Sometimes the question/answer site, Quora, brings up intriguing questions like this: ‘Everyone advises “Be Yourself,” but what is “Yourself”?’ Since the idea of the site is for those who think they can to answer any question, I took a plunge using Zen as a guide:
“This turns out to be an extremely complex question, but as a Zen follower who believes in ‘no self’ I would point to this article as the best I’ve seen: Psychological Self vs. No-Self – and to the paragraph halfway down on “executive function” – the self is a made-up illusion that helps us see things in relation to ourselves, but in fact we are not a ‘thing’ that is permanent. We can change, we can be anything in some very real sense. “Being yourself” means paying attention at each moment to doing the best you can in each situation, but “best” is a judgment call you make at each second. In each moment your judgment of what is ‘best’ may change and that’s all right as long as you are being honest and seriously trying to do your best.”
I didn’t go further, but we can. That’s the Zen philosophical answer – ‘no self’ – a state none of us can quite fully achieve, but which helps us understand the world. There is a more practical answer, also recognized in Zen – that our ‘self’ is a muddle of habits, some we’re aware of, some not so much, things we rarely think about or try to change. But we can change them. If we become aware (that’s why meditation or reflection are always encouraged Zen), then make a decision to change and set ourselves to practice some new, better habit until it becomes ‘us.’
Practice eventually turns anything into second nature, as if it has always been part of ‘us,’ part of our personality. In fact that can happen quite soon if we stick to it seriously. That is the sense in which we can be anything. By changing one habit at a time, and one more and one more, we can shape ourselves toward any goal we can think of.
Most people don’t do this consistently with an objective in mind. The path seems too long, too frustrating to wait through while struggling to cement one new habit after another. But what else should we do with life? If we get a little better each day, as defined by our own hopes and aspirations for ourselves, what could be better than that, no matter how long the big changes might seem to require before we start? Many ignore the fact we have years stretching before us with nothing in the least more exciting than becoming the best we can be.