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This episode starts off with a video of an Unfortunate Breakfast Incident. It’s a sad thing to watch someone pour cereal in an upside-down bowl. But it leads to an important question about the nature of an infinite God and finite individuals—how do we access the infinite? Are our spiritual cereal bowls upside-down? How are we supposed to deal with Swedenborg quotes like the one found here?
Our sense of self-importance is wholly evil. That is why we say that we are born into utter evil and that what we inherit is nothing but evil. (Divine Providence §215:7)
In this week’s episode of Swedenborg and Life, host Curtis Childs examines three complex ideas that work together to answer these questions: the evil tendencies of human beings (keep an eye out for the Latin word proprium), the hemispheres of the brain, and the connection of an infinite God with his finite people.
Curtis starts off this episode with a warning: in this episode, we are diving into tough concepts about the nature of the self versus the nature of the divine. He calls this one of the hardest concepts in Swedenborg’s work, but also one of the most rewarding because it leads to greater freedom. Ah, don’t the hardest concepts always lead to the best results? Contemplating the difference between human beings and the divine is never an easy journey.
Finite and Free
Swedenborg says that all good comes from heaven and all evil comes from hell. Now, looking into that concept, how do we have any freedom? To begin this discussion, Curtis introduces our main character: proprium. For now, Curtis tells us that the word proprium is going to stand in for the word self because the idea of the self comes with too much normal, daily baggage. We know too much about the idea of the self. We don’t know much about this proprium, so we’re going to use that word instead. (Note: the translators of the Swedenborg Foundation’s New Century Edition are not happy with Curtis about this decision, because they translated Swedenborg’s works out of Latin and into English so that we wouldn’t have to do this exact thing.) Hence their faces in the picture to the right.
Curtis takes us to a clip of series editor and translator Rev. Dr. Jonathan Rose talking about the meaning and use of the word proprium. Dr. Rose describes the idea of the proprium as the idea of ownership of yourself—the sense that you are your own person, with your own thoughts and feelings and ideas. Swedenborg says that this idea is somewhat of an illusion because so many things are flowing into us from heaven and hell. If we get too convinced of our own “rightness,” we get self-involved and too focused on ourselves. The meaning of proprium covers all of these ideas and more.
Curtis uses a basket as a prop to show that throughout the episode we’re going to be collecting ideas related to the proprium to see how they come together in the end.
All things that have been created are intrinsically finite . . . as for the human spirit, however, that too has been created from things that are finite. What is the human spirit but a vessel for the life that the mind possesses? (True Christianity §470:2, 3)
From the quote above, Curtis snatches the words “finite” and “vessel” and adds them to the basket of proprium concepts.
Swedenborg compares the human being to a vessel many times, because just as a vessel receives things—for example, think of the way we pour things into bowls or cups—the human being receives life. Watch this segment to learn more about the way Swedenborg talks about humanity as a vessel for life from God.
Swedenborg says that we are supposed to have this feeling of autonomous life—this sense that we are simply alive in and of ourselves—rather than sensing the true state of affairs, which is that we are only alive because God’s life is flowing into us. It’s part of his design that our lives feel like our own. That’s how we get freedom, through the ability to choose to love God and turn toward him or turn away from him. We can’t feel God pouring life into us because it would take away our ability to feel like life is our own.
What is life except the inmost activity of the love and wisdom that come from God and are God? It could also be called the living force itself. Someone who sees this can also see that life cannot be transferred into anyone unless it is transferred along with love and wisdom. Surely no one does deny or could deny that everything good that relates to love and everything true that relates to wisdom come solely from God; to the extent that we receive those qualities from God we are alive from God and are called “born of God” [John 1:13; 1 John 3:9; 5:4, 18], that is, regenerated. (True Christianity §471)
In this part of the episode, we have learned that we have to be finite and free to receive life from God, and we have to feel that life is our own. So where does that feeling of separation come from?
The Birth of a Proprium
Curtis begins this section by reminding viewers that Swedenborg has harsh words about the evil within humanity. Swedenborg talks about human beings being born evil; however, he doesn’t mean original sin, the theological concept that all of humanity was doomed by Adam’s sin of eating the apple in the Garden of Eden. Swedenborg says that evil can’t come from God—evil comes from turning away from God.
If you find yourself feeling shamed and antagonized by being told that all people are evil, hold on tight and wait, because it does get better. In the meantime, to help us on our path away from feeling shame, Curtis bought a Shame-o-meter.
