Welcome to this week’s blog where I discuss how a conscious notion of who I am actually hinders me from discovering who I really am and in doing so, it causes friction and limits progress.
“One’s own self is well hidden from one’s own self; of all mines of treasure, one’s own is the last to be dug up.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
My wife and I have been exploring ways to make our house cooler (it does get very hot in summers) naturally. In one such foray, we watched a video on the building of a natural house by a lady in Faridabad (outskirts of India’s capital city, Delhi). In describing one of their core requirements, her young architect, Amol Mankeekar, said that house should be like a set where life can take place. It should not stand out and instead blend with the larger context as much as possible — the house should not have an identity in itself. I found this quite fitting to this blog. A house finds its ultimate identity in being the enabling background that allows life to flow through it. Drawing a parallel, you will find your ultimate identity when you lose yourself completely in the “flow” of your essence, your purpose with no remorse or regret and no self-consciousness.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. I think even the truncated version of this — “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself” — makes for wonderful advice.
In the last three decades or so, there have been significant advances in our understanding of human brain. Consensus understanding seems to be that our brain contains two logical (or say, metaphoric) segments — the conscious and the (adaptive) subconscious. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky referred to them, rather mundanely, as System 1 and System 2. Most (perhaps all) of our behaviour is either directly or indirectly driven the subconscious brain (system 1). The biggest purpose of our conscious brain seems to be to rationalize our behaviour. If conscious understanding of our behaviour is just rationalization of what our body is anyway doing, with an express purpose of creating a meaningful self-image (which mostly translates to keeping our ego intact), it implies that we consciously cannot not know who we really are. People who get to observe our behaviour have a more accurate understanding of who we are than we, ourselves. Ironical but true. I gathered this understanding from a book titled “Strangers to Ourselves” by Timothy Wilson and from various spiritual scriptures too.
“I don’t know where I am going, but I am on my way.” — Voltaire
In the absence of the inherent inability to recognize oneself, our notion of ourselves is heavily informed by others’ expectations of us. So, finding oneself resolves into the question of breaking free from the clutches of expectations of who you are meant to be.
So, if you do not know yourself, how do you find yourself? To start with, by acknowledging that you do not know yourself. So, as opposed to keeping up with the notion of an image of yourself that your conscious brain created, it is better to lose ourselves into the flow of life. This way we may get attracted to what naturally aligns with our subconscious self and also move away from what is unaligned to the subconscious self. And lo and behold, sooner or later, you will find yourself more or less aligned with your core self and then there is a chance that you may find yourself consciously too.
Well, easier said than done.
Conditioning from our environment — real and perceived expectations of your family, friends, colleagues and society — will make it hard to lose yourself. Your conscious notion of your own self creates expectations that will be hard to overcome. Your obligations and duties towards your family may further prevent you from such a attempting to lose yourself.
So, how do we go about it?
- First, intellectually appreciate that it is impossible to know yourself consciously
- Keenly and critically, look for explicit and/or implicit feedback from people you interact with
- Request a close confidant to serve as an objective and metaphoric mirror
- Create situations where you are less self-conscious and let your mind flow safely
- Build serious depth of knowledge in your areas of natural interest. This should lead to enhanced intuition. This should in turn lead to confidence and trust in expressing yourself more freely
- Make critical thinking intuitive by internalizing mental thinking models so that you don’t have to apply models to situations explicitly. This can happen only when your learning is incremental, applied, critical and is a result of Socratic method
All this is good but what is the need to find yourself? It is my belief that when you find yourself, you will let life flow through you unimpeded and this will bring vitality and remove anxiety.
Going back to Mahatma Gandhi’s original (full) quotation, it talks about losing yourself in the service of others. I think, the point here is to act unselfishly. “Selfish” is an essential and fundamental feature of the conscious brain. So, by definition, complete selflessness means breaking free from conscious thinking so that your subconscious brain can express itself freely without any hinderance from the conscious brain. This means you are being your true self — and yes, found yourself.
“To be successful you have to enjoy doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself. ” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Practically, to make progress, instead of service to the entire humanity, you may serve your family and/or your friends. As a career professional, you may take up actions that will enhance the value of your organization even if it may lead to short-term career disadvantage.
“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe. ” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The best shot at long term success is when directed efforts flow through you as opposed to forcefully direct efforts. Reaching your potential is accomplished when you are able to express yourself fully, when you operate at the edge of your ability without getting overwhelmed by the enormity of your pursuit or getting burnt out by overextending your capacity. Holding onto a(ny) concept of yourself will likely impede the true expression of your real self. While we may never really know our true self, we can certainly unlock it by losing ourselves in our natural pursuits.
Thanks for taking time to read this article. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals and desires. I share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile, please do share it with others — of course, only if you do not mind it.
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