The Debilitating Self
In the Perennial Tradition the terrestrial domain is viewed as a training ground in learning how to die to the elements in us which keep us from ascending through rebirth to a Higher Consciousness. The negative tendencies and aspects of the ordinary personality are referred to as the “debilitating self.” If allowed or tolerated, this entity possesses the individual, doing everything it can to keep the person in an enfeebled condition.
Novices must develop a center of consciousness independent of their enervating ego
with which to carry out the process of spiritual transformation.
As long as persons are totally identified with their debilitating self they have no capability to build the understanding, desire, and power required for personal metamorphosis. Perennialist savants teach that persons must literally die to this false ego or debilitating self before they can even “hear” about or “see” a new way of life.
The Perennialist teacher named Jesus, for example, taught:
"Believe me, a person cannot even see the Divine Empyreal Fellowship without dying to this world and experiencing a new birth into the supersensible realm.” 1
Social programming—acculturation into whatever society one is born—inevitably produces a person who is almost totally possessed by his debilitating self. So he has very little awareness of who he is or what he might become. The person feels like the debilitating self is his true self—
so comfortable and familiar it seems—that it’s difficult to develop the sense of a separate center of consciousness: the Higher Self.
As long as the individual identifies with his destructive self, he remains in the worst possible state: what Plato calls ignorance of ignorance. The person not only doesn’t know what he is and what the world is, but he’s unaware that he is ignorant. Controlled by the debilitating self, he presumes that he fully knows himself and external reality.
The worst feature of ignorance is self-satisfaction, Plato tells us in theSymposium:
"For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself: he has no desire for that of which he feels no want."
Possessed by his debilitating self, the individual presumes his ignorance is wisdom so he seeks no cure:
"The soul wallowing in the mire of every sort of ignorance and by reason of self-indulgence becomes the principal accomplice in her own captivity." 2
The Quintessential Intervention
Lost in the quagmire of their own unrecognized ignorance, individuals cannot and will not seek the truth about themselves or their world. Left to its own devices, humankind would be in a hopeless state: an accomplice to its own enslavement. The state of ignorance—with its attendant suicidal blunders—would soon mean the end of the species.
Ignorance can only be overcome
by an outside force of true wisdom.
The clearest proof of Divine Guardianship over humankind is the presence of genuinely transformative teachings throughout human history. The continuing presence of this Transcendent Oversight is evidenced by the ingression of an updated re-interpretation of Divine Wisdom to each human generation by the Perennialist Teacher for that age.
The Debilitating Self Sustains Ignorance
At every step of the way, the debilitating self attempts to sabotage the individual’s struggle against ignorance and his attempt to realize his unity with his Higher Self.
The Debilitating Self’s Obstructions
Unity With the Divine
1. Keeping the person ignorant of his own ignorance
2. Encouraging the person to see his debilitating self
as his true self
3. Nourishing the person’s feeling of self-
satisfaction, the sense that he’s perfectly okay
the way he is
4. Bolstering the person’s presumptuousness:
”I already know everything about myself and
”I am equal to anyone in terms of knowledge or
”I need not show deference to anyone.”
5. Supporting the person’s delusion that he already
knows how to think for himself
6. Sustaining the person’s desire for mindless ease
and self-indulgent pleasure-seeking
Not only does the debilitating self foster laziness and self-satisfaction, it encourages the individual to form all sorts of wrong ideas and beliefs that contribute to his ignorance and self-slavery.
Most of these delusory concepts are deliberate perversions of true Perennialist teachings.
For example, the Perennialist concept of the debilitating self is undercut by the fundamentalist Christian chimera of “the Devil” trying to keep a person in his power. That’s a ridiculous distortion used by organized religions to keep their “penitents” in their power. But there is a negative psychic element and force which works to keep persons from achieving anything genuinely transformative or regenerative.
This negative elemental energy makes it appear that personal difficulties reside entirely in one’s external life circumstances: trouble with your job, your relationships, your health, your computer, world oppression, evil political forces, etc, when the real battle is going on inside the person.
