The Path to the Authentic Self

The path to the authentic self is the path to heart, the path to soul, the path to That Which Has Always Been Called God. I say “That Which Has Always Been Called God,” because “God” presumes “The God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus,” and stands before us draped with the theology and doctrines, creeds and dogmas of the Christian religion (with a tip of the hat to Judaism). And we cannot get to That Which Has Always Been Called God, with our idea of God standing in the way.

To find our way to That Which Has Always Been Called God, we have to lay aside theology, doctrine, creeds and dogma, and step into our life as those who would experience our experience, see what we look at, hear what is being said (Including hearing what we are saying as well as what is being sad to us and around us), know what we know, live out of our own authority, and trust ourselves to have what we need to find what we need in order what needs to be done in each situation that arises.

The way to this way of life is the path to the Authentic Self. As we find our way to the self we are born to be, we find our way to That Which Has Always Been Called God, and live from the heart in ways that make wherever we are a good place to be. Walking this path is the work of the spiritual journey, which is the hero’s journey, which is the high adventure of being alive.


Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child, theorizes that as they get older, children face a choice between being authentic and honest or being loved. If they choose authenticity and wholeness—integrity—they are abandoned by their parents and significant others in their lives; if they choose to be loved, they abandon their true selves.

Reflecting on Miller’s observations, Mary Phipher, in Reviving Ophelia, says that parents are not responsible for the “loss of self” in childhood—it is the natural outcome of the process of being acclimated to one’s culture that replaces “the true self” we are born being with “the false self” we are expected to be.

Phipher argues that authenticity requires us to be aware of the process that separates us from ourselves and to embrace the work of “owning” all of our experience.

Jon Kabat Zinn’s work with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction offers a method for this kind of “ownership of experience,” by suggesting that we learn to “hold everything in our awareness” without judgment, or even opinion—just knowing that it is there as a part of our life experience, and watching as we integrate/incorporate the “opposites” into our life without trying to, but by allowing it to “just happen” in its own way.

Joseph Campbell spoke of “the Primary Mask,” and “the Antithetical Mask.” The Primary Mask is who we are expected to be by culture and society and the Antithetical Mask is who we recognize/discover/know ourselves to be “just as we are,” as “the face that was ours before we were born,” saying, “The Antithetical Mask opens us to the realness of ourselves. When we put it on, we find our own zeal, we find our own life, and live it.”

Galen Rowell, reflecting on his path to becoming a professional photographer in his book Mountain Light, says that learning to see is a matter of recognizing and trusting our own sense of where to stand–where to put the tripod, how to compose the image, in the right kind of light, and when to press the shutter button. He says the heart of photography is the search for that which expresses our inner-most self, to incarnate and exhibit the truth of who we also are, by doing the work that springs from the heart of what we know to be right when we see it, feel it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupry, writing in Wind, Sand and Stars, said, “Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.”

If we are to find our way to an authentic self-hood and an authentic spirituality, we are going to have to “grasp ourselves by the shoulder while there is still time” and give ourselves permission to follow our true heart’s desire for our lives, regardless of how absurd that might appear to our peers or the culture at large. The path to That Which Has Always Been Called God winds through ourselves; we cannot hope to know That Which Has Always Been Called God, without being true to what is being asked of us, in each situation as it arises, moment-by-moment-by-moment–without knowing and being true to that which is deepest and best in us.


The disciples stand, peering up into the heavens as Jesus ascends, growing smaller and smaller in the distance, thinking, “Well, here we are—now what???” Now they are on their own, alone. What next? If they were more like we are, they would have quickly fallen into busying themselves with whatever they could think of until their lives were over. Being busy is one of the best ways, perhaps, the very best way, to not know that we don’t have a clue about what is going on and what we need to be doing.

Ask anyone what they need be doing and they will begin an immediate list: “I should be doing this, or that, or that over there.” And, in a blink, they start doing it, doing “this,” and “that,” and “that over there.” A case could be made for doing it all, so we do everything, to cover our bases, just to be sure–and, to hide from the anxiety of not-knowing what we actually should be doing.

Instead of becoming busy, the disciples lived with their anxiety. They became quiet. The worst thing for an anxious person to be is quiet! The disciples didn’t do anything. They waited. They did nothing because they understood the importance of doing nothing, and waiting while clarification is marinating, and vision is simmering, and purpose and direction are beginning to rise in the darkness, and emerge from the stillness and silence of waiting.

