How to live a more authentic life, starting today

“Is it not most transformative, most earthshaking, to pierce the veils of self-deception and illusion, and crack the eggshell of ignorance, to most intimately encounter oneself?” ~ Lama Surya Das

If someone says to you, “Tell me about yourself,” where do you start? No matter how you try it’s not really you, is it?

There comes a time in your life when you begin to question your essence — who you are at your very core. Since your birth, before you learnt to think for yourself, you’ve been conditioned into believing things about yourself. And it hasn’t stopped.

“You experience many drives and desires,” says psychotherapist and counsellor Eros Candusso. “They feel like inner drives but in fact they are culturally and socially bound, often mediated or influenced by the media. They give you impressions of what you should be and you go along with that, believing that it’s your own call — that it’s what you want. And in reality you’re just obeying some instructions.”

That’s a disquieting thought. Every once in a while, though, you can get a glimpse of the authentic you. And when you do, says Candusso, “It’s a kind of revelatory state. You perceive a new way of seeing yourself, of relating to others as well as the world. It’s like stepping into a zone — when you’re moving into something and it’s authentic to you, it’s more gratifying. There is a sense of completion, an expansion in your awareness and a greater relevance in your life. Until you find it, or experience it, you don’t know what it’s about.

“It’s a little bit like falling in love. If you haven’t fallen in love, you don’t know what falling in love means. So the point is to become aware when certain calls are genuinely yours.”

Paying the price of inauthenticity

When you’re living according to other people’s calls, the expectations of society, you’re not living authentically.

“There is always a sense of frustration when we play our day according to other people’s indoctrination,” says Candusso. “One reason we fall into this false self is because we want to conform with the group, with the culture of the time. We don’t want to be weird or isolated. So we get a sense of payoff by being false.”

The only thing is that payoff comes at a high price. “Many people put a lot of effort into careers and gaining better salaries, for example. But at the end of the day, they don’t feel very happy. Statistically, the more people in wealthy societies pursue these types of things, the more they suffer from depression or substance abuse or compulsive behaviours.”

If that’s you, “It’s an indication that there is no sense of completion, of true nourishment and satisfaction in what you’re doing. You’re actually doing something wrong — not morally wrong, but wrong for yourself. And so you try to compensate with false gratification.”

The trouble is that compensation doesn’t last for long, no matter what you do.

Perhaps you’ve experienced times like that — when nothing much made you happy. Perhaps in those times you’ve even recognised you were heading for depression.

“Depression typically carries an overwhelming sense of feeling abandoned, alone, exhausted and disconnected — profoundly weary from the difficult business of living,” writes Lama Surya Das in his book Awakening the Buddha Within. “If this ever happens to you — and it happens to many of us at one time or another — self-inquiry needs to be directed at ways in which you have abandoned or lost touch with yourself.”

Losing touch with yourself is not only unhealthy for you; it’s unhealthy for the people around you. As Robert Miller, a Buddhist existentialist and lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, says, “It’s not just a question of your own happiness, it’s also a question of virtue — the two are connected. When you’re in a state of unhappiness and depression, you’ve got no wellbeing and no energy to help other people. You’re simply not in a fit state for yourself or anybody else. And that’s not very virtuous.”

Your happiness therefore hinges on your self-authenticity. According to Miller, you need to have the “courage to challenge all the conditions, beliefs and assumptions that have been imposed upon you since childhood because they’re really second-hand interpretations. If you take this idea that your happiness depends on someone or something else, it means that it’s easily undermined and then you’re not in a good place to be generous and helpful to other people.”

Discovering your true self

“When you’re working on depression and other difficult life situations, it’s important to summon your faith, fall back on soulful inner practices and go for refuge where you can find spiritual solace,” says Das. He asserts the best way to begin your self-enquiry is “to empty out all assumptions about who you are”.

Miller agrees. “There’s no foundation for any way of interpreting reality at all. Let go of all you’ve got — all your interpretations of reality. Then you’ll have a state of mind that can be called emptiness, voidance or nothingness or, in Buddhist terms, sunyata or mu. However, it’s not simply a meditative moment of nothingness because what you discover is that from that state of nothingness you can choose to take a more affirmative view of the whole of reality. You can assume that everything is well unless proven otherwise.”

Buddhists have understood this for many years, says Miller: “Buddhism is often described as the way of non-attachment. So, if you’re applying non-attachment to everything, you need to apply it to thoughts and beliefs as well as in a meditative or contemplative state. Another way to put it is it’s about letting go and letting be. You’re letting go of everything, of your thoughts and your attachment to thoughts. So the aim is first of all to get to that space.”

