How to find your Self

by Francis O’Neill

10 Bulls of Zen, How to find your Self‘How do you find your Self?’

This was a question that someone asked on another website, and I was invited to chip in my thoughts. How to find your self.

The person had heard that, ‘if you know yourself, then you will be at peace for your entire life,’ and they wanted to know if it is easy or difficult to find one’s Self.

I responded with a relatively short answer on the website, but this question got me thinking to write a bit more on the matter. I’m probably older than a lot of people reading this and I have given this matter some thought over the years. Hence the following I trust you’ll find of interest, or, even better, some help if you are seeking an answer to the same query.

Making a start

Let me start by saying this, ‘how to find your Self’ is a most profound concern and links to a human concern over thousands of years old. As you probably know, ‘Know Thyself‘ was even written above the gate of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Okay, it didn’t say know thyself and you’ll find peace, but arguably a clue to that outcome was in it being a temple.

One might consider there is a difference between finding one’s Self and knowing one’s Self. Finding one’s Self’ suggests a journey, a search, while knowing one’s Self rather suggests a developing relationship.

For me though the question of how to find your Self implies one and the same request in the end. However which way we describe it we are talking about the great adventure that all of us are invited to take part in.

How it is from a more esoteric perspective

In simple terms, what this adventure, to find one’s Self is really about, is something that we are still in the early stages of unravelling, but what we humans have known about for a very long time.

We are souls (or spirits if you prefer) having a physical body, a human spacesuit, for living on this planet. We are both spirit and animal in the process of awakening, and in that also lies our dilemma and work – the two are not the best of bedfellows. One belongs in a cosmic high vibration of love, the other gravitates to lower vibrations and separation. Our challenge then, through lifting our consciousness, is to build a bridge between the two states and make them, as near as damn it, one.

Once we arrive at, and know that, we know our Self. We have found our Self, and we can then get on with the real work in hand…

So this quest ties into our awakening, to increasing consciousness, and that is why it is so important we each take up this adventure – and in our own way.

Easier said than done

Bluntly, theory is okay but there is no easy answer to this request.

We start out on our adventure by coming into the world and, there on, being influenced in our development by our parents, maybe an extended family, the physical body we have acquired, our gender, our culture, our country or state, our language, our teachers, our religion, our peers, and the list goes on…

It is well recognised, in psychology and elsewhere, that what we go through in childhood – particularly up to the age of around seven years old – can determine our behaviour, our attitude, character, personality, beliefs and self-beliefs for the rest of our lives. We construct and proceed to round out our worldview and expectations mostly from these early experiences.

Our baggage and the subconscious mind

What we learn from those early years becomes our ‘baggage.’ It is what our world has taught us is right or wrong, good or bad, left or right, black or white, what is acceptable and what is taboo. It gives us our values and directs us towards what we need in order to be happy and successful in our world. Out of this we develop our identity and response to life.

It also becomes our embedded and habitual way of dealing with things, and then overlaid with layers of experience as we get older. The whole concept of the subconscious mind is built on this premise. It tends to run us (from the background) on autopilot, while we can think or believe we are making decisions based upon clear rational thinking.

Our first step (and thereafter many steps) on the road to finding one’s Self is to be able to step back, look at this from a higher vantage point, and then judge whether what we have constructed to represent ourselves to the world is who we really are, and what we believe to be true. In other words, to move into a position of either accepting the narrative of our life, mostly written for us, or to begin to write, or rewrite, our own narrative.

Finding one’s Self often starts from painful experience

Sounds easy enough doesn’t it? It is not of course. The problem lies in our attempting to stand outside of our conditioned self and look dispassionately on our situation. Most of us need help to do this. It is one reason why people attend therapy sessions so as to work with another who can take up that role of being dispassionate and objective.

The beginning of finding and knowing one’s Self often involves some painful experience to kick-start the awakening process – that brings us to asking questions and seeking answers. It could be something from childhood that we are revisiting, or it is revisiting us. It could be an age thing. It could be a health issue. It could be the loss of a loved one or other life setback that has opened a wound in need of healing – that then embarks us, sometimes without fully realising it, on the quest for understanding ourselves.

Some essential tips for your journey

The best way to find your Self is to lose yourself in the service of others.

I love this quote by Mahatma Gandhi. I’d add in, practice forgiveness of others and likewise yourself. Let go of resentment, of jealousy, of avarice. Develop compassion towards others. These all stem from ancient wisdom, and test, or are a measure for, how far we have come.

Live by your own truth than the pigeon-hole someone else has placed you in.

This is my quote, borne out of experience. Try not to live by other people’s standards or expectations, unless you are akin to them. If I have learnt anything through my travels it is to be true to myself. This is not something I say lightly in passing either. It has taken me many years to come to the realisation that I needed to live up to this essential requirement. Now, more than ever, I notice how I have attracted others into my life that, over the years, have tested this learning in one form or another — not necessarily always from a positive perspective either.