But we can’t stand waiting. We hate stillness. We cannot tolerate not-knowing, and cannot bear the legitimate pain of our own experience. We cannot bear our pain. Our world goes to the hell of our own making because we cannot bear the pain of our reality, our existence, our not-knowing—cannot bear the pain of birthing what is trying to be born in us, and through us, into the world of concrete and steel.

We all have desires,  and aims, and ambitions, and intentions that may well run counter to the direction our hearts would have us go. There is a tremendous difference between asking our idea of God to bless us and help us along toward the life of our dreams, and asking our idea of God to direct us toward the life of that God’s dreams—but that God can only dream our dreams for us, and we are left on our own with ourselves to deliver and guide. But all we have is wanting/desiring to lead us from one disappointing dream to the next. The old prayer of confession is right on: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…” Yet, it is not our “heart of hearts” that we have followed. Too often, we have ignored what our hearts were calling us to do, and invested ourselves in the pursuit of that which “was a delight to the eyes.”

The real struggle for the birth of the authentic self—the self we are created and called to be—is an inner struggle; it is a struggle between what is attractive and what is essential, between what is desirable and what is necessary. The question is whether our lives will be directed by the “true self,” that is, our “heart of hearts,” which is connected at the core with That Which Has Always Been Called God and calls us to service beyond our own desiring, or the “false self,” which is the self of our own creation, with which we strive to achieve our agenda, and serve our purposes, and realize our ends. And so, at each point in our lives, we might ask ourselves, “Will our real self please stand up and step forward to guide the way, here and now!”

Who is the “I” that directs our steps; plans our day; makes our choices; decides our goals; lives our lives? Is that “I” invested in the service of our true best interest? Or, is that “I” concerned with the orchestration of a competing version of how our lives should be? How would our lives look if they had been under the control of our “heart of hearts” from the beginning? What great battles must be waged in transforming this life into the life of our true heart’s dreams? What must we recognize about the aims and purposes of this life in order to be willing to pay the price of abandoning it in favor of our true heart’s dreams?

There is a sense in which salvation is coming to the end of this life’s rope and realizing that there is another life waiting for us, the life of our true heart’s dreams. Salvation is comprehending, finally, that our true heart’s dream for us and the dream of That Which Has Always Been Called God for us is the same dream, it is knowing that what is being asked of us is what our true heart has wanted for us all along. It is nothing short of revelation to grasp the fact that our true heart beats in sync with That-which-has-always-been-called-God’s heart, that the aims of our authentic self are the aims of that God, that when we find our way to our truest self, we find the path to that God, and the difference between our true self and that God is too small to be weighed or measured. And we can be forgiven if we understand this is what Jesus understood when said, “The Father and I are one.”

We do not get to this place of realization—of being saved, of being restored to our true heart’s dream for us, easily. As long as this life seems to be working, to be leading us toward prosperity, success and happiness ever after, we have no interest in the other life. The price of salvation is generally the experience of disillusionment and lostness that comes with realizing the emptiness of the false self’s plans and ambitions. This life has to fail us in some deeply significant way before we can be ready to open ourselves to the possibilities of the other life, the life of our true heart’s dream.

We have to get to the end of our rope before we can change our mind about what is important.

Every experience with despair, then, has the potential of opening us to the possibilities of the other life. Depression is not only an indication that something is dying inside of us, but, also, that something is struggling to be born.  Ordinary “down times,” or chance meetings with “the blues,” can be quiet places where we can hear “the still small voice” of our heart of hearts, whispering to us from far away, hoping that we will recognize “the time of our visitation and know the things that make for peace,” so that we might take up the work of discerning the path with heart, and walking it, for the rest of our lives.

Living well in any age is about finding our heart, knowing our heart, living out of our heart. If we do that, we’ll have it made regardless of all the things in our lives that aren’t like we want them to be. Success isn’t to be measured by the degree to which things go our way, but by the degree to which we go the way of our heart, the way our heart has in mind for us, the way our heart is calling us to take up and live out, even though that may insure that things don’t go “our way,” and we have to proceed along the path with heart anyway, nevertheless, even so.

