The Self Reveals Gently

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Thomas Merton is well known for his exploration of what he called the true self and the false self. Another name for this false self could be ‘ego’. The true self could then be simply and tentatively named as ‘self’.

Ego could be likened to the clothes of the self. It is with the wearing of these clothes that the self is expressed. If these clothes are removed from the self, we would then see the self as invisible. How is this possible, to see that which is invisible? It is possible because we see the self with the eyes of the heart. It is the thinking mind that equates seeing only with our physical eyes. The meditator and the contemplative, being human, are invited to walk this world in growing nakedness, that is, thinking less and simply being self.  

How does Merton speak of this self? In his book ‘The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation’, Merton writes

The inner self is precisely that self which cannot be tricked or manipulated by anyone, even by the devil. He is like a very wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand, and comes out only when all is perfectly peaceful, in silence, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured by anyone or anything, because he responds to no lure except that of the divine freedom[1].

During his time living in his hermitage, Merton had a strong affection for the deer that lived in the surrounding forest. In his writing and poetry, these wild deer are often a metaphor for the self. In this quote, the ‘very wild animal’ could be a deer emerging from the forest, emerging only when there is peace and silence.

For us, this deep self, this creation of God and our spiritual union with God, this self is that which appears in the heart of consciousness. To be our self is to simply be ourselves without reliance on thought, to be simply conscious. To live consciously as this revelation is to have attention wordlessly and quietly living in the heart, at home there. To perhaps continue Merton’s analogy, if the deer is the self, then the forest is the mind. When our minds are still enough, when self-consciousness is not our centre, it is then that the self of the heart emerges. Psychologically and spiritually gentleness is central to growing in this wordless and still quiet. Just as the deer moves gently from out of hiding when the forest is calm enough, so too is the self revealed in a gentle mind.    

This revealing can be very fleeting for us because attention moves back and forth between ego and self, or self-consciousness and consciousness, or false self and true self. In this movement there can be agitation and shifting focus. Indeed, perhaps all too often, attention is stuck at the level of self-consciousness.

However, at times of being engrossed – in a sunset, a leaf, in awe of our children, our partner, whatever it might be – that attention can move past self-consciousness and we un-find ourselves as conscious. This can happen daily, without us ever really focusing on it. To focus on it is to no longer be, conscious. Divine freedom is lived consciously.  

Meditation has the same effect of drawing attention gently into consciousness and the heart – where the self manifests and where this self is lived as the truth of who we are. Over time, as we practice, more and more of our ego clothing is set aside. No longer is attention being ‘tricked or manipulated by anyone’; attention is no longer lured away from self by the myriad of daily thoughts that come and go. As we meditate, attention becomes, more consistently, the eye of the self in the heart of consciousness – the eye that cannot see itself. The moving back and forth between ego and self, self-consciousness and consciousness, grows less and less until (perhaps) attention becomes self-sight, that is, attention seeing consciously and consistently as self. This is what it is to have ego forgotten and the heart always remembered.   

One important factor in this self emergence and stabilisation is that it happens gently. The self reveals in a gentle, calm mind. If we are meditating too forcefully, even violently, then there is little or no gentility through which the self can be revealed; it will remain hidden. Meditating forcefully is like arm wrestling with the ego. Force means that we are pushing against the ego. With this pushing, the ego still has a chance to claim attention.

As we have noted in previous posts on gentleness, we require only the smallest effort with the mantra – like the gentle blowing of a feather or gently blowing on the embers of a fire. It is this gentleness that breaks any cycle of pushing that the ego requires to keep attention on itself. The humbling practice of meditation grows in a gentling mind.       

During his life at his hermitage Thomas Merton saw a deer caught in water and then escaping into the forest. In his poem ‘Merlin and the Deer’, Merton describes this moment. He then uses this moment to take a risk, to tell a story of self awakening and being revealed.    

After thrashing in the water of the reservoir

The deer swims beautifully

And so escapes

Limping across the country road into the little cedars

Followed by Merlin’s eye

Bewitched, a simple spirit

Merlin awakes

He becomes a gentle savage

Dressed in leaves

He hums alone in the glade

Says only a few phrases to himself

Or a psalm to his companion

Light in the wood[2]

In this self-forgetting moment of beholding the deer, being awed by it, self is remembered in the heart. This self is not thought about, not analysed, not conceptualised. It is simply, silently, gently, purely, peacefully experienced in the heart – even if for just a moment, moment enough to be later called Merlin.   

Deer in the forest at Bonnevaux. Video by Thomas Litzler

Featured image, also at Bonnevaux, by Henriette Hollaar.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, (Harper Collins, 1983), 5.

[2] Thomas Merton, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions. 1977), 736-737.


  1. Appreciated this. “My strength is the Lord, my God, who makes me leap like the deer, who guides me to the high places” Habakkuk 3: 19

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