The Impermanent Nature Of The Self

So, in this short article, we will look at the possibility of change, of transformation, and the possibility open to all so far as their regeneration is concerned. In Arcana Coelestia 4322 we read this:

…to be kept in being is constantly to come into being and therefore the preservation of something in connection and form is the constant creation of it.

You know, we’re offered so many big ideas in the Word that we can easily fall into a state of casual listening. We all know that state where we hear the words, but they fail to fall on fresh ground within the mind. So, because there’s a lack of attention, we fail to grasp the implications of what we are hearing.

And of course, whenever we come to a truth, such as the one just quoted, we need to bring our attention to it so that it falls on fresh ground within the mind every time. And that’s because every truth, no matter what it is, if it is a truth, opens to what is infinite and eternal, so we can never exhaust the truth. It is always taking us on a journey into what is new but that newness is only found when we’re able to stand before it in a state of humility and allow it to take us into new places, to take our thinking to new places.

So, this is one of those big statements that you have probably heard before that you are familiar with, but perhaps you haven’t really thought through the implications of it. This idea that creation is constant coming into being. This is a very, very big idea. But let’s try and touch on just a few of the implications of this in relation to the nature of the self.

So, this idea feeds into another idea which has to do with the nature of finite life. So far as finite life is concerned, it can be defined as constant change. It is something dynamic. This can be held in contrast to what we know of Divine Life. Of that life, that is the Lord’s life, which is said to be immutable or unchanging.

Now this is because the Divine by definition is the fullness of perfection itself. And if it is the fullness of perfection itself, then what change can be possible? How can what is the fullness of perfection itself, be added to? It can’t. If anything can be added to the fullness of perfection, it wasn’t the fullness of perfection. So this is why, in part, the Divine Life is said to be unchanging or immutable.

On the other hand, finite creatures, that is, those that have been created by the Divine, creatures like you and I, are imperfect. So there is always potential for change. There is always a potential for some kind of transformation and that makes possible our regeneration.

But let me ask you these questions;

Is who you are, who you feel yourself to be, is that something fixed and permanent?

Or perhaps it is something undergoing constant change?

What do you feel yourself to be now?

Most people believe that who they are is something that remains constant throughout their life. But then this raises another question. If the self is a permanent constant thing, then, how does this fit with the idea that creation is a constant coming into being, and that the Divine alone is immutable, that finite life by definition, as we have just seen, is change?

So, what are the implications for believing that the self is some kind of permanent fixture? I wonder if you’ve ever considered that? The Word clearly teaches that the feeling that we have life in ourselves is an appearance. Now that is another big idea. People’s belief in themselves, in having a self that is fixed and unchanging, means that the idea that their sense of self is an appearance, which is what the Word teaches, is something that is strongly resisted. And this is understandable because it undermines the integrity of our very sense of self, our identity. And so it is, that we spend copious amounts of energy to protect, at all costs, the integrity of our sense of self as something permanent.

Now, the problem here is that we end up desperately seeking to preserve something that is based on a false foundation, a false belief to begin with. And because of that, so much energy goes into shoring up an illusionary state, and that can only decrease our quality of life from a spiritual point of view.

And that’s the tragedy of it. To live in what is unreal, believing it to be real, when what is real is so close to us, even standing at the door of our awareness knocking to be let in.

The Lord said in the book of Revelation, chapter three, verse 20…

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him and he with Me.

In this state of holding on to what is illusionary, we fail to see that if the self is something permanent, fixed, unchanging, then transformation or regeneration is not possible. Spiritual transformation as described in the New Testament is something only possible through consciously and continuously dying to the feeling that the self we feel we are, has some kind of permanence to it.

In the Gospel of Mark, it’s stated in this way. And this is from Mark chapter eight, verse 35

…for whosoever, maybe wanting to save his soul will be destroying it, yet whoever shall be destroying his soul on account of me and of the evangel, will be saving it.

