While driving in my car the other day, I heard an old song that instantly transported me to a vivid scene in my life. I'm a not yet teenager, sitting in the kitchen and having an after-school snack. I reached for the radio to tune in to a Yankees baseball game, as I usually did. (Back then, games still played in the daytime.) But for the first time, I hesitated. Instead, I turned the dial to a rock 'n' roll station.
I recall feeling at that moment that something had just shifted in my sense of who I was, who I was becoming. I believe it was more than just the rumblings of impending adolescence, or thinking about that new girl in class. It was a new awareness about who this "self" was, inside me -- that I was no longer just the person I thought I was a moment before. It was a turning point in my consciousness about myself.
We experience many turning points in our lives, whenever we shift direction this way or that. Perhaps a decision about a relationship, or what interests to pursue. Maybe about an educational or career choice. Some turning points are conscious, others less so; some may be imposed by family or other persuasive people. But all involve turning away from one path, and toward another. And they shape the self that you experience and define as "you," along the way.
In my work, I often ask people to describe what they think were the positive and negative consequences from their key turning points, because there's always a message contained in what you turned away from, or toward. It's a message from your inner or true self, to the self that you identify with. The latter is increasingly shaped by your decisions and whatever you adapt to in your external life. But often, people don't "hear" what that message is, and what it means.
Viewed this way, your inner self is the realm of your innate capacities, sensitivities, and awareness -- all that is prior to the conditioning that you experience along the way, from day one. Your inner self keeps pushing to be heard, enacted, and expressed -- in the face of whatever path you follow. It's giving you a coded message, from yourself, to yourself. If you unlock its mystery, it reveals a challenge you're constantly giving to yourself, within both your "failures" and "successes": to identify that which you need to face, deal with, or embrace, in order for your true self manifest in your life.
Reflecting on this "self within the self" brought to mind a recent, poignant New York Times essay by the novelist Walter Mosley, "In an L.A. Childhood, the First Mysteries." There, he described a bittersweet childhood memory of his 3-year-old self in the backyard of his parents'. Observing and experiencing what was around him with awakening eyes, he said to himself, "These must be my parents," and he called out to them. But then, he added with a dark twist, "My mother nodded. My father said my name ... Neither touched me, but I had learned by then not to expect that."
Mosley described elsewhere "an emptiness in my childhood that I filled up with fantasies," and concluded his Times essay about his "first mysteries" by noting that "The primitive heart that remembers is, in a way, eternal." Interestingly, Mosley grew into the acclaimed mystery novelist he is today.
Awakening The Self Within Your Self
I don't know what the many influences on Mosley's life were, but your sense of who you are is continuously shaped by turning points and other experiences in your life -- whether you label them good or bad, choose them consciously, occur by happenstance, or if you're pushed toward them by unconscious needs. And yet at the same time, there's always an inner awareness, a consciousness that most people are able to acknowledge, no matter how dim it is: a kind of underlying, enduring "self" that doesn't really have a form -- just an awareness of its own.
This what you recognize or sense that is the true "you." Sometimes it feels in sync with your "outer" self. Sometimes it clashes. But it's always there, pushing to manifest itself. In that sense, it feels ever-present, as you change and evolve through life. That underlying awareness often fuels the speculation many people engage in at times, about the alternative lives we might have lived, had we had gone this direction rather than that. You may wonder, how different would your self have become?
My own musings include reflecting on how I might have evolved differently had I taken that college semester in India I decided against, or joined the Peace Corps after college instead of immediately entering grad school. How would these or other paths have altered my life -- the women I married, the work I've engaged in, the "me" that exists today?
But more importantly, our internal self constantly tries to reveal itself through the choices we make, and through their consequences, good or bad. It reveals the specific challenge you need to take on in order to grow.
I spoke about this recently with one of my leadership development clients. He was lamenting that he'd "wasted" some of his 20s doing work that not only had become a dead-end for him, but that he had known, all along, he never really want to pursue. I suggested that he reframe that experience from the perspective that the "failure" revealed his particular challenge. For him, it was to act with courage upon what he knew, inside, that he really wanted to pursue, but was frightened to do so. That was true for his personal life, as well. It was the message he gave himself through the "failure" that remains important today.
Another person, a therapy patient, told me that as he walked down the aisle during his marriage ceremony, he was fully conscious of knowing, "I don't belong here. This isn't what I should be doing." Not surprisingly, his marriage was conflict-filled for several years before he faced the mismatch of personalities and values, learned why he had entered into it, and then separated respectfully from his wife.
In part two, I'll describe new thinking and research from both Western psychology and Eastern spiritual traditions that are converging together and show how you can awaken your true self as you go forward in life.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.
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