Here is the truth as clearly spoken as it has ever been told: We are all being led, how well we follow tells the tale. Listening to our heart and following its lead does not mean that we will make a lot of money, or be famous, or be successful as the word is normally defined. Trying to achieve these things may well cut us off from our heart, and render us incapable of knowing what has heart for us. When we live for prosperity and recognition, for instance, we cannot live for our heart. If we put all our energy into prosperity and recognition, we cannot put it into what has heart for us, and prosperity and recognition will then become barriers separating us from where our heart needs us to be, keeping us from living the life that is truly ours to live.

This is not to say that living from the heart is necessarily at odds with prosperity and recognition. It is just to say that prosperity and recognition are not the aim and intention of a life lived from the heart. If they come, they come as by-products, and are not embraced as being particularly wonderful in themselves. More than likely, however, doing what we love will not lead to fortune and glory, or even to an easy life. We may never get anything more out of it than having done what we loved. But what is prosperity and recognition if those things keep us from doing what we love? How much would we give to be able to do what we love? Our focus and goal has to be doing what we love while doing what we must to pay the bills, letting that be enough. This is the most important thing: finding what we truly love and doing it, while paying the bills.

The trick is to run up the right bills—the bills that enable us to live the life that is our life to live. What are we paying the bills to do? What does paying the bills allow us to do? What are we doing that is life for us?

In order to live successful lives, we have to know what has life for us. We have to know the things about which we can say, “My heart is in that.” We have to know the things that we can put our hearts into, the things we can give our hearts to, the things we can do with all our heart, whether we get paid for it or not. We have to know the things we “have to do or else”—the things that resonate with us, draw us, catch our eye, call our name.

These are the things that ultimately “make for peace.” No matter how much the culture tout’s prosperity and recognition as necessary ingredients in “the good life,” we find our satisfaction, our peace, in doing the things we are built to do—in being the person we are built to be—and trusting that to be enough. When we live like this, we live from the heart.

 “Heart” has to do with the things we are built to do, the things we were born to do, the things we have to do or die (metaphorically speaking). “Heart” is about the life that is uniquely ours, about what has life for us, about where life is found for us, about what brings us deep joy and gladness.

Finding the paths with heart means listening to ourselves, to our lives, to the things that attract us, draw us, compel us to take them up. We do not think our way to these things. We realize them. They occur to us. They “just happen.” Pay attention to what occurs to you! We have to learn to listen like this to know where we must go with our life, what we must do. Finding the paths with heart means doing what we have to do for the sake of our soul, our true self, our heart, no matter what. And it is our life-long task to learn to live from the heart in all that we do.


On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and those praying with them, and they began to communicate from the heart to one another in ways they could understand. The Spirit of a Community of Innocence is at work to connect us to the truth of our hearts by enabling us to say what is true about us to those who care for us. It is the freedom to be honest that creates, and is created by, community. It is the ability to say what is true about us to those who care for us that produces, and flows from, community.

And the Spirit of that kind of community is Holy in the deepest sense of the word. A Community of Innocence is innocent in the sense that it is not exploitive or manipulative, and has no agenda beyond being present with one another for the true good of the other—without pretending to know what that good is, but is ready and able to live toward the good by listening and looking for clues and hints as to what might be at work within us and through us to connect us with one another and enable us to stand in the presence of each other’s truth—which is the essence of love, and the bedrock of community—and so that each person is helped to find the way for themselves individually and for the group to find it for the group as a whole.

Standing in the presence of each other’s truth enables us to explore our experience in the company of those who care—about the truth and about each other, and about the truth of each other. And through that process, we come to see clearly and live well, from the heart, reconnected to the authentic self, and take up the task of becoming the people in the service of That Which Has Always Been Called God in following the path with heart, the path that leads to and flows from That Which Has Always Been Called God.

Seeing, hearing, understanding, knowing what we know and what can be known is awareness, and awareness is everything. It all depends upon, and flows from, seeing, from being aware. Being mindfully aware (Watch all of the Jon Kabat-Zinn YouTube videos, the shortest ones first!) of what is, as it is, enables us to respond appropriately to whatever is. Appropriate response depends upon right seeing, right hearing, right understanding, right knowing. We cannot know how to live in the world until we can orient ourselves, and know when and where we are, who we are, how we are, what is being asked of us, and what matters most in each situation as it arises. We have to see clearly in order to live well.

