How to become true to oneself, to who one really is? In my opinion that’s the work of a lifetime. And since I’ve already lived a lifetime (I just celebrated my 90th birthday), maybe I could say something useful about it.
The first thing I would tell anyone who asks is that it is real work. Are you ready for that? Because yes, on the one hand, there is joy in discovery, in making contact with a deeper side of oneself. We long for that, but on the other hand one has to face truths that are very uncomfortable. On the road to finding my true self, I’m going to have to give up a lot of assumptions I’ve made about myself, both pride and prejudice, as well as imperfect interpretations on the subject of what life is about.
Whoever I am today, it’s important to know and accept that the person who is making judgments on who she wants to be doesn’t necessarily have the criteria for finding out the truth about herself. Perhaps others told her what she should want, or she’s read about it in books.
A simpler way of putting it is that I’m not who I thought I was. “How come?” you might ask. Because as we grew up we took on habits and self-presentations that may have had very little to do with our true self—that sweet and innocent child-person we were then, who responded to influences and blows of life from a relatively helpless position.
So why not sit down and make a list of what we think we need to change, just to get to know ourselves better, although it may not take us very far. In order to find out who we really are, the first thing we must do is study this very person who thinks she knows what she wants and what’s true or false. Welcome to the Via Negativa—the path to discovering who we are not.
Here’s the nitty-gritty: my work is finding out, from every interaction and even my private thoughts about myself and others, whether it is mine or not, and accepting to eat the truth of my discovery. Pretty painful stuff! But I have to add that each insight brings a sense of freedom. As I own up to my tendencies toward partial affirmations, I begin to separate from them. They are not Me. I am becoming free of what I am not.
Suddenly there’s less solid ground. As Gurdjieff said, “Only what cannot be shaken is your own.” We discover everything is in movement in us, from persona to persona, from attitudes to different attitudes, from like to dislike. Even the longing for another quality of life is suspect when it’s coming from books, reactivity, or dreams of glory about showing others the best inner path.
Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that this work is not about killing the ego and turning into a saintly wraith. A strong ego is necessary for doing the stuff that needs to get done in order to survive, as well as a strong determination to listen for the truth. Both are necessary in order to connect with a deeper inner life. Those two aspects will always be there—the worldly person and the seeker of truth. Our hope is to develop a more conscious relationship between them. To create a balance between head, heart and body, so neither thought nor comfort nor reactivity takes over as king of my inner castle.
As we begin to recognize and separate ourselves from the extremes we have lived by, we move forward on the Middle Way. This is not the end of one person and the beginning of another. All of me still hangs out in me, but my conscious participation in an active life guides me toward what is truly mine.
“A life truly lived constantly burns away veils of illusion, burns away what is no longer relevant, gradually reveals our essence, until, at last, we are strong enough to stand in our naked truth.” Marion Woodman