One of the most destructive delusions is sacerdotal Christianity’s dogma of “salvation.” According to this deceit, a person need only “believe” in a supernatural
"savior" to have his "sins" forgiven by a vindictive deity. This scam encourages a person to presume that he need "do" nothing to achieve "righteousness," that everything has already been done for him by a savior’s murder on a cross; a barbarous human sacrifice placating an angry, revengeful god.
Completely contrary to this deception, the individual must be an active agent at every step of the way to realization of unity with his Higher Self. The only things that can be done for the person are the provision of genuine teachings and ongoing transformative prescriptions by a Perennialist teacher. The seeker’s striving is the primary impetus.
"The lower self is an attribute which never rests save in falsehood—
it never seeks the Truth.”
Abu Yazid Bistami, Perennialist teacher
The Essential First Step
Before a person can even start on the ascent to unity with Higher Consciousness, he must have gained a feeling of divine dissatisfaction with himself and his world—a sense of his ignorance, self-satisfaction, lethargy, and need for betterment. Without some sense of need for improvement the individual has no incentive to search for information and procedures for self-correction and reformation. When a person experiences a sense of disappointment and disapprobation of himself, he begins to experience “death to self” which can place him on the path to rebirth into his Higher Self. If this occurs, he thereby becomes a seeker.
Ignorance and self-indulgence inevitably lead to personal crises, which can provide the occasion for awakening and dying to his old self. This is a perilous circumstance for the debilitating self; its manipulation of the individual is in danger of exposure and defeat. So the enfeebling self first tries to delude the person into thinking that his crisis is not his fault—that the evil broker talked him into a subprime mortgage, the credit card companies made alluring offers that bewitched him into getting six cards and charging them to the max, and the 2008 election campaign made him believe that Obama was a new messiah, when it’s clear from Obama’s actions that he nothing but another cabal puppet.
If that ploy doesn’t work and the person happens to remember that he didn’t actually read the fine print on his subprime mortgage, that he really wasn’t forced to go into debt by borrowing on his home equity, and that he willingly drank the Obamamessiah kool aid, then the enervating self encourages the person to feel depressed and hopeless. As long as the individual is incapacitated he’s under the control of the debilitating self.
The enfeebling self may promote a counterfeit identification of oneself with a baleful psychic center, leading to a deleterious splitting of the psyche. The person then begins to hate himself, plunge into paroxysms of self-castigation, and end in despair.
Perennialist teachers provide teaching material, exercises, and prescriptions which nurture positive, divine discontent and honest awareness of oneself and one’s world. True knowledge is attained through a spiritual guide prescribing enlightening experience for a seeker. The guide must thoroughly understand the learner’s personality and provide the precise kinds of experience which will facilitate understanding and probity. Some of the material and exercises will involve an opportunity for the seeker to come face to face with his own ignorance and negativity.
A Perennialist teacher knows how to lead the novice into a positive identification with a
higher center of consciousness
, encouraging self-discontent and a positive control over enervating desires and habits. The teacher provides exercises which allow a novice to experience—not just read or think about—the deadly nature of his debilitating self. These exercises bring the novice to full awareness that his enervating ego will keep him in the death-stupor of his ordinary state of somnolence
unless he makes a decisive break from its murderous embrace.
The novice must be provided specially designed exercises that will shake him awake for a period of time—allowing him to feel the horror of being literally possessed by an alien and deadly force—as in this elementary illustrative exercise.
"Faults will turn to good, provided we use them to our own humiliation, without slackening in the effort to correct ourselves. Discouragement serves no possible purpose; it is simply the despair of wounded self-love. The real way of profiting by the humiliation of one’s own faults is to face them in their true hideousness, without ceasing to hope in God, while hoping for nothing from self."
Fenelon, The Inner Life
Once having begun to recognize his deadly faults and having set out on his search for self-transformation, the novice experiences the challenge of discovering, recognizing, valuing, and using transformative material.
"Esoteric knowledge can be given only to those who seek, only to those who have been seeking it with a certain amount of consciousness, that is, with an understanding of how it differs from ordinary knowledge and how it can be found.
