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Portraits of the imperious self (1): an ethics of transformation

Portraits of the imperious self 1

This is the first piece in an extended series dedicated to the practice of ethics and more specifically to the identification of the main source of our anti-ethical tendencies: the imperious self. This concept is given a precise definition in The Path of Perfection:

The imperious self is a powerful psychological energy that is harmful for the soul. This energy is continuously produced by the activity of our character weak points, resulting in anti-ethical and anti-divine impulses and desires at the level of our conscious self.

Bahram Elahi, La Voie de la Perfection – Introduction à la pensée d’Ostad Elahi, Paris, Albin Michel, 2018
(unpublished translation, all rights reserved).

The paradox is that the fierce resistance deployed by our imperious self against our ethical endeavours actually constitutes the necessary condition for the process of spiritual perfection to take place. In this sense it could very well be considered as our “best enemy”. It is therefore crucial that we become familiar with our imperious self, first by trying to draw up its portrait—or rather a series of portraits. Indeed, experience shows that the imperious self constantly changes shape. As soon as we think we have vanquished one of its manifestations, it rises from its ashes. How do we learn to identify its characteristic expressions? How can we recognize it under its multiple guises? Before finding an answer to these questions, we need to first clarify what we mean by ethics and ethical behaviour.

Minimal ethics and static ethics

There is a kind of minimal ethics that is more concerned with social habits than anything else. It basically consists in not killing, not stealing, and observing a number of rules that allow us to be accepted by society. At this level, things are in order as long as no one has been killed or robbed, and there have been no blatant infringements on social conventions or etiquette (insults, gross ingratitude, boastful attitudes, glaring indiscretion, a total lack of compassion or solidarity, etc.). This minimal and purely external form of ethics can be referred to as “manners”, or “life skills”, in the language of pedagogy. It involves being polite and respecting the basic rules that make living in society possible, with no further goal than to make our existence among others pleasant enough, or to improve productivity in the workplace.

Such ethics no doubt has its own merits—but it remains superficial. When we do not seek beyond these principles we in fact presume that the outside manifestations of morality take priority over our inner state of mind: it is enough to be modest, no need to be humble; it is enough to be tactful and sensitive, and not really necessary to be compassionate; it is enough to be polite with others, no matter the contempt we may feel within; it is enough to refrain from gloating, while still gaining pleasure from another person’s failures; discretion suffices, no need to refrain from backbiting when the person is not around.

Such an ethics is almost entirely played out externally. Given its exclusive focus on social interest, it barely deserves to be called ethics at all. It is fear of retribution or disapproval that keeps us from doing evil; it is the desire to please, to be admired or to succeed socially that motivates us to do good. For such external behavior to have any real value, it would have to be grounded in an internal reality. This is precisely why we admire sincerity in others (“He seemed truly moved…”). It is also the reason why we are sometimes happily surprised when we find we are capable of being genuinely inspired by a noble sentiment.

At a deeper level lies the ethics that we were brought up with, an ethics that makes it easy for us to respect certain principles that were imparted to us in our childhood (or that we learned during past lives). This explains why some people may naturally bear one or several positive character traits that do not seem to stem from any kind of active ethical training. For instance, some people never lie, are scrupulously honest, never succumb to laziness, or are naturally prone to helping others, in a way that does not seem to require any particular effort. Although such qualities are no doubt valuable, if they are the fruit of one’s education rather than that of conscious undertaking, they will not evolve and remain disconnected. One can very well never lie (having practically been conditioned not to do so), while being at the same time perfectly selfish, or refusing to make any efforts to improve oneself. The qualities we derive from our education are undeniable but they are part of what may be called static ethics. They are present in us from the outset, but so are our character weak points. The notion that we are what we are and nothing will change our nature must be resisted: it blinds us to the possibilities of progress and effort that could lead us to true transformation of our self.

The ethics of perfection

There is another kind of ethics, an ethics of transformation, based on the process of perfection, whose objectives and practice go largely beyond the expectations of the minimal and static ethics that we have just discussed.

The goal of the ethics of perfection is not only to ensure a social order that makes it possible to live among others, nor is it about respecting a principle out of habit, without really understanding why, simply because we were told to do so when we were little. It is an ethics of transformation whose purpose is to nourish the human soul, to make it grow and progress until its very substance is radically transformed. This ethics is centered on our inner self, yet it is not contradictory to habitual social ethics: it actually includes it, lending it a deeper and more authentic dimension. Putting such inner ethics into practice is the means we have at our disposal to develop our self-knowledge and our knowledge of the world. By not practicing it, we remain stuck in a selfish and immobile comfort zone that is in fact unproductive and in the end terribly dull, as it rivets us to our habits and impedes any inner evolution.

