist, and it doesn’t mean we don’t have individual qualities. It means we’re not unchanging. There’s no static entity that is me and will always be me, not even in this lifetime, says Buddhism.
Why think in terms of no self? Because if we see ourselves as individual, static entities, we spend a good amount of our lives trying to fortify that sense of self. We chase pleasure from external sources and do whatever we can to avoid pain, often in self-destructive ways. We’re either numb or over-excited much of the time. We’re far too focused on self-preservation.
But we all know we won’t last forever, so why this madness?
Limitations of The Self-Absorbed Self
The idea of self-sacrifice resonates in many ways. The antidote to self-absorption does seem to be self-sacrifice. But when misunderstood it suggest that everyone else is more important and valuable than the one who sacrifices. If you sacrifice yourself for me, I matter and you don’t.
But if I have no self to sacrifice and we all still exist, in a sense, I am you. And you are me. And we are both part of everything. We all matter, and we’re all connected. There’s one caveat — and here’s the problem — we all need to transcend the concept of self to work as an interconnected team.
That probably won’t happen throughout humanity as a whole anytime soon. But we can seek communities of like-minded people who share a similar view of the self in spirituality. Without a community, interconnection can dissolve into a one-way sacrifice that annihilates a lot of valuable beings. Little or nothing good comes of it.
The difference between the idea of self-sacrifice and the concept no self is clear, but in essence the result is the same. What we seek to move away from on the spiritual path is a sense of self-importance, of clinging to what makes us unique — our possessions, our success, our relationships (when they’re self-serving), and even our God if we view God as one who rewards our tribe but not yours.
The Mind’s Role in Understanding The Self in Spirituality
So, how does meditation help with all this? I believe it helps us shift from an “out there” concept of God to an experience of the divine that guides our lives. In fact, I don’t just believe that. I know it. I’ve had the experience.
Meditation quiets (or empties) our cluttered, self-absorbed, chattering, frightened, clinging minds. But the emptying is only the first step, not the goal.
The reason we want to clean out the mess is to let something better in. That something better is God, truth, illumination, enlightenment. Yes, these are somewhat different concepts, but that’s only because no word or concept can capture the experience I’m talking about.
That’s why we need the experience — to be still and know.
It’s hard to be still.
Redefining Self in Spirituality: Getting Out of Our Own Way
Meditation can be hard because it forces us to listen and to face what we hear. We get squirmy, because we’re used to reacting, defending, and needing answers now. But we benefit more from sitting with the mystery, because our understanding of anything can only evolve when we don’t know — or don’t think we know. Truth is not something we can grasp and possess.
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition identifies five things that get in the way of spiritual growth: seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, dullness or lethargy, anxiety or excitation, and indecisiveness. In any of these states — even the desirable ones (it’s good to be happy and avoid pain) — truth can be obscured.
Pleasure is great. But it won’t last. Suffering can’t be avoided no matter how long you run. And it’s probably no secret that the outcome of being centered and clear-minded is more favorable than what happens when we’re lethargic, anxious, or confused about what to do.
A more esoteric but poetic way to put this is contemplative practices remove the veil that obscures illumination. As Alan Wallace explains, illumination doesn’t mean a bright light is shined upon something. It means we are the bright light.
Once illuminated, we can stop grasping at self-preservation. We’re not dim, anxious, or confused. We know. And that knowing makes us laser-focused on the path forward. We control our own minds rather than let our minds control us.
Illuminated beings are naturally kind, compassionate, joyful, and balanced. These qualities are related to self-sacrifice. But by understanding ourselves as interconnected beings, we along with all sentient beings become objects of those aspirations.
Self-Sacrifice to What End?
While I was working on this post, another friend reminded me of the children’s book, “The Giving Tree.” If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s a children’s story about a tree that sacrifices herself — her fruit, her branches, and finally her trunk — so her “friend,” a boy when the story begins, will be happy.
By the end of the story, the tree is a depleted stump and the “friend,” now a tired old man, is sitting on her. He’s taken everything she has and never thanked him. It’s supposed to be a story about self-sacrifice and the joy of giving without reward. But it’s clear something is missing from the message.
If we give ourselves entirely away so another person can be happy, what does that say about us? Was it okay for the “friend” to take everything the tree had and give nothing in return?
M. Scott Peck, the psychologist who wrote the bestseller, “The Road Less Traveled” decades ago, described love as “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” It’s a powerful definition.
Freeing The Self in Spirituality Does Not Mean Destroying It
Using Peck’s definition, it isn’t love if we’re okay with allowing others to diminish us. But if we approach love from the perspective that it’s for the benefit of our and the beloved’s spiritual growth, there’s a much different outcome all around.
We can’t grow spiritually if we’re self-absorbed or self-centered. We grow when we’re part of something greater. If we move past the idea of winners and losers, that will happen. Egos take a back seat as the true nature we all share is illuminated. Only then can we shine a light that matters.
See the difference?
Hi, I’m Maria. I created Yoga Circles for you if you want to delve more deeply into the philosophy, practice, and life-changing effects of yoga. I’m also a writer and editor who helps small business owners, wellness professionals, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and connect with readers, clients, and students. Visit my website (link below) for more about that. I’d love to hear from you!