And the secret of seeing is saying—speaking with awareness of what we are saying. We cannot see what we cannot say. There are times when we cannot see what is, or how it is with us, until we can say it, until we can put it into words. We see in the act of saying. When we hear ourselves saying how it is with us, we see it—perhaps, for the first time.

This is what good friends and good therapists do for us. This is what a supportive Community of Innocence does for us. They listen us to the truth of who we are. They enable us (sometimes force us!) to see how things are by having us say it, by asking us questions and encouraging exploration, and sitting with us while we struggle for words to say accurately what is trying to be said. Once we can say exactly what is going on in our lives, and how it is impacting us, what to do about it is practically automatic. Saying leads to seeing, and seeing leads to acting and living with awareness and understanding, in living a life that is better by far than the one that said nothing, saw nothing, knew nothing.

We increase our ability to live from the heart by talking in depth about the things that are true for us, that matter to us—by saying what is on our minds, in our souls, in our hearts. If we are to see clearly and live well, from the heart, we have to learn to speak from the heart, about the things that are important to us, so that we might see them for what they are, and know them for the first time.

Living honestly means knowing how it is with us and being able to say that out loud to those who can be trusted to hear what we have to say without condemnation or ridicule. Living honestly is about experiencing what we are experiencing, experiencing how we are reacting to what we are experiencing, and saying what is true for us to those who are with us and care about us. Living honestly is the key to it all. We can’t find what we love if we aren’t honest with ourselves about what we love.

Jacob Bronowski said, “We cannot know the truth unless we live in certain ways.” We have to live truthfully. We have to live truthful lives. A community that keeps us from living in ways that are truthful is not a Community of Innocence.

We need a community of two or more people who can listen to us and serve as a caring presence in our lives. The freedom to be honest is the foundation of community. Community is where we are free to explore, express, and experience how it is with us in the presence of those who care enough about us to listen to us—without interrupting, changing the subject, or stopping us short; without attempting to fix us by giving us tips, answers, recipes or recommendations; without commandeering the conversation by telling us how much worse they have it than we do. Community is where we are free to explore our experience with those who listen and help us articulate what we are feeling, thinking, perceiving, believing, seeing, etc., and how that impacts us for better or worse. In community, we become who we are—we recognize who we are, know who we are—by saying who we are.

Communities of Innocence provide us with the space to discover our deeper self by providing us with relationships that can take us as we are and love us for who we are. Few of our relationships can withstand the test of realness. In maintaining those relationships, we give up the essential connection with the truth of who we are, and have to protect those relationships at the expense of our deeper self.  We have to guard those relationships to such an extent that we are afraid to be real, because we cannot trust those in relationship with us to love us if they know who we are. We need a Community of Innocence that respects us and loves us enough to let us be real in expressing the deep truths, and confronting the deep questions of our souls.

In a Community of Innocence, the happiness and peace of the community does not depend upon our being, or not being, a certain way. This is crucial, because we can’t find what we love if we allow our happiness to depend upon someone else’s happiness. If we can’t be happy until someone else is happy, or until they are happy with us, we won’t be happy very often for very long. 

Two things flow from this. The first is that we need the right kind of community to let us be who we are without having to make us different, without having to mold us into the community’s idea of who we ought to be. And, the key question here is “How different can we be from the ideals, values and purposes of community without destroying the community?” A community cannot accept every possibility of being as though one way of being is “just as good as” another way of being. Community must accept our differentness and enable us to be real; and community must challenge our extremes and confront our lack of conformity to the core values of the community. Finding the balance between acceptance and confrontation is the art of community. It is also the art of living well, of being alive in the deepest, truest, sense of the word. Living our contradictions, integrating our polarities, bearing the pain of opposites, is walking two paths at the same time—which is the spiritual journey, which is the hero’s journey, which is the path of maturation, of growing up–which is the path to life and being, and death and resurrection, which we all walk as best we can, moment-by-moment-by-moment.

