“To be yourself in a world that’s constantly trying to make you into something else is the greatest achievement”.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of the greatest tragedies of life– and a source of so much suffering — is the simple fact that so many of us are disconnected from who we really are.
Each of us is the essentially same. We are all the Self — pure, limitless awareness.
Yet this awareness, this consciousness, expresses in unique configurations for each of us. We all have our own psychological, mental, emotional and spiritual constitution based upon the interplay of innumerable factors, not least the gunas.
It’s important to honour that. If we don’t, if we aren’t true to our own nature, suffering is inevitable.
When we don’t live in harmony with our own nature, with our dharma, we compromise ourselves and our integrity. We live inauthentic lives in which all we’re doing is acting out the script programmed into us by others.
We become disconnected from ourselves.
When this happens, it doesn’t matter what we do in life and what we chase after (fame, fortune, romance or an endless supply of chocolate chip cookie ice cream) — we’ll never feel complete.
Try though we might, we never attain the happiness and wholeness we’re seeking.
We can’t. Because we’re looking for it in the wrong place.
Happiness can only come from living with authenticity and following our own nature.
To do this, we have to dare to be who we are and to do what makes us come alive.
In Vedanta, this is called svadharma. We each have our own svadharma; our own particular nature. It’s our duty to be as we are and to follow that nature. Dharma is built into us. It’s pre-programmed. It’s part of the factory settings.
Yet it’s so easy to become disconnected from our essential nature. From almost the moment we learn to communicate with words, we’re trained and conditioned to be other than we are.
We learn from a young age that the way we are isn’t quite good enough. In order to be loved and accepted, we have to behave in certain ways.
That’s a large part of the reason we struggle to realise our own identity.
We live in a culture that paradoxically puts individualism on a pedestal and yet at the same time demands conformity.
You’re given a small range of roles you can choose from; a catalogue of caricature-like identities.
This can become a real trap. You end up identifying with these roles and self-imposed stereotypes. You forget they are just personas or masks.
Furthermore, when you adopt a persona that isn’t in line with your nature, you become frustrated and unfulfilled. Something gnaws away inside you because on some level you know you’re not being authentic.
Happiness is impossible when you’re living inauthentically. A huge gulf forms between who you are and who you’re choosing to be in daily life. The size of that gulf is proportionate to the psychological pain you suffer.
I always remember this powerful piece of advice, a warning if you will:
Don’t come to the end of your life only to realise you’ve been living the wrong life.
To live authentically, to be yourself and to fulfil your own dharma, requires courage. There’s no doubt about that. There are always going to be people ready to knock you down. The system (i.e., our society) pays lip service to individualism but it doesn’t like people who go against the grain.
Go take a walk down any street. Notice how people largely tend to dress pretty much the same, behave pretty much the same and even think pretty much the same.
How much of our behaviour is authentic and how much is only conditioned response?
It’s so easy to sleepwalk your way through life.
But it will eat away you until one day you realise there’s nothing left inside…
You’ve become hollow.
The joy was extinguished from your heart long ago.
So how do we ‘be ourselves’ then?
Well, we already ARE ourselves, of course. We just need to question whether our lives and our actions and words are an accurate expression of who we are.
To live authentically is to live from the heart — to know what’s important to us, what we love and what brings us joy, and to express that in every way we can.
This might require saying a huge “fuck it!” to the world.
We all tend to have an idea of who and what others and ‘the world’ thinks we SHOULD be. But life can’t be lived on the basis of second-hand opinions, thoughts and values.
If we’re to be free, the way we choose to live has to be real, immediate, fresh and vital. It has to be from the heart. And sometimes to be authentic we have to challenge the assumptions of society and those around us.
This isn’t, I hasten to add, a ticket to behave irresponsibility and without regard to others.
When we follow our dharma, we find ourselves naturally aligned with universal dharma — that built-in, innate sense of ‘right and wrong’. One of the prime universal dharmas is non-injury to others.
If for whatever reason you find yourself needlessly hurting other people with your words or actions (“I’m just being honest and telling it like it is!”) then you’re not being true to yourself…you’re being an ass.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t have to stand up for yourself and challenge people from time to time. But this can be done with kindness and noninjury.
It takes time to peel back the layers of societal conditioning that may have kept you zombified for a significant portion of your life.
It can be challenging trying to rediscover the innate freshness, zest for living and self-expression you had as a young child, before society trained you to disconnect from your nature in order to mould you into good little worker/consumer.
But it’s a journey you have to take if you want to be free. This is the means to finding the happiness and wholeness you’ve long sought in the wrong places (namely in anything outside of you).
It reconnects you with what you truly are and what you truly love.
And this usually expresses itself as something that helps the whole in some way.
We’re not organisms existing in isolation to the whole. We’re part of it. Just as your cells all combine to make up your body, we are each a cell in the greater organism that is this world.
Cells aren’t in it for themselves. If they are they become cancerous and a danger to the greater whole. They work for the totality.
In what way were you born to joyfully benefit the world? Were you born to be a storyteller, a healer, a philosopher, or a statesman/woman?
Were you born to paint rainbows or make awesome food or share some other gift no matter how seemingly insignificant? Only you can answer that. No one else can, least of all “the system”.
Don’t be consumed by the system.
Don’t let it tell you who you are and who you should be because it doesn’t know!
Neither do other people, no matter how well-intentioned.
The only person who can tell you who you are and what song you were born to sing, is you. It might take a little while for you to scrape away the external conditioning and reconnect with your heart. But it’s the journey to freedom, and a journey you were always destined to take.
Gnothi Seauton — know thyself.
And then have the courage to live accordingly.