We are sometimes told, just be yourself. But what does that really mean? What does it mean to be authentic in a world that demands so much of us everyday? And can anyone teach us how to be authentic?
What Is Authenticity?
Defining authenticity is like trying to explain the meaning of life. We can talk around the subject and come up with complex theories, but ultimately it must be lived to be known.
Existential philosophers such as Heidegger and Kierkegaard defined authenticity basically as the ability to live in alignment with ones true self at all times. This alignment should remain in place even if it is inconvenient or goes against social pressure. It will probably trigger the experience of being something other than what is seen in the external world. Authenticity in this frame requires reconciling what one knows to be true about ourselves with what we are told about how the world works.
Other philosophers such as Sartre defined authenticity by what it is not. They would refer to the many ways humans can be inauthentic as examples of what not to do. Authenticity in this perspective means not following others leads or lying about our wishes and needs.
Both approaches to authenticity can be summed up with the easier-said-then-done phrase be true to yourself. No matter what. Do not hurt other people or the earth. But do not pretend to be other than you are. Do not define yourself by what other people tell you is true or healthy. Discover and live your own truth.
How to Be Authentic
The paradoxical joke of the quest for authenticity is that no one can actually tell you what authenticity is for you. We can define inauthenticity easily, and most people can tell, even if only on a subconscious level, when another person is being inauthentic. But no one can tell you how to be yourself only you can know that. Only you can discover how to live and express authentically.
But while no one can define your version of authenticity, there are some guidelines that can help you discover it:
* Know yourself. Pay attention to what makes you happy, what angers you, what turns you on, what frightens you. Ask yourself why you do the things you do, and what your deepest dreams are. The more you understand your desires, motivations, and feelings, the easier it will be to live authentically.
* Do what you know is right. Once you understand your belief system, follow it. What you believe to be healthy and important might not align with societys views. Do not engage in actions that hurt other people or break the law, of course. For most people, living authentically actually inspires greater compassion and empathy, and a stronger moral compass. But do not let yourself be imprisoned by cultural norms, either.
* Follow your bliss. From the teachings of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, comes the wisdom to go after your hearts desires. Once you know your deepest dreams and loftiest ambitions, do your best to follow them. Life conspires to support people who pay attention to the wishes of their hearts.
* Share your truth. Authenticity loves to be shared. This will look differently in different people, but the choice is the same. Tell it like you see it. Share your art, whatever form it takes. Have the courage to let people see the real you.
The Authentic Life
While it may look different on each person, authenticity feels the same in everyone who lives it. It conveys a sense of rightness, of perfect alignment. Authentic people are inspiring to be around because they are very comfortable with themselves, even if they are in the midst of an uncomfortable personal inquiry. They resonate with truth and empowerment.
Authenticity looks like people telling the truth about themselves and how they see the world. It looks like people engaging in behaviors that feel healthy and natural to them. It means that their words, actions, and creations are in alignment with their core truth and deepest understanding of self. If everyone were living authentically, there would probably be more art, more peace, and more health in the world.
Authenticity must come from within. No one can define it for you, or tell you how to be yourself. But discover it you must, if you wish to be truly happy and healthy. We can only go through the motions of life for so long before something beautiful and precious inside of us dies. We were meant to find out who we really are and live in alignment with that truth.
Above the door to the Oracle of Delphi and encoded within the philosophy of Yoga is the instruction to know thyself. Beyond anything else we might learn in this life, discovering who we really are and having the courage to live authentically may be the greatest quest of all.