To say that each of us has an internal “self” and an external “self” is not particularly revolutionary. We all have a natural sense that our thoughts and feelings are “inside” us and our bodies and actions are on the “outside” of us.
As Swedenborg describes it, though, “internal” and “external” are a little more nuanced: He divides our thoughts and feelings themselves into internal and external, with internal thoughts and feelings being those about spiritual things and concern for other people, and external thoughts and feelings being those that are about external concerns in the physical world.
So let’s say you’re cooking your family’s favorite dinner. When you’re measuring ingredients, setting the oven temperature, thinking about when to start cooking something to be done at a particular time, that’s all external thinking. When you’re imagining how happy your spouse and children will be, how nice it will be to sit down to eat together, feeling a sense of joy in doing something nice for people, that’s internal thinking and feeling.
So which is more important? Ultimately, our place in heaven (or hell) will be determined by what we love, what makes us happy. So it’s clear that ultimately internal things are more important. That makes sense because they feel “higher,” like they come from a part of us that is more “us.”
But externals are important too. For one, they give us the opportunity to express our internals. If you only think about that meal but don’t actually cook it, you won’t be sharing your love with your family in a very complete way. For another, our externals give us the chance to change. We can make ourselves do what’s right in externals even if we don’t really want to, and if we keep at it and ask the Lord to help He will ultimately change us so that we love to do good things.
Swedenborg makes one other key point about internals and externals, which is that while internals can “compel” externals (your deeper thoughts and feelings can control what you do on the outside), your externals cannot “compel” your internals (what you’re forced to do on the outside cannot control your thoughts and feelings on the inside). We see this all the time when one nation tries to rule over another, or when a repressive regime tries to control its own people. Ultimately hearts and minds cannot be controlled.
This is key when we are trying to help others: You might be able to force someone (your child, say, or your student, or someone who works for you) to do what you think is right, but unless you can appeal to his or her internals, you’re not really changing anything significant.
It’s also key when guiding ourselves in our own lives: Forcing ourselves to do the right thing is meaningless unless we also start an internal dialog about what we truly want and truly think, and start opening up inside to the Lord.