Thought Exercise: Who are you?

Photo by Danka & Peter on Unsplash

This afternoon, I was asked to send a short bio about myself to a very cool website I am joining as a contributor. It was supposed to be a simple description about myself in less than 50 words. I ended up staring at the blank gmail “Compose Message” space for a good hour before being able to describe myself.

Who are you is one of the worst philosophical, existential questions that everybody has to deal with at some point in their life, if not throughout, and as with everything else that is difficult to do, it is also probably important.

As I write this, I am reminded of the time a Tibetan Buddhist master posed the question to my then alcoholic and hungover father, who, despite his residual inebriation, spoke his name confidently. It was an ordinary exchange, which would have ordinarily ended at that point, but the inquirer was no ordinary monk, so he gave my father a second chance to think the question through:

Is that who you are, or is that simply your name?

Already hungover, and now dumbfounded, my father finally understood the question. He didn’t have the proper response to it then, but being aware of the question is the first step towards the answer itself. Thus began his journey towards sobriety, and today he is no longer an alcoholic.

What does this have to do with writing a short 50 word bio for myself?

A lot.

We often zoom through and past life just doing what is in front of us, expected of us, and many of us do really well. We have impressive degrees, enviable careers, a wide choice of partners. We think and overthink every move, do a cost-benefit analysis of attending that university, extrapolate our current position in that firm to decades into the future to ensure that we have a good life, and mostly keep on keeping on. It’s a fast world, and we try to keep up to stay at the top.

Despite all that we achieve, we are not really content. We think we are that idea of ourselves in our heads, and we end up limiting ourselves to everything else. Our understanding of who we are is so rigid; I am a good negotiator, I am not a good friend. We chase the world every day, forgetting that we are already a part of it. We go through most of life not knowing what it is that we’re looking for, not understanding why we do the things we do, and not feeling a sense of peace and belonging that we should, logically, be feeling. We mostly just don’t know who we are.

A lot of people blame this on the faulty systems, especially economic systems, of our world, and think that they should quit their job or travel the world to figure out who they are. But, why? Certainly, you don’t suddenly become yourself after moving to Bali? You can have life-changing experiences, but the you that you were before that experience is also, well, you. You are who you are even when you’re not aware of it. I think, to know yourself a little better, you just have to start being a little more aware of yourself and your surroundings.

Here’s a very basic exercise that might help you get started:

  1. Whenever you can, try to look at your thoughts. This is a little different from what we usually do — which is simply think, think and think — because this will help you see when certain thoughts arise, what causes them to pop up at certain times and events, and understand patterns that you may have earlier looked over. You don’t have to do anything else at this point, simply looking at them is enough.
  2. When you begin to really notice your thoughts and your thought process, you can start trying to understand them a little better because understanding your thoughts is the best way to understanding yourself. A lot of people find that writing it down helps clear that mental fog. It does not have to be in a cheesy journal or a notebook; it can also be as a note on your phone or a piece of paper. The purpose is to spill everything out, make better sense of the information you already have and help yourself see connections. Anything that will help you do that is okay, maybe even simply talking to yourself.
  3. Try doing that every now and then, so you are not attached to a certain idea or assessment of yourself. Being aware of what you think about, why you feel a certain way, why you make decisions the way you do, what drives you in life, and what it is that you are trying to really achieve — all of these are individual crucial building blocks that will help you see who you are as a whole.

Let me give you a quick example of how this works. After years of past-midnight conversations with my friends about their problems, I began to realise that I really liked understanding someone else’s point of view, and figuring out why they were feeling or acting a certain way. I also began noticing that I felt most motivated and fulfilled when I was able to help somebody. After I understood that about myself, I was able to note and understand their actions and behaviours in a more deliberate way, thus helping me to help them a lot better. This, in turn, led to me doing similar work on a larger scale.

These are obviously overly simplistic exercises and it would be a bit laughable if one of the most confounding questions of our lives could be cracked in 3 steps. It is a start nonetheless. Hopefully, next time I have to write my bio, I will be more certain and aware about myself; and hopefully, this has helped you at least confront the question in a more approachable manner.

Until next time.

 


If you would like me to continue writing on this topic in more depth, please do let me know!

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