“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung
You feel calm, grounded, and completely present. You are aware of the subtleties in your body. Each movement feels like an independent exercise in coordination, fluidity, and precision. Your mind is a crystal stream, allowing you to directly experience your surroundings rather than filter them through the chaos of thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that usually flood you. In fact, the entire world around you seems to have slowed down. While everyone else appears to be suffering and struggling, for you, life in this state is effortless. In this moment, you know this is both you are meant to be and who you really are.
Most of us have experienced this state at one time or another. For some, it comes during sports, when every movement feels fluid and natural, and no matter what you do, you just can’t seem to miss. For others, it pervades simple tasks like mowing the lawn, painting your house, folding laundry, or sweeping the floor. Some find it in yoga, a good conversation, dancing, writing, a favorite book, a day at the beach, or driving along to the gentle hum of the highway. Just as each of us is unique, so are the circumstances when our true self can appear. Despite these differences, one large similarity is apparent; when the true self shows up, we know THIS is who we really are.
Over time, the True Self has been called many names such as the Self, authenticity, being self-actualized, self-realization, the fully differentiated self, Atman, Buddha Nature, soul, and our spiritual center, to name a few. In all of these disciplines or viewpoints, the True Self is the seat of wisdom within the individual. From this place, we can see the world clearly, relate to others more easily, and better understand our place within the world.
My favorite conception of the True Self comes from my preferred therapeutic orientation, Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy. According to IFS, the True Self is characterized by what are known as the “Eight C’s”:
Compassion, also commonly referred to as loving-kindness, refers to witnessing and wishing to alleviate suffering. It is important to delineate compassion from empathy and pity. Empathy implies connectedness, so much so that a person may relate to another’s suffering so much that it can become highly personal. In contrast, pity denotes a sense of slight separation, feeling sorry for someone but being glad that it’s them and not you. Compassion, on the other hand, utilizes both connection and separation in healthier capacities. When experiencing genuine compassion, the witness may feel connected to the sufferer, but through the common bond of humanity rather than overly personalized or self-centered emotions. Likewise, the compassionate witness can also maintain a sense of healthy separation, which promotes perspective and lends itself to be helpful rather than overwhelmed. In addition to compassion for others, compassion can also be used towards oneself. While the concept of self-compassion has existed in spiritual teachings for thousands of years, it is a relatively new area of psychological research and, so far, has been linked to healthy outcomes across a wide range of psychological and physical constructs.
As we become better connected with our True Self, we find an increased sense of interest, curiosity, and wonder in both ourselves and our natural world. All subjects seem more interesting and relevant as we begin to see the connections between topics and subjects of which we were formerly unaware. Similarly, we become more curious about ourselves and those in our lives. We follow our intuition to probe a little more deeply, reach out to make new connections, and really figure out “what makes people tick.” In my experience as a therapist, “stay curious” has become a mantra that has led me to many unexpected, yet wonderful, places with my clients.
The True Self is also defined by a sense of physical and mental calm. While the average person’s thoughts and emotions may be similar to ripples in a pond or waves in an ocean, the mind of the True Self is a lake whose surface is as smooth as glass. When a disturbance enters this mind, the ripples are easily distinguished from the otherwise serene setting. Awareness is effortless, and the calm mind can simply wait and observe the ripples fading away on their own accord. In more real-life terms, a person who is “in Self” tends to feel grounded and secure rather than pressured, restless, or irritable. This sense of calm facilitates clear thinking and actions rather than impulsivity and reactivity. However, this serenity does not imply passivity. Instead, it is similar to a strong, steady current; it does not rush but is firm in its path.
Clarity is somewhat synonymous with the Buddhist term of “clear-seeing.” This increased perception allows the individual to see life truly as it is, without the filter of previous experience, projections, negative emotions, or burdens from the past. Children are often wonderful masters of clarity. Because of their youth, their experience of the now isn’t colored by what they’ve been through before. This freshness allows them to perceive their environment and explore with a sense of wonder that adults often lack in all of their age and experience. In addition to experiencing one’s environment with clearer perception, clarity can also be focused back on oneself. In this state, we become more aware of our own motivations, needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. If we’re lucky, clarity is also accompanied by an intuitive knowledge of how we can best understand and heal ourselves.
One of the common fears of developing these leadership capacities is that this new, powerful form of being may alienate oneself from others. In a phrase, “It’s lonely at the top.” However, when relating to others from the True Self, you find that there is no “top” or “bottom.” On the contrary, all of your relationships begin to take on a subtle but more organic feel to them. Conversations require less effort. You’re naturally interested in the lives, experiences, and opinions of others so personas and feigned interest are no longer needed. You feel bound together in a common sense of humanity, and a feeling that “we’re all in this together” becomes a more consistent presence in your life. You may find that you’re also more connected to the world around you. Colors, smells, tastes, and physical sensations may take on a new appeal as you become increasingly aware of your surroundings and your place in them. We may even become more connected with our own bodies. As we experience our bodies from the True Self, we are more in tune with our biological needs, when we push our bodies too far, and what our bodies may need to rebalance.