This preliminary knowledge can be gained by ordinary means, from existing and known literature, easily accessible to all. And the acquisition of this preliminary knowledge may be regarded as the first test. Only those who pass this first test, those, that is, who acquire the necessary knowledge from the material accessible to all, may hope to take the next step, at which point direct individual help will be accorded them. A man may hope to approach esotericism if he has acquired a right understanding from ordinary knowledge, that is, if he can find his way through the labyrinth of contradictory systems, theories and hypotheses, and understanding their general meaning and general significance. This test is something like a competitive examination open to the whole human race, and the idea of a competitive examination alone explains why the esoteric circle appears reluctant to help humanity. It is not reluctant. All that is possible is done to help men, but men will not or cannot make the necessary efforts themselves. And they cannot be helped by force.”
The Life and Death Struggle Against the Debilitating Self
As a student in the Perennial Tradition engages in the transformation of his being, the first stages of effort constitute a literal struggle for his soul. His debilitating self—the old, familiar, lazy, “take-it-easy, I’m-trying-as-hard-as-I-can,” “let-me-alone, this-is-difficult” adversary or vampire—does its best to keep him as he is and has been. He must push himself—through supernormal effort—to break through this first gigantic barrier, dying to the old self completely.
The novice’s struggle against his debilitating self is so intense that at first the Perennialist teacher may appear to be “pushing” the person beyond what is within his capacity. What the teacher is really doing is working with the inner aspect of the seeker’s being, literally “being present” with his Higher Self in struggling against the forces of debilitation, confusion, and destruction.
The student must make what he will feel to be an impossible effort to master everything he’s being given to do, so he can escape from the impeding, backward-drawing force and move ahead to the new dimension where he’ll be able to make significant changes in himself and his life-situation and fulfill responsibilities effectively. The teacher assists him to see just how serious and momentous his present “work” is—and how much he needs to expend every effort he can with appropriate alacrity.
At the beginning of the transformative process, the student must recognize that the ways he is used to doing things are not only not the best, but are evasive pretexts that will “kill” him if he persists in those stultifying patterns. At the beginning it’s necessary for the person to continually step out of his ruts and approach things from a completely different angle and a heightened tempo. Once he does, he finds an extraordinary power: the ability to do more, more rapidly, with what feels like less effort.
The Debilitating Self Strikes Back
When the debilitating self feels threatened, it tries to fasten a tighter death-grip on the personality, frightening the individual with bogus alarums of annihilation. What the false personality doesn’t realize is that at this stage it really has no authentic being, so it couldn’t possibly lose an existence it doesn’t possess. For example, presumptuous applicants to a study program sometimes ask: “Why should I decide on this particular program when I don’t know if it will benefit me?” The would-be illuminate doesn’t realize that he totally lacks the capability of deciding
anything—including this. His state of non-being involves his fooling himself into believing that he makes decisions when in fact all that happens is that some habit, predilection, or unconscious tendency forces him into acting or thinking as these unknown forces determine. The only answer to the aspirant’s question is to point out his condition to him—which he will likely not take kindly. 4
One of the many noxious tricks the debilitating self contrives is to make the personality believe that it’s making progress in self-transformation when it is in fact merely engaging in pretence. It deludes the person into believing he is a “serious student” in higher knowledge, but the person’s behavior proves that this is merely a fabrication. The person allows his debilitating self to distort, co-opt, twist, and misuse almost every facet of his encounter with higher knowledge to increase the debilitating self’s hold on him. Instead of the material having its designed effect, the person allows his debilitating self to short-circuit his encounter with wisdom.
"Sincerity, avoiding base selfishness, obedience, detachment from hypocrisy, generosity… these are essentials. But… if the disciple tries to graft these on top of his unaltered self, they merely become mechanical, mimes, even hiding objectionable characteristics which wait to manifest themselves. Surely the real disciple is he who is not just … carrying on a charade of ‘goodness.’" 5
A powerful controlling mechanism the debilitating self uses in this regard is to get the personality to repeat seemingly positive incantations which actually protect the person from learning, change, or transformation of any kind.
The novice is heard chanting with great pride the incantation: “I am eager to learn and change. I am eager to learn and change.”
The counterfeit student reads transformative material, but he doesn’t take it seriously. For example, the material explains that the seeker must experience what Esoteric Christianity calls metanoia: literal rebirth into a new world, the adoption of a completely new and different feeling for, approach to, and view of life. The person’s new world is no longer just a place where he can hang out and loaf his life away. He now sees that he must work to change himself and later, when he’s able (not before, as he may assume) to assist others.
