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A Self Cannot Be Found; It Must Be Cultivated

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This is an except from Mind Macros 03.

Western notions of authenticity often cause more harm than good. Because it is impossible to separate ourselves from the unconscious behavior we have adopted, the advice to “just be yourself” is misleading.

Living authentically has three issues:

  1. We assume that we can recognize our true selves when they appear.
  2. We believe our authentic self is already within us, when in truth we’re creating ourselves in the present, action by action.
  3. If we did discover ‘who we are’, then this person would only be a glimpse of our totality at the moment we recognize it. As a result, we would be prisoners of our past selves, forever defined by a moment in time.

This brings us to ask whether an authentic self even exists. Professor Michael Puett, of Harvard University’s Department of Chinese History, explains:

“Chinese thinkers would argue that you are not and should not think of yourself as a single, unified being. Let’s say that you think of yourself as someone with a temper; someone who gets angry easily. The thinkers we are about to encounter would argue that you should not say, 'Well, that’s just the way I am,' and embrace yourself for who you are. As we will see, perhaps you aren’t inherently an angry person. Perhaps you simply slipped into ruts—patterns of behavior—that you allowed to define who you thought you were. The truth is that you have just as much potential to be, say, gentle or forgiving as you do to be angry.

“These philosophers would urge us to recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.” — From The Path by Michael Puett (view my three takeaways).

The philosophers Puett refers to are those who follow Confucianism, a school of thought based on the teachings of Confucius.

Unlike the Western self, often defined by labels, the Eastern self proposes that labels cannot capture the complexity of our consciousness. This is because our identities are fluid and continually changing. ​The Eastern self recognizes our conflicting emotions as the product of a fragmented self, which we can refine in our lifetime. In this sense, a self cannot be found; it must be cultivated.

Become wiser in four minutes.

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