The practice of such in-depth ethics calls for a sharpened sensitivity. The more we develop our ethical sensitivity, the more we become aware of the work that lies ahead in our process of spiritual perfection. That is because the requirements have grown more stringent. Practicing the ethics of perfection requires courage. For a start, you must acknowledge within yourself certain weaknesses that you would never have thought you had. It is a painful surprise to discover that every day there are so many subtle ways of “killing” or “hurting” or “robbing” others, in other words, infringing on their rights without noticing anything. You gradually pay more attention to details that seemed meaningless but actually prove to be a fountain of knowledge if only you make an effort to analyze them.

Concretely, the practice of ethics amounts to an active and relentless fight against the anti-ethical pressure within us—a pressure that reveals itself with increased clarity as our sensitivity sharpens.

Life as an opportunity for ethics

Some clarification is in order here to avoid any misunderstanding: because it requires scrutinizing oneself to some degree, the perspective just presented may appear to some as advocating an ethics of nitpicking, one that raises artificial issues of conscience by pointlessly splitting hairs. However, sharpening one’s ethical sensitivity does not mean looking at the minutiae of our inner life with a magnifying glass for the sheer pleasure of introspection; it amounts, rather, to a general state of mind. The ethics of perfection is based upon a fundamental assumption regarding the life we have chosen to live. It does not require giving up a normal life within society. It is entirely compatible with having a family, a job, pursuing well-being and social success, etc. The difference is that we infuse all these activities with another dimension, living our life as a means to substantially transform our self through the practice of ethics. This special perspective is not an add-on to our life, like a pastime or an optional activity: it is part and parcel of it, it colors its every aspect and determines our outlook on the world. In that sense, ethics is not a means to live a better life; rather, it is life that is the means for ethical progress.

In other words, such an approach of ethics is inseparable from a spiritual outlook on existence as such. Life becomes meaningful insofar as it aims toward an ideal of perfection for our being. Our destiny is not to remain as we are. We carry within us a potential to perfect ourselves that in the long term will allow us to return to our Origin. Life on earth is then not a goal unto itself, but instead a necessary step in a broader process of transformation and spiritual maturation that can lead us to our most fundamental goal.

In this context, practicing the ethics of perfection[1] is the means we are given to nurture our soul in order to maintain it in good health, to avoid the various diseases to which it is exposed, and to ensure its harmonious growth by developing within us specific human virtues such as: altruism, goodness, generosity, observing the rights of each being and each object, judicious humility, sound judgement, forbearance, sincerity, selflessness, courage, willpower, strength of character, etc. All these human virtues must be applied with discernment, in a way that is balanced and adapted to each circumstance.

[1] The principles of ethics, as understood here, are accessible to all and correspond to the fundamental and universal principles of all revealed religions.

Meeting the imperious self

Engaging in an ethics of transformation is somewhat similar to playing a video game. After reaching level 1 in ethics (minimal ethics), we continue onto level 2, in a world that shares common features with level 1 but is vaster and more complex, with additional rules and new characters. Indeed, as soon as we consider ethics in the slightly deeper sense just described, in no time are we facing a new inner figure: the imperious self. We mentioned earlier the anti-ethical pressure we feel as soon as we seek to refine our sensitivity. This pressure, in fact, is none other than the imperious self—our ethical adversary. Whether we are conscious of it or not, the imperious self is constantly active within us; it is the source of all our anti-ethical impulses, actions, emotions, and thoughts. Its primary characteristic is that it is elusive. It is quiet and discrete. It can make us forget its very existence so as to better take over our whole being. This inner enemy is nonetheless quite useful. Granted, it pushes us to do evil, but this is not in itself a bad thing. As we shall see, while opposing us, the imperious self is indispensable to our progress, just as germs are both a threat to our body and necessary to strengthen our immune system; or just as friction elicited by the surface of the road is both an obstacle to movement and a condition for the adherence of the wheel.

 

The purpose of this series of essays is to draw a portrait of our inner adversary before setting out to give some practical advice and tips on how to fight against it. Each piece is based on the analysis of real-life experiences that will be expounded as we go along. A purely theoretical presentation of the imperious self would be of little avail: indeed, as long as we have not seriously set out to fight it in concrete situations, we cannot become truly aware of its presence. The concept of the imperious self is nevertheless drawn from an elaborate theoretical framework: Ostad Elahi’s model of the self. In this model, the concept of the imperious self has hardly anything to do with the popular representations of the “inner demon” that is supposed to operate within us. Nor does it come in support of the guilt-instilling condemnation of the supposedly inherent corruption of human nature. It provides us, on the contrary, with a dynamic and highly effective tool for ethical and spiritual progress.


