There is No ‘Authentic Self’

By Derek Beres on Monday October 31st, 2016

Letting Go of the Illusion of the 'True You'

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.

There is no real self hiding insideThere is no authentic self hiding inside

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.

A Construction of our BrainA construction of our brain

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.

Anxiety and ChemistryThe chemistry behind anxiety

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.

Dualistic Tendencies

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?

Somewhere inside of me is another meSomewhere inside of me is another me

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.

The self is an illusionThe self is an 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.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.




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15 Responses to There is No ‘Authentic Self’

  1. This is certainly one viewpoint that I find as rather simplistic intellectual gibberish. I suggest to the writer a good starting place for further education on the subject of what is authentic or not is go talk to some transgender people whom have been culturally prevented from exercising their authentic self, or those with a different disadvantage or availability of resources to fully exercise who they are.
    Granted, if you reduce everything to materialistic neural / chemistry elements, this is what kind of explanation you wind up with. This article seems inconsistent with the promotion of spirituality of Uplift. This article in no way represents my experience. Dont know about anyone else.

  2. One of the most self limiting and dis-empowering ideas from the new age (I don’t capitalize it any more) babble is the idea of connecting to a “higher self” through different practices, which are described in many ways.

    Depending on whichever new age “guru” is writing, the higher self is described as one of these: our “true” soul, our collective human soul, the “Gaian” soul, our alien soul family, and on and on.

    It seems like many people are now dissecting through these ideas to realize that a separate self is something that we have been conditioned into believing throughout our lives, starting at the moment we are born. The false self propaganda is immediate from our outset.

    Even an “authentic self” doesn’t make sense to a “non me” any more. We only believe we are self labels and self categories, in “my” opinion!

    • Jared, you might be interested in Robert Thurman’s commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Having spent nearly a half century studying Buddhist philosophy (and holding the chair of Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia U) he’s not quite an ignorant slouch when it comes to understanding psychology.

      He has a remarkable section in which he shows how the anatta or “no self” doctrine of Buddhism is actually **more** powerful as a foundation for true individuality than our common contemporary notions of ego or self.

      I had gone back and forth for some 20 years on whether Sri Aurobindo’s idea of the psychic being made sense when I read that. Thurman’s was really the best explanation of it I’ve ever seen.

  3. Jared and Derek:

    You might find it interesting to look up Sri Aurobindo’s description of “the psychic being,” which is very much our “authentic self.”

    From “The Life Divine”

    As the crust of the outer nature cracks, as the walls of inner separation break down, the inner light gets through, the inner fire burns in the heart, the substance of the nature and the stuff of consciousness refine to a greater subtlety and purity, and the deeper psychic experiences, those which are not solely of an inner mental or inner vital character, become possible in this subtler, purer, finer substance; the soul begins to unveil itself, the psychic personality reaches its full stature. The soul, the psychic entity, then manifests itself as the central being which upholds mind and life and body and supports all the other pow- ers and functions of the Spirit; it takes up its greater function as the guide and ruler of the nature. A guidance, a governance begins from within which exposes every movement to the light of Truth, repels what is false, obscure, opposed to the divine realisation: every region of the being, every nook and corner of it, every movement, formation, direction, inclination of thought, will, emotion, sensation, action, reaction, motive, disposition, propensity, desire, habit of the conscious or subconscious phys- ical, even the most concealed, camouflaged, mute, recondite, is lighted up with the unerring psychic light, their confusions dis- sipated, their tangles disentangled, their obscurities, deceptions, self-deceptions precisely indicated and removed; all is purified, set right, the whole nature harmonised, modulated in the psychic key, put in spiritual order. This process may be rapid or tardy according to the amount of obscurity and resistance still left in the nature, but it goes on unfalteringly so long as it is not complete. As a final result the whole conscious being is made perfectly apt for spiritual experience of every kind, turned to- wards spiritual truth of thought, feeling, sense, action, tuned to the right responses, delivered from the darkness and stub- bornness of the tamasic inertia, the turbidities and turbulences and impurities of the rajasic passion and restless unharmonised kinetism, the enlightened rigidities and sattwic limitations or poised balancements of constructed equilibrium which are the character of the Ignorance.”


