The Search for the Authentic Self

Complexity: 
Medium

from Back To Godhead Magazine #33-01, 1999

In her book Mightier Than the Sword, Kathleen Adams has a chapter called “Authenticity.” She writes, “The discrepancy between image/being, external/internal, acculturated self/authentic self—the maintenance of the lie—reverberates in the journals of men like an echo bouncing off canyon walls. The search for authenticity is a modern-day grail quest. It is the beating heart of many men’s writings.”

The search for authenticity is the beating heart not only of people’s journals but of many people’s lives. It means asking that age-old question: Who am I? That question is deep; we can’t lie when we answer it. Authentic means the answer has to be real.

But “real” has different levels. From the Vedic literature we learn that real means I am an eternal, separated part of Krishna, constitutionally a servant. On another level, it feels real that I am sitting in this room, at peace for a moment, seeing a flock of swans land on a calm lake. Yet another level of real is the acculturated self, shaped largely by the society we live in. Then there is the voice within us that rebels against that self and lives in a private, confidential world of spiritual and material aspiration.

So which is the authentic self? Or are they all authentic? Sometimes we have to start with the negative side of the question: Who am I not? By peeling off identities one after another—marital status, occupation, responsibilities, desires—we can learn to redefine ourselves by what we find important.

Srila Prabhupada speaks about authenticity in terms of self- interest. He says self-interest is good but most of us know neither what our real self-interest is nor how to pursue it. We pursue a limited self-interest, starting with physical gratification and extending that to identification with community and nation. Because we don’t recognize the authenticity of our constitutional nature as servants of Krishna, we don’t remember that the goal of life is to satisfy Him. Which takes us back to that ultimate level of understanding our authentic self: we are servants of God, eternally. If that truth remains only theoretical to us, we cannot be single-minded in our endeavor to satisfy the ultimately authentic self. The only way to satisfy that self is to act out of love for Krishna.

Therefore we are still searching for authenticity. We haven’t found the truth yet. For people in our condition, the guru recommends regulative devotional service (vaidhi-bhakti). When we are living our authenticity, we will love Krishna spontaneously. In the meantime, we have a list of shoulds and should-nots to follow, and often we have to accept the discipline they impose in spite of ourselves. Srila Prabhupada explains that the more we practice devotion even when we don’t always feel it bubbling up within us, the more we will uncover our original, authentic natures. When we uncover our pure intelligence, he says, we won’t know anything but surrender to Krishna.

But it’s a razor’s edge. We can’t lose ourselves in the following. As Srila Rupa Gosvami writes in Sri Upadeshamrita, a too-rigid following of rules and regulations without understanding the ultimate goal can be just as detrimental to our search for authenticity as not following at all. The goal of life is to love Krishna with our pure selves, but if we don’t know who that pure self is, we have to love Krishna with whatever we are now. We have to make room for all those other voices within us—the physical voice, the mental voice, the emotional voice—and imbue them all with the truth of our spiritual aspiration. Then we can turn to something we love to do, something meaningful to us, and offer it to Krishna.

And we have to consider not what is authentic but how much we are willing to be authentic. It’s that “being” that constitutes surrender of the self to Krishna. If we are searching for the authentic self, we can’t remain mere imitators of spiritual life. Imagine going through an entire life with the blessings we have been given and choosing to remain inauthentic. A devotee wants to be tuned to the ring of truth within himself. He wants to get behind the image, even the one he has of himself, to find his honest, loving offering to place at Krishna’s lotus feet. Eventually, as we practice expressing devotion, the outer self will harmonize with the inner self, and we will become whole.