There are many ironies about feeling good about yourself and knowing who you are. For example, you might think of your identity as who you are. You might think the more you stand out, the more you are you. Yet, the more you stand out, the more lonely you might feel. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, what my skills were, how I was unique, and thought that the more unique I was, the more others would like or love me. Yet, the root of ‘identity’ is ‘idem,’ meaning ‘same’ or like others. And one definition of self, in psychology, is how we see ourselves from the point of view of others. To be different, to stand out, you must be connected. To be unique, you must be unique in relation to something or someone(s). The philosopher Martin Buber said there is no ‘I’ without others. I agree.
So does neuroscience. When not occupied or engaged in a task, psychologist Mathew Lieberman says our brains turn to social concerns. Whether it’s integrating previous experiences with others or planning for future ones, a good part of our mental space, when alone, is thinking about others. The neurologist James Austin talks about the natural discursive quality of mind: we are often talking with ourselves, engaged in an “inner” conversation, when not in conversation with others. Our sense of self changes depending on the situation, who we are with or who we imagine we are with. The part of the brain that oversees social-emotional concerns, thinking and planning, the prefrontal cortex, is also the part of the brain that takes the longest to develop in each of us. It is an area highly developed in humans compared to other species. Humans were able to survive by developing not only a large brain but a social one. The larger our social groups, the larger our brains needed to be.
And whether you realize it or not, relationships, especially loving ones, are one of the greatest sources of happiness. These are most satisfying when you feel genuine, when you don’t have to “put up a front” or be someone you aren’t. You feel best with others who can see or hear you. You can be spontaneous and feel loved or appreciated no matter what. This is one element of what might attract you to someone. What makes the person attractive is a combination of their uniqueness and their ability to see or hear your uniqueness. What makes me most myself is what makes me able to hear others, or to be, to some degree, selfless.
One element of being “in flow” or fully, joyfully, engaged in a task, is that “you” are forgotten. You don’t think of the past or future or what others might say about you. You are focused entirely on what you are doing. You are focused on, filled by, one moment of life. Every one of us knows how wonderful such moments are and how destructive concerns of self image, failure or success can be. Yet, you need a sense of self to even step off a curb and cross a street.
A Zen Master named Dogen said, “…to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things….” Think about this. It is not just about “forgetting” but enlightening. When you are most empty of your expectations, worries, you are most able to take in “all things,” to appreciate others, to feel and enjoy what you experience. To be most full, you must be most empty. To study the self is to study how I am others, and others are me.
Feeling “off” or discontented, or that you are missing something, is feeling there is an intermediary or a distance between yourself and now, between awareness and the object of awareness. Feeling fully alive, “on,” is feeling there is no boundary, that you can deal with whatever comes up, that whatever arises can teach you something. It is feeling this very moment, in fact, all of your life, is worth living, not something to distance from or deny. Feeling “on” is enjoying the ironies of self.