One of the basic skills of emotional intelligence is understanding yourself: personality, motives, and emotions. This is one of the possible steps to harness the things that make us special: honesty, authenticity, compassion. Unfortunately, no school teaches this particular skill. Even meditation usually focuses on transcending self rather than leveraging it. Let us think about this together. More info can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Awareness and maturity
Somehow the true personality is often discovered during the midlife crisis. When we are young we do not have enough experience. In our 30s we are too busy with kids and career but 40s are the perfect time for soulsearching. Of course, similar tools can be used in any age.
So let me ask you some simple questions. Have you seen yourself handling complex situations in different diverse roles? Did you exhaust all of your childhood dreams to the point that you are ready to build a new mature vision? Can you dedicate an hour of your time every day to the thing you love without being distracted by work, family, friends? If so, you might be ready for the next step.
Technology is great, but it tends to defocus. A soul search usually requires quiet concentration. So it makes sense to switch off the mobile devices, turn off TVs and computers for a couple of hours every day. No need to do something drastic.
Also, it makes sense to reduce sensory stimulation for a while. Usually, this means limiting shopping, alcohol, oils, and spices. Again, I do not think that anything drastic is required. Just a certain level of clarity. If you can distinguish the individual taste of each tomato you eat, you are probably sufficiently cleansed.
This is something that worked for me. Other people may recommend different things, for example, the consumption of small amounts of marihuana to relax. Honestly, I never wanted to do that, and I do not think it is necessary.
Once we have enough clarity to focus, we can start visualizing different things. Most people tend to visualize various events of their own life, in a sense reliving them. This is an important autobiographical experience, and it is also a test of our memory. So ask yourself, for example, these questions:
- What motivated you in various periods of your life?
- When and where did you truly belong, being most authentic?
- When and where you needed to pretend or felt uncomfortable?
- If you had to relive some period of your life over and over, which period would that be?
- Which part of your life you are ashamed of and why?
- What other people are similar to you in a certain time period, and what does this say about you?
- If you had to choose a costume to represent your thoughts, what kind of costume would it be?
I guess you can make better questions. Give it a try. The main idea is finding hidden meaning and maybe new strengths in various past experiences good or bad.
Writing an autobiography
You may want to present your experiences in a sort of a diary. Maybe add some life stories. The diary does not have to be written or detailed. People tell their stories to their close friends, kids, parents, therapists, sometimes even complete strangers.
The idea here is somewhat tricky. When we tell the experience to another person rather than visualize it in our own head, we use different parts of the brain to make sense of it. Using a different language may also be useful if you are multilingual.
Look for holes in your diary. What are you trying to hide from yourself? Which experiences you are trying to avoid and why? Quite often the things we try to hide tell about us much more than the things we are ready to discover.
You do not have to be absolutely honest with other people, but at least try to be honest with yourself. To be absolutely honest, we may need a huge dose of self-compassion.
For me, the trick was switching the perspective. Now I am not the person I used to be years ago. If I have thought and done bad things, this does not mean I will do that again. Quite often I was pushed to strange behavior by various kinds of suffering. Seeing yourself in the past as a different person and being compassionate to that person’s suffering worked for me.
There should be no shame or blame, no fear. Instead, rely on acceptance and compassion (learn ACT or meditate if you want to). Even when you or other people deserve certain labels, try to feel that you are more than a sum of these labels.
Do not try to transcend
When religions offer soul-searching they also offer the capacity to transcend the self. This skill might be great in some other context, but not when you want to know yourself better. You do not really want to understand your “better” self, just learn more about who your real and authentic self is.
Typically the things that are true, authentic and good, are very small. For example, I feel good in forests. No other environment makes me feel so authentic and relaxed. I love to feel leaves under my feet, and I enjoy it when the canopy protects me from direct sunlight and rain. Then I love to feel a light breeze of air… That’s not something huge yet it is good for visualizations of the most positive environment. Strangely, sunlit beaches or majestic mountains make me uncomfortable, and I do not use them in meditations.
Small things tend to focus our humanity. We are special not because of great deeds, but because of the small variations in our perception and experience.
Is there such a thing as human nature?
Getting in touch with basic humanity is a bit strange. Our cultures usually try to avoid it. Tragedies offer heroic larger than life versions. Consumerism transforms us into products. Religion tries to find the god within us. Philosophy asks many questions but does not provide ways to answer these questions. Possibly only humor addresses our humanity directly.
We are different from computers or animals. I think we feel it instinctively. Only we are not very good at formulating this thought. Quite possibly introspection and imagination describe human nature better than linguistic skills and ability to construct tools.
There was a romantic notion of “noble savage”, a man who is truly strong, beautiful, and decent because he is not spoiled by civilization. The dream here is not transcending our humanity, but keeping humanity and transcending the civilization itself. Probably this is just a dream, yet it points out some interesting possibilities.
Visualize yourself in some other environment
The next trick people often do is visualizing how their personalities would develop in a different environment. These visualizations may be so vivid that people often call them “past lives”. Try to imagine your past lives as a Chinese man, an Indian woman, an African leopard, a native Australian child. Focus on small things and fill in the details from historical literature. Eventually, all of these experiences add up to what it means to be human, the true nature of one’s self.
The idea here is to shift the identity from a certain role we have in society to the basic human position. There is some inner core that does not change no matter what. As we learn about it, we tend to respect it. This is probably who or what we truly are.
Love your body
This is either very simple or very hard. Basically we need to accept the way we look. When we present our bodies in front of others and they do not judge it, we feel OK. The tricky part: all of our friends and relatives will judge our bodies.
I suggest a different way to address this issue. Imagine that you have a very different body and imagine your life with it. Our bodies tend to be perfectly suited for our lifestyle. Changing the body we tend to change the lifestyle. A different body would mean a different lifestyle. Would we really enjoy THAT lifestyle? Probably not. Thus by elimination, we tend to get back to our body and love it, not because it is inherently beautiful but because it is a perfect representation of our lifestyle. Every scar is a result of something that built us as people. If you are still unhappy with your body, try the new lifestyle first…
Popularity as distortion
We naturally want to be popular and socially accepted, rich, and famous. These achievements tend to distort the authenticity. If you are true to yourself, people will probably like your company. On the other hand, if you try to be likable you will probably lose your authenticity.
What does the loss of authenticity look like? Some teenagers report that they do not like to be left alone because without others they do not know what to think or feel. They are so used to pleasing others, that without anyone to please they feel truly lost.
Are the rich and famous happy? I seriously doubt that. Rich and famous use all kinds of drugs and commit suicides much more often than the average. Alternatively, they preach stoic perception of reality, experiencing suffering with noble heroism. This does not sound happy to me…
If you do not want to be rich and famous, but instead want to be authentic and happy, try to do some soul searching. The process may be quite similar to writing an autobiography while connecting to your basic humanity. Do not transcend yourself, but instead transcend the social norms. Practice acceptance and compassion.