Be awake

In context, be awake to how much of what you believe about yourself stems from yourself or from the influence of others. Question yourself, and distinguish on what you know to be true – because you have looked into it – and what you believe to be true because others have told you it is true. What have you accepted and now own almost without question?

Develop your own way of seeing things. Pursue your own interests or passion regardless of how others may react or view this. Stand by your convictions – but also endeavour to grow and thereby be open to reviewing what you believe at any time.

A few more considerations

Here are a few more considerations to bear in mind as you prepare for your journey to finding your Self:

  • There is no right or wrong approach to finding your Self. We are each unique. Bear this in mind as you come under peer pressure, and the like, to conform to a particular convention, belief or worldview.
  • Develop a self-disciplined approach to your life. Become self-reliant. Spend time alone in contemplation and study. At some point you will need to get away from others for periods to clear your thoughts. Practice meditation – read Get Healthy Get Meditation article.
  • By the same token, seek to spend time with others who may share your passion and interests.
  • Consider that what happens in your life is linked to what you believe about yourself. Consider where you want to be in your life from here on in. Draw up a plan of action. Look into how the Law of Attraction works.
  • Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. Take risks. These help you to find your limits – and you may be surprised by what you are capable of. Be creative in some way. Try something new. Learn to flow with the knocks that life deals you. Allow for mistakes to be made – these can provide real learning.

Adding a few ‘stops’ into the mix

  • Let’s put a few ‘stops’ into this mix. In context with my earlier comments, stop wanting to be liked by everyone – or to be like everyone else, in order to fit in. As Baso, the Zen Buddhist master would say, ‘You have your own treasure house use it.’ Don’t vicariously live your life through others.
  • Stop thinking that somehow you are less of a person than others. Stop your thoughts as soon as this idea creeps in – as it does for a lot of us and can do harm. Begin to replace with positive affirmations of yourself. Turn negatives on their head. Develop belief in yourself. Look into affirmations – read Affirmations – 7 Essential Pointers article.
  • Here’s another: stop any tendency to procrastinate. Stick by your intentions and decisions. Stop any blaming of others for your situation – from here on in, take responsibility for your own life. And learn to be kind to yourself too.

Practice gratitude

Practice gratitude – always be grateful for who you are and what you have right now.

Finding your Self is truly about getting to understand and being yourself, healing yourself, being at home with yourself, becoming a more loving and giving person, more conscientious, more compassionate, treating others as you would have them treat you – and, as much as is possible, extending this to all forms of life, and the Earth itself.

It involves acceptance (warts and all), acknowledging your strengths and also your weaknesses – often what you think is a weakness may be a hidden strength. Actually the ageing process can help one to become more accepting, become more comfortable in one’s own skin. It is certainly doing this for me.

A point of clarification

What most of us are likely to understand by finding or knowing our Self comes down to knowing who we are as human beings. Of course it does.

But let me suggest that like an onion there are layers upon layers to this. We come to find there is a higher Self, deeper in, what we might otherwise call the Soul. This is the Self that transcends who we are in our here and now state.

We are human and beyond human, but for now locked into a human situation. In my understanding, this Soul is the same Self we are seeking.

A man in search of his Self

Yusuf Islam - How to find your Self
Yusuf Islam

If you were around in the 1970s and ever listened to the music of Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) you would have been witness to a man in search of his Self – notably through his songs in his albums Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, and Catch Bull at Four.

To my mind, his music and albums are like a travel log of his search. In his earlier works, such as Matthew and Son or I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun there wasn’t much sign of any search taking place.

Yusuf’s awakening happened following a high point of his fame, when he became infected with tuberculosis which brought him literally to his knees to question all aspects of his life and spirituality.

He had a second brush with death, you may recall, when he nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu in 1976. Indeed you could say that event forced his hand. He made a decision, a pact with God, as he put, and fair to say he did find himself right there – he knew his calling, what he had to do.

I might add his music has been a real inspiration for me on my search, as no doubt for many of us. His Catch Bull at Four by the way refers to the 10 Bulls of Zen (illustrated above) which maps the stages on the journey to finding one’s Self, Zen style, which I would also encourage you to venture into. If you want to know what happens next, after you have found your Self, then study up on the 10 Bulls in Paul Reps book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

Finding yourself involves ‘self-remembering’. If you know what I mean by that term, you will get this:

I know a lot of fancy dancers
People who can glide you on the floor.
They move so smooth but have no answers
When you ask, ‘Why you come here for?’

Yusuf Islam, from Hard Headed Woman

If you don’t get it, then treat it as a koan, until you do. 😎

I’d love you to add your thoughts and wisdom to this article, below.

Associated article/link:

Twelve Inspirational Life Books


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