Being true to oneself is a skill. It might even be the single most important skill we can acquire. A Zen poem beautifully expresses the emotional import of being true to oneself while expressing the art of it in the simplest terms possible:
I eat when I’m hungry.
I drink when I’m thirsty.
I sleep when I’m tired.
For many people, the very closest they will come to being true to themselves happens during the earliest days of their lives when they cried when they felt like crying, puked when they had to puke, slept when they were tired. Yet, those days soon ended. As they grew, they were increasingly taught to ignore themselves and their own wants and needs. To sit still when they wanted to move about. To be quiet when they wanted to yell. To learn subjects they did not want to study. To pass exams they did not want to take. To hold jobs they did not want to hold. Much of what they learned about denying themselves was necessary, of course, for them to live and function in this strange world.
Yet, it’s surprising at times to reflect on how much we unnecessarily deny ourselves. And if that is surprising, then it is absolutely astonishing to ponder all the ways we unnecessarily deny ourselves.
Sometimes those ways are obvious. I’m reminded of a friend whose father was a senior executive of an auto company. Early on, the father decided his son would become the Chief Executive Officer of a large corporation — hopefully, General Motors. From that moment forward he pressured his son to conform to the ways of an executive in training. Nothing his son wanted or did was innocent: Everything must have a purpose and that purpose must be to produce an executive. Consequently, my friend grew up deeply confused about who he was and what he wanted for himself. How could he not have grown up confused? He was never taught how to find out who he was.
Yet, many times the ways in which we learn to deny ourselves are not quite as obvious. Today, consumerism is the prime example of that. Corporations, their advertising agencies and public relations firms are constantly teaching people in consumer societies that being true to yourself means little more than buying a brand. While that is a shallow, artificial and ultimately misleading way of expressing yourself, it is the primary way in which millions — and soon billions — of humans will simultaneously “express themselves” and deny their true selves. Consumerism merely promotes narcissism, and substitutes it for self-realization and accomplishment. In that respect, it is just another way of denying your true self. And how can you be true to yourself if you deny your true self?
So, broadly speaking, we have so far discussed only one way in which being true to yourself is skillful. That is, there is skill involved in avoiding the many and various ways of unnecessarily denying ourselves.
Besides the many and various ways in which we deny ourselves, there are other challenges to being true to oneself. For instance: To be true to yourself, you must, of course, know yourself. That is an ongoing process without end. We never complete the task of knowing ourselves: We merely get better at it. Because we never complete the task, there is always some uncertainty about who we are.
Yet, many of us avoid knowing ourselves precisely because knowing ourselves involves uncertainty, and uncertainty is uncomfortable. Instead of maintaining the open mindedness to genuinely learn about ourselves as we go along in life, many of us try to fashion personal myths about ourselves that we can cling to in order to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty. “I am such and such a person”, we tell ourselves — even though we do not act that way, or at least haven’t acted that way in years. Paradoxically, to know yourself, you must be willing to live with the uncertainty of not knowing yourself.
There are many ways to learn about oneself, but perhaps the best way is to watch what one does as dispassionately as one would watch someone else’s child at play, or a stranger on the street. That requires considerable skill because it is not at all easy to dispassionately watch ourselves. Yet, that might well be the best way to learn about oneself.
Being true to oneself is not effortless. It is instead a skill that requires development. To be skillful at it, one must combine the insight to give up the many and various ways of unnecessarily denying ourselves with the will to learn about ourselves. I believe, however, that it is impossible to be genuinely happy in this life without being true to oneself. Thus, being true to oneself might indeed be the most personally valuable skill we can acquire, for it leads to genuine happiness.
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