It was D. W. Winnicott who wrote about the inherent dilemma within each person between two trends: one that has an urgent need to communicate and another with the still more urgent need not to be found. This dilemma is implicitly present in much of Thomas Merton’s writings on the self. Alongside the self you show to the world is the non-communicating self, a repository of private experience whose meaning consists in its being singularly and inalienably yours.
Here is the strange simultaneity, common to us all, of the impulse to display and to conceal, to communicate and not to be found. There is an impetus to want the world to see the singular self you are and to preserve that self from the world’s intrusive curiosity and scrutiny.
At the end of Winnicott’s paper on this matter he refers to what he names the ‘non-communicating central self’ which he believes is ‘for ever immune from the reality principle, and for ever silent’. He considers that ‘communication is non-verbal’ and goes on to explain that: ‘…each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound’.
I’m not clear to what extent Winnicott thought that we are conscious of this deep part of ourselves or whether we just have an intuition or vague sense of it – or not even that for some of us – but here perhaps is the deepest part of the true self only revealed at death.
Perhaps this non-communicating central self, is similar to what Merton described as ‘le point vierge’…
He wrote: ‘At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. . . . It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.’
Merton writes about not just ‘the vast, mysterious area of our being which we call the unconscious’ [which we can know about if only to a certain extent] but also about ‘an infinitely more spiritual and metaphysical substratum’. He writes about orienting life to the discovery of one’s true spiritual self beyond the superficial enjoyments and fears.
The search for genuine personal identity whether framed through spirituality or psychoanalysis is a lifelong one: ‘Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be?’ If the search stops then we are in some ways both spiritually and psychologically dead.
Finally Merton offers this thought and advice to all involved in this quest: ‘Inside me, I quickly come to the barrier, the limit of what I am, beyond which I cannot go by myself. It is such a narrow limit and yet for years I thought it was the universe. Now I see it is nothing. Shall I go on being content with this restriction? … Desire always what is beyond and all around you, you poor sap! Want to progress and escape and expand and be emptied and vanish into God’.