Authentic Self Expression: Impossible or Unavoidable?

From 2014 to 2015, I was the editor of a now-extinct web magazine devoted to exploring nonduality in modern life. Our project looked to music videos, the news, and other cultural ephemera as hooks for “pointing-out instructions,” opportunities to show our readers how to recognize their unity with everything. My job was to help people recognize, firsthand, that who they think they are — the isolated self, the lonely person wanting to connect — does not exist. “Non-separation” is the greater truth, and trying to connect just reinforces the illusion that we’re separate.

But therein lay the contradiction of this work: how am “I” going to try and tell “somebody else” that both of us are just two ends of one phenomenon, and ego is an optical illusion? Won’t anything I have to say about this basically just point back to that lie I’m trying to dispel? (And who is trying to dispel it, anyway?)

In other words, it messed with me — like self-work should. I spent a year intensely dedicated to the inquiry around authentic self-expression: It is impossible? Or is it unavoidable?

So much is written on this topic. This should come as no surprise. The modern world pits humans up against the institutions we create, and makes it necessary to conceal the wilderness that lives through us, to hide the undomesticated facets of our being that do not comply with social roles and expectations.

What’s more, it’s difficult to tell the truth when burdened with the insecurity that’s common to societies in which we are encouraged to strike out, away from home and family, and “make” ourselves in foreign lands without the benefit of the support that ancient human beings took for granted.

The constant posturing required to “make an honest living” in a powerfully dishonest world — a world that bases “wealth” on debt, that factors out the psychic and environmental costs we bear, that teaches us well-being is a product we can purchase — this dissonance between what we are told and what our bodies know is true, this is the recipe for our despair.

We all intuit something lost, some greatness we’ve misplaced in our one-million-year long march to the delusion that we rule the world from the safety of our desks and driver’s seats.

We have become our own worst enemy; internalized the tigers that in some deep way we ; and live in the anxiety that once found healthy outlet in a simpler world when danger either or . Once upon a time, we were surrounded by our loved ones, and that safety was occasionally interrupted by a predator. Now we all marinate in constant threats of terror and surveillance, economic downturn and apocalyptic warnings, broken intermittently by family visits.

How we live authentically when:

1) The systems we’ve created are opposed to human nature; and

2) We made it this way?

When we’ve lost touch with that which can’t be measured; when, if it’s visible, it’s commoditized; when that inchoate ache for our lost primal and un-numbered days is just exploited as a “pain point” into which our predatory markets pour their magic bullets…here’s an ecosystem in which books and articles on authenticity (like this one) will thrive.

We’re out of touch with who we are. We grew thinking that somebody has The Answers, and those answers can be bought.

They can’t. Here’s why:

You cannot be completely inauthentic, only more or less aware of who you are.

The masks and poses we adopt in culture with each other are a feature, not a bug. A personality is what makes you a person. As we grew into more complex and longer-lived societies, our primate ancestors developed ways of keeping track of who helped whom, of who was taking more than giving.

This was the beginning of the social super-organism, civilization, the Leviathan in which we’re trapped today. But every step along the way it was a revelation and a boon, a radical discovery that elevated us above the puzzling, uncoordinated lives we had before The Name. The graves we dug, the paintings that we made in caves, the instruments we forged — these artifacts of our encounter with the Transcendental — they are what define us.

It took the limiting illusion of identity, enforced and reified by social life, to get us here. What we call inauthentic is basic and essential to us that we can’t and shouldn’t throw it out. But it is just a slice of who we are. The neocortex is a sliver of the “human” brain, and all the rest gets on with business automatically and un-self-consciously. It always has. This is the vast majority of you, and being more authentic means connecting with that vast majority.

The process of uncovering a fuller sense of your authentic self reveals that who you THINK you are is actually obscuring the complete you.

Self-image is the lacquer on the surface of your total self. It’s only a few hundred thousand years old, and it lives in an uneasy balance with far older, wiser systems in your mind and body. Giving it your full attention in an effort to be more authentic is like painting an old house that needs new beams and flooring.