The second thing that flows from the fact that our happiness cannot depend upon someone else’s happiness is that we have to learn to be happy no matter what others are feeling. Let them be disappointed in us if they want to be. We aren’t here to see that someone else is happy with the life that is ours to live. We are here to live the life that is ours to live. If they are happy with that, fine. If they are not happy with that, fine. Trying to make others happy with us by shaping ourselves according to their expectations separates us from our heart and keeps us from doing what we must to find peace with ourselves. We cannot tie our happiness to that of others, or let them tie their happiness to us. But again, this is true, only to a point. We have to listen to what others are saying to us. We cannot just walk away and live any way at all. Finding the balance between living out of our values and living out of the values that are at the heart of community is the art of living in relationship with other people, and the art of being alive.

Usually, however, it is the case that we listen too much to “them” and too little to “us.” One of the things that prevents us from listening to our heart and following its lead throughout our lives is that we live cut off from ourselves to varying degrees, and do not know how it is with us much of the time. We have learned not to feel what we are feeling—not to experience what we are experiencing. We are, by and large, not comfortable with discomfort, and have earned early on to save ourselves the grief of feeling our feelings by cutting them off, or by distracting ourselves from the experience of our experience by shifting our attention to food, drugs, alcohol, or any one of the ten thousand addictions and diversions the culture so conveniently provides.

When we shift our attention to something that takes our minds off our discomfort, we cut ourselves off from the experience of how things are with us really in the present moment of our lives. When we are cut off from our experience, we are cut off from ourselves, and do not know the things that make for peace, because the things that make for peace are the things that we love, but, some things that we love conflict with other things that we love! This is the Collision of Loves, the Collision of The Good! Which has to be recognized, experienced, borne, and lived! We have to suffer it through! Cut off from our experience, from our feelings, we do not know what we know, and cannot say what we are here to do, have to do, no matter what.

We can kill the authentic self—the self That Which Has Always Been Called God would have us be, the self we are built, created, to be—by ignoring its voice and listening instead to the voices of others, the voice of the culture, or even our own ideas regarding how our lives ought to be. We can restore our authentic self to life by learning to be honest about how things are with us, and speaking from the heart about our experience with life. In order to reestablish connection with our authentic self, with our hearts—in order to live out of our hearts, and follow our hearts, and find the paths with heart, and do what we deeply love with all our hearts—we have to begin living honestly.

Living honestly means to live knowing what it is like to be who we are. It means to live knowing what it is like to live the life that we are living. Knowing what we are feeling, thinking, seeing, hearing, sensing, fearing, knowing, doing… It means knowing what we know. It means knowing when we are tense and when we are relaxed; when we are easy and when we are disturbed; when we are ashamed and when we are humiliated; when we are energized and enthusiastic, and when we are down with the blues, depressed and dejected, or simply tired. To live from the heart, we have to know how it is with us, and be able to say how it is with us on a regular basis!

It is particularly important that we know when we are hurting. There are some important questions that we have to know how to answer: “What hurts so bad about being you right now?” “What is hard about your life right now?” We must learn to ask these questions. And others as well: “What’s killing you?” “What are you suffering from?” “What’s eating you?” and “What’s the cure?”

These are the questions, the basic questions, the essential questions. They enable us to “name our demon,” to say the name of the particular pain that is ours, the peculiar suffering that has come our way. We have to know what is eating us if we want to avoid being devoured. We have to say what it is. We have to articulate our experience, saying what it is like to be us. We have to find the words to describe what we are feeling in every moment during our day and say them, say the words, write the words, bring the actual words to describe our experience into existence because it is the discipline of saying specifically how it is with us that enables us to see how it is with us.

And, in order to speak honestly, from the heart, about the things that truly matter to us, we have to have a community that will listen to us and love the truth of who we are and what we are experiencing here and now into being. We have to have a community where That Which Has Always Been Called God is at work to connect us to the truth of our hearts by enabling us to say what is true about us to those who care for us.

We are always being led. We follow best when we return to the silence on a regular basis, sit still, be quiet, and wait, watching and listening, for what occurs to us, for what emerges from the stillness, for what arises in the silence, for what realizations await recognition—and rise to do what needs to be done, in each situation as it arises, moment-by-moment-by-moment. Knowing that we aren’t trying to get anywhere, but to go everywhere seeing, hearing, knowing, doing, being, with the wind of the spirit that blows where it will forever in our hair!

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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