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There is No ‘Authentic Self’

By Derek Beres on Friday October 18th, 2019

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 frameworks for perceiving the world stem 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.

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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22 Responses to There is No ‘Authentic Self’

  1. Chris are you saying we are just the self as a biological organism with its conditioned and biochemical based awareness? If so, I respect your opinion but it is not my view.

    The article has connected samasara’s up with the biological processes of brain and body. This is fair in consideration of one aspect of samasara’s as the product of the thinking and human identified mind. The point of ‘samsara’s’ is more to do with our identification with them, defining us and limiting us. I am reading in your article that you propose that is all there is? If using these Vedanta terms, then more consideration may be needed of the ‘Atman’, the pure essence of Brahma Self which is source, centre and transcendent to the ‘samsara’ identified self.

  2. I very much enjoyed reading the various views on this vexing subject ….. I am 73 years old and have lived a fulfilling life, just by expecting it to be so ! Our human condition does not allow us to comprehend the complexity of our being and I suggest it is folly to try to do so … all will be revealed, but not in this life !

  3. Unfortunately, the author of this piece has misstated the truth of who and what we really are. As others have stated, there is a core, unconditioned, unchanging, ever present Presence, aka Awareness, that enlivens and underpins all experience. This core, unchanging, unconditioned, formless Presence is rightly known as the True, Authentic Self, without which there is nothing (no-thing) to behold as there is no beholder, no one there to identify as an ego-based entity. Given that we are aware of the phenomenal world, including the body and the mind(as well as all objects), we must recognize/know (re-cognize) that we are the Awareness/True Authentic Self. Blessings.

  4. I’ve come to consider the “true self”, the sat nam, to be aspirational. The contrast between where I feel myself to be versus the self I desire to be is the pull toward home, toward a vaguely recalled unity of self and Self.

  5. Isn’t the true Self the spirit, loose from physical and mental, not overloaded with environmental fears, judgments, anger etc, but the spiritual self UNDER our thoughts which are put in and influenced by the environment (because of fear, judgment, etc)?

  6. You’ve missed the entire point altogether, which is humorous to me. True Self is not who you *think* you are … no thought can describe you. We are not the body and so talking about chemicals and the brain doesn’t belong in this conversation.

    This is the easiest way to first experience True Self. It’s a meditation and I’m not charging anything for it.

    We all know the saying, “Put it on the back burner.” That’s what we’re going to do (anyone who chooses to do this).

    Read through this and then sit quietly, relax your body, and go for it … and enjoy your Self. 😀

    Imagine a large pot on a back burner. Put your body into the pot (just do it lol). Put your ego-mind-personality in. Add in all of your thoughts, judgments, concepts, perceptions, ideas, hopes, dreams, and desires. You don’t need them right now.

    Now put in any fears, anger, sadness, grief, and all other emotions and feelings. You can take them back out when you’re done with this. Add in all of your human stories, the roles you play through this body (man/woman, son/daughter, sister/brother, human, nationality, etc.). Next, put in your sense of separateness, loneliness, “I, self, me”, and your name(s). Just let them all go for now.

    Lastly, add in your attachment to the things in the pot and your tendency to identify yourself as those things. Just. Let. Go.

    Now put the lid on the pot. When thoughts come, as they’re automatically generated and will show up, just quietly put them in the pot without identifying with them or giving them attention.

    Notice that you’re still present and have no need to identify with anything in the pot to Be. Is this your imagination? You know the answer. Do you exist without the things in the pot? Are you less? Are you more? Are you worried about anything? How do you feel?

    This is True Self, Beloveds. Namaste. <3

  7. Interesting commentary on a ‘self help’ bent that has us conditioned to believe we are never our true selves that somehow that self is the only one we cover up with ego, bad memories/experience and so on.
    1) We are given neutral and easy or ‘good’ experiences and memories as well.
    2) An over focussing on this so-called true self is detrimental to ever feeling content with all of who we are. It is essentially another example of hierarchical thinking…some things are better or worse.
    3) To not monitor our many selves is to not understand that we survive amongst others. Somehow we have fallen into a trap of good selves, bad selves. I would suggest that sometimes we are more functional than others. That’s it.
    4) The author’s final statement feeds back to the original quandry of searching for a better than who we are self in any moment….”that beautifully is up to you to decide.” Suggesting we choose any given self in any given moment. Sometimes yes, sometimes no…tell that to anyone’s panic self. All we’ve got is self awareness and an acceptance of all of our selves. If a part of us no longer serves us…perhaps we decide to shift that if we can. We could all just simply accept our many sides and those of others instead of attempting to attain some notion of a single buried self. We do not really get to choose amongst ourselves all that often, we can simply favour more functional ones instead of trying to eliminate those that are less functional.

    I agree with the author that much profit is made of our inability to know that we have similar flaws and loveliness as others. That’s it.

  8. The self is fluid. It has always been humorous to me that I am judged in the first six seconds of interaction with another person. Yes, I am that and that and that. Our thoughts are runaway horses and species idiosyncrasies. That is why it is so pleasant and restful to be around my dog.,The question is, why to we pick at ourselves so much as if we could ever understand or complete a thing that evolves and is better described as a flow rather than a fixed object. I am weary of being self-conscious to the point I can’t enjoy the experience or whatever this may be.

    • Great enquiries there Linda. Are minds, much like our essences, certainly are fascinating and mysterious things… I hope you find the answers to your questions 🙂

      Much love,
      Team UPLIFT

  9. An interesting viewpoint. I have variably questioned and followed the “authentic self” model. I agree that we are ever-changing, and uncovering some lost gem is futile. Finding joy is more about changing your attitude and your environment (internal & external influences) than finding something that’s been lost or gummed up with falsehoods. We will probably be debating the nature of self until we’re extinct, though.

  10. There is a core “you “ which has been the same since your first memory and will be the same for the rest of your life. This core is overlaid with the ego construct which is made from memories and is the source of our unhappiness, anxiety and despair. The “core you” or true self has universal qualities such as joy, compassion and love which are universal to humans.

  11. The writer is frustrated with the psycho-spiritual lingo of finding the true self.
    What he is missing is that if you can become the witness of your person, and see that your personality, your mind-body with all its neurological connections, is not who you truly are, but only a conditioned construct of what parents and society made you believe you were, then you are on your way to knowing your true self, which is behind the witness too, and behind and behind until you are one with consciousness. That is your true self — in essence he is right — a self does not exist in consciousness but becomes one with all.
    Using the general ‘you’ — this is not personal

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