What is our true self?

Apr 26, 2019

For thousands of years the nature of being has been one of the most worthwhile topics of human investigation, whether spiritual or philosophical or scientific. But we shouldn’t just leave it to the experts. We should look into the observations of these amazing people over the centuries, and then come to our own conclusions.

If we’re Christian or Muslim, for example, we will track our views back to the historical sources and follow the teachings on how to develop our true nature. It’s not enough to just superficially believe something; the more we investigate the truths of our chosen path, the more we will internalize them, make them real in our daily lives. This is our responsibility.

I remember reading recently that it was the Hindus more than three thousand years ago who started this investigation into the nature of self. The historical Buddha was educated in this system and then diverged with his own findings.

During the last thirty years there have been amazing discussions on this very topic between, on the one hand, the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist scholars and meditators and, on the other hand, the best scientific brains in the West. So many marvellous findings are coming from these meetings. One of them, as one scientist put it, is “the greatest finding of the twentieth century”: neuroplasticity.

One of the tools Buddha took with him from the Hindus was the extraordinarily skillful psychological technique called meditation, which enables us to plumb the depths of our own being in order to discover our true nature, our true self. Experiments by the scientists on the brains of meditators have shown that merely thinking about compassion, let’s say, reconfigures the brain.

This is confirming one of Buddha’s fundamental findings, from his own inner work – he’d never heard of a brain! – that there is no part of our being that can’t change. Not only that, but this capacity to change actually enables us to utterly rid from our consciousness, our very being, all traces of negativity.

He says that these seemingly implacable instincts to cling to a neurotic sense of self, to be angry when our attachment is thwarted, to be self-loathing, arrogant, jealous, etc., are actually not at the core of our being; they can be removed. This is what is meant, simply speaking, by “nirvana”: it’s a state of being that we can all eventually accomplish.

The discovery of neuroplasticity, then – basically, that we’re not stuck with the brain we’re born with, which was the unspoken assumption beforehand – is very encouraging, certainly for those who have no interest in introspective techniques.

The instinct to believe we can’t change is pretty deep. Forget whether we even know about the brain, look at how we feel: when things go wrong, when we’re depressed, anxious, jealous, we totally identify ourselves with these states, believing that this is who we really are. We simply can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

So to even think about how our brain can change, this can give us hope.

Another way of putting this is that whatever methods we use, we need to identify with the goodness within us. We need to recognize the neuroses, of course, but not identify with them, not overestimate them, not give them more power than they really have.

This confidence in our true nature should underlie everything we do. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but what option is there? The more we know ourselves, the more we won’t be able to bear staying stuck in the hurt, the anger, the depression. We will have confidence to perservere. It’s not for some moralistic reason that we want to cultivate our goodness; it’s practical.

Whether we want to become a multi-millionaire or a mother of ten children, it won’t matter: we will become a worthwhile human being, one who expresses our goodness in our day-to-day lives.

Then, the choices we make, the way we live our lives, the work we do, our relationships, will all be based on the aspiration to develop these parts of ourselves – to become our true self – and to help others develop them too.

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