Embracing the self in others
By: Justin Matthews
November 12, 2016
This is a rather large and important concept in my opinion, this idea of not only embracing the self, but also acknowledging that very same self in another person, or any living being for that matter. Personally I feel that many truths are best found through our own natural discovery process, one of these avenues of exploration being to simply question things as we experience them. This I feel helps us to better navigate how these things may actually apply to our own lives and not exist as just some fancy philosophy meant to remain on the pages of some dusty book. So with all of this I encourage that we ask ourselves a slew of questions as a means towards hopefully enriching our understanding of these concepts. What I hope to do here, is to not only present the ideas, but also to address some of the questions I feel may naturally arise as we move forward through this part of our journey.
In Western culture we most predominantly encounter philosophies with Christian undertones and thus for many of us there is a familiarity with the Christian tradition. In regards to our topic of embracing the self in others, I believe there is a great Christian parallel to be found in what Jesus said to the apostles when asked what the greatest commandment was. Now for some of us, we may have a mixed relationship with Christianity or any organized religion for the matter, but for our purpose id like for you to set aside doctrine, dogma and past attachments, so that we may view these philosophies with fresh eyes. What I challenge you to seek within these words, is to understand the universal principles that are the very nature of these truths. Truth is that which is ever present and transcends the borders of any spiritual tradition or philosophy. That being said I am not here to give you the “truth”, what I hope is to point you in the direction of discovering your own truth. So please bare with me and let us enjoy this journey together.
In order to give some context for this philosophy, I’d like you to consider that Jesus lived during a time when the 10 Commandments of Moses, among many other laws of the Jewish Torah were the primary guiding principles towards leading a spiritual or lawful life. When Jesus was asked what the greatest of the commandments were, this posed a rather difficult question. Should Jesus not simply say that all commandments are equal or perhaps, that the greatest commandment was that one should not kill? But you see this would diminish those commandments that were not chosen and would not appease his eager disciple’s curiosity. Instead Jesus took these 10 Commandments and summarized them into one sentence or perhaps you could even say into one word. What Jesus says, I feel is so instrumental towards understanding what it means to live a mindful and spiritual life. Jesus replies to the apostles and says: “To love our neighbor as we would ourselves and to love God above all.” So I have ask myself, what does this mean? It seems simple enough, but I feel as we analyze it piece by piece it will take on a much deeper meaning than what is presented at the surface.
The big word that I feel sums up the entirety of what Jesus said is love, but what does that mean, “to love”? In 1 Corinthians 13 it describes the nature of unconditional love and it’s importance within our life.
“If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”
So this one word, “love” is described with such importance in this scripture, stating that without love, it doesn’t matter how great my speech is or how much knowledge I have or how great my faith is or how much I sacrifice, all of this remains hollow if I have not love within myself. One could equate love to food that is filled with nutrients and food that has been stripped of them completely. Both will ease my hunger and fill my belly, but only one of them will sustain me. It also talks about the nature of unconditional love, this concept that encompasses a full spectrum of qualities. Love can bring out both the greatest and worst qualities in people. It is the pinnacle of joy when felt in its purest form, but love that is wavering or superficial will always find itself subject to suffering. Love could be compared to the ocean, when love is based upon condition or attachments, it will find itself in constant change, like the choppy waves at the surface, effected by all that it meets. Although in contrast, love that is unconditional is like the deepest depths of the ocean, unaffected and serene no matter what it encounters at a superficial level, allowing all things to flow through without resistance. Water flows around all obstacles, adapts to all environments, it moves through even the greatest of barriers and love that is true, is no different.
We often wonder how something that can bring such joy, could also bring such suffering, but see this duality is present within all things. Love is very much interchangeable with truth in the analogies so far presented, both of which posses what is perceived as “positive” and “negative” qualities. This teaches us of the concept of duality, which is often skewed, making a person believe they are a passive participant in the experiencing of either joy or suffering in any given moment. The thing is, this is entirely untrue, “good” or “bad” can only exist within the realm of the perceiver, who is none other than you. What I view as good, may very well be bad for you and vice versa, so these qualities of an experience can only be determined within the realm of our own individual self. This is where our power of perspective comes into play, each experience possesses both joy and suffering as if two sides to the same coin, but who actually wants to experience suffering? Often we equate joy to the fulfillment of wants or desires, but see the thing is, it is entirely unrealistic to believe that everything in life will go our way 100% of the time. With this sort of belief, we will always be subject to suffering, simply because we have attached ourselves to a potential outcome for any given situation. Another problem with this sort of belief is that as soon as my desire is fulfilled, I experience a moment of joy, but then what happens? Oh no! Another desire has taken its place, so I better get back to work then right? No. If we change our perspective and open our minds to taking in every experience in a more holistic way, we will begin to recognize both the “positive” and “negative” qualities of everything we encounter in life. Now what good does it do to recognize both the good or bad in a experience? Isn’t the good going to be good and the bad going to bad no matter what? No, because recognition of these qualities within each moment shows us that no matter how we may suffer in an experience, if we shift our perspective we may also find the potential for joy. This reveals to us that the power to feel joy or sorrow in life is completely within our own creative capacity. The positive or negative aspects of things are often reflections of our current inner state, imprinting themselves upon our outer world. The more positive my state of mind, the more it will seem as if I have attracted positive things to manifest within my life, while this is true, it also simply means we have tuned ourselves into seeing the bliss within each experience. Keeping in mind, that if I induce a negative state of mind, I will undoubtedly manifest or seek out the negative aspects of my life, more often than not creating negativity in situations with little to no original negative intent. Often I equate bliss to the light of the sun and suffering to rain of the storm. Both the sun and the rain play their own role in the creation, preservation and destruction of life. If the sunlight is like bliss, then a life without suffering or rain, would be like a barren desert, devoid of growth or life, likewise a life of constant suffering, without bliss will be drowned out and devoid of growth or life. There is a balance to be sought in every experience, to recognize that “suffering” is just nutrition for the growth that is to come in life. When we see beyond this duality, then every experience begins to feel as if it was exactly as we needed it to be, not necessarily always as we wanted it to be, but nonetheless it has come for the enrichment of our life.
