If you think about being yourself, what does that mean? If asked, "Do you like being who you are?" not everyone would say yes--some people dislike themselves. This can be the product of low self-esteem or perhaps a deep sense of guilt. Liking yourself doesn't have to occur all the time, however. There are times when you behave in ways you aren't proud of and say things you wish you could take back. Yet being yourself is more mysterious than like or dislike.
To be yourself, you have to know who you are. "I" isn't simple and in many ways is very elusive. A two-year-old writing on the walls with crayon is being herself, and so is a middle-school bully tormenting a classmate on social media. Running wild, acting on your worst impulses, and flouting all the normal rules are behaviors worth suppressing. But if you are candid about yourself, such impulses exist inside you.
If you take a look at how your mind operates, you'll quickly realize that many agendas compete for your attention. In certain situations you call upon a wide range of emotions that want to be expressed. You act differently at work than at home. Habit, memory, and old conditioning compete over your attention. these agendas have their own claims, and there has to be a decision-maker and overseer who chooses which persona to adopt, which feelings to suppress, which behavior is appropriate at any given moment.
Our sense of identity is assigned the task of sorting out and controlling these agendas, which means that being yourself, if we want "I" to be free and easy, could mean almost anything. The domestic abuser who is a model citizen, works hard, and prides himself on being in control has multiple faces, and depending on which one is being allowed to behave freely, a man with these facts can be horrible or honorable at any particular time.
"I" is incredibly adroit at figuring out which agendas to hide from public sight, which leads to a wide gap between the social self and the private self. When it comes to primitive drives like sex and aggression, a person may even be afraid of himself, and then "I" becomes a kind of inner jailer who keeps the worst side of human nature from leaping out. With all of this complex business going on, "I" isn't actually a person but more like a traffic manager, a process more than a self. As the poet Rumi asks, “Who am I in the middle of this thought traffic?"
At the very least, being yourself can't be pinned down. To complicate matters further, "I" accumulates labels and tags to define who it is. If I am a senior citizen, male, a doctor, husband, father, and grandfather, Indian by birth American by nationality, and so on, these labels have a claim on me. I can present them to the world as me, while at another level "I" can't really be defined by labels and tags. They come on and off like clothing, and if I get weighed down by a label, it becomes very hard to be myself. Instead, I will simply be letting the male or Indian or doctor out, playing the role defined by the label.
For all of that, something inside everyone says, "I just want to be myself." This is the cry of a prisoner who craves freedom, but freedom from what? If I give up my tags and labels, I risk becoming a social outcast or a nobody. If I stop overseeing all those competing agendas inside my head, I might behave like an animal or go crazy. If I sit passively and do nothing, existence loses its meaning and purpose. But at least we can say that being yourself is the impulse to be free.
If you attempt to be free by setting "I" free, it won't succeed. "I" or ego doesn't exist beyond the functions we assign to it. "I" is a concept in the mind that has no real substance or essence. Take away its assigned functions and it doesn't exist, as one can see in real life with babies, who are without ego at birth and gradually assemble one in their earliest years. Babies experience the world innocently, and they often seem to feel wonder and delight. No one would willingly return to infancy, but we'd like to be innocent again if it brought wonder, love, freshness, and renewal back into our lives.
What blocks innocence of experience is the burden of the self, with its lifelong disappointments, worries, frustration, ingrained habits, and pointless attitudes. Shedding the burden of the self isn't something "I" can do; it's beyond the ego's job description. In fact--and here is the big twist in the plot--the self that yearns to be free is part of the burden of the self. Water cannot say "I don't want to be wet" without self-contradiction. Likewise, the self cannot say "I want to get rid of the burden of the self," because that burden is the self. Not just ego but anything you identify with, desire, reject, remember, anticipate. and feel is self-made for the purposes of substantiating your personal reality.
This is the agenda of agendas, to hold on to the stuff that floats through the mind and make it real. "I" am here to keep "me" real, and as long as that's the agenda, there can be no freedom. This twist in the plot has been mulled over by the world's wisdom traditions for many centuries. To be yourself, you need to find an escape route from "I" and the reality it constantly reinforces. Such is the conclusion arrived at by every strain of spiritual teaching East and West. Dreams of Heaven, a return to Eden, Nirvana, enlightenment, unconditional love, divine grace, and perpetual bliss all express the same urge--to be free once and for all.
If the limited self, the ego personality and all its agendas, can't achieve the goal of lasting freedom, there is only one alternative. Existence must have freedom built into it. Being free simply means Being. If existence is a trap instead, destined to imprison the mind because the mind has no hope of freedom, the whole spiritual rigmarole might as well be tossed away. Fortunately, each person can test the validity of lasting freedom by exploring what it means to be. Existence isn't a flat, empty void. To be is to be fully conscious, which means that being conscious could be enough in order to attain lasting freedom.
No one can assure you of this possibility from the outside. It must be tested personally, which implies a journey from limited consciousness to full consciousness. Now is always the right time to undertake such a journey. No one is going to deprive you of your share of existence and consciousness. The real question is whether you listen or not to the inner voice that cries, "I want to be myself." Once you begin to listen, the journey to full consciousness takes care of itself.
Reprinted from SF Chronicle with permission