‘Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be?’

One of the threads that run through all of Thomas Merton’s Journals and much of his other writing is that of the self, and his belief that sanctity consists in finding our true identity. The heart of all spiritual searching is the search for our true or real self.

Merton struggled in his writing with the idea of what the self is, what the spiritual self might be, and how what he calls the false self with all its seductive illusion could be stripped away to uncover the true self. A characteristic of this is the revelation to Merton, and through his writing to the reader, that the self as it is known is usually inconsistent, frequently strange and often deceptive. Merton acknowledges the duplicity of the self that is presented to the world and so a duplicity that we too can recognise within us.

In the first chapter of his posthumously published book The Inner Experience, Merton issues ‘a preliminary warning’ to the self that sets out to be a contemplative, for this he thought is an alienated self and a compartmentalized being. He asks the penetrating essential question, ‘Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be?’

Merton sees that the exterior ‘I’ with all the temporal projects, associated demands, successes and failures is alien from the interior ‘I’ who has no projects and aims for no achievements. This interior ‘I’ looks only to be and to move, as this is a dynamic part ‘according to the secret laws of Being itself and according to the promptings of a Superior Freedom (that is, of God), rather than to plan and to achieve according to his own desires’.

A contemporary psychoanalyst quotes the both ironic and serious observation of the French psychoanalyst Jean-Bertrand Pontalis: ‘Dream, poetry, analysis: exact sciences’. Psychoanalysis, dream and poetry are exact sciences precisely because they deliberately avoid the definitive answers demanded by so-called hard science to questions of who and why we are who we are, showing us instead the experience of being a self.

The strangeness is not simply about the presence of the unconscious, but to do with the singularity the difference and peculiarity of the human person – of each human person. It was Freud who used the German term ‘das Unheimlich’ which literally translates as ‘the unhomely’. He was referring to the paradoxical meeting of the familiar and the strange within each person.

Merton too uses the phrase ‘the disturbing stranger, the self that is both “I” and someone else’ that we can find within, and any exploration of the self, whether through psychoanalysis or in contemplative prayer takes the person into areas of discomfort and disarray.

Merton’s psycho-spiritual thinking on the self and subjectivity suggests that increasing awareness of the false self and both the ache of such self-knowledge and the associated relief that this is not all that we are, can liberate us to becoming truly human.