The last part of Corinthians speaks to the resilience of love, which I would also equate to truth. If we truly love unconditionally or have experienced truth, these things will be a constant, yet evolving aspect of our life. Truth and love are as natural to our being as breathing or sleeping. When we encounter these things it will feel as if they are an extension of our being, rooted at our very foundation.
Now that we understand the nature of love we must ask ourselves what is the nature of the self? The self can be broken down in many ways, but for our purposes I’d like to focus on the self that identifies with ego and what I refer to as the “true self”. The self by definition is: “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action” and our ego by definition is: “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity” Most of us as you can imagine naturally identify with our ego, because this is the source of our individual identity and what we believe separates us from those around us. All in all this isn’t a bad thing, but this is a limited self in comparison to our true self. The self that identifies with ego, is subject to the same kind of suffering I referred to in regards to superficial love, this is the self that is in a state of constant change, which while change isn’t a bad thing, this can often feel as if we are building our life upon shifting sands. The self that identifies with ego, is also the self that identifies with this physical body, meaning that it is subject to what is called “Time, Space, Causation”. Nothing in our physical existence is outside of these three things, hinting at the impermanent, ever changing nature that is our physical reality. Often this impermanence and constant change causes us great suffering, simply because we have attached ourselves to certain aspects of this current existence or perhaps we have created expectations for a potential future existence. Often it is difficult to be entirely present in the current moment when we identify with the changing nature of our physical existence, often leading us to fixate on the past or future. It is said that a person that is attached to their past will feel a longing for what is no longer there or perhaps regret for things done or left undone, often leading us to feelings of depression. This is like trying to leave one foot on the ground while boarding a moving train, which obviously as you can imagine never works out too well. The person who fixates upon the future will find themselves in a state of anxiety because they exist in the unknown and create expectations that often go unfulfilled, bringing them only more suffering. To find a sense of peace we must discover what it means to live in the present, this I believe goes along with our awareness of the duality of individual experiences. In seeking to be more mindful of our experiences we acknowledge that all things are simply meant for our personal growth, accepting that the past is unchangeable, the future is undecided and that the only place in which we may truly thrive, exists only here in this present moment.
Our true self is much more in line with unconditional love and truth, this self remains constant, despite the ever-changing nature that is our physical existence. This self identifies less as an individual and more so as an aspect of the universe around them. If we are true to ourselves, every action, every thought, every experience will have substance and we will recognize the importance of even the subtlest aspect of our life. With this knowledge, every moment can be fulfilling by nature, simply because we have mindfully set the intention for such manifestations to take place within our lives. This concept of self no longer identifies with impermanent and superficial nature of our materialistic reality, instead being rooted in the source of all consciousness. In Vedantan(Hindu) philosophy the nature of the self or consciousness is broken down into three stages. The self that identifies with ego or individual consciousness is usually referred to as Jiva, the self that identifies with cosmic consciousness is usually referred to as Ishwara or Atman(Soul) and then there is the place where the sense of self ceases, immerging into oneness or supreme consciousness, this is called Brahman or perhaps you could say the universe. Our true self is more related to this second state, identifying with cosmic consciousness or soul, creating a deeper sense of empathy and solid foundation from which the self is meant to evolve. This state of consciousness naturally teeters between both our physical and soul reality, giving access to deeper, subtler aspects of universal knowledge. This type of conscious living empowers the individual to maximize the growth that is available within every experience, unhindered by self-imposed obstacles. In order to transcend the fragile nature of the egoistic self, we must address the concept of self-love.
