George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, "It's never too late to be what you might have been." But it can be hard to realize what that is. Especially when "what you might have been" -- your true self -- has become smothered by the life events and experiences that formed your external "false self," as my previous post described. Nevertheless, most people have glimmers of awareness, moments in which you experienced the real "you." Many occur at key turning points in your life when you chose -- or were persuaded -- to go this direction vs. that.
You can't reverse time's arrow, but you can revisit turning points and learn something about yourself that you might reclaim and incorporate into who you can become. Within this perspective, an inherent, true self exists within your external self. And this underlying self is part of a vast, interconnected whole that our minds, bodies and spirits always "know" at some level.
This perspective reflects a confluence of several streams of new knowledge and thinking, including research about personality and behavior change; the distinction between consciousness, the mind, the brain and their relation to consciousness; and knowledge of the structure of the universe, of which our organisms are fragments, "intelligent stardust," animated by a life force that seeks expression itself through our evolution. Interestingly, this new research and emerging viewpoints are joining Western science with ancient Eastern teachings. They indicate that you can activate your true self, a source of guidance and growth for your personality, your emotions, values and behavior.
For example, psychological research finds that people are able to change significant features of their personalities with conscious intent. One study at Stanford University found that people are able to change their self-definition, and that, in turn, changed how they behave in everyday life. Other studies demonstrate that undertaking new experiences can bring about a broader change in your total personality. One interesting example: research showing that learning a new language can bring about personality change.
In essence, it's possible to activate capacities that may have been dormant within you. You can "teach an old dog new tricks." An experiment by Gary Marcus, an NYU psychologist, demonstrated this. He decided to teach himself the guitar at 38, and wrote about this experience and its implications for personal change in his book, Guitar Hero. More broadly, accumulating research on meditation, the brain and consciousness demonstrates that you can strengthen particular positive emotions like compassion and empathy through meditative practice. And, the latter's impact on brain circuits has systemic effects on personality and physical health.
These studies are like different threads of the same fabric. They reveal pathways that exist for activating latent qualities or capacities of your true self. Such Western research is coinciding with ancient Eastern perspectives. For example, the latter's description of the true self in paradoxical terms -- a "non-self" that's part of an underlying, interconnected whole.
A well-known Buddhist dialogue between the sage Nagasena and King Milinda illustrates this. Through a series of questions, Nagasena deconstructs the "self" of a chariot, asking if it's defined by its axle, its wheels, its framework and so on. Eventually, Milinda realizes that "It is in dependence on the pole, the axle, the wheels, the framework ... that this 'chariot,' this conceptual term [is] a mere name."
That is, the self you've learned to identify as "you" -- what you mistakenly think of as your real being -- is false. The late Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan emphasized that who you think you are is only a partial, incomplete portrayal of who you really are, or can be. He describes the inner "non-self" as "conscious only of its limitation, of its possessions with which it identifies itself ... [and therefore] forgets its own being and becomes captive of its limitation." Instead, he writes, "Consider the screen of your mind as a doorway giving you access beyond its limitation. Envision that the shadows on the screen are not simply what you perceive, but clues which if followed would open vaster and vaster horizons."
His teachings and meditation lessons connect modern science with teachings from yoga, Buddhism, Jewish and Sufi traditions, and provide a significant bridge between Eastern and Western perspectives about the true "non-self," Others include psychiatrist Mark Epstein's books on Buddhism and psychotherapy, and the Mind and Life Institute's seminars between the Dalai Lama and scientists that explore the nature of physical reality and consciousness from both Western and Eastern perspectives.
The physician and spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra has also focused a great deal on the nature of consciousness, the brain and the structure of the universe. He points out that science is unable to explain consciousness or locate it in the brain, that, "There is something more complex in the cosmos than the human brain: the process that makes the brain work. This process involves consciousness. It is our mind that is using the brain, not the other way around." He suggests viewing the brain as a creation of the mind, a physical projection of consciousness -- that mind is the origin of consciousness, not the brain, and we can use our brains to evolve and develop, guided by our intentions.
This perspective suggests that we can, in effect, co-create your self with the "intelligent universe." Inayat Khan describes this, writing that "The Universe can only know itself through those fragments of itself that are us, just as the tree knows itself through the branches of the tree. And ... in order to know itself through beings, it has to configure itself in a manner that is tangible to those beings."
As you reflect on turning points or moments in which you experience a glimmer of who you really are, might have been -- or might still become -- envision yourself as like a ocean's wave: Both separate and yet part of the ocean itself. You're constantly co-creating your future with that underlying whole contained within your true, "non-self." In fact, the latter is always working though you, to help you awaken and manifest your true self via the "messages" it gives you. Turning points and decisions provide continuous feedback from your true self about what you need to face, resolve, let go of or act upon in order to evolve and grow.
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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