And then the third chapter of John’s Gospel, it says it differently, but it amounts to the same thing there. Jesus says to Nicodemus, that a man must be born again, or born from above, from what is higher. He must find his life through being born of a higher order of life. What is termed Spirit. But he can’t do this without first dying to that sense of life or that self he is attached to that is born from what is below or, what is born from the senses, what the Gospel in this chapter terms, the “flesh“. Now such transformation is only possible because the sense of self isn’t fixed, but is in a constant state of potential towards new possibilities. If we can awaken to the idea that our sense of self is actually an appearance, as the Word teaches, then we can awaken to the idea that our sense of self is constantly being brought into being moment to moment.

And this is a really liberating idea because it means that every moment presents us with an opportunity for renewal in the Lord. It also means that all of those around us have this potential also. So, if we accept that creation is constant coming into being, that nothing is fixed, then transformation into a higher order of life always remains open for us. But if we seek to hold on to what we call our life, our soul, our sense of self, we close down that potential for transformation in an effort to preserve what cannot, in the end, be preserved.

It is interesting that the lowest spiritual influences that gather around the idea of a permanent self, that take the appearance to be real and lock the mind into that idea, are in a sense claiming what is of the Lord as their own. There is the underlying idea that one’s self is immutable. Now that’s not surprising. The more externally our self or sense of identity is found, then the more rigid it must become in an effort to preserve its integrity.

But there’s another side to this. And that is, through being in the appearance of a permanent self, we are given the sensory basis for coming to realise, out of our direct experience of that appearance, that there is only One immutable Self, this being the Lord. So, with this acknowledgement, with this realisation, all other forms of self have to be seen as dependent on this One. Therefore, their permanence must be an appearance.

We come back to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees and this Jewish sect was very exacting on maintaining strict external forms of behaviour as a basis for righteousness. So, we can assume that Nicodemus’s sense of self would have been heavily invested in his ability to keep the law. Psychologically he represents this quality in all of us of course, in which a religiously based moral life, focused on the improvement of our self, is mistaken for a spiritual life.

The whole conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus highlights the struggle for naturally based thinking to grasp that the self that we have acquired from the world through our senses, that we believe to be something substantial, can’t be improved so as to become something spiritual. It requires a new birth entirely. Our investment in the self based on the senses must die if a new sense of self is to be born which is based on what is of a higher spiritual quality. When the dominant sense of self is one grounded in the appearances of the senses, the dominating belief is that this self is something substantial. Whereas, the heavenly self, that which is grounded in what the Word teaches is true, recognises that this sense of being an independent self, that it feels it is, is in reality an appearance. And so, it is able to acknowledge the Lord as the One and only Self.

Rebirth is a conceptual shift and that kind of shift should not be mistaken for merely intellectual knowing or acknowledgement. It is a shift that involves a transformation in the very affectional base that serves as the ground of one’s being. There is an experience of being consciously reborn. It is effectively the rebirth of one’s consciousness.

So, let’s summarise a few things just to close.

  • What you experienced as a fixed permanent self is an appearance.
  • Creation is constant coming into being, and this principle applies to the creation of our sense of self.
  • Our sense of self is being brought into being moment to moment in such a way that we have an experience of apparent permanence.
  • This apparent permanence of a self in a finite being provides the experiential basis for coming to acknowledge that the Lord is the only Self and that He alone is immutable or unchanging.
  • This acknowledgement of the Divine as the One and only Self is not possible without the acknowledgement of the impermanence of the finite self. These two things go hand in hand.
  • It is the impermanence of the finite self that makes spiritual transformation or regeneration possible, so that a new sense of self can be born.
  • If the finite self was something fixed and permanent, then regeneration would not be possible.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)


  1. Gretchen & Harald Sandstrom

    Movingly powerful! The best presentation of this properly humbling teaching I’ve heard. Thank you. I’ve bookmarked it (and will print it) for further reflection. Beyond its obvious personal, all-day-every-day application, I can’t help think of how our world is obsessed with identity, how psychologists are focused on it, and what an ephemeral, “house of cards” notion it is for guiding societies, politics, international relations. It’s downright scary. ~ Harald

    • David Millar

      Nice to hear this resonated Harald – we are meeting on Friday (17th July) on Zoom to discuss the ideas this talk deals with if you can make it – 8 pm start.

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