‘I’ as a disturbing stranger!

As many of us know there is a strong sense of the fragility of the developing sense of ‘I’ which it is suggested then lies at the heart of our sense of self. Our ego strength can be tested in all sorts of ways and situations and under psychological attack one can only too easily feel a sense of ‘falling apart’.

Jacques Lacan the French psychoanalyst thought our sense of self is at heart unreal – not authentic, rather more spurious, so that at a deep level we know about and live with this sense of the fragility of the ‘I’– the idea of ‘me’ is built for all of us on the flimsiest of foundations and, fundamentally, although we need an ego to function, it is after all an illusion.

However no matter how flimsy it is in actuality we need the ego to be strong enough in order to avoid breaking into pieces. Lacan thought the ego is therefore always an inauthentic agency, functioning to conceal a disturbing lack of unity.

The sense of ‘I’ is thus in part a cover up but it also means that the self by definition ‘is what which is forever unfinished’, and so both contemplative prayer and psychoanalysis rather than strengthening the ego by ‘knowing who you are, turning yourself into a quasi-fictional character with so-called insight’ is instead more about ‘discovering and learning to tolerate that you don’t know who you are, and that in fact you have no way of knowing’.

As Thomas Merton discovered this has similarities with the spiritual journey where rather than fixing on a spiritual or religious identity and so closing down the searching – what some Buddhists refer to as the reification and absolutization of the self – instead the way is to open out into a place and space of not-knowing. In other words this is about being able to stay in the liminal place of uncertainty. In Zen it is the Great Doubt that leads to a Great Awakening. For Merton the search is discovering the true self.

When we are quiet, not just for a few minutes, but for an hour or several hours, we may become uneasily aware of the presence within us of a disturbing stranger, the self that is both “I” and someone else. The self that is not entirely welcome in his own house because he is so different from the everyday character that we have constructed out of our dealings with others – and our infidelities in ourselves.

For Merton the essence of the spiritual journey is to begin to make space for what he calls the silent self ‘whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent’.

It is in the silence of contemplative prayer or in staring at the ceiling from the analyst’s couch that it becomes clear that the ‘I’ that we imagine we are, is, thankfully, not all that we are. It is apparent that there is more to life than surface and image and what lies underneath is all important.