The authentic self
In an era when it is becoming increasingly evident to quantify that meditation reduces stress and supports mental and physical health, there is another value proposition that is also worth considering. Although not as easy to measure, meditation appears to also allow us to become more true to ourselves in the way we are and the way we relate to others. Could it therefore be said that meditation allows us space to become more authentic?
To answer this question it is first worth considering what “authentic” means. A quick Google search reveals the definition as “of undisputed origin or authorship,” “faithful to an original” or a “reliable and accurate representation.” I take this to mean that if something is authentic it is what it professes to be in origin.
This notion is easy to understand if we were considering the origin of a painting, however the distinction between authentic and copied is more complicated when discussing authenticity as a human characteristic, as the questions arise: What is it to be oneself, at one with oneself, or truly representing one’s self?
Questions this lofty take time for reflection and meditation offers a prime opportunity for this. So, at the onset perhaps it can be said that to discover authenticity takes time and a practice of looking inward to monitor an interior life, with a willingness to discover certain “truths” about ones self.
If we were to add the existential notion of authentic to this reflection we would also be required to strip away the aspects of ourselves that are purely culturally defined or that we have unwittingly agreed to include as self, to appease an authority, such as a family, peer group, school or government.
Heading down the existential pathway on authenticity can be a little like following Alice down the rabbit hole to confront the absurd. It might seem a bit difficult to gather meaning from a philosophy espousing meaninglessness but let’s just give it a brief shot anyway.
It is worth noting that the reason for lingering a little on existentialism is that ‘authenticity’ is considered this philosophy’s greatest virtue. However, to accurately set the scene it’s also best to remember that this philosophy grew out of the horror of two World Wars. With entire cites devastated by bombs and horrific events like the holocaust becoming possible, it is not hard to understand how meaning became hard to find.
In existential terms ‘absurdity’ means the search for answers in an answerless world. Author and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre faced meaninglessness head on. Instead of considering the absence of meaning Sartre reflected on the shocking abundance of freedom. “If there are no guidelines for our actions, then each one of us is forced to design our own moral code, to invent a morality to live by,” Sartre said, following that we are “condemned to be free”. He described authorities as “just really people like you – who don’t have any answers, people who had to figure out for themselves how to live”. Sartre determined the best thing you can do is to live “authentically,” that is to say any meaning your life has, is given to you by you.
In the current fast, gadget orientated age there is a concern that the ideal of authenticity, in which we focus on our own inner feelings and attitudes, may breed a self-centered preoccupation that is anti-social and destructive of compassion. We certainly live in an era where self-reflection is commonly portrayed outwardly instead of introspectively, with smiling selfies compulsively posted against the autobiography of our lives on social media. Our identities are tied up in our own unique branding, woven together by the stories we post about selves. To support something we believe in we only have to ‘like’ it to relate to it, and do no more.
However, from my personal and admittedly limited experience of social media, the posts that I see gain the most traction are commonly stories that show true vulnerability. Stories of how we got it wrong, either personally or as a reflection of humanity…and how we’d like to do better. This tells me that authenticity is tied up with transparency, honesty and a willingness of admit to failure.
So, is it then the rejection of pretense and hypocrisy, the ability to laugh at ourselves and the truth telling about all areas of lives that makes us authentic?
It appears that authenticity may actually be a simple concept. Meaning the things we say and the things we do are the same as the things we actually believe. It comes with reflection. It is the choices we make and the peace we make with ourselves for having made those choices. Perhaps, like the afore mentioned painting, to be authentic is to be the best we can be as a reliable and accurate representation of our self.
Through meditation and awareness of self we become more truthful as, though practice, we actively step closer to the way we feel and want to behave.
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