The quest for the authentic self

Many Pagans are on a quest for the authentic Self. This is often visualized as something we already possess; we just have to clear away the accretions caused by so-called civilization. In this model, the true Self can be found by getting in touch with Nature.

Some religions take the view that the ego must be slain in order to progress spirituality. In some forms of Christian mysticism, this takes the form of kenosis (pouring out of self) and theosis (being filled with God).

In Wicca: the old religion in the New Age, Vivianne Crowley writes that the ego doesn’t need to be slain, but rather its position in relation to the rest of the psyche needs to be readjusted. She uses the image of a stone covering a well. The stone is the ego, and the well is the unconscious. The stone has to be moved aside in order to access the water in the well.

In the Tao Te Ching, a foundational text of Taoism, Lao Tsu writes about the Uncarved Block (Pu or unworked wood) or the self that has not been moulded and shaped by society. The uncarved block exists as a non-dual state of potentiality, before experience has arisen. A Taoist practitioner seeks to recover the state of unworked wood. The resulting equanimity is illustrated by the story of the Taoist farmer, who reacts to his neighbours’ exclamations over his apparent good or bad fortune with “Maybe, maybe not”.

There’s a similar story in the Welsh tradition, known as The Three Causeless Blows or The Lady of the Lake. In this story, the lady, who has foreknowledge of events, weeps when ordinary mortals would be merry, and laughs when ordinary mortals would cry. She may represent the natural, original self.

A lot of European literature is about the distinction between wilderness and civilization. The wilderness is characterized as “pagan” and civilization as “Christian”. (There’s a reason why fourteen popes took the name Urban.) Naturally the Pagan Revival ran with this distinction and inverted the value system associated with it to mean “wilderness good, civilization bad”.

Pagans want to return to a state of wildness, where instinct, sensation, emotion, and intellect are balanced. This state of wildness occupies a similar place in Pagan thought to the Uncarved Block in Taoist thought.

Clarissa Pinkola-Estes (not a Pagan but a Jungian psychotherapist), in her classic work Women who run with the wolves, explores fairy tales from the perspective of recovering wildness, with the wolf as the ultimate symbol of wildness.

A path running through an autumnal wood

When we have recovered our wild, authentic selves, and are living our “one wild and precious life“, we are balanced, in touch with Nature, and in harmony with all beings. We can access all the modes of experience: instinct, sensation, emotion, and intellect. We “let the soft animal of the body love what it loves“.

When we are born, we possess all these modes, but experience leads us to rely on one of them. As we differentiate ourselves from our surroundings, we develop a shadow and a bright self. The work of discovery is to reintegrate the shadow aspects of the self to create a new synthesis.

This process of recovering the authentic self can take a lifetime, of course. Why bother to find the authentic self? Because if we don’t recover our shadow side, it will continually bite us on the backside, as is illustrated in the traditional Tarot card of the Fool.

The little dog bites the Fool on the backside and tears his breechesThe little dog bites the Fool on the backside and tears his breeches. If we don’t get our warring impulses harnessed for good, we end up lashing out at other people, and destroying our own lives in the process. Hence it’s imperative to set out on the spiritual journey, the Quest.

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4 thoughts on “The quest for the authentic self

  1. Synchronicity at work again, with similar thoughts being on my mind at the moment! I think that the emphasis on nature and wildness in Paganism is a much-needed corrective to the urbanisation and Christianisation of our social sense of morality and normality, but I also worry that taken to an extreme it can be just as bad; seeing, for instance, LGBT+ people as “unnatural”. Hence the need for both balance (between the wild and the civilised) and nuance (regarding what is meant by “nature”). I like the Fool’s dog though, he both bites us to supr us on and to warn us of danger ahead.

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    • Yes to all of that.

      The ultimate corrective to the idea that LGBT+ people are “unnatural” is that meme about homosexuality existing in thousands of animals, but homophobia exists in only one. Also when you look at the myriad different ways for animals to reproduce, change sex, etc, it becomes clear that the biological sex “binary” is a social construct.

      Which is why changing our rituals and symbolism to reflect these facts is so necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

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