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16 comments

  1. Daryush joon Dec 17, 2020 3:54 pm 1

    It’s as if the imperious self makes me two different individuals. Thank you for presenting this subject and I have a daunting task and a large canvas to start painting!

  2. A. Dec 18, 2020 1:23 am 2

    Thank you for the great article

    One great source of information about our imperious self comes from our words. Meaning that if we pay close attention to what we say and how others react, we can shed light on our inner weaknesses.

    For instance, during these last couple of weeks, I have noticed that:

    a) I said something to an old friend of my mother who complained about how I really did not care to talk to her. I was cold, uncaring, and even quite harsh. Considering that this friend is just turning 90 and she is obviously very frail, I felt even more ashamed of myself. Some delving within showed that I was too captivated by materiality – at that very moment when she spoke to me – to really pay attention to what this lady was saying and answer her affectionately or paying attention to what/how I was talking to her. So, my extreme attachment to certain aspects of material life was an interesting finding.

    b) My wife shared with me the following impressions about how I talk to the rest of the family: “always talking about duties, never a cheerful/affectionate sentence or comment.”
    After some delving within and reading e-ostadelahi, I realized that I am often upset with my children because I have expectations that they should accomplish some basic duties. Since they do not, I often remind them of this verbally and I do this while getting annoyed (because of my expectations.) Who would have thought that my expectations were a significant part of the problem contributing to suboptimal interactions with my children?

    c) Another interesting finding was that during a dinner I talked repeatedly about spirituality not really paying attention to other guests’ lack of interest in the subject. At one point I replied to someone who questioned my vision that there was an order in the way this world was structured and said “it is you who don’t see it”. Which shows some arrogance.

    After some analysis, I realized that I should talk about what interests others – even if it seems dull – and not focus on subjects I enjoy (unless the interest is shared also by others of course). Not behaving like that is being egoistic and actually goes against what I say. For one of the core pillars of ethical behavior is to be altruistic. So there is no point in talking about ethics/spirituality in an egoistical way – it will actually turn people off.

    1. kbld Dec 20, 2020 5:50 pm 2.1

      @A.
      On your c, furthermore, spirituality can come up in conversations on very basic topics, like sports. For example, at the last minute of the ¼ final qualifying soccer match Ghana-Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup, Suarez deliberately and actively stopped the ball with his hands (see https://youtu.be/HLJl4vYL6u8). I was supporting Ghana like many, but I said, without much thinking, that Suarez was right really, because the red card that followed was nothing, they would have been eliminated anyway with 100% chance otherwise. My little brother exclaimed that I could not say something like that and I realized he was right, immediately like a yo-yo, it made me go (back?) to my inner guide. Indeed, Suarez’s act was extremely unethical, but watching the long, exhausting play made me somehow not realize what I was saying, from a spiritual point of view.
      I guess this is also true with politics, there are many ways the content of a discussion on this topic can go wrong even if it seems rather positive in the beginning, with trends among countries. For example, saying useless bad things everybody already agrees on and that adds nothing to the understanding, or, even if we know better, expressing superficial opinions to appear deep and be part of a community but really thinking about oneself, for example, in my opinion, with identity politics.

  3. mahnaz Dec 18, 2020 2:18 am 3

    Thank you so much for the new articles.

  4. Yan Dec 19, 2020 3:33 am 4

    “…there are so many subtle ways of “killing” or “hurting” or “robbing” others, in other words, infringing on their rights without noticing anything.”

    The above lines reminded me of an interesting book called “Common Morality: Deciding What to Do” by Bernard Gert, which I found and read after watching this video here: https://youtu.be/enVFjAUTfI8 .

    The author attempts to draw a moral framework by giving 10 moral rules as follows:

    “1. Do not kill.
    2. Do not cause pain.
    3. Do not disable.
    4. Do not deprive of freedom.
    5. Do not deprive of pleasure.
    6. Do not deceive.
    7. Keep your promises.
    8. Do not cheat.
    9. Obey the law.
    10. Do your duty.”

