Thomas Keating describes the false self as three energy centers within us, which motivate us to act to satisfy our ego’s exaggerated needs. These energy centers emerge in early childhood, when we are most vulnerable, as our attempt to cope whenever we experienced a sense of depravation or fear. The three primary energy centers of the false self, says Keating, are our exaggerated needs for security, esteem and power. We have legitimate needs for security, esteem/affection and power/control, but out of our vulnerable sense of insecurity, we inevitably exaggerate our needs. Most of our problems are related to our attempts to satisfy these exaggerated needs by trying to accumulate whatever symbols of security, esteem and power make us feel good.
Keating is putting into contemporary terms the same thing that the Gospel writers told through story two thousand years ago, Matthew’s version of the temptation of Christ.
Christ has been in the wilderness fasting for forty days. He was famished. The tempter offers Jesus a quick shortcut to meet his security needs for food — turn the stones into loaves of bread.
The tempter next offers Jesus a dramatic act guaranteed to raise esteem for him as he begins his public ministry. From the pinnacle of the temple, the most visible sight in Jerusalem, Jesus can throw himself to the ground safely, for the angels love him so much they will protect him (the devil quotes scripture to prove it).
Finally the tempter offers Jesus the power and splendor of all the kingdoms.
Jesus turns away from each of the false offers. Instead, Jesus embraces God the Father as his source of perfect security, perfect love, and perfect power. Accepting security, esteem and power as a gift rather than trying to achieve them on our own is a fundamental exercise of faith.
Our needs are so exquisite, and their fulfilling is so tempting, that it is hard to resist the notion that we can reach out and achieve them for ourselves. It takes trust and discipline to dismantle our addiction and attachment to the ways we try to satisfy our exaggerated needs. For most of our lives, it is the first order of business of the spiritual life to turn away from these compulsions.
Freedom begins when we unanxiously accept ourselves as perfectly secure, loved, and empowered from God, here and now. Free from compulsions, we can respond as Jesus did — living from every word that comes from the mouth of God, not putting God to the test, but worshipping and serving only God.