Articles January 1, 2001

Getting to Know the Real You

Phillip Moffitt

Your movement from emotional chaos to clarity begins with answering the question, “Who am I?” This doesn't mean your gender, nationality, age, family situation, or ethnic background, and certainly not what you do for a living. Nor is it a question of who you believe yourself to be. What I mean is, what matters most to you in those moments when you are not caught up in getting what you want or avoiding what you fear?

Knowing what is essential to you allows you to meet the chaos of life with a clear mind and an open heart. In my experience, being clear about who you are as you respond to life's twists and turns is the only strategy that leads to a sustainable sense of well-being. Being grounded in your authentic self, or what I like to call your essence, supports you in making choices and decisions, helps you endure anxiety and stress, and enables you to bear disappointment and difficulty with equanimity.

The great challenge you face, like everyone else, is discovering your essence and then learning how to respond to life in light of this insight and wisdom. The central purpose of this book is to help you achieve this transformation in your life. But first, you must learn to discern what is authentic, to separate it from the many false or episodic identities you have undoubtedly acquired in your struggle to find your way in life. For example, a false identity you may have adopted is one that needs to be in control of what happens to you. If things go well, you are pleased with yourself; if they don't, you blame yourself. But it only takes a moment of reflection to realize that this is a false identity.

The hard truth is that life is characterized by continual change, and you can't count on it going as you planned. The ever-flowing stream of life delivers small and large misfortunes, all of which are beyond your control, from daily disappointments such as getting caught in traffic and missing an appointment to major life-altering challenges such as the loss of a loved one. Being able to control what happens to you in life is, therefore, not substantial ground on which to base your identity. The you that is always in control is an illusion. It does not exist. No matter how bright and skilled you are, you will only create turmoil for yourself by clinging to this false identity.

The Myth of Fingerprints

When I teach meditation students about the ways identity is created, I encourage them to think about false identity in terms of what I call the myth of fingerprints. On the surface, it may seem that we are separate and isolated from one another, but this is only a partial truth that obscures the larger truth that we are all interconnected. Yes, your fingerprints are different from mine and from everyone else's, but we all have fingers which we use in similar ways. Thus, in knowing what it means to have fingers, we discover that what we have in common is more important than our differences. The dissimilarity of our fingerprints isn't what's important but how we use our fingers. Do we use them for building and creating beauty, or do we use them to cause harm?

The same is true of your emotional history. It is uniquely yours, but others also experience the joy, anger, excitement, fear, and love that you feel. Your emotional history doesn't make you a separate species; it is simply one of the endless ways that human beings manifest the emotions they share.

To give another example, if a raindrop falls to earth, seeps into the ground, and then slowly travel through the soil to a creek, and from there flows over many rocks and branches into the sea, it has had an incredible history. But that history doesn't capture the essence of rain. Likewise, your emotional history doesn't capture your essence. Nonetheless, many people live their whole lives without realizing that they are mistaken about who they are.

You, too, may struggle to understand your authentic self. For instance, you may unconsciously assume that you are the collection of old habits of mind that you've accrued over your lifetime in reaction to difficulty, disappointment, and uncertainty. You may believe you are someone who is anxious because, as a child, you had to endure a constant stream of criticism from your parents. Or you may see yourself as a failure because you haven't achieved your career goals. But these conditioned mind states are not you—they are merely thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings, as you can observe for yourself, are temporary and ever-changing and arise episodically. So while they may characterize your experience sometimes, they don't define you. Your authentic self is defined by the values from which you respond to these mind states.

One skillful way to begin to understand who you are is to examine those aspects of yourself that you have mistakenly believed were the true you. As the false identities fall away, you develop clarity about what really matters. This clarity comes about as you cease to identify with the chaos of your life and as your heart opens to living life in accord with what matters most to you. The result is that you are no longer confused by the myth of fingerprints.

A word of caution: false identities come about due to conditions that are a genuine part of your experience and have meaning for you. Therefore a critical step in coming into your essence is to address the genuine physical and emotional needs of your false identities.

You Are Not Your Emotions

Who you are not is your current emotional state or the emotional states that you most frequently experience. You may feel overwhelmed by present circumstances or bound by past traumatic events in such a way that one or both seem to define you, and you may not be able to imagine experiencing yourself in any other manner. But painful as your emotions may be, they are not an intractable limitation that prevents you from knowing your authentic self. Your emotions are just reflections of mind states, all of which can be known and released. When you attend to your emotions with mindfulness, you begin to see that they are impermanent and don't belong to you; therefore, they do not ultimately define who you are.

Agnes, a student who attended my weekly meditation class, was so identified with her anger that it controlled her life. She was easily upset by real and imagined perceptions of being mistreated, which would cause her to act out in order to defend herself or to seek justice. She knew she was identified with her anger but felt that, because of her childhood history of abuse and neglect, it was just who she was. What a mess this angry person made of Agnes's life! She was fired from a great job at one company, lost an important promotion at another, and drove away a husband and three serious boyfriends. All this turmoil occurred despite the fact that she was bright and friendly and could be quite charming when she wasn't upset. But when she got angry, she was like an alcoholic on a drinking binge. Her anger stayed a long time, it lashed out at everyone around her, and it would intensify when it met resistance.

It took more than three years of daily mindfulness of her anger and several meditation retreats before Agnes realized that the anger was no more than a visitor that arrived because of certain causes and under particular conditions—it was not her identity. During this time, I, too, was the subject of Agnes's anger, but I would only respond to it with compassion and patience. I repeatedly asked her to tell me where in her body she felt the anger. I also directed her to notice if her anger was accompanied by images or an inner voice, or a rushlike sensation and if these experiences changed. I would then ask, “What does the angry person need from me right now? What does she need from you? Can you take care of the one who is angry?” Gradually Agnes realized that although the “angry teenager,” as she called it, was a part of her experience, it certainly did not constitute an unchanging self and that when she ceased to identify with it she was much more able to comfort herself and avoid trouble.

Phillip Moffitt, Emotional Chaos to Clarity (NY: Plume, 2012) 15-19.

Phillip Moffitt

Phillip Moffitt

Residential Retreat Teacher

Phillip Moffitt is a Buddhist meditation teacher and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the founder and president of Life Balance Institute where he trains leaders and professionals in how to skillfully make major transitions in their lives.