Main Pages

By Region




Diamond Approach

Glossary of Spiritual Wisdom

From the teachings of A.H. Almaas

What is Shell?

Diamond Approach Teachings About: Shell

Allowing the Underlying Emptiness of the Shell

The student will realize that his usual sense of being an individual is really an empty shell. This empty shell will be exposed when his autonomy, or his capacities, are not mirrored adequately, or when he feels they are not, if, for example, the mirror transference is disturbed. Then he will feel narcissistically hurt and might resort to narcissistic rage. But allowing the hurt and the sense of betrayal will reveal the emptiness underlying his sense of being a person. Allowing this emptiness will make it possible for his Essence to arise. The essential Presence that arises will not be the Essential Identity with its singular radiance, but rather, the Personal Essence with its fullness and roundedness. Since the empty shell associated with this form of narcissism is the structure of the ego individuality, which develops through the process of separation-individuation, the history of individuation narcissism can best be seen in terms of this process.

As Long as there are Concepts Available to It the Mind Will Reify them to Create a Shell

The separate self will continue to arise, less rigid and opaque. When true nature presents its nonconceptual dimension, we begin to detect a deeper source of this sense of self. We see that the soul cannot be completely free from the shell of reifications because as long as there are concepts available to it the mind will reify them to create such a shell. Nonconceptual presence exposes the ego identity, the shell of the separate self, as composed not only of reifications but of concepts. We realize that every time we recognize ourselves, even when the recognition is basic and immediate knowing, the mind takes the concepts of this recognition and builds reifications that then coalesce into the shell of ego. Understanding this level of the creation of the shell of self we realize pure awareness, and our being and identity become established as nonconceptual presence, beyond mind and concepts. We are, without knowing what we are. In fact, we do not even know we are. We simply experience freedom, without recognizing it as freedom. We are simply free, aware of our nature without cognizing it as “our” or “nature.” (We discuss this process in greater detail, exploring some of the psychodynamic and structural issues involved in this process of self-realization, in The Point of Existence, chapter 40.)

As We Experience Our Essential Nature, We Recognize that Who We Usually are is Just an Empty Shell

So this is what happens as we experience our essential nature; we recognize that who we usually are is just an empty shell, devoid of fullness, devoid of substance, devoid of significance. Just like a bubble. Before that, before your personality is challenged by essential presence, it feels real, right? It feels like there’s you, and there’s the reality of your body, your feelings and your emotions, and you have substance. It’s not essential, but it feels real and significant. Then, as essential presence expands and you start to recognize that your personality is all about images and identifications, you start to feel the insubstantiality of it—it becomes this empty shell, a bubble with nothing inside. This is what always happens when you recognize that something is just a mental construct. And in experiencing the boundlessness of being, we have this recognition that it’s not only the personality that loses its realness—the experience of the physical universe no longer feels real either. Before that, your ego gives both you and the physical universe some sense of reality. Your constructed sense of self is inseparable from your familiar experience of the world and so all of it appears to be real. This is the reality of Jabba the Hutt. However, when you go deep inside and contrast your usual experience of reality with essential presence, you see that there’s nothing to it. And just as your sense of personality loses its color, brilliance and vitality as you recognize it to be an empty shell, so does your usual experience of physical reality when you experience a boundless dimension. It begins to lose its meaning, to lose its solidity, to lose its sense of vibrancy and aliveness and begins to become flat, two dimensional and empty.

Both Self and World Turn Out to be One Big Shell, Empty and Insubstantial

Staying with this realization of the deep underlying relationship to the world will spontaneously lead to a new perception, hitherto totally unsuspected. One begins to become conscious that one’s empty shell feels continuous with, and not separate from, the rest of the world. One feels as if one’s individuality and the rest of the universe make the same entity, at the same level, with the same significance. This is the beginning of the objective awareness of the totality of the ego identity. One starts becoming aware of the totality of the ego structure projected on all of reality. Then one starts becoming aware that this reality, which includes both self and world in a continuous manner, does not seem to have any real significance. Both self and world turn out to be one big shell, empty and insubstantial. Now it is not only one’s personality that is perceived to be fake and empty, but the whole world is experienced in this way. It is strange to see physical objects, including people, having no substance, no density and no reality. They feel empty and flat like cardboard, colorless and devoid of vitality. Everything still looks the same, but one realizes that one has been projecting a significance, fullness and reality that is not really there. Here one is objectively perceiving the totality of ego identity, and realizing for the first time that it is empty, unreal and, in fact, feels like images or thoughts, which it is. So not only one’s individuality, but the totality of the world that one has been familiar with, turns out not to have the reality that one believed in so unquestioningly. One realizes, for the first time, that the world does not have the richness and gratification that one always believed it had. The world of ego is as empty as ego.