Using the Shame-o-meter, Curtis will track the feelings of shame from the audience and make sure that it doesn’t get too out of control as we talk about theproprium and evil.
Back to the idea that God is the source of life:
From the Lord’s perpetual presence, [we have] the faculty of thinking, understanding, and willing. These faculties are solely from the influx of life from the Lord. (Invitation to the New Church §23)
The reality is that the Lord animates in us that which seems to be ours. For instance, it is an eternal truth that life is not ours; but if it did not seem to be, we would have no life at all. (Secrets of Heaven §1712:3)
Swedenborg isn’t the only one to have this sense that our life originates from the divine rather than from within us. Curtis points to a book called My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD. The author had a stroke, and was able to know what was happening to her brain throughout her stroke because of her training in neuroscience. She came away with many new insights about the right and left sides of the brain. Curtis shares her insights about left-brain vs. right-brain thinking here.
In Dr. Taylor’s book, she describes two different experiences in her own brain—one side felt like a pure connection with life, while the other side felt like an independent and disconnected sphere. This idea fits well with Swedenborg’s ideas about the simultaneous connection and disconnection of human beings with God and with each other.
The reason our own prudence convinces and assures us that everything good and true comes from us and is within us is that our own prudence is simply our cognitive sense of identity, flowing from our self-love, which is our emotional sense of identity. Our sense of autonomy inevitably lays claim to everything. It cannot rise above this. Whenever we are being led by the Lord’s divine providence, though, we are lifted out of our sense of autonomy and see that everything good and true comes from the Lord. We even see as well that whatever is in us from the Lord always belongs to the Lord and is never ours. (Divine Providence §316)
In this quote, Curtis snags four ideas for the proprium basket: our own prudence, our cognitive sense of identity, our emotional sense of identity, and our sense of autonomy. Swedenborg goes on further to describe the relationship with the self in the quote below:
Self-love and love of the world are born together within a person. These are the source of what the person feels as the delight of his life right from when he is first born; indeed the life that is his comes from them. (Secrets of Heaven §9348)
Here’s where things get more intense. Swedenborg talks about self-love and love of the world—Curtis tells us to remember that these are talking about the love of controlling or domination and love of gratification. Because they refer so clearly to this complex idea of “self,” Curtis has to add them to the proprium basket as well.
Our sense of self-importance is wholly evil. That is why we say that we are born into utter evil and that what we inherit is nothing but evil. What we inherit is the sense of self that encompasses us and that we participate in by virtue of our self-love—especially by our love of being in control because of our self-love. This is because when we are wrapped up in this love we are totally focused on ourselves and therefore immerse our thoughts and feelings in our own sense of self-importance. (Divine Providence §215:7)
According to Curtis, in this quote there are a bunch of proprium-basket-worthy ideas: our sense of self-importance, our love of being in control as part of our self-love, and those loves being evil. He adds them to the mix.
Curtis then refers back to Dr. Taylor’s book, giving a list of comments she made about her experiences with the “left” side of her brain. The left side felt small, alone, critical, mean, worried, and judgmental when separated from the other half. Curtis reminds us that this sense of self has a negative spin to it when separated from the other side.
At this point, Curtis brings out the proprium basket and sorts all the different words and phrases he’s been stealing throughout this section. These words all match up with what Dr. Taylor experienced as coming from the left side of her brain.
Curtis brings out the Shame-o-meter just to show that these ideas can be shameful if we think of ourselves being only these things. He brings in a guest, Peter Rhodes, who has joined the show in previous episodes, to give a new perspective on this proprium, or the selfishness that comes naturally to human beings—what Rhodes calls “IT.”
Peter talks about ways to let love flow into our lives and let the bad feelings and thoughts that come into our heads go without taking ownership of the bad things. His insights into the way the self and God work together in each person shed light on the nature of the proprium as freeing instead of shameful. It’s freeing to know that the bad things you think and feel don’t come from your deepest self—they come in from hell. Then each person gets the chance to reject or confirm those thoughts and feelings and make them real by giving them life and action.
It’s not as simple as saying, “There’s an evil part of you—destroy it!” It’s much more about putting things in the correct order. The good parts of us can lead the evil parts of us into a better spiritual state, if we focus on identifying with the good and not the evil. None of this can happen without the proprium, though, because if we don’t have a sense of self, then there’s no way for us to identify with the good things. Or, as Swedenborg would put it, you can’t become an angel without a proprium.
