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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Embracing the Unknown Self: Why You're Not Who You Think You Are

Whoever you think you are, you are wrong. Here's why this is a good thing.



KEY POINTS

  • The quest to increase our self-knowledge is important, but we will never truly know ourselves.

  • We can describe ourselves, but this is merely information about us rather than who we truly are.

  • As human beings, we are constantly changing. Who we are is never static.


We have all probably heard the ancient Greek aphorism "know thyself." On the surface, this seems like sage advice to follow. However, upon closer inspection, this advice becomes confusing and, potentially, detrimental. Let's examine this idea more closely to see why we don't want to become too attached to the idea that we can truly know ourselves. In fact, we can find a certain freedom in embracing the idea that we can never truly know who we are.


Who Are You?

Let's imagine we met for the first time, and I asked you, "Who are you?" What would you say? Most likely, you would tell me about yourself. You might say something like, "Well, my name is Stacey Taylor. I'm 38. I've been married to my college sweetheart, John, for 14 years. We have two kids, Avery and Joshua. We live in north Austin. I work in the advertising industry. I like cooking, camping, pickleball, and reading historical fiction. Um, let me see ... what else would you like to know about me?"


All these details are about Stacey, but they are not Stacey. In fact, Stacey could spend hours telling us about herself, but she would only be providing information. Stacey could write a 1,000-page autobiography, but this would still just be a book about herself. It would not be Stacey.


Accomplishments from our past, our race, gender, age, ethnicity, occupation, roles, personality traits and tendencies, and so on are descriptions of us, but they are not us. Now, we might rightly argue that these can be important parts of who we are. However, these important parts of who we are still are not who we are.


Why We Are Not Who We Think

As we reflect upon who we are, we might consider past behaviors to describe ourselves. However, our past behaviors can't be who we are because, well, they are in the past. We only exist in the present. Even if we were to examine our past behaviors to describe who we really are, we exhibit many different behaviors over time. Sometimes we are generous, sometimes we are selfish. Sometimes we are playful, sometimes we are serious. Sometimes we are helping the homeless, and sometimes we are playing Wordle. Moreover, even as we attempt to describe ourselves by recalling our past, our recollections are flawed and filtered through numerous biases.


Likewise, our feelings can't be who we are because they change as well. Feelings such as anger, sadness, happiness, frustration, pride, hunger, thirst, nausea, etc., are all transitory. Yet we are still here after such feelings move through us. In a similar way, waves move across the ocean's surface, but they are not the ocean itself.


Even the importance of our race, age, gender, and ethnicity changes depending upon with whom we are around, our state of mind, or whether we are by ourselves. These identities are descriptive thoughts about who we are, and these thoughts in our head are changing constantly. For instance, one minute, I might be thinking of myself as a psychologist, another as a husband, another as a dad, another as a friend, another as a male, another as a geek, and so on. Then what happens when I'm thinking about a grilled cheese sandwich? Am I now a grilled cheese sandwich?


Don't Get Too Attached to Your Thoughts About Yourself

To cite some other wisdom courtesy of ancient Greece to counter the aphorism of "know thyself," Greek philosopher Heraclitus conveys some profound wisdom about who we are: "No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it's not the same river, and he's not the same man."


Imagine that you are describing the Colorado River. No matter how flowery, poetic, and detailed your prose is, it is still not the Colorado River. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it stands to reason that there is no way that thoughts about who we are can actually capture who we are. We are human beings and, as such, we are in motion and constantly changing. We can never be the thoughts we have about ourselves because the thought (e.g., I am _____) is static, and we are dynamic. As Heraclitus describes, we are like the river—always flowing, always changing.


Similar wisdom about our true nature can be found in other sources. For instance, in the Tao Te Ching by Lau Tzu, he begins: "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnameable is the eternally real."

Thus, in his book about the Tao, Lau Tzu openly acknowledges that the true Tao cannot be captured in words. It is beyond words. Similarly, ninth-century Buddhist sage Lin Chi famously advised another monk, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." In essence, he was saying that the Buddha cannot capture or represent Buddhism. Buddhism is much more vast and cannot be ascribed or attributed to one person. In this way, the Buddha was merely a finger pointing to the moon. He was not the moon.


Who Are We, Really?

I am not claiming to have the answer to a question that philosophers, psychologists, and theologians have pondered and debated for centuries. Given that there is no "right" answer to this deep question, I am merely offering a way of thinking about ourselves that might be useful.


One way of thinking about who we are is that we are the consciousness that is asking the question of who we are. We are the conscious awareness that only exists in this present moment. Thus, we can never answer the question of who we are because we will always be the consciousness who is experiencing life in this present moment. In this present moment, you are the consciousness engaging with words on a screen.


If you find this helpful, we can channel some nondualism as we ponder who we are. In this way, as we reflect upon who we are, we can take a both/and rather than an either/or approach. It can indeed be helpful to describe aspects of ourselves to help us form an identity, to have a sense of self or ego. This ego might consist of thoughts about our age, ethnicity, gender, values, political beliefs, hobbies, personality traits, and so on. Even as we do this, we can know that we are unknowable. We are, in a way, infinite, spacious, timeless. We are beyond words, beyond thought. We are the moon. No self to know self.


How Can the Way We Think About Who We Are Help Us?

"The world is maintained by change—in the elements and in the things they compose." —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


As I have described in a previous post, a purpose of life is growth and change. How we think about who we are can either help us fulfill this life's purpose of growth and change, or it can stifle us. When we think of ourselves in ways that are fixed or static, it can hinder our growth. On the other hand, thinking of ourselves more flexibly, like flowing water, provides the room for the growth and change that is congruent with the nature of the universe. It's acceptable to have ideas about who we are, but we should not cling to them tightly. If we want to "be the change we wish to see in the world," we should embrace who we are as change.


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