A Perennialist teacher is able to see through the self-deceptive tactics of the debilitating self and provide the “strong medicine" of transformative exercises which will awaken the novice from his deadly coma.
"The position to be reached is that of the Self which knows Itself as transcendent as well as immanent. Observe that in its fullest conceivable development this is only an extension of the attitude which we must take up even now, if we are to be anything more than animals or automata. If we are to govern our lower nature at all we must take up a position or mental attitude in which we can say, ’ I am more than the body, more than that in and through which I act, more than the animal.’ Any mental position from which we act as something higher than that upon or with which we act, is a more or less transcendental position."
William Kingsland, Scientific Ideal
Uniting with the Higher Self
If the seeker is going to have a chance, he must develop a relationship with his Higher Self. That requires that he use those brief glimpses he has of his debilitating self—of how hideous it is, of what a death-grip it has on him—to develop the beginning awareness
of a stable self that he can work to keep as the focus of his consciousness The “self” that is able to genuinely discern and acknowledge his faults is the Higher Self.
The teacher then guides the novice to the next positive steps: self-control, the desire for increased understanding, the building of personal effectiveness and force, and an awareness of his responsibility to others.
Increasing contact with his Higher Awareness is something the student must carry out continually. This is not something that happens to a person automatically as he works with his teacher; it’s something he must work to gain increasing understanding of and realize progressively. The student is made aware that no aspect of a Perennialist program of personal transformation is a form of occultism that does something to the person as an external force impinging on his being. All transformative efforts are made by the student under the direction of his teacher. Very often, people come to a study program with fantasies of magical effects being imposed on them, Sunday School tales of some Great Teacher appearing and laying his hand on them and their suddenly being transformed through some kind of alchemical magic.
The “curative effect” is not automatic, so it does no good to “wait” for it inactively. This is a metaphysical kind of “medicine” that requires that the person “sense” the curative effect for it to take place, becoming fully consciousness of the catalyst that activates the entire process. The student must work assiduously to gain an understanding of how to discern the “curative effect.”
A person’s noxious self wants him to think he’s powerless or stupid, that he can’t master or overcome enervating ideas or tendencies that he misinterprets as uncontrollable impulses. The Perennialist teacher will have dealt with—and continually deal with—debilitating elements possessing students, so he will be familiar with their nature and tactics. The teacher also understands the destructive self through his own efforts at self-examination and self-discipline. The concept of the debilitating self is totally different from the conformist Christian belief in exorcism of “evil spirits”—“casting out of demons.” The Perennial Tradition views the noxious self as something the person is responsible for—not an alien, external entity over which he has no control.
The student is taught that there are no elements in one’s psyche (personality and mind) that operate independently of his will or intellect. He can allow the enfeebling self to take primary control and make him think that it is beyond his power, that forces outside him are “directing” ideas and energies “at” him.
However, even during verbal interchange or in the thought process of the person, his rational mind recognizes that the enervating ideas are foolish and absurd. An individual can allow his enervating self to get control and fill his mind with imponderable—and absurd and useless—questions and anxieties, leading to a sense of helplessness. But the student is constantly encouraged to take responsibility for the negative aspects of his enervating self and gain increasing control through identifying with his Higher Self.
The student is taught to recognize the first hints of the debilitating self trying to take control of him. These are some of the characteristics the student is taught to watch out for:
- You’ll feel powerless, anxiety-ridden, mentally confused and impotent.
- You’ll begin to feel “weak” and “overpowered” by some external force.
- You’ll feel that you can’t possibly ever gain or do anything real in life.
- You’ll dislike yourself and berate yourself for the least thing.
- You’ll feel superior to most other persons and indulge in senseless criticism and condemnation of them.
- You’ll feel you’ve been duped by Perennialist teachings and a Perennialist teacher to disrespect yourself by forcing you to believe in a chimera called the debilitating self.
- You’ll believe you’ve regained your real self and repossessed your intelligence to have found huge, previously unrecognized character flaws in your teacher, justifying your rejecting him and everything he espouses.
- You’ll find comfort in allowing yourself to believe that you’re hopelessly in the grip of your debilitating self.