Curtis uses the metaphor of a bubble wand to explain how the proprium relates to the divine. We need to have a wand—something with a concrete form—to get the air to go in the bubbles. We can’t just pour the bubble liquid on the table and wait for bubbles. We have to have a tool that brings the two together.
Even angels have a proprium. In a materialistic person, the proprium is everything; if they lose it, they think they’ve died. Spiritual people might say that their lives come from God, but they don’t really believe it. On the other hand, heavenly people perceive that their life comes from God, and even though they don’t want to be separate from him, he allows them to keep their proprium. This is what the proprium of angels is like: a sense of deep tranquility and peace that comes from having a proprium full of God’s love and life.
Angels don’t want to feel separate from God, but they need to in order to love others from a sense of autonomy and freedom. The proprium enables people to have deeper connections with others, with more freedom and happiness available to anyone that wants to become a vessel for God’s love.
Becoming a Vessel
We start off by checking in with the Shame-o-meter—it’s still not the greatest, but it’s getting better. But before it can get better, it must get a little worse. So we set off to learn about Swedenborg’s concept of heredity evil.
Furthermore, the more that we have a heavenly kind of love (we love actions that are useful and good and are moved with heartfelt pleasure when we do them), the more we are led by the Lord. This heavenly kind of love is the kind of love that the Lord has; it is the kind of love that comes from him.
The more that we love ourselves, the more we are led by ourselves and by our own self-centeredness [proprium]. Our self-centeredness [proprium] is nothing but evil. It is our hereditary evil. It is loving ourselves more than God and loving the world more than heaven. (True Christianity §400:6)
Self-absorption [the proprium] is in fact a hereditary evil; it is the polar opposite of love for heaven. (True Christianity §405:2)
To explain hereditary evil, Curtis talks about spiritual genetics—not only are physical traits like height and eye color passed down from generation to generation, but tendencies toward particular types of behavior. In particular, we’re born with a certain amount of self-centeredness—if you think about the nature of children in general, you can see that they have a bunch of tendencies toward selfishness and general nastiness. Usually it’s all cute and fun, because kids are kids. Curtis tried to claim that he personally was never like this, so the Swedenborg and Life team brought in his grandma to tell a story about his own childhood. Silly kids.
The important thing to remember is that we’re not blamed, spiritually speaking, for the tendencies that we inherit:
No one ever suffers punishment in the other life on account of hereditary evil, because it is not his, and therefore he is not to blame for being of such a nature; but everyone suffers on account of the actual evil which is his own, and consequently for so much of the hereditary evil as he has appropriated to himself by actual life . . . (Secrets of Heaven §2308)
“Appropriated” means making something real through life, bringing it on yourself and making it your own—it has the same root as the word proprium.
By the Lord’s mercy, we never incur guilt for inherited evil, only for actual evil, and inherited evil cannot become actual evil until we act on our own views and intentions. That is why the Lord leads little children by means of other children and angels sent from him. Little ones accordingly seem to live in a state of innocence, but inherited evil still lurks in everything they do. This evil serves to nourish them, but it resembles a nursemaid only till they come into their own judgment.
If they then go through rebirth, the Lord leads them gradually to a stage of second childhood and eventually to heavenly wisdom. So he brings them into true childhood, or innocence, since this resides in wisdom. The difference is that childhood innocence lies on the surface and has inherited evil inside, but wisdom’s innocence lies inside and leaves actual and inherited evil on the surface. This discussion and many previous remarks show that inherited evil more or less nourishes us from infancy up to our second childhood. (Secrets of Heaven §4563:2)
We need all these parts to be the best we can be—we need a strong proprium or outer layer to be a great vessel for the life from the Lord. We then turn this around and use our identity to serve the Lord. The closer you get to the Lord, the more you feel like yourself because you can love others from yourself more deeply and clearly. How do we do that? How do we turn the proprium from a bad thing to an asset that enables us to serve the human race?
How to Live with a Proprium
We’re about to return to the Struggling Cereal Pourer from the beginning of this video—does he ever turn his bowl around?
First, it’s important to remember that we’re not looking to get rid of the proprium, just to turn it around.