Ceasing Identification with the Shell

This means that if the totality of the personality is seen objectively and graphically it looks like an empty shell; the shell is composed of many layers, each standing for a self-representation. Identifying with the shell gives the feeling of self or identity. When one ceases identifying with the shell as a whole there will emerge the experience of deficient emptiness, accompanied by the affect of the sense of no self. The sense of being an empty shell, when it is finally perceived, is accompanied by the feeling of being fake and a sense of shame that is a reaction to the fakeness.

The Void, pg. 136

Components of the Shell

This shell, then, is simply the soul, structuring itself through the self-image. It is the self-structured by the totality of all self-representations. It includes trying to be a certain way in order to be recognized and loved, but it also includes any image through which we define ourselves. Thus, the shell exists at several levels, depending on what dimension of identity we are aware of. Any definition of ourselves through an image, or through any concept, will at some point be seen as a shell. The moment we know ourselves through the mind, we become a shell. Even an image of the Essential Identity itself can become part of the shell.

Ego Identity Can be Felt as a Dry Empty Shell

If you go very deep inside yourself, you'll see that what you take yourself to be is not real. One way of experiencing this is feeling that you are an empty shell, with nothing of any significance inside. The ego identity, the core of the personality with a sense of self, can be directly felt as a dry, empty shell. When you see through the personality shell and become aware of the emptiness inside, you become aware of the sense of meaninglessness, worthlessness and the insignificance. We usually feel this emptiness in vague ways, rather than directly.

Experience of the Personality When It is Seen for What It Is

The empty shell is the experience of the personality when it’s seen for what it is. When you begin to recognize that your personality is devoid of being, devoid of presence, devoid of essence, you feel like you’re just a shell. There is nothing inside you—no substance, no fullness. And that usually arises when we are dealing with the question of identity: Who am I? What am I? This happens after you begin to work with and experience essence, being, or spirit. As we’ve seen, at some point, when you have had experiences of your essential nature, you realize that it’s possible not only to experience essential nature, but to be essential nature. Instead of experiencing strength, you are strength. Instead of experiencing truth, you are truth. So there’s a shift of identity and your sense of what you are changes. It’s no longer as if I am this individual or self that is having an experience of spiritual presence. No, I am this spiritual presence. It’s a fundamental shift in your experience of what you are, which is what we mean by “self-realization.” The self-realization of essence or being comes when you experience it as your identity, as your center, as who and what you are.

Experiencing a Rip in the Structure of Self-Identity

Experiencing the hurt for not being seen as a wound is not merely a metaphor. The student actually feels wounded, not only in the emotional sense, but literally, almost physically, as is clear in Nyland’s report. The wound feels like a cut in the chest, as a gash, as if one’s heart were physically wounded. There is the physical sensation of a painful cut, and this sensation of pain is inseparable from the emotional feeling of hurt. The emotion and the sensation comprise one state, an emotional wound that feels like a rip which hurts emotionally. This gash is not actually in the physical body; it is a cut in the shell, a rip in the structure of self-identity. The shell is beginning to disintegrate as a result of the loss of the mirroring. The wound is the sign of the threat to the cohesion of this structure. In fact, any narcissistic disturbance involves some level of breakdown in the structure of identity. Unempathic or insensitive responses from the environment affect the self like a stab of a knife. We actually feel stabbed, pierced, cut to the core. We naturally feel great resistance to experiencing this wound. We are terrified of falling apart, of losing the integrity of our sense of self, of disintegrating and disappearing. No wonder we feel we need mirroring for the preservation of the integrity and cohesion of this self-structure. The glue that keeps this structure together is missing at this point. This is literally true, almost physically true.

Layers of the Shell Structure

There exists only one shell that returns with deeper, more primitive and fundamental layers of its structure every time that Being presents itself in a subtler manifestation. This is in accord with the formulations of object relations theory, which views each psychic structure as composed of many representations, from various stages of development, integrated as a cohesive whole. Investigating such a structure means it will reveal its constituent representations. When we investigate the self-identity structure, these appear as different levels of the empty shell.

