This year, Lent began more than a month ago. Still, it is never too late to address one important issue: abstinence. During Lent, many devout Christians occasionally fast or abstain from various indulgences. Many practitioners give up certain habits, such as eating candy bars, drinking alcohol, watching certain television programs, or using social media. But these habits are often resumed after Easter Sunday.
However, there is one type of abstinence that cuts to the heart of the matter: giving up identifying with our lower or secular self. This can, and should, be practiced year-round.
If we analyze our true nature by peeling apart our identity, we can see that our sense of “I” is used as a point of reference to distinguish between us, and other people and things that exist apart from us. Yet, we can and often do acquire an overly developed sense of the importance of our “I,” and that’s where the trouble begins. It is a healthy part of one’s individuation process to possess a well-rounded sense of identity – knowing who we are in the world, and who we are in relation to others. But when we become too attached to our “I” and its multitudinous desires, we then become beholden to strong emotional reactions that sway us to and fro, and these reactions carry us away from our spiritual base.
We are not the “I” that we think we are. There exists within us a spiritual identity that transcends our secular self. We can contact our spiritual identity through dedicated spiritual practices. Eventually, we will come to identify with our spiritual self, which is unchanging, blissful, peaceful, and not subject to the vacillations of time and space.
This is not to devalue our secular self. One of the Upanishads (Mundaka, 3:1:1) poetically recognizes these two selves in every person:
“Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating” (Max Müller’s 1879 translation).
These two birds represent our secular self and our spiritual self. Our secular self partakes of the fruits of life, while our spiritual self remains detached from them. If we shift the focus of our attention to our spiritual self, which occurs during the course of our spiritual practices, we will come to identify with our spiritual essence. But when our secular self holds sway over our spiritual self, our spiritual self is relegated to a subordinate role in our lives. Our spiritual self should rule the roost!
During Lent, and every day throughout the year, we can put our secular self on a diet by abstaining from thoughts, words, and actions that are based in ego, greed, selfishness, anger, and all negative emotions. We can empower and strengthen our spiritual self by undertaking spiritual practices that put us in touch with our spirit: prayer, meditation, devotion, mindfulness, altruism. In this way, we bring about a permanent transformation within ourselves. Such a transformation will abide with us well beyond this holy Lenten season.