    As straight-forward as they seem in the first place, when the author digs deeper and interprets each rule, you will discover many of our actions which we might deem as “normal”, are in fact immoral or unethical. The following are some good examples:

    Rule 2: Do not cause pain:

    “…the rule that prohibits causing pain must be understood to prohibit causing mental pain as well as physical pain and also to prohibit causing such unpleasant feelings as anger (and lesser kinds of displeasure), fear (anxiety), disgust, and sadness…”

    Rule 4: Do not deprive of freedom:

    “…In some circumstances, listening to or looking at a person without their knowledge might count as a violation of this rule. It might be held that a person’s freedom to be unobserved is being taken away…”

    Rule 5: Do not deprive of pleasure:

    “…Talking loudly at a concert deprives people of the pleasure of hearing the music even if it does not also make them upset, which it usually does…”

  5. LA Dec 23, 2020 12:32 am 5

    Much gratitude for this eye-opening article.
    In looking within, I see how the basic and static ethics I recognize have been the propeller to look for, find and discover the importance of deeper, more acute and detailed “transformational” work.
    Though that sincere desire incessantly lives within, I notice that those basic and static ethics impede my progression, as they count among the data used by my common reason only.
    To control my imperious self surmises the development of my sound reason, a step by step, day-in and day-out exercise, with total awareness of thought out choices, none instinctual, even if seemingly “altruistic”.

  6. AA Dec 25, 2020 2:07 am 6

    I go through stages when because of God’s grace I feel his hand in my life and the great feeling that engulfs me cannot be described. However, more often, I relive my succumbing to the demands of my imperious self and am ashamed and feel terrible.

    Since my failures and its ensuing shame and regrets happen much more often, it seems I spend a good amount of time feeling terrible about losing repeatedly to the illegitimate demands of my imperious self.

    This article makes me look at my failures in a different way. Now while keeping up the fight against my imperious self I can look at my failures at a minimum as a mean to stay aware of its constant presence in my life and use it to my advantage in my continued efforts to reject its demands.

    1. HA Dec 29, 2020 7:37 am 6.1

      I too have this experience often, which at times can negatively engulf me to the point where my imperious self “takes over” and I no longer do what’s necessary to attract the metacausal energy needed to fight it! This vicious cycle can go on and on. This article has shifted my perspective a great deal. I cannot wait for the future essays in this series, it could not have come at a more needed time for me.

      1. Lisa Jan 22, 2021 4:03 am 6.1.1

        When there is a day I feel that everything goes wrong and I regret so many moments of that day, at night I go back to this essay and read it again. It reminds me what has gone wrong and helps me to take another step forward. I then feel thankful for the lessons I learn, yet ashamed that the imperious self again has won the battle.

  7. Stan Jan 16, 2021 6:59 am 7

    What a wonderful and thought-provoking article! Thank you so much.

  8. Yan Jan 20, 2021 12:17 am 8

    I’m working on my pride which is the source of many other weakness such as “anger”. For example, I have decided that when opportunity comes to lecture others and teach them “life lessons”, I just have to close my mouth (even if they are objectively wrong, unless there is a life-and-death situation which is usually not the case). However, my issue is when someone does something that triggers my “anger” I literally cannot even think, it triggers as a second nature automatically. Just like animals. I know (in-vitro) that the source of the issue comes from pride & arrogance (including spiritual superioritism) and the inability to internalize that everyone has their own “path of perfection”, however, sadly when the real life scenarios happen my mind just “resets” and forgets everything. I try to persist and to not get disappointed and continue fighting.

    Is there any tips and/or experiences that I could use to enhance my fighting mechanism during such “high-jacks”?

    1. SR Mar 07, 2021 4:12 pm 8.1

      I have a similar issue when I get angry. I’ve noticed certain physical symptoms manifest themselves before the anger erupts (i.e. my heart rate goes up, my face gets hot, etc.). If I am mindful of the physical manifestations of my anger, I can remind myself to take a deep breath, count to 10 or walk away, and pray to God for help. It’s extremely difficult and sometimes even when I am aware I am about to angry, I can’t control it.

  9. Max4000 Jan 20, 2021 9:12 am 9

    This article is a lucid explanation on the purpose of existence, how our existence is meant for us to transform ourselves by applying ethics, and how the imperious self is constantly opposing us in this ethical transformation (the example of friction is really insightful).

    I have somewhat of an anxious personality and part of my goal is to avoid triggers to cause anxiety. It gets hard sometimes because due to mass communications etc, it is not easy and it is an active fight to avoid such distractions. If I delve slightly into one of these distractions, things spiral down-ward.