Loving Your External Manifestations at the Expense of the Core, of the Depth, Will Make You Into a Shell

When the presence is there and you are aware that this core of beingness is the beauty, the value, of who you are, then all the capacities, all the external manifestations, will be included in what you love. I'm not saying it isn’t okay to love your external manifestations, but to love them at the expense of the core, of the depth, will make you into a shell. And you will end up not recognizing that you love yourself. It is that core, that inner beingness, that inner nature, which is our direct connection with the source, with the Beloved. That is how the Beloved appears when we start looking. And it appears as one form and then another until it reveals its most absolute nature, its mystery. So, it is a matter of penetrating the veils. And that happens as a process of inquiry and exploration of ourselves propelled by the dynamism of love. We know the kinds of things that we love about ourselves—and there are many of those. But most of the time we don't see them, we don't want to know what they are because of our other voices that tell us all sorts of other stories, lies.

Love Unveiled, pg. 113

Our Empty Shell is Part of a Larger Shell that Includes Everything

A certain shell arises at this level of the process; it is reminiscent of the fakeness and emptiness experienced in dealing with the Essential Identity, but there are significant differences. We experience the fakeness not only in ourselves, but everywhere. We feel fake and empty, empty of anything real and significant, and we also feel that everything around us is empty and lacks fullness. We first feel the empty shell as a contraction around the body, as a membrane that separates us from the rest of the world, reflecting the structure of self-entity. Further investigation reveals that the shell is not really separate from others—it is an extension of a larger and universal shell that includes everyone. When we finally experience the shell completely, we feel like part of a universal shell that includes the whole universe. In other words, we see that what we have been seeing as the world—both animate and inanimate—is actually empty and devoid of fullness, nourishment, or significance. This reflects the loss of the non-differentiated self, the state of the soul in which the self and the object world are not yet differentiated in experience. This shell is not only our personal empty self, but the perception of everything as empty and devoid of substance. We perceive that the whole world is only an appearance; everything is only a shell that has no inner truth or reality. Our empty shell is part of a larger shell that includes everything. There is nowhere to go; a painful and deficient emptiness is everywhere. This stage is difficult to go through, especially when there is no experienced guide who can hold the experience as a legitimate part of the process of self-realization.

Phoniness is Inherent to the Life of Ego

In the process of working through our narcissism, we come to realize that to present an image of ourselves, instead of the immediate presence of who we are, regardless of how faithful it is to the original, is to be fake and to live a phony life. It is the life of the empty shell, a life without authenticity, without fundamental truth. This understanding of the sense of being phony that is universally associated with narcissism is more fundamental than that offered by the theories of depth psychology. It demonstrates that phoniness is inherent to the life of ego. It is not only a quality of pathological narcissism or what is called the “false self”; it is intrinsic to the experience of the self in the conventional dimension of experience. The fakeness is simply more obvious in pathological narcissism because the shell is more exposed. The manifestation of the empty shell, with its attendant sense of falseness, tends to arise before the breakdown of the mirror transference, and hence is not dependent upon this breakdown. Becoming aware of the shell results from becoming less identified with the layers constituting the structure of self-identity. The totality of the processes in the work of self-realization leads to the revelation of the inner reality of this structure. So the empty shell may manifest before or during the breakdown of the idealizing transference, but more definitely after this breakdown and the consequent resolution of the need for support. Several factors may affect the awareness of the empty shell. The breakdown of the idealizing transference destroys the main support for the self-identity structure. The arising essential support, in the experience of the Diamond Will, puts a pressure on this structure for it supports the true identity of Essence, and not ego structure.

