Who Are You, Really?

You don’t have a surface public self and a private inner self, nor do you have one true, unchanging self. What you have, says Barry Magid, is multiple shifting self-states—and they can get along just fine.

Barry Magid
28 May 2021
Photo by Cindy Sherman / Charlie J Ercilla / Alamy Stock Photo

Who are you, really?

When asked this question, most people respond by saying what they do for a living, where they live, or something like, “I’m Sam’s father,” or “I’m Jessica’s partner.” These are all perfectly good answers, but what they have in common is they identify you with places, activities, or relationships, which are outside of you as an individual. So we might want to ask, “Who are you inside?” 

We often feel that who we have to be in public, in front of other people or when we’re doing our job, involves living up to other people’s expectations of us—of being who they think we are or should be. We might think of this social self as an accommodative, compliant, or even “false self,” to use a term made famous by British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott (1896–1971).

Our meditation practice can introduce us to another way of thinking about ourselves.

If we live in a society where our natural feelings, opinions, creativity, or sexuality are disapproved of, or are potentially the source of ridicule, shame, or abuse, we may feel we need to hide what we see as our true self. That may be as simple as having thoughts that we keep entirely to ourselves and never say out loud. Or maybe our whole identity is organized around keeping hidden something that feels essential to who we are, such as when we’re closeted about our sexuality.

What we keep hidden may be something positive and precious, like the love of a kind of music that none of our peers is into, or it may be a shameful secret that we don’t want anyone to know, like having been sexually abused by a parent. In any case, just by virtue of being kept hidden away, of being buried deep inside, it comes to be the thing we think of as defining who we really are, the thing we are that nobody sees.

When we think of ourselves this way—as having a surface public self and a private inner self—we are creating a vertical model of the self. This way of thinking about ourselves is so common and natural it may be hard to imagine an alternative. But our meditation practice can introduce us to another way of thinking about ourselves: a horizontal picture of our self, or rather our selves. 

If we sit with a simple, open, focused attention as we do in meditation—watching, feeling, and experiencing whatever comes up—it is as if we see in the mirror of our awareness a whole succession of what psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg (1931–2020) called “self-states.” Moment by moment, feelings and thoughts pass by in no particular order, displaying the variety of ways “I” exist to “myself”—as confident, as anxious, as calm, as worried about what others think, as I remember being as a child, as

I imagine myself being in the future, and more. All these states proceed one after the other, horizontally, not arranged in any hierarchy. Each one is the “me” of that moment, to be followed by what may be a completely different “me” the next.

Sometimes it feels as if an unchanging “me” is having a succession of thoughts. Then sometimes it feels as if a different “me” appears, seemingly unconnected to the first. Depending on our personality style, we may automatically and unconsciously assemble all the various “me’s” into what feels like a single identity. Or we may allow them to remain mysterious and distinct from one another. But what is crucial about this horizontal picture is that there is no basis for any one “self” to be “truer” than another.

If, however, I have a vertical model of the self, one part of me, a calm and serene self-state, may not like it when an angry self-state shows up. The calm state may then try to use meditation to extirpate its rival, a particular brand of self-hate that often gets called “spirituality.”

A more compassionate outcome of meditation practice is to allow all of our self-states to co-exist horizontally. That is, we allow each self-state a place at the table, since each arises from a genuine, if sometimes painful, part of our past experience.

But no matter if we take a horizontal or vertical perspective, we still may be equating the self with the mind, with something taking place between our ears. Where is the body in this picture? What is the relation of my self to my body? Is my self “in” my body? Is my self identical with or separate from my body?

The action is a true picture of the soul. Nothing is hidden.

Throughout history there have been those for whom the very concept of spirituality was grounded in the possibility of separating the spirit from the body, forgetting perhaps, that the word “spirit” derives from an Indo-European root word meaning “breath.” Can there be a breath, a spirit, without a breathing body? Yes, various spiritual leaders have promised, you are not your body, you are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings, nor your sensations. The spirit can be separated from its bodily container. It can be purified of its bodily needs and vulnerabilities and exist beyond the death of the body, continuing into another life through cycles of reincarnation or in transcendent heavenly realms. Or, if you’re not careful, in hellish ones.

But in my particular Zen tradition, at least, we don’t seek to identify the true self with a pure awareness emptied of its contents. On the contrary, we see the body as the perfect expression of the dharma and we view the mind as uncontaminated by its contents, whether thoughts or feelings. Zen is not a purification process. Our most fundamental realizations of impermanence and interdependence are continuously displayed by the body as it changes, by its vulnerability to conditions of heat and cold, its need for food and drink, and our interdependent social needs for nurture, community, and love.

As Eihei Dogen (1200–1253) explained it, the body, seated in zazen, is not just the vehicle for our realization—not just a means we employ to achieve enlightenment. It is, rather, the ongoing expression of that realization, the way we performatively are buddhas. For Dogen, the activity of zazen is the expression of our true self, not because it is bringing forth our true self from deep inside, but because in sitting we are enacting the moment-to-moment reality of emptiness.

In truth, everything we do, everything we are, can’t help but enact that reality. One might say that everything we do is the perfect expression of who we are in that moment. The action is a true picture of the soul. Nothing is hidden. It’s all come to this.

Just like the body, the “self” as it is—comprised of multiple shifting self-states, co-created by its world and its relations—is an ongoing expression of the dharma, of the joint realities of impermanence and interdependence. We do not have to discover a “true self” somewhere deep inside. Our true self has been hiding in plain sight all along. It is nothing but our ordinary self experienced from the perspective of emptiness. Nothing needs to change, but that insight changes everything.

Barry Magid

Barry Magid

Barry Magid, MD, is a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. He is resident teacher at the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York City and the author of Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychotherapy (Wisdom Publications).