My name is Michael. I am 33 years old. I live in rural southwestern Washington state. I have a wife and two daughters. I grew up as a genuine Christian, in a nurturing, nuclear family. I have a degree in electrical engineering. I run a tiny engineering firm, and am working on funding a chicken startup. I have about 70 chickens right now. I drink too much Mountain Dew. I sit on my deck and stare up at the stars and think about the universe too much. I might start a cult someday. Like, a cool fun one. The best kool-aid ever. My wife once described going to bed with me as being at a slumber party with the dumbest kid in school.
This is the facade of my life. It’s not fake — it’s just public facing. There are nuances to my life everyone doesn’t see. Of course there are. I put out pictures and commentary on my life to the world that are meaningful to me. I don’t advertise every time that I cry, hurt, or fight. I do advertise that sometimes. I don’t think I’m hiding anything particularly ugly. I’m simply a person, as are you, despite what your own ego might tell you about yourself. If you are not a person reading this, then I apologize for calling you a person, and hope we can have a chat sometime about what it is that you are.
Asking ourselves who we are, at a deeper level, leads to wisdom. I am not so self focused that I think actually knowing who I am is the wisdom I need —rather, I feel to be able to come to deeper knowledge and wisdom of truths of the world and my place in it requires that journey of self. Myself, yourself, everyone-ones-self, is much less important than our ego suggests, but we as creatures have a fractal-like resemblance to how different chunks of the universe work. Understanding yourself reveals much about how the world around you works — and, more practically, helps you understand how you are able to exist in the world in a positive, symbiotic relationship.
This is the deepest practical value that I can find in the self-journey — understanding yourself allows you to understand how to interact with the world around you. Everything after this may just be navel gazing.
The culture you were brought up in, likely, does not value you finding yourself. Humans, if they are to be cogs in the wheel of society, must function as cogs, and boy does society need a lot of cogs. The beehive of humanity requires structures, roles, and people to fulfill those roles. I do not take issue with the above model in and of itself— rather, when the beehive depends on oppression and control, the bees suffer, and I don’t like bees to suffer. Their colony collapses, plants stop being pollinated, and our stores of honey dry up.
It’s a lot easier to be able to whip the slaves carrying the stones to get them to build the pyramid than it is to provide them with sick days, minimum wage, and a promise of no corporal punishment. Or, at least limit it to only two beatings per day.
I believe with what we now know about what a human is and how humans work, we can build better social structures. To build something properly, you first need to understand the nature of what you are building with. Coming together to build something greater than the sum of its parts — this is human progress. You can argue that this is a bad thing, but I do not think you can escape the inevitability of it. This doesn’t preclude a meteor or other disaster (likely self-caused) from removing humans and their progress from the universe.
Humans can work together collaboratively — often, it feels they are tricked or deluded into working collaboratively (see: current state of media), but this manipulation could become obsolete if we build better structures. To understand how humans work, I think we need many individuals understanding how they themselves work, why they work that way, and understand that — gasp — other people are different! We need to compare experiences, be open, be vulnerable, and accept that we are all human. So many groups of people seem to view and name themselves as, the people. We are all the people. So I can be a little more open too, about who I am and what I think about things.
I have a fear of success. I struggle with some sexual shame. I have a confused view of money and if it’s OK to acquire it. I’m extraordinarily trusting, and equally extraordinarily able to be taken advantage of (at least, historically). I do not often enjoy the normal. I have a tendency to save a video game before an important choice because I hate not knowing what could have been, and I want to try them both to see what I like better. #FOMO my life, right? I see the best in people, and feel driven to pull it out of them. This makes me a real pain in the ass. I am just as blind to my own faults as any human, and require the influence of other humans to keep me humble and in check. I can express myself adequately through writing, but if you get me emotional in person, it’s likely I’m just going to ramble, find your favorite holiday, and a way to insult it.
These layers of deeper understanding come from looking at myself as objectively as I can. Other people likely have already revealed much of this information to you, and you have ignored it. It takes time to find out the truths and falsehoods of what people say about you. Regular introspection using one of many tools available (prayer, meditation, time alone sitting in nature — there are many paths, and I can almost guarantee your religion or culture has already provided you with the tool, and then somehow managed to obscure it) is all that is necessary, and then you can supplement your internal journey with crazed internet searches to unlock other people’s experiences that resonate with your own, and then you suddenly realize you’re a Hindu, even if you choose to ignore it.
Study yourself as you would study something you’ve never seen before — you are the alien in a UFO that landed nearby, conveniently speak English, and are now being interrogated by yourself. A fun research project on either your favorite or least favorite thing in the world — yourself.
Ask yourself probing questions about your personality. Ask useful questions about your quirks — for example, social anxiety is incredibly common, but is a diverse condition which comes from different places in different people— so ask yourself why you feel anxiety. Think about your history. Did something happen to make you feel deeply anxious in a your past in a public setting? Do you feel unsafe or threatened? Is it because you genuinely just don’t want to be out in society? Were you teased or mocked growing up? Are you just a creature that evolved in a natural environment, and you aren’t evolved to deal with modern life?