The Empty Shell Appearing as Specific Tensions Around the Head

Realizing the omnipresence of Being allows the experiences of unity and oneness of existence. As we stay with this process, however, we continue to realize ever more profound implications of the truth of our identity with pure Being. The next steps in the relentless evolution towards complete clarity and precision continue to expose deeper and subtler dimensions in the experience of the ego-self. Being continues to reveal its reality more forcefully, and this brings back the ego-self; the latter can still restructure itself because of the lack of understanding of some of its subtler underpinnings. The self-identity structure reappears at this point as yet another empty shell, with even deeper elements illuminated. The empty shell appears at this time, as specific tensions around the head, indicating the concentration of the structure of the shell at the head. The student feels he is an empty shell, and his head is the thickest layer of the shell. Thinking becomes obsessive and speedy, and the empty shell feels more and more dry and abstract. Slowly, with patient inquiry into this manifestation, the student begins to realize the mental nature of the empty shell. He begins to see quite directly, and in lived experience, how his sense of self originates in his mind, how his familiar identity is a product of a mental network that is perpetuated by a mental process. He can see sometimes how mental his experience of himself and the world has been, even when he is quite emotional or physical. The more he understands the mental quality of his life and world, the more he begins to feel empty, meaningless, superficial, and dry. The mental shell becomes emptier and flimsier when he begins to see how he used ideas, mental postures, and concepts to define himself.

The Empty Shell Feels Impoverished, Insubstantial and False

As the student works through his ego identifications (the self-images that compose his self-representation), the structure of self-identity begins to be revealed as a psychic structure patterned by images from past experience. Further experience increasingly reveals the unreality and underlying emptiness of this central self-structure. The emptiness and meaninglessness expose the absence of fundamental truth in his normal sense of identity. He begins to realize that what he has been taking to be himself is actually a shell, devoid of any substantial reality or inherent richness. At this point the student literally experiences himself as a hard shell (of various degrees of hardness depending on how defensive he feels) that contains nothing within it. The empty shell feels impoverished, insubstantial, and false. He feels hollow and vacant, as if his body has become a shell of tension with its insides sucked out of it.

The Fake Shell is Redeemed as the Soul

When the Absolute is realized, is really established, you can see the whole universe emerge again, but in a more real, more living, more organic way. The mind comes back, but comes back in true thinking. For the first time, you understand what thinking is. The thinking, the mind that we thought was a problem for spiritual realization—which it was—is now redeemed and functions in a real way. We realize that there is true thinking, liberated mentation, in which the thoughts themselves are an expression of love and peace and harmony. Then there is true feeling. There is true action. True thought. All redeemed. The dream of the human soul is to live in the real world, with joy and compassion, with harmony and peace and love. The dream of the human soul is to live a human life where life, world, and what is thought of as spiritual aren’t separate. We don’t liberate ourselves by leaving the world. We liberate ourselves by living the world. So it’s as if the shell is redeemed. The shell that is the ego, the empty shell, the fake one, is redeemed as the soul. When we see that the ego is not separate, when we recognize its original sin, the shell becomes connected, continuous with the whole. And that very shell, now made of essence and love and truth, we now realize is the soul. In the Christ perspective, the shell that is the apparent world, the empty world, the fake world, is resurrected as the Cosmic Logos, the true living world, the universal soul.

The Shell is Just a Sense of Identity

We call the totality of the self-images the "shell," because the sense of being a shell-like structure surrounding an empty space is a very common way that people experience the normal identity as it becomes conscious. Normally, of course, this structure is unconscious; one doesn't experience the shell as a shell, one simply experiences a sense of identity. For most people, this shell is not a grandiose self; it's just a sense of identity. For the narcissistic personality, the sense of identity is a grandiose self because the grandiose component self-representations dominate the sense of identity.

The Shell, then, is Simply the Soul Structuring Itself Through Self-Image

In the language we have been developing, awareness of the empty shell is the direct awareness of the structure of self-identity when it is not being defended against. It is the structure of the self—patterned by the self-representation—which gives the individual his normal feeling of identity. It is very clear in the experience of the empty shell that experiencing ourselves through a representation alienates us from our essential core, and that identification with the self-representation and the feeling of hollowness are two aspects of the same phenomenon. This shell, then, is simply the soul, structuring itself through the self-image. It is the self, structured by the totality of all self-representations. It includes trying to be a certain way in order to be recognized and loved, but it also includes any image through which we define ourselves. Thus, the shell exists at several levels, depending on what dimension of identity we are aware of. Any definition of ourselves through an image, or through any concept, will at some point be seen as a shell. The moment we know ourselves through the mind, we become a shell. Even an image of the Essential Identity itself can become part of the shell. Any image, arising from any experience, even the experience of self-realization, becomes a shell if it is used by the mind to define who we are in the present. Any memory of Essence, or any spiritual experience, becomes part of the shell if it is used for identity. The shell is the self produced by the mind. It is a mental structure and not beingness in the now.

Subscribe to the Diamond Approach