Because the True Self is less bound by expectations, fears, and experiences of the past, it has fewer restrictive boundaries in the present. This flexibility naturally lends itself to an increased sense of creativity, and parts that once seemed separate now come together in innovative and dynamic ways. Paths that, at one time, seemed closed become reopened and new; previously unconsidered possibilities become available to us. This creative capacity can be seen in various aspects of our life such as work, recreation, home life, and relationships. For example, a couple who has experienced negative relationship patterns may find new and interesting ways to listen to, communicate with, and support one another.
While confidence and courage do have somewhat different qualities, I will group together here for the sake of discussion. The natural leadership qualities of the True Self are accompanied by a sense of wisdom, knowing, and self-assurance. This sense of confidence and courage does not bleed into arrogance; it is merely an accurate and appropriate assessment of the internal resources and skills that one is aware they have. In addition, this confidence/courage helps us recover when we make mistakes, as all humans do. We have confidence in the idea that, despite our “failings,” we are still a worthy person, and our errors do not define our being. We have courage that, even in the face of criticism, we can admit our wrongs and seek redemption because this way of living is more true to our own personal values.
In his book, “Yoga and the Quest for the True Self” Stephen Cope outlines some of the factors consistent with his personal experience of the true self, but many of these points also align with my own experience as well. Below are excerpts from his text:
- A return to the body – “After the second day, she actually had a visceral experience of “landing” on the meditation cushion… After her experience of “landing,” she had a heightened sense of smell, of sight – ‘colors are more vibrant!’ – and of touch, like discovering an entirely new subtle realm of physical reality.”
- Relinquishing the attempt to dominate the body – “Even our attempts at creating a healthy or beautiful body may really be saturated with this subtext of domination. Even our practice of yoga may really be about “whipping our bodies into shape. [Eventually] this quality of domination begins to soften naturally. A deep level of exhaustion often surfaces, and the obsessive attempt to override the body begins to collapse under its own weight.”
- A new quality of authenticity in caring for the self – “We experience a new quality of authenticity in our caring, which redirects our attention to our health, our diet, our energy, our time-management. This enhanced care for the self arises spontaneously, and naturally, not as a response to a ‘should.’ It feels naturally satisfying.”
- A stand against habitual self-sacrifice – “When driven to meet our ego-idea, we do whatever the job takes, not counting the cost to our bodies or minds. As reality emerges, there is usually a very strong stand taken against this ongoing self-sacrifice.”
- An enhanced awareness of likes, dislikes, interest, and curiosities – “The person who is waking up to reality is often amazed at the extent to which he’s remained completely ignorant of his own likes, dislikes, interests, and curiosities. For the first time, hobbies and other interests may be pursued not for secondary gain or external rewards, but for simple pleasure in the activity itself. This can be quite a revelation.”
- More genuine self-expression and the increased capacity to say “no.” – “But when we know who we are, saying ‘no’ is not a problem, because we know, also, who we are not.”
- The relief of being ordinary – “The false self lives with a chronic sense of separation and isolation – born simply of trying too hard. As it begins to fall away, there can be a sense of utter relief at rejoining the human race. There is a new lightness and a new sense of humor.”
- The preciousness of particularity and the emergency of idiosyncrasy – “We also begin to value our particular voice, our particular contribution, our particular way of doing things. We become, and others experience us becoming, more and more ourselves. We experiment with a surrender to a deep, and deeply unseen, inner self that only wants to emerge and speak. And we care less about what other people think.”
- Using relationships with important others to explore and reveal the real self – “The experience of relating to important others from the core of the real self is the heart of the healing experience. Through this experience comes the proof that the newly revealed self can be borne not just by the self, but by others as well. Many of us undergoing this “waking up” experience are surprised by the enthusiasm of others for the newly discovered self within us.
- An increased capacity to see previously denied aspects of reality – “As the false self becomes more transparent, we will probably have some dramatic moments of realizing that the world is not what we thought it was. However painful the truth may be, its recognition is accompanied by a visceral sense of relief. The body likes living in reality. Stepping down onto solid ground of reality always feels better than living in delusion. It may be painful, but there is life in it, energy in it, and, like the ground, it holds us up in a way that delusion does not.”
As I have read and reread these points, I see many of these qualities in my past and current self. I sense my own capacity to live more fully from my True Self, to take on these qualities of self-leadership more regularly in my daily life. I’m equally aware of my fears regarding this transformation, of the things that I will have to let change and let go in order to live in this way.
From where I sit now, I believe that I will inevitably make a return to who I truly am, perhaps many times. In retrospect, I think I will find that it was both one of the most difficult and easiest things I have ever done. I think that, for this journey like many others, there is no skipping to the end. Every step along the path is an important, and I hope that, when all is said and done, I will be grateful for each and every one.
Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy
Internal Family Systems Therapy
Yoga and the Quest for the True Self