    This might be helpful as well:

    This is the first result, but the second is a free inflow of all kinds of spiritual experience, experience of the Self, experi- ence of the Ishwara and the Divine Shakti, experience of cosmic consciousness, a direct touch with cosmic forces and with the occult movements of universal Nature, a psychic sympathy and unity and inner communication and interchanges of all kinds with other beings and with Nature, illuminations of the mind by knowledge, illuminations of the heart by love and devotion and spiritual joy and ecstasy, illuminations of the sense and the body by higher experience, illuminations of dynamic action in the truth and largeness of a purified mind and heart and soul, the certitudes of the divine light and guidance, the joy and power of the divine force working in the will and the conduct. These experiences are the result of an opening outward of the inner and inmost being and nature; for then there comes into play the soul’s power of unerring inherent consciousness, its vision, its touch on things which is superior to any mental cognition; there is there, native to the psychic consciousness in its pure working, an immediate sense of the world and its beings, a direct inner contact with them and a direct contact with the Self and with the Divine, — a direct knowledge, a direct sight of Truth and of all truths, a direct penetrating spiritual emotion and feeling, a direct intuition of right will and right action, a power to rule and to create an order of the being not by the gropings of the superficial self, but from within, from the inner truth of self and things and the occult realities of Nature.

    • I pray u do not remain fixed at this conclusion, still set in the illusion of duality. You can not go against something and not be polarized in its opposite. There is truth in all ways. Our frameworks of awakening are as joyous and plentiful as we are diverse in our vast human experiences. You are describing the trunk of an elephant as the whole elephant. Keep digging and you will rise above to higher truth. Blessings for your courage.

          • hmmm, can’t find the place to insert a compatible smiley face. How’s this? :>) (sorry, best I can do).

            Well, I don’t imagine he’s going to be very open to your suggestion, but good luck!

          • Thank u for your understanding. I take joy in finding truth in all frameworks of awakening, I love to study (and create)… and hold for those polarized into any one set idea… I’ve spent my fair share of years defending “my position” to no end but to become unteachable. Thankfully that phase is over. Btw, my experience at Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’s ashram in Pondicherry in 2010 was a pivotal one. I am deeply grateful for our teachers and their teachings. Blessings your way.

          • Hi Alexandra – how wonderful that you were there. Jan (my wife) spent 9 months there in the late 80s, and we went together for a month each year in 2001 and 2002. Looking forward to going back within the next 2-3 years.

            If you go again, be sure you visit the Matrimandir in Auroville – the most powerful energy I’ve experienced anywhere.

            Stop by our website some time and say hello:


          • Wow. 8 months in the 80’s… must have been life changing. Yes. I went to Matrimandir… the grounds only and have it on my bucket list for sure. I will check out your website soon. Thank you for your kindness!

  4. Hi Derek. I found the article very interesting and indeed if you were to reduce everything to materialistic neural / chemistry elements, this would be one, but only one logical conclusion. However, happily enough we are all individuals with ‘different’ sparks and thus, how individuals approach identifying the authentic self will also be different and meaningful to that person. I personally do believe you can find an authentic self that is not always on display – most certainly not a farce as you put it. I went into nature for 21 days to discover the real ‘me’, and after some time, I believe I did. It was enlightening and sometimes scary, but I did have a real connection that changed my outlook o me. I wrote a number of diary blogs on the experience which if you like, go and read about my time alone at http://www.mikenoelsmith.com

  5. Derek Beres, all the power to you for taking on a complex topic and presenting a clear and insightful perspective. My only disagreement would come in the form of having a different “conceptual definition” of the term “authentic self”. I find that your article discusses issues of identity versus the idea of the authentic self. I define the authentic self as the “core” self, the one who decides “who” will be present at the meeting at work, the parents/teachers meeting, meeting with a friend for lunch, sitting down at the piano, easel, keyboard or any creative medium, and so on. The core self is consciously choosing what to sound like or look like given any situation or circumstance, basing the decision on what others expect of us or what we expect of ourselves.

  6. Your True self is the part of you that consciously responds rather than reacts to upsets and stress. It is the part of you that is always conscious, and in a state of Presence, and it’s always there when you are anxious. You can be in a state of present moment awareness and unconditionally allow yourself to feel anxiety without allowing it to affect your behaviour by engaging in drama, sedation or attempts to control things. The more you do this the more present you are (the more you are your true self) and the less anxiety you feel.

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