    Sometimes I wish it was a video game with just myself and some made up character. One makes mistakes in a video game, can play many times (even if the game is over), and eventually they will hopefully master the game. Even now, there are AI systems that play the game against themselves millions of times and can defeat any human player. If anything, the imperious self seems to adapt quickly or quicker than our soul.

    Here on this planet earth, one or two quick mistakes and one takes a down-ward spiral and it’s not as easy to reset the game and restart (it might even be a whole life-time wasted!). Without being sour, there is a lot of distractions, outright nastiness from different people (there are good people too), and negative influences on this planet. From what I understand, the imperious self can be activated externally or internally. It seems we are living in a harder time than usual, and the advent of mass communications has only exacerbated and multiplied the amount of mechanisms that trigger the imperious-self.

    I just wanted to ask the author or others what are some of the methods to hopefully withstand the external triggers that activate the imperious self (specially for those with a more sensitive psyche)?

    1. Yan Jan 28, 2021 12:18 am 9.1

      Dear Max4000, regarding your issue with anxiety:

      Same as you, I have a sensitive psyche (high level of anxiety from time-to-time, as well as, a type of OCD called “mental obsession”).

      I have personally done some reading and research about this issue. From a purely psychological point of view, the core of both issues lies in something called “Fear of Uncertainty”. Needless to say, as you might be well aware, today’s psychology mainly focuses on the tip of the iceberg (the psyche), with no concern of what soul character weaknesses resulted in the demonstration of these symptoms at the psyche level. So, it’s important to keep this in mind and investigate what is happening under the surface of the iceberg!

      I did my best to delve within to find out what soul character weakness is the source of my “Fear of Uncertainty”, which subsequently feeds the engine of my imperious self and generates anxiety and OCD problems. For me, the answer was the following as of today:

      1- Extreme Attachment to Worldly Comfort:
      I’m so attached to my worldly comfort (including health, wealth, family) that I cannot accept at any rate that I might lose any of them. Hence, the mere thought of losing any of them creates extreme anxiety within me, as well as, creating OCD in the process of decision making.

      2- Lack of Submission:
      My ego is so rigid and doesn’t want to be content with His Contentment. My ego just wants worldly comfort and pleasure. As long as, His contentment is aligned with my ego’s comfort, everything is all good, but if that’s not the case, my ego prefers its comfort over His satisfaction! Otherwise, if I was submitted, why would I (my ego) worry about worldly discomfort and problems which as a result creates anxiety? If I was submitted to His will, I would know that even if the worst material troubles were to happen to me, it would be all in my best spiritual interest, and in my long-term benefit.

      3- Lack of Reliance:
      My ego and my rigid psyche doesn’t want to Rely on Him and does not want to be confident and positive towards the future. Despite all the miracles He has shown me already (including all the times He protected me from various disasters), my ego prefers to continue its worries!

      4- Not Seeing the Efficient:
      Inability to come to an in-vivo understanding that “…He is the Master Weaver of this weft, the Efficient in everything, the rest are mere cogs in the machinery of causality. Everything that happens to me is good for me, even if my ego does not like it.” https://www.e-ostadelahi.com/eoe-en/this-feeling-of-injustice/

      If my ego could understand the above sentence and could act accordingly life would be heaven with no worries at all, no matter what good or bad happens.

      At the end, in my experience, psychological solutions such as “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” AKA C.B.T, are good and beneficial, as long as I set my intention and work towards improving my soul character weaknesses, rather than solely working at the psyche level.

  10. kbld Mar 17, 2021 5:52 pm 10

    @Max4000
    From what I understand and based on what I have read on the subject, Perfection is not something we go toward by actually “succeeding” but by the fight itself. It is written poetically in Qurân 53:39: “each person will only have what they endeavoured towards, and the outcome of their efforts will be seen in their record”. Results are circumstantial, efforts (with the right intention) are the only thing that counts and stays. Perfection is not usually something you reach on Earth, so the question is not to “succeed” but to do one’s best, during a lifetime, to be accepted to stay in the interworld to continue the much longer process which leads to Perfection.
    Besides, in this earthly jungle you describe, you are not alone. In some of his sayings, Ostad Elahi refers to Quran 50:16 : “We created the human being, and We know what his soul whispers to him. We are nearer to him than his jugular vein.” As long as and to the extent that you are sincerely and actively trying to turn you heart and deeds towards Him, with his Benevolence, He will make sure that your mistakes are not causing you serious spiritual harm and put you back, possibly in a way that is not comfortable, on the right track.

  11. Neda Jul 04, 2021 10:21 pm 11

    Thank you indeed for the great article . It is very helpful and practical.

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