Being Authentic: What Does That Even Mean?

A Report from the May 2019 Dialogue Nights

View a photo gallery of the event

How can we live true to ourselves? And what does that really mean? Is there a difference between being original and being authentic? These were just a few of the questions discussed at the Center’s third Dialogue Nights of the year, which took place on the evening of Friday, May 31, when more than fifty Boston-area university students and young professionals gathered to explore the topic of authenticity. This month’s theme was inspired by our Dialogue Nights discussion two months earlier on the loneliness epidemic, during which many participants shared that they often compare themselves to others or feel they have to be a certain way, which in turn, increases their feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In her welcoming remarks, Center Program Manager Lillian I quoted a line spoken by the character of Henry David Thoreau in the 1970 play, “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail”: “Be yourself—not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” Having the courage to follow your own path can be easier said than done, said Lillian, but her hope was that throughout the evening participants would have a chance tackle and explore together concrete ways to live a more authentic life.  

The evening’s main icebreaker activity, led by Events and Publications Coordinator Anri Tanabe, aimed to help participants reflect more deeply about who they are and what values are important for them. In pairs, participants were asked to introduce themselves to their partner as they usually would when meeting someone for the first time. They were then given a second chance to introduce themselves, but this time with a series of more focused and evocative questions to use: 1) Think of two people you really respect. What characteristics do you admire in them and why? 2) Think of a moment in your life that was really satisfying or fulfilling for you. What was that moment and what made you feel that way about it? 3) Write down three qualities/characteristics that define you. Share with each other why you chose these three.

After the icebreaker, participants had the opportunity to share things they learned during their mini dialogues. One attendee reflected that he has a “default” of introducing himself based on his name and occupation. However, with authenticity in mind, it made him question why he so easily falls into that, even though he doesn’t necessarily feel like his occupation defines him. Another participant shared that in going over the three questions, he realized that in order to be true to himself, he must first answer the question of, “Who am I?”

Next, the Center welcomed Beng Hwee Tan, a recent graduate of Soka University of America, to introduce his research on breaking/hip-hop culture and how he was able to find his authentic self through dance. After sharing an overview and history of breaking culture, Beng taught the group some basic breaking moves and led an interactive dance activity.

With both their dialogue and their physical muscles warmed up, participants broke into small groups to discuss three questions based on this quote from Center founder Daisaku Ikeda: “No matter how other people are or what they do, it is important that you walk your own path, believing in yourself. If you remain constant and stay true to yourself, others will definitely come to understand your sincere intent one day.”

  1. Based on Mr. Ikeda’s quote, what does it mean for you to be authentic? What does it mean to be inauthentic?
  2. Think of a recent experience with a partner, friend, family member, or co-worker where you wanted to be authentic but weren’t. Why do you think you were not able to be true to yourself? What would you do differently now?
  3. What is the difference between being original and being authentic?

Following their discussions, participants shared some of the takeaways that emerged from their groups.

  • “I realized that when I am being inauthentic, it often stems from me thinking that I don’t have anything valuable to share. But the more I try to appeal to others the more inauthentic I feel and as a result I’m actually taking substance away from the interaction.”
  • “I write songs and for a long time I wanted to write original stuff because there is a lot of pressure on art to be original and different. But I found I was getting stuck a lot and not writing things that felt true to myself. When I was able to let go of that I was able to realize that just because someone else feels similarly doesn’t make my feelings less true or important.”
  • “When we are trying to be original, sometimes it can be very calculated because we are trying hard to be the first one to do it. Whereas authenticity is more about the relationship with yourself. Originality is about comparing your product with others but authenticity is about what you yourself want to produce.”
  • “Sometimes it is difficult to be authentic in our society because you feel other people will not understand you.”
  • “For me, in relationships, my identity and self worth are tied into the other person. I am realizing tonight that I am good enough, and that is where I want to start. No matter what you do, whatever your life situation, start with that feeling of you’re good enough right where you are at right now.”

Lillian then launched into the final activity of the evening with this quote from Mr. Ikeda: “Each person is a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm in a unique manner; fundamentally, the individual encompasses all. Therefore, each person is precious and irreplaceable.”

She shared that as a Buddhist, Mr. Ikeda often talks about the interconnectedness of life. Because of this interconnectedness, when one person undergoes an inner transformation, it creates a ripple effect of change in that person’s community and ultimately in the world at large. This means, said Lillian, that if each participant at tonight’s event determines to live true to themselves, they can together create a shift in our culture. To illustrate this concept, participants formed a physical web made of colorful yarn, which they created by each passing the yarn to others after stating when they feel their most authentic selves. Here are a few ideas they offered to complete the phrase, “I feel most authentic when . . .”

  • Surrounded by all of my lovely friends
  • I communicate openly
  • Doing a piano-singing duet with my mom
  • I’m challenging myself in a way I want to be challenged
  • Learning something new
  • Traveling in a foreign land
  • I go for long walks
  • I experience someone, something that makes me smile
  • Contemplating life choices at 3am
  • Writing
  • I am in the forest and listening to nature

During her closing remarks, Center Exective Director Virginia Benson talked about the long process of embracing her own worth as a leader and her own authentic path in life. A key episode occurred at a time when she was frustrated with her career at a public policy think tank in Boston. Feeling taken for granted there, she thought that she would be happier if she could find a way to support the work of Daisaku Ikeda, whom she greatly admired. 
 
Upon meeting him she told him this. He responded with what she first perceived as a rejection, but which upon reflection proved to be anything but. In essence, he told her: I have my mission in the world. But you have a unique mission, too, that only you can fulfill. Don’t copy anyone else. Become a brilliant, shining sun in your own field. This is what I wish for you and for everyone I meet. Once she took the time to truly understand this message, she stood up for herself at work, and was promoted to executive director. Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, just a few months later Mr. Ikeda asked her to lead the new center he was founding in Cambridge — nothing less than the job of her dreams.

 

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