The Lord flows into every one of us with spiritual heat, which is essentially the goodness of love, and spiritual light, which is essentially the truth of wisdom. How open we are to these qualities depends on which way we are turned, either toward God or toward ourselves. (True Christianity §491:2)
If the bowl is facing up, it can catch the cereal. If the bowl is facing down, it can’t. The key is to remember that the bowl is not our entire self or proprium—as Peter Rhodes observed earlier, we can choose whether or not to identify with it.
Swedenborg describes the sensation of allowed to experience being in the proprium and being out of the proprium; when in the proprium, he writes, “I was fit for nothing” (Spiritual Experiences §5464). But he was able to be elevated out of it by the Lord, and so are we. It can be used as a tool for good instead of a controlling force in life.
To take the subject further, it should be recognized that all evil flows in from hell and all good from the Lord by way of heaven. The reason however why evil becomes a person’s own is that he believes and convinces himself that he thinks and practices it all by himself. In this way he makes it his own. But if he believed what is really so, it would not be evil but good from the Lord that became his own. For if he believed what is really so he would think, the instant evil flowed in, that it came from the evil spirits present with him; and since that was what he thought the angels could ward that evil off and repel it. (Secrets of Heaven §6206)
As soon as Curtis finishes reading this quote, he responds in two different ways: one heavenly and one hellish. When he talks about the heavenly ideas, the hellish ones back off. But when the hellish ones take over and we allow our sense of self and pride to take hold of that idea, no heavenly ideas can get in until we make room for them. The proprium actually gives us a good way to detach from evil ideas and make room for good ones, giving us more freedom and happiness than we would’ve ever had if we were still clinging to a bad idea. Watch here to see more about the way the proprium leads us to love versus the way heavenly loves lead us to love.
It’s all about the purpose of our actions. When we are motivated by love and other heavenly feelings rather than selfishness, it elevates everything we do.
Dr. Taylor faced a similar sense of choice, which she describes in My Stroke of Insight: “My goal during this process of recovery has been not only to find a healthy balance between the functional abilities of my two hemispheres, but also to have more say about which character dominates my perspective at any given moment.”
That’s exactly what this episode is about. Are we being led by the proprium or the Lord? The choice between these two things is represented in one of the most famous stories ever—the Garden of Eden. According to Swedenborg, the Garden of Eden represents a state of understanding, while the different kinds of trees represent human beings. On one hand, we have the Tree of Life, which represents the Lord in us, the reception of heaven, and the paradise state. The alternative is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which stands for our sense of self. We choose which tree to eat from and which tree to join with and make our own.
But, my friend, abstain from evil, and do what is good, and believe in the Lord with your whole heart and your whole soul; and the Lord will love you and give you love for what you do and faith in what you believe. Then you will do what is good because of love and you will believe because you have faith, which is confidence. And if you persevere like this, a reciprocal partnership [with the Lord] will develop and become permanent. This is salvation itself and eternal life. (True Christianity §484:2)
Choosing to eat the fruit from the right tree isn’t hard to do; it’s just a matter of turning your cereal bowl around so that you are able to receive all sorts of good things. Or good cereal. Speaking of cereal, Curtis now goes back to the Frustrated Cereal Man to check on his progress (watch for a cameo by Curtis’s grandmother!).
He turned the cereal bowl around! Success and tasty happiness.
Curtis ends this episode with this: “We are more because of our connection to God. Because we can serve a greater purpose, we are individuals and we are unique in the function that we can perform and in the way we can love and understand the truth. . . . We can look forward to bringing our uniqueness and using that to serve the whole. Although that may not sound that exciting right now, according to Swedenborg and many others, it’s the greatest feeling you can have. That feeling can lead to lasting, permanent happiness. It’s a much better deal than just slogging away with that proprium.”
In the last segment, Curtis answers these questions from our viewers:
- Were we always created to die, even during the Golden Age, where they had the ability to just perceive things? Did human beings always die?
- Why does God make everything so hard to figure out? Why all the mystery and parables and metaphoric stories? Why not simply tell us what he wants?
- Does Swedenborg ever touch on reading the Bible for your OWN interpretation?
- Does Swedenborg have particular/specific teachings on spiritual warfare?
For more information about Jill Bolte Taylor:
To learn more about the method Peter Rhodes describes, check out his book: Observing Spirit: Evaluating Your Daily Progress on the Path to Heaven with Gurdjieff and Swedenborg
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About Swedenborg and Life
Host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death in a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format.
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