Now that we have glimpsed both the nature of love and of self, what does it mean to love one’s self? Often the greatest obstacle for personal and spiritual growth is our lack of love towards the self. If we believe ourselves to truly know love, then surely we must already possess love of self, but as I am saying this, I imagine that some red flag has appeared in your mind, because more often than not this love falls short when turned towards the self. Love of self is arguably the most important, as well as difficult milestone in the beginning of our spiritual and personal journey. So we have to ask ourselves, how do we truly love ourselves? Love means to be patient, to be kind, to not judge, to forgive, to allow ourselves to explore whatever it is that naturally comes before us. Often the love of self is hindered by both experiences and the perceived judgement of peers, this is very much what it means to live a life that identifies with our egoistic nature. There is a great story that I feel speaks to this concept of self-love and seeking the true self. Sometime in the last thirty years or so the Vatican conducted a huge restoration project on many of the paintings that decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel. One of these projects included the restoration of Michelangelo’s famous collection of ceiling paintings that he began in 1508 and finished in 1512. Now consider that over 500 years have passed since these paintings were masterfully created. Over the next 500 years many painters would add their own touch to these paintings, changing colors slightly, “fixing” things here or there, whilst also for 500 years’ candle soot built up upon the paintings surface. With both the artist’s touch ups and years of soot build up, these paintings had become rather dark, noticeably less radiant and muted to the eye. When the restoration took place, they started to clear away layer after layer of soot and then began chipping away at layer after layer of “touch ups” and what they discovered was this beautiful, vibrant original masterpiece of Michelangelo. You see this painting is very much like ourselves, the candle soot being our experiences, that weigh us down, create a sense of dreariness at times that has a tendency to mute our natural radiance. Whilst the painters represent those who we compare ourselves to, those who judge us, make us feel that we need to be something that is unnatural to us. The whole time we find ourselves seeking the “perfect” representation of ourselves, but the reality is that the true masterpiece has been there since day one, looking back at us each day as we face the mirror. True beauty, true happiness is not found in the things that exist outside of us, it is found within ourselves. When we acknowledge and settle into our true selves, then we no longer feel helplessly subject to the whims of some external force. We must empower ourselves towards the recognition that the best version of ourselves is simply when we are being 100% true to ourselves, despite whatever unique oddity we may believe we have, these details are what make the masterpiece captivate the soul. We must also learn to let go of our past experiences, we must forgive ourselves and acknowledge that the past is the past. We live and we learn, today is the only day that we can do anything, so why waste it thinking of yesterday or tomorrow?
This has now led us to embracing the self in others, with the understanding of love, of self and of self-love, we can now embark on what it means to “love your neighbor as you would yourself”. This kind of love doesn’t mean to simply do good by someone or to do nice things, this is the recognition of that person as an extension of myself and to recognize myself within them. Hindus say “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam” which means the world is one family. If I have come to understand love and self-love, I now understand the kind of love that I need to express towards all living things. When I view another as myself, I begin to recognize the effects of my actions, my thoughts and how the suffering of another, is nothing but my very own suffering. With this we begin to see the transparency of self, what once was defined and divided begins to meld into oneness, into truth, into love. This recognition inspires a reverence for all living things, further encouraging us to move deeper into the depths of these subtle aspects of creation. With each step we find ourselves closer and closer to the source of all truth, of all love. When I view you as myself, how could I look upon you with anything but love? How could I not understand you, who although wears shoes of leather and I of cloth, we both have or will stand in each other’s shoes before our journey’s end. With this truth, I should seek you as my teacher, my lover, my friend, my brother or sister, myself, because through you I can see the world through a second set of eyes, ever expanding the horizon of my mind’s perceptive comprehension. Imagine that all of my life experience could be summed up into a single pixel of an unfathomable painting. If I ever hoped to even glimpse another spec of this masterpiece, I would have to become as one with you. This is the truth of any spiritual seeker that desires to glimpse the truth or the expanse of God.
This leads us into our final segment of the scripture, “to love God above all”. So what does this mean? If all of these things have led us further from identifying with ego or self, eventually towards identifying as all living things, now what are we left with? According to Vedanta, this would be the place where the identity ceases, but this isn’t so foreign a concept among multiple belief systems. Buddha said, “You are also Buddha, Buddha is within you.” Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” A Vedantist would say, “Brahman is not only within you, you are Brahman. Thou art that.” Oneness is the culmination of all philosophies, all religions, this is the place in which we all ultimately seek to reach on our spiritual path. This place of enlightenment(Nirvana), Oneness(Samadhi), liberation(Moksha) from Samsara(the cycle of rebirth). This idea is easily paralleled with the concept that we are all just a single drop of water, rising, falling, transforming and seeking as we navigate through our journey upon this earth, working our way back to the ocean of consciousness from which we have come. This oneness is the meaning of unconditional love, of truth, of peace and this is the road in which we must seek to walk.
Now let’s ask ourselves the very same question from the beginning. “To love our neighbor as we would ourselves and to love God above all.” What does this mean to you, can it apply to your own life? It is a simple saying, but it has a deep meaning if we take the time to reflect.
Much love & peace to you all. Namaste.