The ancient Greeks had a famous aphorism, “gnôthi seauton” — know thyself. Indeed, being authentically who we are cannot be done without knowing what, exactly, that is. This is a continual and ongoing process that evolves over time.
Authenticity involves bringing that sincere engagement with understanding ourselves into the outside world. However, at the same time we must also be present and aware of what is true around us so that we can respond accordingly with our values and integrity. In other words, authenticity sits in the harmonious balance between our true selves and the absolute reality of the world around us.
All of us are naturally inclined toward being authentic with who we are. There is a deep wisdom within all of us. As I go about my day, I tune into that wisdom through being present and mindful. For instance, I may notice a tickle in my throat and then consciously go to the faucet, feel the weight of the water on my hand as the cup fills up, and then feel the sensations of moisture as the water quenches my thirst. Ongoing practice of being present with what is true for myself is a way of practicing authenticity.
This way, when I am faced with more difficult and complex situations, I have an integrated foundation of experience. For instance, when I am facing a difficult task, I simply must face the inner call to embrace any resistance to the situation in the moment. As skillfulness grows in this regard, there is a rising sense of delight to embrace whatever is happening as a learning process and to experience compassion more readily. This is a direct result of my daily sitting practice and knowing meditation in all areas of my life.
Like two sides of the same coin, authenticity and compassion go hand in hand. Practicing with being my authentic self on my own is one thing, and bringing that true self into the rest of the world is another. In this process, there can be an inclination to chastise or denounce others that don’t connect with us authentically. We may feel that if we are being our “true selves,” then this somehow prohibits others from judging or disagreeing with us. This is not the case. Being authentic does not give us the authority to behave inappropriately by “saying what is really on our mind,” for instance.
In my work as a spiritual teacher, I have found that those who are authentic ask for advice, seek out alternative points of view, and consider the needs of those around them. They consider the opportunity to stretch their imagination and find creative options to respond not as a challenge to their authenticity but as a way to strengthen it. I find that as I inquire further with another person as to what is happening on a deeper level, we both tune into our own authenticity. To listen from a deeper place I can see the wholeness in another and help them to see that too.
I recently gave a 30-minute presentation and felt it was the best presentation I have ever given in my life, because I stayed in tune with my own process. I stayed in tune with myself by sharing my limitations in advance in order to help some of the more intellectually focused people in the room accept that my presentation was not as intellectual as they may have expected. This did facilitate ease for everyone and allowed for more playfulness and openness for the entire talk. One person burst into tears after my talk because he said, “You were just so you. You were being yourself with such authenticity. I want to be like that, too.” I continue to feel touched by this experience.
As I reflect on authenticity, I see that it is a practical and flexible way to be in the world. It is about being awake in the world — and that is always good.