Authentic self

In a world surrounded by the noise of who we should be and what we should want, it is sometimes difficult to stay true to our own authentic self, or even being aware of what our authentic self looks like in the first place.

Most religions encourage us to focus on self discovery and self realization. Christianity reminds the followers that human beings are created in the image of God and one can seek help from the Holy Spirit to guide them to live in accordance with God’s will. According to Islam, the basic “Fitrat” or human nature is pure but gets corrupted by worldly influences. Hinduism reminds the followers that our “Atman” or self is the same as “Brahman” or the Divine. Taoism views self as an extension of the cosmos. According to Lao-Tzu, the greatest gift we have to give is that of our own self- transformation.

One of the benefits of an active spiritual life is the recognition of our authentic self. By exploring the views of religious traditions, we can find insight and wisdom on how to clear away the cobwebs of the socialized self, which hinders our growth.

If we look at a young child at play, they seldom share these worldly concerns. Like a flower that needs the correct balance of air, water and sun to fully blossom, children only want to love, learn and play-and are in the state of flourishing when they engage in these three essential pursuits. If the key to flourishing is deeply engaging in loving, learning and playing, then why, in all our wisdom and experience, don’t we do this too?

This is for one simple reason: as adults we are governed by false narratives that are dominant in our societies. We allow these false narratives to dictate our lives because we live compulsively, instead of consciously. We reject what we truly want and need in favor of being driven by societal forces that want to make us other than who we truly are.

The state of flourishing seems like an impossible target, a state only reached when we have achieved wealth, success and other worldly markers. There is a beautiful parable in Hindu texts: a deer runs as she is captivated by the scent of musk, not realizing that the musk she is smelling is inside her all along. We are like that deer. We can manufacture happiness and meaning inside us through acts of loving, learning and playing while engaging with the phenomenal world outside. It has always existed within ourselves. It is for this reason I established the framework that I now call ‘LLP’—Love, Learn and Play.

Across all religions and traditions, prophets, philosophers and sages have tried to raise awareness of the profound superiority of our authentic self to our artificial ego-selves. The lesson remains consistent: so long as we are operating through our socialized self rather than our authentic self, we live compulsively and not consciously. The decisions we make are based solely on predetermined scripts and expectations of particular societies we are born into. This leaves us with very little agency to see the world through open eyes.

We can view each of our identities as consisting of two selves: the authentic self we are born with and the socialized self that we learn as we imitate the world around us.

So how do we find our authentic self? This is less a matter of acquiring something new and more a matter of remembering who we always have been. Plato referred to this process as ‘anamnesis,’ remembering who we are. This is similar to the idea of Brahman in the case of Hinduism or remembering our connection to God in the case of the Abrahamic religions. This idea is expressed in the short yet profound phrase, ‘Tat twam asi’(thou are that, or you are the ultimate reality), a concise summary of Hindu philosophy. Across religions the authentic self is characterized by wakefulness, compassion, and love, which are all traits where the ego self falls short.

According to the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
—1 Peter(3:34), Christian text

‘Whoever purifies himself does so for the benefit of his own soul; and the destination (of all) is God.’
—Qur’an (35:18), Muslim text

“Be a lamp unto yourself. Be your own confidence. Hold on to the truth within yourself as to be the only truth.”
—The Buddha

“This supreme Self is beginningless, deathless and unconfined; although it inhabits bodies, it neither acts nor is tainted.”
—Bhagavad Gita (13:31), Hindu text

“The student of Torah is like the amnesia victim who tries to reconstruct from fragments the beautiful world he or she once experienced. By learning Torah, man returns to his own self.”
—Rabbi David Hartman

“Everyone in the world knows how to raise questions about what they don’t know, but none know how to raise questions about what they already know. […] all creatures, down to the smallest, fluttering insects, have thus lost touch with their inborn natures.”
—Chuang Tzu, Defining figure in Taoism

“Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world can alter.”
—Baha’u’llah, Baha’i prophet

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Knowledge acquired by human beings has been increasing at an exponential rate for over a century. However, we have yet to make commensurate progress in human flourishing. This is because knowledge has been getting increasingly fragmented and sits mostly in silos. The UEF believes that if we can integrate knowledge across the silos of time, civilizations, geographies and academic disciplines.