Living for Your True Self

“When Ram asked Hanuman, ‘Who are you, monkey?’ Hanuman replied, ‘When I don’t know who I am, I serve you. When I know who I am, I AM you.” ~ Ram Dass

I think about that quote all the time.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back for a minute.

Like any other red-blooded American, I’ve done my fair share of chasing after the American dream. It’s been a difficult road with lots of ups and downs, triumphs and failures. Being prone toward anxiety and depression, I’ve always had this unfortunate inclination toward focusing on the bad things. Even if something good happens, I have the tendency toward looking for the next bad thing on the horizon. That might surprise you given how positive I try to be in my social media presence; it’s something I hide from the public well.

Despite the fact that I continued to make great strides toward fulfilling my personal dreams, there has always been this thing nagging in the back of my mind: It’s not about me. Moreover, I’ve had this equal sense that most people also have that we’re part of “something bigger,” and so I sought the answers in religion. Specifically the Christian religion since that’s what I grew up with. It might surprise you to learn that my original major in undergrad was “Preaching Ministry.” I was so interested in trying to make sense of this Great Mystery that I wanted to dedicate my life to it as a Christian church pastor.

Naturally, that didn’t pan out for a multitude of reasons, and my personal relationship to the Christian faith soured over time. Quick side bar: I’m not interested in putting down the Christian faith anymore. I now recognize it for what it is: another group of human beings generally trying their best to make sense of life and making mistakes, just like every other group in the world. But my affinity for understanding what the mystery of life only deepened, so I sought refuge in the wisdom of other religions. While the other religions contained great wisdom and beautiful metaphors, I found them to be ultimately unsatisfactory.

With a firm commitment to seeking truth, I sought to reconcile all these religious metaphors and icons with the one thing we cannot deny: science. More accurately, I sought to reconcile religious ideas for how we understand the world. From physicist Carlo Rovelli to mathematician Steven Strogatz and my own personal experience as a machine learning engineer, I couldn’t get enough of trying to understand the natural world from an unbiased lens. Of course, I’ve learned a lot of really fascinating information that will probably never be practical for me, but I’ve come to realize a few truths.

Truth #1: The universe as we know it is comprised of atoms, and there is no hierarchy to atoms. That first part is a no brainer, and allow me to explain what I mean by that second part. From our human lens, we order things all the time for better or worse. On the worse end of things, there exist things like racism and bigotry, and on the more nuanced end, many would state that a plant is more important than a rock.

But the natural world doesn’t care about our human constructs. There isn’t one atom that is better than another. The universe treats them all on an equal, level playing field. Obviously, the atoms have clumped together to form these more complex entities, from stars to moons, flowers to trees, animals to people. But if we were to pull apart any of these entities to examine their atomic structure, the meaning goes away.

The hierarchy goes away.

It all is what it is.

Moving onto to truth #2: We have no clue why atoms and subatomic particles form together. These particles are self sustaining, so it’s not as if we can make the argument that they needed to bond together to survive. It’s all very nebulous. And even if you wanted to make the argument that no meaning need be imposed for things to happen, then why does meaning matter so much to us? One of my favorite video game series, Assassin’s Creed, often reiterates the phrase, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” I wonder if the writers of those games had a profound understanding of this reality. From a purely scientific perspective, that phrase is spot on.

A natural follow up question would be, “Well if nothing is true and everything is permitted, then can’t I do anything that I want?” Technically speaking, sure. But this leads us to truth #3: We as human beings have sensations of attraction and aversion. I use the more generic “attraction and aversion” because I don’t think the more common “happiness or sadness” is all that accurate. I would imagine you’d agree with me that you’d rather be content all the time than sad 90% of the time and blissfully happy the other 10%. Anyway, there’s no denying these sensations and feelings exist, and that’s why it’s generally not a good idea to just do whatever the heck you want. Actions have consequences, for better or worse.

So let’s circle on back to me. When applying these truths to myself, the reality is that I am nothing. I am a patterned clump of atoms that has fooled itself into believing I need Coke Zero flowing through my veins on the daily. The atoms that comprise me right now could care less about my affinity for sugary drinks. In fact, the atoms that comprise me right now probably won’t be around for much longer. As anatomical studies have taught us, the human body basically refreshes itself every few years, meaning that the atoms comprising my fingers touching the atoms of my keyboard here will be something else in a relatively low amount of time. It might be gross to think about, but if you spend any amount of time around anybody or anything, then chances are that atoms that were once a part of them are now a part of you.

Which leads us to truth #4, aka the “conservation of energy” principle: energy is not created nor destroyed; it merely changes form. The chair I’m sitting on right now will eventually go away, but the atoms that comprise it will simply move on to being something else. They most likely will not form a collective unit again, but the individual bits will live on in infinitely many capacities. Maybe an atomic particle on this armrest here will be part of a tree some day, and maybe another particle in the recliner will be part of a star.

