Uncovering Your True Self

Skoginteriør by Ludvig Munthe, 1870

“A weak mind cannot control its own projections. Be aware, therefore, of your mind and its projections. You cannot control what you do not know. On the other hand, knowledge gives power. In practice it is very simple. To control yourself — know yourself.” —Nisargadatta Maharaj

How do we get to know the self? We often think we know the self, but what we are really perceiving is an external layer of selfhood. When we say, “What am I?” and then answer that question, we provide a symbolic answer that does not reach to the essence of who we are. The true self cannot be described. It is true, like all truths, only because it is beyond all conceptualization. We can know it but cannot adequately describe it.

This explains why a lot of people have trouble ‘finding themselves’. Popular narratives of finding oneself often involve, traveling, exploring, working, relationships and pleasant experiences. These are all activities that we participate in ‘out there’. They only help us find ourselves to the extent that they catalyze an understanding of the self beyond thought. New experiences make us more prone to the self-reflection that leads to a better understanding of truth. Pure experience is what reveals the true self, not any one set of experiences in particular. But just as often these experiences merely serve as distractions from the real inward work of uncovering the self. We pour dirt on the treasure chest instead of digging it out of the ground. If our intentions are to change, we remain as we are.

If we approach experience with a desire to find the self, a preconception of what the self is, or a need to be someone else, we won’t become any wiser. If we try to assume a label or a role, we become nothing but an object to serve the desires of the ego or of the egos of others. Many people think they are finding themselves when they are really just buying into some sort of role-playing game. They go to dramatic lengths to change their appearances, become more attractive, acquire knowledge and resources, etc, but for what? This does not fundamentally change anything about who someone is.

People used to try to find salvation by losing themselves in religious submission and subordination, a process which had a whole different set of hindering side-effects. We still see these destructive side-effects in traditional religious societies trying to co-exist with the modern world. Similarly limiting, the more individualized and specialized our particular society becomes, the more people try to find salvation in finding themselves rather than losing themselves. They try on various hats and lifestyles, but nothing quite works. They are all bandaids on the eternal void of the self. Once we recognize that, like the Tao says, “the eternal name cannot be named”, we find the true self. Once we stop trying to become something else, we can exist in truth.

Traditionalists accuse individualists of being too egotistical, hedonistic and narcissistic. Individualists accuse traditionalists of being too conservative, restrictive, and oppressive. This is where our Buddhist sensibility comes into play— we must find a middle way. When we look within and cultivate mindfulness alongside transformative real world experiences, we find discipline alongside flexibility. We find strength alongside tolerance. We find self-confidence alongside love. We find awareness alongside skepticism. These are the conditions for a more comprehensive understanding of the self.

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