In a previous post, I mentioned, “The soul of fallen man has come under the illusion of self-sufficiency. Therefore, it is not satisfied with concerning itself with temporal needs (food, clothing, and shelter), but seeks also to dominate nature and others as well as to find new sources of sensual enjoyment. In fact, man begins to view self-expansion and the self’s pleasures in their extreme form as inalienable rights. Such a soul has become what is today called an ego. On the one hand, our spirit (or nous) in communion with God is our real self, the true seat of our personhood. On the other hand, the ego, that sum of a human being disconnected from God, is our false self, an illusory self-sufficient entity. Because the ego thinks to achieve its ends and overcome its obstacles through its own unaided powers, the ego can also be called our false “problem solver,” false because man was made to cooperate with God, not to be cut off from Him, false because the ego solves problems that are not really problems and fails to face the one problem that truly needs solving. This false sense of autonomy leads the ego to do everything in its power, consciously and unconsciously, to silence the spirit that seeks a relationship with God in humility and dependence upon His Providence.”
Egocentricity is an issue that lies at the heart of both a number of strategies from cognitive behavioral therapy as well as many spiritual counsels from the ancient fathers. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “Although everybody tends to view his life as his own private novel in which he is the hero around whom all the other characters revolve, Beck notes that such a subjective egocentric take on life becomes so overwhelming in psychiatric disorders that any semblance of objectivity is lost. In fact, in psychopathology, egocentricity colors every aspect of a patient’s thought. In like manner, the monastic fathers in general and Saint Maximus in particular view philautia or love of self (lit., friendship with self) as the ‘very essence of morbidity. . .and the root of all passions.’ In bare logical terms, bad thoughts are to philautia as cognitive distortions are to egocentricity. Philautia and egocentricity seem strikingly similar in meaning and function.” However, egocentricity is about a misguided perspective while philautia is a matter of misguided love: both are deleterious to the health and welfare of the individual.
Philautia and egocentricity both cause distortion that increases in proportion to the degree of philautia and egocentricity. In the case of philautia, the world and others are all about having fun, being pleased, and experiencing pleasure. In the case of egocentricity, the world and others are all about me. In both cases, we are actually distanced from the world and others, because we are so wrapped up in self and enjoying ourselves. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, the egocentric perspective is explained in greater detail, “Cognitive psychologists theoretically understand egocentricity as a constructivist perspective that Donald Meichenbaum defines as ‘the idea that humans actively construct their personal realities and create their own representational models of the world.’ In layman’s terms, everybody responds to life by forming his own personal frame of reference that makes connections between himself and whatever he experiences in his environment. These subjective connections coalesce into a person’s understanding of what the world is and how it operates. What someone subjectively understands to be reality, however, is not the same as the objective state of things as they actually exist, and may even be radically out of kilter with the real world.”
For the ancient fathers, the healing of the nous and its restoration to its proper place in the ordering of human thought and activity is paramount in overcoming both the false, biased perspective of egocentricity and the shallow, selfish aims of philautia. Once the nous is restored to its primacy over the rational, discursive, and aggressive faculties of the soul, then the egocentric soul becomes God-centered and the soul that lived for philautia becomes God-loving. Instead of seeing the world and others from the perspective of self, we begin to see the world from the vast and beautiful vantage point of the economy of God the Word. Instead of seeking the fulfillment of selfish desires and ambitions, our desires and ambitions are purified by the love of God and love for God that becomes the one, holy desire of our souls that purifies our thoughts, our desires, our ambitions, our hopes, and our dreams. Restoring the nous to its proper position brings about our transformation and transfiguration into children of the Highest who look with compassion on others and love God with all their soul, with all their heart, and with all their mind. This restructuring of our inner world means changing radically our way of perceiving the world around us by allowing our communion with God to correct our inner and outer vision. This, obviously, requires much asceticism and responsiveness to the grace of God. This is the primary task of the spiritual life. In place of alienation from God that caused the distortion of ego and philautia to reign in the human heart, union with God brings clarity, compassion, and love to the soul that shares those gifts graciously with others. No longer driven by egocentricity and philautia, the soul knows in truth that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”