For nearly thirty years I was involved with Enlightenment Intensives, a three day process that enables a proportion of participants to experience directly ‘who they are’. It is not immediately obvious what ‘knowing who one is’ actually means, nor what difference it makes in someone’s life. This note addresses these questions, based on my experience both as a participant and also guiding several thousand participants through the process.
Attempting to write about ‘knowing who you are’ is doomed to failure. At root what I am attempting to describe is an experience that is beyond language, and many, more able than I, have recognised the impossibility of this – but for the purpose of this exposition I have to at least attempt to describe what I mean. One way that is used in an Enlightenment Intensive (hereafter abbreviated as EI) is that the experience does not have any process or intermediation; it is not through emotion, sensation, intellect, intuition or any other process; so one short-hand for it is that it is a ‘direct experience’ (whereas experiences through a process are indirect). When a person directly experiences who they actually are there is no longer a person having an experience; there is just the individual, conscious of who they are. So the experience does not depend upon any theory or ideology or dogma; it is the way it is whether the individual likes it or not. For this reason it is also sometimes referred to as the Absolute Truth (in contrast to relative truth which does depend upon some theory or set of beliefs). When people have these realisations they are often filled with awe, love and a deep sense of ‘coming home’; it is partly as a result of these profound reactions that people will also refer to what they have become conscious of as ‘the divine’ – indicating that it has something other-worldly and extra-ordinary about it. At the same time people who have these realisations will comment that it was obvious, it was always there, it was not that big a surprise – they just didn’t know of its existence before. Indeed one of the profound benefits of having a direct experience is that it demonstrates, in a compelling and unambiguous fashion, the existence of a domain of knowingness or consciousness that was hitherto unknown.
Perhaps the most important thing to establish next is that having a direct experience of who one is does not make one a better person. The experience does open a door to greater awareness, but it requires sustained effort to move through the door and make beneficial changes in one’s life. I have witnessed people who have had a profound experience of who they are and not made any change in the way they live or relate. I have also seen people, indeed I am one of them, for whom the experience initiated a complete transformation in their lives and relationships. So the experience provides a potential opening, not an instant solution.
The next most important thing to establish is that some people seem to ‘know who they are’ without having been through any process aimed at bringing this sense of self into consciousness. This leads me to another unanswerable question: ‘How can you tell whether someone knows who they actually are?’ People who have prolonged exposure to processes such as Enlightenment Intensives, meditation retreats and other transformational processes come to recognise the difference without being able to say exactly how they know. Perhaps there is a pattern of behaviour or way of being that is intuitively recognised. Perhaps it is that once one knows who one is oneself then there is a resonant effect with others who also have that knowledge. Perhaps it is just in the quality of contact that is available when someone knows who they actually are.
So, to be clear, I am writing about an experience that cannot be captured in words but which endows the individual with something that is recognisable by others who have had repeated exposure to people having such experiences. The experience does not make the person ‘better’ – so those who have not had the experience are not ‘lesser’ – but it can open a door to another mode of consciousness. So what difference does ‘knowing who you are” make to an individual?
The short answer is that the difference depends on the individual having the experience. In my own case I had the experience at a time when I was struggling with a pervasive feeling of worthlessness and it completely resolved the issue. I have not felt worthless ever since, which, considering the degree to which worthlessness was conditioning all my behaviour and relationships up to then, is quite amazing. Indeed it was this experience and its effects on my life that led me to being involved with EIs for 30 years!
For many people the effects are less dramatic. There are some characteristics that apply in most cases. One is that the person is more present more of the time. This can be assessed in terms of how easy it is to make deep contact with them. People often say that the person ‘seems more in their skin’ which reflects both this contactability and also a sense of ease in being themselves. People who know who they are appear more trustworthy. Charismatic people generally know who they are and it is this knowingness that forms part of, or the background to, their charisma.
At a psychological level people who ‘know who they are’ are able to make better use of all self development processes. Indeed the person who developed the EI format did so because he noticed that it was people who knew who they were that were most able to make use of the techniques he used therapeutically. There is a good reason for this improvement; when someone knows who they are at the absolute level then they are less identified with their character or personality – so they are less attached to their trips. They know that they are the person who has the trip and can therefore choose to let it go. When someone does not know who they are then their personality is the only constant in their consciousness, so they assume that this is who they are and are afraid to relinquish this.
The problem of not knowing who one is can become severe for people who strive to be ‘better people’ i.e. to not cause injury and to do good in the world. A person like this sets out to change their personality/character to conform with their ideal of how someone ought to relate and behave. To the degree that they succeed they become more identified with their creation – they are pleased with who they have become – even though it is not who they really are. It does not matter whether the ideal to which they aspire is one based upon a religion (for example Christian or Buddhist), upon a political ideology (for example feminism or libertarian), upon some therapeutic ideal (for example free of neurosis), upon some combination of ideals or even some personal conception of what a good person should be like. All ideals are valid in the sense that they describe a conception of what a ‘good person’ is like and how they behave. Indeed there is much in common with many of the ideals. However striving to become like some ideal is quite different from becoming who one actually is. What makes this so invidious is that all the ideals become barriers to discovering, and subsequently becoming, who one actually is. And the longer a person has striven to match some ideal, the closer they have become in their own estimation to their chosen ideal, then the greater the barrier that they will have to overcome to discover the truth about themselves.
In striving to create a ‘good person’ the created persona will have suppressed some aspects of the real self – which is exactly the definition of the shadow. Who one really is, the real self, is all of who one is and this necessarily includes the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Here is the nub of the problem. To become a ‘good person’ without knowing who you are, you have to change your behaviour by suppressing parts of yourself – and these constitute your shadow. These suppressed aspects of ‘who you are’ do not remain silent, they find expression in ways that are unconscious. The unconscious expression of these traits is likely to be far more damaging and hurtful to others than if the person had owned these traits and controlled their expression. All my experience with guiding people towards realisation of their true self has shown me that it is critical that the shadow is admitted, owned and subsequently accepted. A short-hand way of expressing this is that one cannot experience the light without first owning the dark. (The best way that I know for becoming aware of and owning one’s shadow is through the criticalness exercise, explained here).
One of the paradoxes in personal growth is that whilst you are trying to change yourself nothing can change; it is only when you really accept where you are that movement is possible. This paradox is at the root of the success of the many therapeutic systems based on the work of Carl Rogers. Really accepting oneself involves two key steps. The first is not pretending to yourself; when you feel like beating someone’s head in admit it to yourself – but do not act out on it! The second step is recognising that this is really part of who you are – and indeed part of what it is to be human. The acceptance is often helped by being able to share one’s dark side with other people, either in a group setting or in an intimate or therapeutic relationship. This is one of the reasons why the structured communication in EIs is so effective. I personally found it helpful to realise that it was only by taking charge of my dark side that I could begin to reduce the harm I caused to others. Whilst my shadow was unconscious it was finding unconscious ways of expressing itself – often with deadly precision.