For months, I was suspicious of something on the edge of awareness. Then in the strangest moment a rush of connecting dots. A cascade of realizations shedding new light on a portrait inside my mind. I stood there staring. Seeing for the first time a new reflection of myself. An angle that seemed so obvious yet never occurred to me before.
We are born oblivious and deceived. Living in a dreamlike state with manufactured realities as the actors and stage. The raw data of life filtered out in real-time by our ego, upbringing, fear, and biases. We move towards pleasure and simplicity and away from challenges and pain. All these factors contribute to the difficulty of answering what seems like a simple question: who am I?
I didn’t originally set out to answer this question. It came from practicing meditation, and specifically, “being in the moment”. This heightened situational awareness led to the realization that I was ignoring information around me. It started with simple exercises like noticing how hard I closed doors or consciously announcing what actions I was taking. From there it expanded into a regular practice until it became more automated and started to reveal new observations about my behavior and how I really felt inside. Looking back, it’s shocking to realize how imperceptive I used to be by comparison. How had I not noticed these things before and if I hadn’t noticed them, what else was I missing? What role was I really playing in life? How did people perceive me and did it compare to how I saw myself? The bridge inward was inevitable.
As I started to investigate these questions I came across the first important aspect of my identity: that I am impressionable and rely on mimicry to define myself. By mimicking others, or even fictional characters, I would temporarily satisfy these questions and my insatiable need to “be someone”. But there are problems with this strategy. The first is that other people and fictional characters are shallow. You see only a convenient fraction of their lives and so mapping them onto you is purely aesthetic. Humans are far too complex for this to be a satisfactory solution to the problem. The second issue is that different people and characters directly contradict one another. So even if there was a way to adequately mimic another entity, you could never reconcile the differences between multiple targets and, in my case, I could never commit to a singular persona. There was always another person or character I wanted to absorb.
Side Note: mimicry is not a bad strategy. It is incredibly useful for bestowing new perspective and understanding about the world. It is especially useful when you mimic others without predicting the consequences or knowing where it leads. I call this “blind mimicry” and it can ensure that you don’t accidentally place your own beliefs and assumptions in the way of exploring new data.
I found it additionally confusing that the “best people” in life seemed to have strong personalities. Since I didn’t consider myself to fall under this category the inverse meant I must be weak, insecure, and confused. This led to a desperate desire to embrace a character while ignoring another obvious flaw in the plan: that you have to believe in that character and uphold their convictions. This perspective directly conflicts with what I’m trying to accomplish. Characters are predictable and must obey their programming. I saw this as a weakness because belief is a weakness and adaptability is strength. This conflict left me feeling “undefined” and I always fell short of the standard I set for myself. I needed to both be “someone” and “no one”. I kept expecting to solve the riddle until I realized an emerging truth: defining yourself does not come from hand-selecting traits or mimicking others, it comes from slowly cultivating experiences and knowledge over a long period of time. You are already someone, you just don’t know who it is.
My eventual conclusion was that as you explore yourself and the world you must first destroy what exists. It is an inevitability that you must become “no one” to eventually become “someone”. How we are structured in our youth is simply a template to get us started, but the final form is crafted by our decision-making and how willing we are to explore uncertainty. Without that conscious effort you risk building your character on a poorly crafted foundation. The result of this effort over the past four years has allowed me to reassess my beliefs and the world more clearly. I have consciously selected my convictions and principles and rebuilt a foundation that feels stable and purposeful. I no longer feel as if I’m in a dream, unconsciously maneuvering this world, confused by its complexity, and frustrated by my misunderstandings. A strong character it seems is born out of an abolition of childhood beliefs, an abolition of a false self, and the fearlessness to let the world reshape them.
Despite my best efforts I still see myself in fundamentally different ways. By reflecting on my memories, I have gained further insights into who I was and who I might be today. Each year providing new realizations that reshape my foundation, but that further strengthens my overall character. Originally I thought this would be a temporary problem resolved after some deliberate effort, but it was naive of me to think I could expedite the process. This practice results in a new mind with new understanding that can shed different light on our memories. This is why regular reflection is so important because you have a limited amount of time to explore different aspects of your past with a unique perspective. You also become increasingly intelligent over time and by returning to the same memories you are able to provide never-before considered insight. These sessions can also be aided by drugs like marijuana. Drugs seem to force your mind into new territory which reveals stark differences between how you see the world in that moment and how you see it normally. This “stereo vision” tends to make me significantly more aware of my surroundings and thoughts, as if I have two minds operating instead of one. I have answered a great many abstract questions under the influence, but it’s important to apply additional skepticism as well. I have found some stoned thoughts to be false and others to be skewed and misleading. It seems as if the mind isn’t well suited at interpreting reality whether we’re sober or high, but that having both perspectives can be useful. I personally recommend exploring both worlds over a long period of time before jumping to any conclusions. I would also be cautious about being too consistent in life because great insight can happen in strange, unexpected moments. By exploring new ideas, new experiences, new medias and mediums you can trigger profound and surprising changes in your self-image.
My last piece of advice is to be a good listener. If you stop talking and ignore your opinionated thoughts you can learn a tremendous amount of new information. In fact, the further I’ve walked down this path of self-exploration the quieter I’ve become. To some this may be a negative consequence, and sometimes it is, but the benefits have been worth the trade-off. Listening has allowed me to realize how many incorrect things I’ve been told throughout my life and how often I was parroting them. It’s also allowed me to truly hear what other’s are saying and explore ideas previously closed off due to social pressure. This collapse of mental barriers grew exponentially after I realized just how little those around me knew of the world. Listening can also help confirm suspicions about yourself and reveal hidden opportunities in society. Statements from others have also helped solidify parts of my foundation so I could free up mental energy to focus on other challenges. The result has been a sharper mind that is less prone to external influence, more compassionate towards the struggles of others, and more aware of how I use the information entering my mind.
“Know thyself”. There’s a reason this statement has persisted more than two thousand years. Taken seriously, it leads you down a bizarre path that transcends the fleeting endeavors of our daily lives. The process can be painful, arduous, and temporarily upset our lives and isn’t helped by the fact that we are constantly changing. However, what’s gained through the struggle is immensely rewarding and the underlying insights can help you accurately decode reality. This knowledge will assist you in everything you do, build confidence in who you really are, and protect you from a world full of dangers.