Nothing says Hallmark like yoga memes, but truly one of the most baffling is also one of the most pervasive: Find Your Authentic Self.
Granted, this is often recited by one who hopes to sell you a program or series in which you can find that ‘self’ by purchasing what they’re selling or follow them along attending certain weekly classes or attending workshops, retreats, and so on. Granted, not all teachers are that insidious. Many genuinely believe the sentiment. Yet it is a statement that needs further investigation before being repeated.
It certainly has a nice ring to it, as if your ‘self’ is a diamond buried underneath a ton of rock waiting to be discovered. Indeed, this is sometimes how it’s presented: your ‘authentic self’ is a calm lake waiting for the ripples to settle. The only problem is that it’s just not true.
A Construction of our Brain
What we call the ‘self’ is a construction of our brain. First, think about what the term ‘self’ implies: understanding a separation between what you are, both physically and mentally/emotionally, and whatever is outside of you, or non-self. While a bit clinical, Antonio Demasio’s definition serves us well:
A dynamic collection of integrated neural processes, centered on the representation of the living body, that finds expression in a dynamic collection of mental processes.
That is, this thing we call the ‘self’ is the result of our neurochemistry interacting with our physical body and the outside world, resulting in not only what but how we think. Our mental processes—what in Indian philosophy is called samskaras (mental impression; psychological imprint)—accumulate from life experiences combined with the influence of our genes.
Our Chemistry and the Self
To give an example: my family suffers from anxiety. Both my parents have varying levels of it, one treated clinically, the other not; my sister and I both suffer from panic attacks. We have both used pharmaceuticals to treat this condition, though I no longer do (she does rarely). This med, Xanax, helped change our neurochemistry so that we could be calm during an attack.
But our initial chemistry created the conditions for us to most likely experience anxiety. It is possible that, had our lives been lived differently, we would not suffer. Growing up in an anxious household, though, fed the fire so that we too would live our lives anxiously. Thus much of my mental and emotional framework for perceiving the world stems from this condition. It affects my choices, decisions, how I move about the world—it is an integral piece of my ‘self’ created chemically and through experience.
This is the reality for all of us. We are the result of unseen but felt chemical processes combined with whatever life has handed us, and—importantly—how we have handled ourselves through whatever life has handed us.
Now, I could argue that my ‘authentic self’ is a calm, together man who laughs in the face of any anxiety or challenge, but that is simply false. Taking on that mindset allows another emotion to slip into the equation: guilt. I have this beautiful true Derek sitting inside me somewhere and all I have to do is rediscover him. But why have I not found him yet? What is he doing in there without me? Why won’t he come out and play already?
You can see that such thinking creates an infinite regress steeped in dualistic tendencies: somewhere inside me is another me who is way better than the current model. This is the result of our evolutionary impetus for progress gone awry. Hope in the future is important, but so is santosha (contentment). This quest for something ‘authentic’ puts forward the idea that the me living through what I am at the moment is a false god; no need to worry about him, he’s not real. Where is the cultivation of presence in such a belief?
Buddha’s Take on the (Not) Self
Buddhist philosophers have debated the notion of the ‘self’ for millennia. The self that a culture bent on individualism champions so heartily is, as Buddhists have argued, an illusion. Neuroplasticity, our ability to change our neural patterns (again, samskaras), renders the idea of a fixed self impossible. As philosophy professor Evan Thompson writes in Waking Dreaming Being,
The illusion—or delusion—is taking the self to have an independent existence, like taking the mirror image to be really in the mirror. Notice the image as such isn’t an illusion; it’s the taking of the image to exist in the mirror that’s the illusion. Similarly, it’s not the appearance of the self as such that’s the illusion; it’s taking the self to exist independently that’s the illusion.
Who are You in this Moment?
The self we are at this moment now is the authentic self—one that will most likely be different tomorrow, different after your next cup of coffee, different after the next person cuts you off on the highway or the next time your lover stares you in the eyes. Trying to get back or discover your ‘true self’ is a farce.
Yes, perhaps during the post-savasana bliss you feel as though this is the true you. But so is the you who ignores the person next to you because you’re staring at your phone or gossips about what that other person was wearing during class and can you believe it? Or the you who donates your time and money to charity and the you who lovingly takes care of your child or friend.
The self might be an illusion, but this moment now is not, and whoever you truly are will be whoever you are at every moment. And that, beautifully, is up for you to decide.