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The separate self as resting on denial

While dropping off to sleep the other night I had a powerful and sweeping insight. It was strictly theoretical, and not particularly inspiring, but it’s one of those insights that will stay with me permanently. And it has already fueled a great deal of practical reflection. So I thought I would share it here.

The insight was the solution to a problem in understanding the Course, one that I’ve had for years. The problem is that I have never seen myself as engaging in lots of denial and projection.  In other words, I didn’t see how I was pushing all sorts of things outside my consciousness. Over the years, I’ve slowly corrected the denial part of it. I’ve realized that denial is actually a favorite defense of mine. If I look the other way long enough, it creates the very convincing impression that something simply isn’t there. Great defense. But I still have difficulty understanding how I engage in projection. I really strive to assess people honestly and accurately, so it’s hard to see how I’m projecting my stuff all over them. Even Ken Wapnick once told me that I had very good “reality testing” (after I told him that I thought he wouldn’t be too happy with something I wanted to go forward with).

My insight from the other night feels like a solution to this. What I realized was that it is absolutely basic to the separate self to push the most fundamental facts of its existence outside of awareness. I saw this happening in two movements.

First, the separate self sees itself as the center of the universe. In its eyes, it is more important than everything else. All others exist to serve its needs. It is, in fact, full of needs, and to fill these needs it has to consume other things. Eating (which I am doing right now) is the perfect example of this. Think about it. Some living thing (plant or animal) works hard all of its life to turn itself into a little bag of nutrients, and then you come along and pop those nutrients into your mouth, incorporating those nutrients into yourself, and destroying the bag in the process. It did the work; you reap the benefits. The separate self by nature preys on the whole to fill itself. It is a taker. It thinks and acts as if it is the only thing that really matters.

How does this relate to denial? Well, the separate self has a mind, and mind naturally understands that one self is fundamentally no more valuable and important than another self, and is certainly not more valuable and important than the whole. An apple is an apple is an apple. Why is one apple more valuable than the whole orchard? Mind understands this. It understands that the accident of me being a particular apple doesn’t actually change the big picture at all. I’m still just one apple in a whole orchard.

So we have the awareness that every person is just as valuable as we are, and that the whole is far more valuable than we are. That awareness is inside of us at all times. Therefore, to achieve the perspective that we are the center of the universe, we have to deny that awareness. We have to push it as far outside of consciousness as we can. If we were to face head-on the fact that every single person in the room is every bit as valuable and important as we are, how could we keep on living as we do? How could we keep on consuming all those tasty little bags of nutrients if we remained fully aware of their own intrinsic value and importance? We couldn’t. We couldn’t emotionally devour our life partners. We couldn’t financially devour our business competitors. And we couldn’t physically devour our food sources.

So, the first denial is the raw denial of the equal value and importance of other individuals. This is an absolutely massive denial that sits at the root of every separate self.

Then comes the second denial, which is simply the denial of the first denial. I know that sounds confusing, but you probably know what I’m talking about. Once we have said “I am the center of the universe and thus have the right to treat you like food,” we then quickly say, “I never said that. I don’t think I’m the center of the universe. I don’t treat you like food. I can’t believe you would ever think that!” That’s the second denial. It’s simply too painful to look full-on at the first denial. To face the fact that we are takers, that we are emotional, financial, and physical carnivores would entail overwhelming guilt. So we have to look away. We simply have to. Or the separate self becomes an unlivable system.

This, of course, is why it is so hard to get people to face their actual patterns of thought and behavior. If they did, the system of the separate self just wouldn’t work. How can I meet my needs if meeting them brings on horrible guilt? If every time I pop a tasty morsel in my mouth I get whipped on my back with lashes of guilt, then I’m not going to feel like my needs are getting met, am I? I therefore have to engage in the second denial in order to simply enjoy my food, whether that food be a chicken or a person.

Projection then kicks in because I can more effectively push away my awareness of guilt if I don’t just push it into my unconscious, but also push it onto you. In other words, just acting like my guilt isn’t there (denial) is not as effective as admitting its existence but assigning it to a new source (projection). So my new theme is, “No, of course I don’t think I’m the center of the universe. You only think I do because you think YOU’RE the center of the universe. If you weren’t so self-centered, you’d realize just how selfless and giving I am, at least in comparison to YOU.”

Anyway, the whole point of this is to help me understand how I and others habitually push basic facts outside of our awareness. That pushing outside is not a sometimes thing. It is not something some of us do and others don’t. It is absolutely foundational to the separate self. To fill all of its mouths, it has to live as if it’s the center of the universe, thus denying the equal value and importance of others (first denial). And then, to keep its constant mouth-filling free of being attended by crippling guilt, it has to deny that it lives that way (second denial) and then project that corrupt pattern of living onto others.

Undo the second denial and we are paralyzed (and probably suicidal) with guilt. Undo the first denial and we are saints. If you are not paralyzed with guilt and are not a saint, you have both denials fully in place. Your life as a separate self depends on those denials. They are the foundation of your existence as you know it. You habitually and chronically push huge, across-the-board facts outside your awareness just to keep going.

I told you it wasn’t an inspiring insight. But I bet it will make you think. It certainly is making me think.