- You’ll become an expert in finding excuses for every weakness you have or failure you allow.
"The lower self is treacherous and hindering, and resistance to it is the best of actions."
Abu Sulayman Darani, Perennialist teacher
While learning to identify the characteristics of the debilitating self, the student is taught to recognize the signs of being in touch with the Higher Self:
- You sense positive control over your thoughts and actions
- You recognize the “debilitating self” when it’s operating and stop it immediately
- You take charge of your overall being, identifying with the Higher Self (Soul) and disallowing the “debilitating self” from taking over
- You gain an awareness of the ability to discern subtle elements in persons, objects, and events
- You experience new, creative thoughts, ideas, and actions coming through you in a way that you can feel and use: inspiration and intuition
- You experience instances of a positive sense of oneness with all persons in a timeless, spaceless moment of eternity: everyone and everytime being here with you
The student learns to recognize when his Higher Self is more in charge of him than his debilitating self. For a while he can’t be sure if his enfeebling self is merely fooling him and thinking “positive” thoughts to make him believe that he’s making great strides. However, he learns to recognize the unmistakable elements of his Higher Self and the counterfeit elements of his destructive self. He gains the awareness that he doesn’t stop the debilitating self by remonstrating with it, arguing with it, or condemning it. He learns to overcome it by filling his life-space with positive content that comes from his Higher Self.
"Go and seek yourself, and when you have found yourself keep watch over yourself, for this lower self clothes itself every day in three hundred and sixty diverse garments … and leads men astray."
Ibrahim Khawwas, Perennialist teacher
A major part of the student’s “work” in the beginning is gaining intellectual astuteness: acumen, penetration, sharpness, creativity, perception, discernment. Not only does this enable the student to overcome the elements that have kept him in an enervated mental state, but it becomes one of the major ways he is later able to contribute to others. This capability of discernment allows him to penetrate to the essence of transformative teaching material, allowing it to affect him in ways it is designed to do.
The beginning student gains the increasing awareness that “things” and events don’t create his feelings, he does. Instead of focusing on feelings and a sense of failure, he learns to sense what transformative elements (small though they may be at first—or may appear to him) he’s already experienced and is continuing to experience: increased self-awareness, a new conception of honesty, a stabilizing of his persona (not jumping from one extreme to another as much as before), how he’s able to move more quickly in dialectical interchange than before (the next step will be to learn to “let go” as he “pushes forward” [which may seem contradictory] so the “flow through” of higher ideas begins to occur), how his “work” is already contributing by “serving” as an example of how persons overcome important elements, and so on. It’s best if the novice discovers as many of these elements as he can by himself.
"The individual must be free from incorrect thinking before he can start to learn. Our … would-be disciple has to learn that he cannot bring his assumptions about his own capacity to learn into a field where he does not in fact know what it is that he is trying to learn."
Idries Shah, The Sufis
Given the current pandemic of egomania that has most persons in its death-grip, self-aggrandizement is one of the most difficult afflictions for people to overcome. An individual will read Perennialist material which he recognizes is genuinely transformative and much beyond his own powers to conceive or produce. Yet in the next breath he will presume that he’s somehow on an equal par with the Perennialist teacher who created the material, relating to him in a completely “familiar” manner. Or, going to the other equally ridiculous extreme, the person may pretend to be inferior, obsequiously fawning over the teacher in a caricature of a disciple venerating his guru.
The brassy reader will expect to be complimented for telling the teacher how brilliant the teacher is, assuming that the savant is as desirous of praise as the reader is. If the teacher doesn’t thank him for his fatuous adulation, he will assume that the savant is egotistic and full of himself.
"You do not understand either what you read or what you write. You do not even understand what the word ‘understand" means. Yet understanding is essential, and reading can be useful only if you understand what you read."
P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous
A clear manifestation of the Egomaniacal Persona controlling most persons
The fact that the reader falsely considers himself to be the teacher’s equal in all regards, proves that the reader hasn’t comprehended the material or the teacher. The person subconsciously realizes that the material has produced a super-normal effect on him and that the teacher who conveyed and designed the transcendent material must be exceptional. But egomania grips the reader so tightly that he can’t credit that the teacher is any more than unusual or extraordinary—certainly not of a type above him.
