We create the false self by the way which we react to the constraints which are characteristic to us, and which painfully ‘hem us in’. There are two ways in which we react to these constraints:
 By making a virtue of them, by ‘validating them,’ and thus seeing the rules which control us as separating what is Right and Correct from what is Wrong and Incorrect. This is ‘seeing one’s prison as a palace’.
 By resenting them, and decrying the person I am, when defined by these mean and unworthy limits. In this case I am bitter about my imprisonment, and I despise the creature that this imprisonment makes me to be. This is ‘hating one’s prison for being a prison’.
In the first instance, that of ‘positive attachment to the rules’, it is easy to see how the false self is created and sustained. I willingly wear the mask, I willingly ‘play the part’ and so all of my energy and cleverness goes into protecting and furthering this ‘self’.
In the second instance it is less easy to see how I create and sustain the false self, but the effect is nevertheless exactly the same. If I am hopelessly trapped in the fiction in the first case, I am no less trapped in the second. By meanly rejecting the meanness of my restrictions I make myself as mean as they are, by being offended by the smallness of my prison cell I allow myself to be exactly that small in spirit.
The way that this works is simple and the principle is as follows:
Reacting to a thing causes me to become the same as that thing.
If I attack my enemy (as he attacks me) I become that enemy, and so his triumph over me is complete. I mirror him and in mirroring I become him. My limits, my constraints, my ‘rules’, work by tricking me into taking them seriously. Therefore, the adversary chooses the battle-ground and provokes me to engage with him there. As soon as I react, and give battle, I automatically accept what is being fought for as being important, crucially significant, etc, and so I have lost.
By fighting, I commit the fatal error of ‘losing perspective’ – a relatively important point looms larger and larger until it becomes absolutely important. It therefore becomes essential that ‘I get the thing to go my own way’. My happiness, my peace of mind, my self-respect, in fact everything depends on the outcome of this struggle. My very being is staked upon it…
Yet this issue is only as important as it is because I have made it so, like a child sulking over some trifle. Really, it is my wounded pride, my inability to have things my own way that galls me – the issue itself is secondary to my unexamined need to ‘have things to be the way I want them to be’. The issue is only as important as it is because the adversary has tricked me into accepting the bait, the insult, the provocation.
Once tricked, I am wholly in his power, because I have given up my freedom in the undignified (and ultimately unsuccessful) fight for some paltry bone. I have staked everything on a point of contention that did not have to matter to me, and so I lose everything for the sake of nothing at all.
The freedom that I have given up is the freedom of my spirit, the generosity and endless patience of my soul, which seeks nothing for itself, nor runs from anything. The spirit does not need to contend, for it is complete in itself.
Because the spirit does not contend, it cannot be diminished and made petty, no matter what insults and provocations are sent its way – it is too big to be brought so low. It accepts all rules, all restrictions, all constraints, with equal generosity, and this generosity stems from the fact that its own nature is quite without any rules, restrictions and constraints.
By not reacting, by not being provoked, I start to catch a glimpse (or sense) of this ‘boundlessness’. By not contending, I start to understand that I do not need to contend. Thus, the false (i.e. imprisoning) self is not born.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.