This is the second image in the series of Temenos paintings. The introduction to this sequence work can be found here.
The mystic Thomas Merton writes about how we mistake our false self for the fundamental reality of our life. It is something that we wrap around ourselves to make ourselves feel real:
“…I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasure and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the word, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface”
The second image in the Temenos series invites us to cross the threshold into sacred space by reaching out to what we see in the mirror.
Bands of red and gold loop over the outstretched hand like a curtain shielding the observer from contact with the real.
If we pay attention to the masks we offer to the word, the false self will be evident. But Merton pushes us deeper and asks us to consider the false self that we present to ourselves. This is the person we mistake for who we really are. I wonder what stories we tell about ourselves to make us feel solid and real. Stories that, rather than being liberating, actually limit us whilst the true self glows with a gentle constancy beneath the wrappings, beautiful and still, .
The false self is a wily beast and employs all kinds of clever tactics to prevent itself from being unwound. It is inevitable that the moment we attempt to draw our attention to the inner life the false self will come up with any excuse to prevent us from making that journey. It’s just so comfortable to cling to the safety of illusion because the alternative path is long and hard and leaves us deeply exposed. Anything; be it TV, social media or religion that fills our time and attention can distract us from the journey. Even stuff that, on the face of it looks like we’re being a good person such as devoting all our time to a worthy cause or to physical exercise can do it: anything to stop us sitting still in silence to notice how and who we really are. And if the activity gives us a nice boost of ego: “look how good I am for spending all that time helping others”, then all the better. This is how the false self protects itself.
The invitation here is to look in the mirror and consider how we see ourselves. Am I wearing armour, to prevent myself from being hurt, to avoid making mistakes or saying the wrong thing? Am I wearing bright gaudy clothes so people notice me and tell me how brilliant or good or clever I am? Both are the work of the false self; it manifests just as much in the brash show off as in the person shrinking alone in the corner thinking “poor me”. Neither are true reflections of the peaceful beauty of the real. And, depending on our circumstances, we can find ourselves wearing many different falsehoods throughout the day as tell these stories to ourselves and mistake them for something true.
Conversely, the real self is not revealed in how successful or unsuccessful we are, how popular or unpopular, how good we are or how pious our prayer. These things are entirely incidental to the unwinding of the bandages that cover us.
To find a way forward wise men and women have pointed the way over millennia. Ways that help us to begin to untangle things, or at least find the end of the ball of string so that we can start to work out how to unravel it. They point to the notion that the energy that comes from the false self has a different quality to it than from the deeper flow of truth.
Consider a river as it flows down the mountainside: there will be times when it passes swiftly over rocks, churning and falling into white water and at other times the river becomes wider and deeper, the flow is still strong, there is a life and energy there, but the surface is smooth as mirror giving little hint to the deep strong flow beneath. The false self thrives on the drama; the experience of being churned up and excitable, whether its our name up in lights as the hero of the hour or the tortured lonely soul in the corner. The deeper self pays no heed to these things, real as they may feel (and the thrill and excitement or the loneliness or the pain may seem very real indeed) but this is all just froth. The deeper self is flowing sure and strong whether people are cheering us on and showering us with accolades, or ignoring us or insulting us.
To live from the true self is to find that place in silence and stillness where the deep river flows. It doesn’t mean we won’t have successes and failures, joys and grief. But it does mean that when we look in the mirror we will be able to see clearly who we really are.
The full set of Temenos paintings along with accompanying poems by Ian Adams are available to exhibit from September 2017. We are now taking bookings from those interested in showing the work in a public venue and simply ask that transport costs are covered. In addition an artist’s talk, poetry evening and/or led meditations that engage with the work can also be arranged.
For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org