"In order to approach the Sufi Way, the Seeker must realize that he is, largely, a bundle of what are nowadays called conditionings—fixed ideas and prejudices, automatic responses sometimes which have occurred through the training of others. Man is not as free as he thinks he is. The first step is for the individual to get away from thinking that he understands, and really understand. But man has been taught that he can understand everything by the same process, the process of logic. This teaching has undermined him."
Idries Shah, The Sufis
A person approaching a Perennialist teacher usually assumes that his current attitudes, behavior, and assumptions are unquestionably correct, so he proceeds to tell the teacher—in torturous detail—what he plans to do and how proud he is of what he’s been doing. It doesn’t occur to the self-obsessed individual that he has just come upon a treasure trove of information, teachings, and processes—of which he was previously totally unaware—which would provide the opportunity for understanding and transforming himself if he approached it in the requisite manner.
He’s oblivious to the fact that he has effectively no
genuine understanding of or skill in spiritual development—and that his fatal egomania
is about to destroy any chance he might have for personal enlightenment. At the very least, an intelligent reader would want to stop doing what he’s doing—since there’s a very great possibility that his current behavior is incorrect—and wait until he receives guidance as to what he ought
to be doing.
The asinine reader often regales the teacher with his interpretations of what he presumes the teacher is doing and the “true meaning” of what the savant is teaching. He tries to prove to the teacher what a smart fellow he really is for having figured everything out and wrapping it all up in a few simplistic aphorisms. Presupposing that he truly understands what the teacher is saying and doing, the reader assumes that this places him on a first name basis with the teacher and that he can initiate an equal-to-equal dialogue that will benefit the teacher no end.
A Perennialist teacher does not herself “need” the respect or esteem of a seeker; it is the applicant, rather, who needs to feel respect for someone who is far superior to him in spiritual understanding and achievement. Unless the seeker can approach Perennialist teachings in the correct way, he has no chance whatsoever of proceeding on the Way.
A first test of a person applying for entry into a Perennialist study program is whether or not he can approach the teacher in a “middle” way: neither docility nor arrogance, but rational esteem. He will realize that he must follow the prescriptions of the Perennialist teacher if he is to advance, and greet any teaching, exercise, or assignment with gratitude and enthusiasm to follow through as best he can.
All humans, including Perennialist teachers, must work throughout their lives to discover and extirpate negative elements in their personalities. Therefore, all individuals may be found to have some negative elements in their personalities at some point in their experience. The essential question is whether or not these persons work to discover those negative elements and then eradicate them from their lives. We identify persons as possessed by their debilitating selves who not only evince negative elements in their personalities, but retain those negativities throughout their lives.
Persons overpowered by their debilitating selves are those who relish discovering errors in other persons’ judgments and actions that they made earlier in their lives, and assuming that the others have made no discovery of these negative elements and have not extirpated them from their personalities. We can identify a debased person as one who delights in seeing faults in others and relishes a sense of self-righteousness, assuming that the other person has never changed or improved—and assuming, quite erroneously, that they themselves are above such defects. The person who allows himself to be overcome by his debilitating self gains a false sense of superiority through exposing faults in others in an irrational and self-righteous manner.
The Higher Self
As the student’s identification with his Higher Consciousness increases, the debilitating self is felt as a kind of underlying element which is always ready to rear its ugly head—if allowed—but no longer in control of his life and being. The major focal point of his consciousness is now with the Higher Self and his activities are directed toward continuing self-transformation, the overcoming of oppressive forces in the world, and assisting others in their spiritual ascent.
"You have taken off your old self with its proclivities and have put on the new self, which is being regenerated through knowledge in the image of its Creator."
Paul’s Letter to Colossian Initiates 3:9
1 John 3:3, author’s translation from the koine Greek; the words of this passage are frequently mistranslated as “Kingdom of God.”
2 Plato, Phaedo
3 P.D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe
4 An interesting exercise is to reflect mindfully on what you just felt as you read the paragraph above. How you reacted to the words and ideas will allow you to gain increased awareness of who and what you are. For example, some persons will respond: “Who is this author to assume that students are as stupid as he’s trying to make them out to be?”
5 Idries Shah, A Veiled Gazelle, “Master of the Option”