Go deeper. Sit with the uncomfortable and visceral reality of your body and its animal impulses. Listen to the music of your blood — and, deeper still, the pure tones of your atoms. You are a quickened clump of mud and dirt. You are inseparable from the nature that your civilized, domesticated social ego must identify as “other” as a means of navigating schools and offices and city streets.

The lie is necessary, practical, and true. But it is not complete or final. Who you think you are is just an educated guess, based on reflections from your parents and your friends. You’re a hypothesis, and if you lean into the mystery that hypothesis attempts to answer, strategies of inauthentic self-hood take on numinous and perfect truth beyond our tidy stories.

We draw from raw experience a flow of working models as to who and what we are. To speak from these approximations as if are absolute — inauthentic. Keep the question open and commit to curiosity and constantly unfolding revelations into what we cannot know completely. the path of authenticity.

This path requires us to move past framing our desire as “authentic self-expression” into framing it as the “expression of Authentic Self.” To do this, you must give voice to unconscious aspects of your total being.

Robert Kegan writes in his book on adult development, , that lucky few of us mature to recognize that who we think we are is based on who we think we’re not. The self and other are two mutually-defining poles of one phenomenon, and thus completeness only comes from giving “that which I am not” a seat at the internal boardroom table. Otherwise, we live as victims of our disowned pieces, half-blind, incapable of seeing depth and beauty in “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

The meaning of our lives, extracted from the undivided fullness of experience, is only there for us to the extent that we allow the whole of life to speak. Your body is the answer to a question posed by its environment, a living conversation taking place across four billion years. You’re not, and have never been, isolated; you’re a process woven inextricably into a greater process that is everything-at-once. That’s the authentic You.

It may not be enjoyable to contemplate that you are everything, including everyone who angers you, the tragedy that you can’t understand, the things you wish you were but know you aren’t. But maybe all you have to do to graduate from the anxiety and misery of modern life is to release your grasp on what you’re certain that you know.

Perhaps it is as easy as returning, time and time again, to simple curiosity about the line you’ve drawn between the you and not-you. Is it really where you drew it? Coastlines have no certain length; the closer that we look, the longer of a line we draw around the pebbles, sand, and atoms at the shore — until we reach beyond the limits of our resolution, into the immeasurable. What if, rather than “No man’s an island,” we suppose that “man’s an island?” If you’re an island and the world’s the ocean, how closely do you have to look to find where statements such as, “Not my problem” fade into absurdity?

Go sit down at the beach of who you think you are and listen to the ocean of who you believe that you are not. The waves are your own unclaimed voice; their song is yours.

“Authentic Self Expression” speaks both what you identify with, and what you do not. The most authentic you can be is often when you’re speaking from “the other’s” point of view.

Define the other and examine it with curiosity and dedication to the wisdom hidden in it. Engage that other in a conversation. Give your demons your attention. Learn their names and job descriptions.

When they have said what they would like to say, the only step for you to take is to accept that you have been both sides of the exchange. You are the terrorist and the policeman. You’re the holy person and the heathen. One cannot exist without the other. Claiming both erases the reactive and unconscious patterns that controlled your life and dances you with the Unknown as it appears in many places and identities at once. This is The Real You.

Knowing this, your inauthentic, insecure, small, social self is held in perfect balance with the rest of The One Perfect Thing. You can’t be inauthentic — that is just a notion that appears as effortlessly as the sunrise, and disappears without a struggle every time you die to your conclusions. The trauma and despair of modern life is part of something bigger; all this dissonance is held within a braid of melodies and movements, passing into something true and whole. It’s temporary. Every moment you’re remade, renewed, and given yet another opportunity to act as one of countless focal points of everything. You can’t go wrong.

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Michael Garfield

Here to help you navigate the accelerating weirdness. Biologist turned philosopher. Host of #FutureFossils & #ComplexityPodcast. Social Media for @sfiscience.