Here’s the most interesting thing… all these truths are non-contradictory. Are we clumps of subatomic particles? Yes. Do the subatomic particles have any hiearchy? No. But what is equally true is that we still have a sensation toward attraction and aversion, and I failed to mention before that this isn’t unique to human beings. Animals and plants exhibit this same attraction and aversion, albeit on a much more subtle level.

Why? What does this all mean?

If you came looking for a clear, definitive answer on the meaning of life, I’m sorry to disappoint, but the most honest answer I can give is I don’t know.

But what I can say is that the universe seems to exhibit a directionality. We may not know why, but it’s undeniable that atoms gather to form molecules, molecules gather to form other small things, and those small things gather into more complex organisms that eventually lead up to things like human beings. Moreover, we’ve been able to experience that all living beings — from plants to animals to humans — hold this affinity toward attraction and aversion. Except we human beings have taken it a step further to give it more colorful language. Some call it contentment, some call it survival.

Some call it love.

Let’s now revisit the Ram Dass quote at the top of the post:

“When Ram asked Hanuman, ‘Who are you, monkey?’ Hanuman replied, ‘When I don’t know who I am, I serve you. When I know who I am, I AM you.” ~ Ram Dass

If you’re not familiar with Hindu teachings (and I sincerely apologize if I butcher anything here), there is an epic known as the Ramayana in which the “primary deity” Ram asks the other servant deity Hanuman — often represented as a monkey — who he is. Hanuman replies as noted above. It embraces the same paradox we noted above. Hanuman acknowledges by identifying with himself, he is merely a servant,

“When I don’t know who I am, I serve you.”

but by identifying with the reality that is the universe as we now know it in our modern age, Hanuman recognizes that there really is no difference between himself and Ram.

“When I know who I am, I AM you.”

Likewise in the Old Testament, when Moses asks God what his name is, God replies with the name, “Yahweh,” which translates to I AM THAT I AM. Father Richard Rohr beautifully notes that the pronunciation of the word Yahweh bears a strikingly beautiful resemblance to the in breath and out breath, the inhale and exhale. Go ahead and try it yourself. Breathe in while saying “Yah”, and breathe out saying “Weh.”

Lovely, right?

Father Richard put the whole thing I’m trying to talk about in this post here very cleanly in this very simple phrase, “True Self, False Self”, which is also the name of his very popular audio lecture series. As we have described so far, the “false self” is the meaning we humans gave to ourselves. It bears no impact on basic, atomic reality and is thus false when taken too seriously. The psychological term for this is ego, and if you ever read a book like Ryan Holiday’s “Ego is the Enemy,” this is right in line with that.

The “true self” would be the flip side of the coin we’ve been exploring in this post. That is, it is an acknowledgement that the building blocks of reality have no inherent order or hierarchy, yet they simultaneously exhibit a directionality toward unity and wholeness. Admittedly, we do not know why this is, and this is candidly where faith steps in. Spiritual teacher Ram Dass would call this “unitive consciousness.” Father Richard calls it the “true self.”

Regardless of what you want to call it, my personal inclination now is toward living for my true self. I lived for my false self by promoting good ol’ American individualism, but in my heart of hearts, I knew this was lacking. Now don’t get me wrong, one thing I struggle to understand is how to still honor my “false self” without letting it be my true self’s master. In other words, I still do a lot of stuff to benefit myself and my immediate family, like my wife and daughters. It might be a false self, but if I am to bend my knee to “the will of God”, I have to believe God intended it all to be perfect. And if it’s all perfect, then for me to reject my false self entirely would be a rejection of God.

(By the way, I still use the word “God” because that makes the most sense for me, but I wouldn’t hold it against anybody if they relate to the same thing that I called God by another name, whether it be Ram, Allah, or something as simple as the Great Mystery. It’s all the same to me, quite literally from a subatomic perspective!)

So that’s why I do a lot of volunteering these days. Whether it be blog posts, live streams, or in person mentoring, I desire to be like Hanuman or Jesus. They serve not because they identify themselves necessarily as servants, but they see the truth for what it is: My true self and your true self are one and the same.

When I don’t know who I am — my false self — I serve you.

When I know who I am — my true self — you and I are one and the same.

I’ll end by sharing a meditation I like to practice as popularized by Ram Dass. It is the simple phrase, “I am loving awareness.” The “loving awareness” in this phrase is synonymous with the true self, but just as music tends to speak to us more than numbers, this phrase personally resonates with me more than the term “true self”, although I also love that concept.

When happy, when angry, when feeling resentful toward somebody, when in love with somebody, remember always…

I choose to identify with my true self while simultaneously honoring my false self…

I am loving awareness.

I am loving awareness.

I am loving awareness. ~



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David Hundley

David Hundley

Principal machine learning engineer at a Fortune 50 company, 5x AWS certified, 2x HashiCorp certified, 1x GCP certified, M.A. in Org Leadership, PMP, ChFC, CSM