When you begin examining yourself, several things happen. As you begin understanding the complex causes behind the ways you act, you begin to gain freedom from them. As you understand the cause of your anxiety, you find ways to deal with it, and ways to even change it, if you so desire. I have found as I understand myself, some understandings allow me to function better as a human, and some make me realize that there is an aspect of myself I must change — projecting misplaced anger was something I found necessary to change, rather than to accept.
Most of my personal anxiety is a result of not desiring to be around people. Simple. This led to another question — why do I not desire to be around people?
I found my resting state to be naturally very introverted. I am constantly thinking and evaluating when I’m out with people — and it can be exhausting. I try to understand something about them, their life, and where they are coming from, and form my message to speak to them as an individual. Effective communication is a battle, and I don’t always win.
I genuinely love interacting with people. It’s not a love/hate relationship. I want to hear about them, their stories, their life. Some of it, I realize, is selfish. The more I understand about others, the more I understand about myself and the world around me, and I certainly identify myself as a knowledge seeker. There’s just a lot of people, with a lot of stories, and also I have two kids under the age of 3 who I haven’t yet figured out how to explain introvert to.
This led me to understand that the i-hate-people mantra that everyone has is true in some senses for me, and I’ll wield it as necessary — but when I come to understand myself, I learn I do not hate people. I learn I have feelings of hatred towards, basically everything when I become overwhelmed and exhausted. I am now freed to continue unquestioningly (ok, MOSTLY unquestioningly) loving people and understanding my current limits as a human now that I have chosen to limit my social interactions. It’s also possible I can practice and change myself in order to find ways to change how I interact with people to make it less draining and exercise my best extrovert self. Maybe that’s my future bestselling book — Harnessing Meditation to Become an Extrovert. But really, you can’t change everything about yourself all at once, usually, so you choose your path of improvement. (However, I do think there are times you can change a whole lot at once.)
Understanding the roots of my anxiety allowed me to be freed from a form of hatred. You never quite know what incredible things will happen on the journey of self discovery.
Unraveling this deeper layer leads to an incredible amount of self-growth. You begin to have a new understanding of phrases like giving permission to yourself. Permission to not have to be right. Permission to not have to be perfect. Permission to understand who you are and how you want to interact with the world. Permission to, perhaps, ditch the 9–5 and freelance. Permission, perhaps, to realize you benefit from the 9–5 structure, and to work within it understanding it as simply a man-made structure to help society (and you!) achieve goals. Permission to be a little less well-defined sexually than you realized or your society may like. All of these requirements for permission — it’s almost as if the author was raised in system that had a lot of external authority. Understanding where I came from allows me to understand that I do not need permission, but since my mind was wired to seek it — I can give myself permission.
This layer also seems to involve personal religious and spiritual beliefs. Do you really believe what you were taught to believe? Do you buy the arguments of — Islam? Christianity? Buddhism? Maybe you were brought up to be an atheist, but you feel a spark of the Divine that you cannot explain, but since you’re an atheist, you’re not allowed to display that. You might be laughed at for your backwards belief in the supernatural. Or, perhaps you need that permission to become an atheist or an agnostic. I could give you that permission, but you don’t need it from me. You know inside of yourself what you really believe. You also know if you don’t really know what you believe, but are searching for answers. You do not need to know — a place of searching is a genuinely healthy place too.
You can dig deeper still. Through the facade, through the self-awareness of your personality and beliefs. Beyond the ego and individual, inside of yourself you find some connection to the whole of humanity.
Your personality, your beliefs — this is the core of what you are, yes? Your ego would say true. As I explore, I’m not sure. As you find yourself able to change your actions, thought patterns, able to shape your vision of yourself and who you want to be, you can begin viewing yourself in a different way. Perhaps you are not the individual you think you are. If you could totally change your value system and adopt a different culture wholly, would you still be the same person? What does that say about our desire to hold on to our conceptions of how life should be lived?
You realize that you are one of billions of humans on the planet. Each of those persons has their own journey of self discovery. No two people have the exact same set of circumstances. Many circumstances are similar enough that we can learn from sharing our experiences in a way that others can understand — and here we find great value in storytelling. To be able to communicate one’s experience in a way another can truly understand is an incredible ability.
We find there are incredibly diverse cultures on this planet. There are patriarchies, but there are also matriarchies. Is one inherently right and the other wrong? Have you explored both possibilities within yourself?
There are polythesists. Monotheists. Atheists. Agnostics. There are Western values, Eastern values, hybrids of all of the above, and countless smaller value systems. There are religions that encompass billions of people, functioning as complex, multi-cellular distributed organisms, and religions composed of one or two folks, living as simply as an amoeba.
You can change your religion. You can change your culture. If you so choose, you could pick up your life, settle somewhere completely alien to you, and over time, change yourself to become a member of that society, with behaviors the new society applauds that your former society would have thought evil. We have new understandings of ourselves that allow us to understand why things like meditation can speed these transformations and accelerate our ability to understand and grow ourselves. Meditation facilitates the ability of the brain to forge new connections, and many other tools serve the same purpose. The mystical-thing is also a sciencey-thing, but we always knew science was mystical.
Your journey to understanding yourself helps you identify as part of a complex web of systems. Your ability to redefine and improve yourself allows you to have a measure of control over how you fit into the world, how you interact with the world, and how the world views you.
Your journey to self is valuable, but it is not the end of the journey. There’s a longer, infinite, impossible journey in understanding more of the universe and what role you play in it.