Authenticity, freedom and compassion: To thine own self be true

“What if we choose not to do the things we are supposed to do? The principal gain is a sense of an authentic act – and an authentic life. It may be a short one, but it is an authentic one, and that’s a lot better than those short lives full of boredom. The principal loss is security. Another is respect from the community. But you gain the respect of another community, the one that is worth having the respect of.”

– Joseph Campbell

As the Tibetan saying goes, “Don’t be hide-bound by duty.” By this, the Buddhist meaning is that we should strive to do what is compassionate, and especially compassionate in the highest sense, in the most intelligent sense, the sense of getting to the root of things – and social convention, social conditioning and social pressures often get in the way of that: and we should unhesitatingly jettison these any time that is the case.

And who is to decide when it is or isn’t the case? That is up to your own innate intelligence to discern. People can give you good advice or bad advice, but in the end, you must decide for yourself.

Choosing independence of mind is always more challenging than simply drifting obediently with the herd; but it is also far more rewarding and more satisfying in the end. Those who refuse to choose independence of mind lead lives of quiet boredom and malaise, for they merely drift through life. It is only the bold who truly live.

I would say, it is better to live boldly and with a spirit of independence, no matter how challenging that may sometimes be, than to live a feeble and enfeebling, timid and conformist way of life. At least then, you are truly alive while you live.

Joseph Campbell alluded to the respect that is gained by another community, when we choose to be authentic and to follow our own internal guidance, and as a result, may lose the respect of the community around us. That other community, whose respect we will earn by being authentic and by valuing the truth over comfort or conformity, and whose respect matters more, is the community of independent minds and great spirits, who are always in the minority, but who always lead, even though they are not often in positions of overt power or obvious leadership.

This community’s opinion weighs infinitely more strongly to anyone who retains the capacity to think for him or herself; for here, basic sanity and clarity of mind still shine forth, while these qualities are sadly lacking in the broader culture.

You do not ask the blind to point the way, and you do not follow the blind, nor be overly concerned for their opinion on any matters, including, most importantly, what you should think of yourself. They do not know themselves – how can they possibly know who you are? Be kind and respectful to all, but do not seek counsel from those who are deaf, sightless and lost in confusion.

If you are uncertain, if you are confused, the first step is to admit it. As Socrates said, “I am the wisest person I know, because I am the only person who realizes his ignorance.” Or as the Zen saying goes, “A full cup can hold no more.” First, empty your cup. Realize that you have opinions only, that there is a basic confusion present. Without this first step, we will remain a prisoner to our illusions, and nothing will ever change. The first step toward freedom, authenticity and a life truly lived, fully lived, is humility.

Then, the second step is to begin to actively question all that you have been told, and all that you had assumed to be true – this is the beginning of an active search for the truth. So long as comfort and conformity remain our highest priorities, as they are for the frankly bewildered masses, then not only are we lost, but we have no impetus, no drive, no motivation to find our way, and we will remain lost and drifting, wandering aimlessly. The second step therefore on the path to freedom and a deeply rich life that is fully lived, authentically lived, is to value the truth above all else, and to actively seek it out.

The third and equally critical step, along with the first two, is to begin to trust yourself, to begin to have confidence in your own innate, natural intelligence.You may have humility, you may admit that you do not have all the answers, you may even be actively searching for the truth, but without confidence, little can be accomplished. You can have confidence, and confidence is extremely important. Trust yourself.

And when you begin to trust yourself, and therefore begin to have confidence, true confidence, as a result of trusting yourself, even though you are still uncertain, even though you don’t have all the answers, even though a measure, and if we are honest, a very large measure of confusion remains, then we will begin to be brave enough to step out from the herd, and to follow our own internal guidance. That is the beginning of true freedom. That is the beginning of an authentic life. And in fact, that is the beginning to a life truly lived, and not merely squandered.

And whose respect matters in the end in any case? Only your own. If you cannot live in a way that allows you to respect yourself, then no amount of praise or respect by your community, no amount of status or fame or accomplishment will ever compensate.

You see this everywhere – people who do not respect themselves, who are desperately hungry for accomplishment, status, fame, social climbing, career advancement or the respect of others; and the more they seek outside of themselves what they can only find inside, the more desperate and crazy they become, and also the more hollow. It is a downward spiral. When, or rather, if they realize that this was the wrong path, they can correct their mistake. In the meantime, they are lost and completely bewildered. As Thoreau said, it is a fool’s life, as they shall find at the end of it, if not before.

(Thoreau spoke of the fool’s life as being one dedicated to gathering up treasures which moths and rust will corrode, and thieves break through and steal; but he also made clear that the fool’s life is not just the one that is entangled in the snare of materialism, but one entangled in that more insidious net, which is the obsession with what others think, and the refusal to trust in oneself: the refusal to live either by faith or by confidence – which is a blind pauper’s life, no matter how outwardly rich, successful or famous we may become.)

Forget the herd. Be true to yourself. The herd is lost. Their basic instincts are towards compassion and mutual aid, which is an expression of basic sanity, innate intelligence, or simply, common sense; but they betray their basic instincts daily and habitually, by doing what they are told they should do, and doing what everyone else does, instead of what they know is right, or even sane. Forget the herd. Trust yourself.

To thine own self be true. Trust yourself. Be a light unto yourself. This is the more challenging path, but it is the only path to true freedom, the only path to an authentic life, and the only path to a life lived with depth and inner richness.

Trust yourself. You are not alone, even if the crowd abandons you. In fact, you are in the best of company.

J. Todd Ring,
December 13, 2013


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