Authenticity: Seeing the Truth

Dunes, Cape Cod, MA © David Ulrich

Dunes, Cape Cod, MA © David Ulrich

“Know Thyself.” Socrates words, derived from the Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece,resound with an inner force as clear and direct as their first utterance over twenty-five centuries ago. These two simple words lie at the heart of the world’s great teachings and have had a profound impact on the thought and inquiry of western civilization.

Who am I? Why am I here? What is my own — my path, my calling, my role? What is my vision, my authentic voice? These questions often lie at the core of our early efforts with a creative medium. And no matter what direction our mature work assumes, these questions continue to have importance and bear resonant meaning over the course of our entire lives. It is through the state of being in question that discovery and growth arises. As soon as we think we know, as soon as we assume western culture’s arrogance to answer, rather than question, something is lost and dies, shrivels up into a shell of inert impenetrability and loses its living quality. To question is life itself.

On a New Year’s eve —almost 40 years ago—I gathered with some of my peers and fellow students at the home of our photography teacher, Nicholas Hlobeczy. We were young and eager, embarking on an evening of looking at photographs and sharing vital conversation. A holiday spirit prevailed, lubricated with wine and fueled by our deep longing for creative expression. We each alternately showed our newest work, our youthful, most-polished efforts, waiting, wishing, hoping for positive response from Nicholas. I remember being nervous about what I was showing and felt inwardly that something was amiss. An inner measure existed, even then, that could sense but not fully identify the features of a subtle imbalance. It was as if I was knowingly and happily living a lie; some part of me did not want to be found out, even by myself — or especially by myself. But mostly, I consented to this false pretense since I had no idea where the vague sense of deception was to be found.

As we each showed our images, made with care and as much technical expertise as we could muster — work that emulated the great photographs of the day — Nicholas was visibly unmoved and quiet. We, on the other hand, applauded each other’s efforts. And we drank more wine in celebration of each other’s remarkable abilities — and at such a young age, we thought, to be making such interesting images.

Nicholas finally started leafing through the prints and proofs scattered throughout the room, shown in relief against the dark oriental rug. He had this annoying habit of not being suitably impressed with us, of simply saying huuum, again and again. Recognition gradually dawned in him as we observed a growing clarity and sparkle in his eyes.

He gathered up all of our finished prints and casually placed them in a pile beyond the reach of our eyes. Several small proofs and stray images, tangential to our serious efforts, remained in the center of the room.

“Little pictures,” he said, with no explanation or introduction. “Little pictures,” he repeated with force and emphasis as he picked them up, one by one, holding them where we could all see and observe them carefully.

I remember this scene with great clarity, and could tell you even now where each individual was sitting in the room, what we were eating or drinking, and what the pictures looked like. But I am straining to remember exactly what he said next and how he explained his mysterious proclamation.

He eventually continued with his response: “Pictures from essence, of child-like perceptions, real pictures of who you really are.”

And it was true. The small pile of “little” pictures were real, they represented an accurate mirror and struck a note of truth. They were not about ambition or polish or future greatness; they were about reality, a genuine portrayal of the present, and they reflected our authentic selves. As a result, they were unimpeachable — and remarkable — in precisely the way that we wished and hoped that our other images might become. This experience gave us something to aim toward.

One set of images — the “little pictures,” grew directly from our essence. The other set of images were full of the strivings of our ego to be good, to be admired, to be like the masters, and to be applauded. In a moment, we saw and deeply appreciated the difference. For the very first time, I caught a glimpse of my youthful, bombastic ego — its desire to be liked and recognized. And, with clarity, I saw something of my true nature. It was a small glimpse, to be sure, but it rang of integrity and not false pretense. We were, on the one hand, embarrassed by our ego’s antics, and on the other hand, extremely grateful for this important discovery, this moment of understanding that Nicholas revealed.

Nicholas continued: Can we make “little pictures?” Can we practice not-doing and simply allow our images to find us? Can we bring to light what is really our own — in truth, he said, not in imagination?  When I drove home later that day, I felt that something had changed in me, a significant inner measure had been uncovered for the very first time — an experience that has never left me.

Over the next several weeks and months, I continued to cultivate the tight kernel of strength and courage I needed to withstand this newly-discovered, all-too-frequent bare honesty towards myself and others. It was a frightening, yet highly revealing experience.

Over the years, I have come to understand that authenticity is not a permanent state; rather, it is a direction. Something to aim towards. Our conditioning is very strong; our egos are inwardly dictatorial, wanting to be liked and admired. And our self-image often goes to extremes, towards either congratulatory inner adulation or to scathing self-recrimination.

Our essence, what is real in us, speaks in whispers. It is often hidden beneath well-constructed personalities. We are a mixture of essence and personality. Yet, we see certain ways of being, certain interests, certain ways of expressing ourselves, certain ways of interacting with the world and others, that we can call our own. These inner conditions have a different ring. They are resonant; they sound more true, they feel more right. We need to be vigilant and attentive, waiting, watching, for the appearance of ourselves. Often our greatest challenges and greatest strengths reside together in this vibrating region of authenticity.

I am struck by the rich wisdom found in a Hawaiian word that has no exact equivalent in English. The word kuleana expresses my privilege, my honor, my duty, and my responsibility—my place. In Western thinking, a responsibility and a duty is often viewed as an obligatory task, which is quite opposed to something being a privilege and an honor. In Hawaiian sensitivity and thought, this concept represents a reconciliation of these opposites into a wholly united function.

Adapted from Art and Spiritual Practice, by David Ulrich