ON BEING ONESELF
“Today you are you, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is you-er than you.”
The curious fact is that it’s not always easy to just “be yourself”, nor even to know precisely who that is.
“Who Am I?” is one of the most basic questions we can ask in deep meditative inquiry. This question first appeared in my awareness somewhere around the age of 3, and it is still alive in me.
We can address this question at various levels of depth, both intellectually and experientially. I can convey some basic points of my understanding by describing the experience I had several decades ago at a contemplative inquiry retreat. The inquiry took place in a dyadic dialogue format. In each 45 minute segment, one partner simply gave the prompt: “tell me who you are”, while the other partner contemplated, answered, and then contemplated some more. We reversed roles. Then we changed partners. For a total of 54 hours.
Of the many things that happened for me during this profound retreat, one vivid element I recall was the sensory experience of the collective voices in the room. The first night was marked by the sounds of lively chatter as everyone told their story: (What I do for a living, who I’m married to, what I studied in school, what I do for fun, where I live, etc.) By the second day, the collective mind of the room had become very much more settled. There was a lot of silence in the room, and a palpable sense of meditative presence. (Similarly in my own mind: a lot of stillness, with empty space between thoughts).
While it was interesting in its own right to observe the content of what came up for me in response to the prompt, eventually it all seemed to boil down to the feeling of “blah, blah, blah”: a kind of boredom I felt about the oft-told story of myself (or maybe even a certain boredom with self itself.) I gained a deep appreciation of a truth articulated by the psychoanalyst Roy Schafer: The self is a story; it is the story that there is a self to tell a story to.
At the same time, it was also clear that behind the story of Who I Am — beneath the layers of identity and personality — there was a felt experience of what it is like to be me. (Who am I? I’m me! ) This felt sense was ineffable, but somehow constant behind fluid and continuously changing subjective experience. I felt a profound sense of realization regarding the truth of Heraclitus’ well-known aphorism “you can’t step in the same river twice”. (It wouldn’t be the same river, nor would it be the same person.) And yet, there was also an indisputable experience of sameness within the subjective diversity: a sense of ‘me’. This subjective experience is what we call the psychological self (the being of which is the topic of this discussion.)
Looking back from my current vantage point, several decades later, my sense is that becoming myself has been a lifelong process of deepening authenticity. Though difficult to define, authenticity refers generally to the congruence between what we say/do and who we are. Simply put, I am authentic when I am being myself (so at this point the definition becomes circular). Nonetheless, broadly speaking, authenticity is reflected in how we inhabit ourselves; how comfortable we feel in our own skins; by our spontaneity and freedom of expression. It also carries the meaning that we are fulfilling our innate potential.
In contrast, we are inauthentic when we show up in a way that forfeits individual meaning in favour of the habit of trying to please and accommodate to the wishes of others. In this case, the natural, spontaneous expression of “who we are” gets coopted. “False Self” supplants “true self”.
The ability to authentically be oneself is reflected by how we show up in life. It has to do with how we relate to ourselves as well as with our ability to be vulnerable and intimate with others. It is an evolving dimension of being increasingly comfortable and natural, as expressed by the following great quote: “I used to be different, now I’m the same.” *
The quality and depth of being which is engaged when I am being myself is the quintessential thing. The ideal state of being entails an experience of flow as well as a sense of being optimally tuned and responsive to what is going on both internally and externally. We feel alert and aware; subjectively cohesive, alive, and integrated. This is what I call, for want of a better phrase, “true subjectivity”. In some moments, this experience may deepen into stillness, a sense of mystery or even awe: ultimately, the ineffable experience of being itself. In such moments, we come home to ourselves.
*Title of film which documents Erhard Seminars Training (Werner Erhard, 1978).