When you let go, watch your thoughts and set them free, you also become free — you become all that you really are. You can also realise who you really are.

“Awareness is curative,” says Das. “Meditation is not just something to do; it’s a method of being and seeing, an unconditional way of living moment by moment. Through meditation we perceive and know things as they actually are. This directly connects and brings us to truth according to its simplest definition: things just as they are.

“We can develop an awareness of ourselves and the world in an infinite variety of ways. All of them take effort. Who can deny that it takes courage to examine our thoughts and behaviour?”

All truth begins with self-truth

If self-authenticity takes courage, it also takes honesty. When you’re not honest with yourself about what your intentions are, you might be surprised at what you end up with.

“Your intentions determine your experiences, whether or not you are aware of them,” says Gary Zukav in his book Spiritual Partnership: The Journey to Authentic Power. “When you are not aware of them, the consequences they create will surprise you, and they will be painful.”

See if you can develop a habit of asking yourself why — and why again — when you make decisions. Says Zukav, “The Why beneath the Why (and sometimes the Why beneath that etc) is the intention that creates consequences. That is the Why that determines the experiences in your life. The parent who sends her child to college to make her (the parent) feel better about herself, as good as her neighbours or to avoid family disapproval is concerned with herself. The parent who supports her child with the gift of education is concerned about her child. One is taking, the other is giving. One is motivated by fear, and the other is motivated by love.”

Candusso likewise encourages people to find their true intentions. “You won’t be able to be switched on with every step you take, to put every small decision into the bigger picture of your authentic self, but day by day you’ll be able to select more of what you want and why you want to do it. So after a time it becomes second nature.

Of course, it’s easy to trick yourself and find justifications, he says, and sometimes that goes against your genuine self. Finding your true intention is, therefore, “a striving for improvement and attunement in your life and understanding that this is perhaps your only chance to play your cards”.

It’s worth playing your cards right if you can, affirms Zukav: “Using your creative power without knowing your intention is like driving a car with the windshield painted black. You travel, but you do not know where. You expect to arrive at a destination, but when you get out of the car (or the car crashes into something), you discover that where you thought you were going and where you went are different.”

Living by the pearl principle

If your windshield is painted black, it’s time to wipe it clean. For that matter, it’s also time to peel off your mask because, as novelist André Berthiaume writes, “We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”

Peeling off your outer skin and revealing yourself as you truly are inevitably leaves you raw, exposed and vulnerable. Why would you do that? Because embracing authenticity and vulnerability brings connection. As social researcher Brené Brown found, authentic people, for the sake of authenticity, embrace vulnerability. They’re willing to say “I love you” first and to do something without guarantees.

If, on the other hand, you choose to remain safe, to hide behind your mask, you inevitably distance yourself from others. “It’s a presented self,” says Candusso. “So, for instance, if you’re not truthful to somebody because you want to be nice and likeable, even when you don’t agree with them, they might like you but you will never know if they like you because of who you are or because of what you just did.”

When you let other people know you better, they can be valuable sources of self-awareness. That’s because your relationships with others always reflects who you are. And often it’s the difficult ones that can give you the most telling insights. This is what Das calls the “pearl principle”.

“Think about the intensity of some of your most intimate relationships,” Das says. “Frequently, even if you can fool yourself, a friend or partner will see through you, reflecting your foibles and failings like a clear mirror. What is important is seeing yourself and recognising your intrinsic nature, not worshipping the mirror.

“Like a spiritual teacher, a relationship can help you evolve and transform more quickly. The inevitable irritations and disappointments in your relationships can produce jewels of deeper understanding, just as the grain of sand irritating the interior of an oyster can produce a luminous pearl.”

Within and without you

And, just like a pearl, you hold your own luminosity within you. “Enlightenment is a combination of inner happiness and compassion. It’s not just one or the other,” says Miller. “If you try to get people to act more compassionately without first showing them how to be happy from within, you get a kind of duty-centred way of acting in the world. If people are not very happy within themselves, they’ll always be in conflict about what they ought to do and what they feel like doing.

“Say you’ve got a situation where you have the choice of visiting a friend in hospital or going to the beach. You feel the need to go to the beach because you want some rest or relaxation or happiness but you feel a duty to visit your friend.

“Suppose, though, you’ve got happiness, relaxation and rest from within anyway, completely independent of whether you’re at the beach or not. Going to the beach then simply becomes redundant — you’re already in a beach. And you can take beach with you to the hospital. While you’re there, you can share some of that good beach feeling.

"That’s how authenticity works. When people have wellbeing from within themselves, they just naturally connect better in the world and there’s no conflict because they feel like doing good things.”


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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