The art and value of authenticity
Authenticity is the opposite of imitation. The roots of the word lie in the Greek authentes: hentes a doer, and auto, from within. A person who is authentic makes an independent assessment of a situation, and then makes an independent choice for which they take full personal responsibility. They are, and recognise themselves to be, full authors of their own actions: author, from the Latin autor, meaning a creator or progenitor, autor also being related to the Greek authentes. The authentic individual is an artist, making something new in each moment, daring to step out of what they know to choose what is unknown but what their inner ‘knowing’ tells them is right, in and for that moment.
The intellect will constantly nag us (and perhaps it should), asking whether this is any sensible or safe basis on which to make choices. And yet, some of our most important decisions are made this way – shall I take this job, marry this person, buy this house, have a child, sign this deal, walk away from this apparently golden opportunity, say the unmentionable that’s on everyone’s minds? Following our gut takes guts.
True happiness comes when we follow the stirrings and leadings of our own authentic selves, so that we discover what our unique contribution is, and what value we can add to the greater Good.
Authenticity is inherently and eminently practical. It makes the kind of difference we need if we want to improve our lives, or improve our organisations. It pursues excellence, and what is best for all concerned. It may take more time than some methods, but then it also ensures that we take the shortest time possible to arrive at the Highest Good, and therefore promotes what is most efficient. Its exercise ensures the highest possible levels of personal engagement, responsibility and accountability. And its motivational value is also high, in that it connects people with what gives them meaning. It is open-minded and oriented towards awareness, spontaneity, change and creativity, and therefore is responsive to wherever the greatest opportunities lie for evolution and growth.
Some words will not stay still
The really important things in life cannot ever fully be described, only hinted at, alluded to by stories, gestures, half finished sentences. Authenticity is just such an example. Like love, or courage, truth, humility, wisdom, quality, it’s meaning is elusive, and yet without such words, or the experiences and aspects of existence they signify, our lives would be bleak and meaningless.
Is beauty a redundant piece of vocabulary because no two people can agree entirely on its definition? These words are important because there is something that they reach towards, that we just know in our bones – in our ancient, collective consciousness – matters.
Each of these words – love, courage, truth, humility, wisdom, quality, beauty – they all have their own particular weight, taste, texture, substance. Each of them touches a particular part of us that goes beyond semantic meaning to a feeling, a quality of experiencing that defies words or description. And each of these words, unique in their different nuances, all point to one place, one thing which itself cannot be named. In ancient China, the father of Taoism, Lao Tse wrote as his opening sentence to the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao [Eternal Way] that can be named is not the true Tao.”
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
T S Eliot (1935) ‘Burnt Norton’ in Four Quartets
Does authenticity matter?
This is the paradox of what I am trying to write about. What authenticity is can, by its very nature, never be adequately articulated. What does it look like? How can we tell it from a fake? Does it matter? Is it of any practical use? Is it a value, a skill, a tool, a set of definable and learnable behaviours, a personality trait? Are we born with it? Do we choose it? Is it desirable? Why would anyone want to avoid it?
What difference does authenticity, or indeed its opposite, inauthenticity, make? What kind of world would it be if there was no authenticity? Is it one I would like to live in? Is authenticity something to be picked up or put down, depending on circumstance? Is it a weapon, or a balm, or both? Why do we welcome it and yet also sometimes fear it? Will it heal us, or will it tear our world apart? T S Eliot wrote: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Is authenticity like that?
Zen, martial arts and the dynamic core of authenticity
All through my life I have picked up ideas, theoretical models, techniques, skills, exercises. They fascinate me, and I love trying them out, refining them, and finding out where and how they can work. Some seem to have stayed with me, but I don’t think any of them are quite in the same form as when I first learned, created, or used them. The underlying principles endure more than the outward forms, which seem constantly to take on new aspects. Even the original principles on which the actions are based have also changed. I think differently about things, see in new ways. What I thought once was a reliable principle becomes outmoded, inappropriate to the new situation, or superceded in the light of new data and understandings. What, if anything, endures?
Steven Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) talks about principles that can act as a compass that can withstand the test of time. His principles key into what might be called ‘universal law’, aligning with deep truths about how things fundamentally work. Authenticity might be regarded as just such a principle. Covey’s model is about behaviours, what we can do to lead the Good Life at a personal level, and to create and nourish the Good in organisations, families and communities.
I believe that there is great merit in authenticity becoming a habit, but I do not think that this can be a recipe book of techniques or definable behaviours on ‘how to be authentic’ any more than an education in ethics could be reduced to a list of prescriptions and proscriptions – dos and don’ts. Such a list might point to something of what authenticity was about, but it could not in itself awaken an essential ingredient of it, which is an aesthetic sense of what is ‘true’.
My father once told me that respect for truth comes close to being the basis for morality … This is profound thinking if you understand how unstable ‘truth’ can be.
Frank Herbert (1965) Dune
Authenticity can be a behaviour or even become a habit. But it is never only these things. It can be a personality trait or quality (perhaps) It can be a value, or a principle to be considered, an option amongst other options when deciding a course of action. At its heart though, its essence, I think, is a feeling. Not an emotion – that would be too superficial, and too susceptible to the vagaries of personal biography, appetite, situational expediency, agendas, preconceptions, chemical or electrical impulses in our body – in other words, our conditioning and attachments. Certainly our sensitivity to what is real, true and right can be informed by our emotional states, but it should never be governed by them.
Authenticity is something more perhaps like what Amy Mindell would call a ‘metaskill’ (Metaskills: the spiritual art of therapy, 1995). It is something within us that enables us to choose (in Buddhist terms) the Right Action, to select from competing principles, techniques or values, or indeed to create a brand new one that doesn’t yet have a name.
There is a tradition within a certain genre of self-help and management books that stresses technique, the ‘how to’ of this or that. But a student who slavishly copies the teacher will always look, and be, less skilful, will apply the rules in a way that betrays their lack of full awareness of what gave rise to the technique in the first place. Plagiarists do not trust their own instincts or experience, may not, in fact, even be aware of them. So the teacher will observe the movements and choices of the student, hear their words, and then respond to them by means of analogy or the evocation of images and feelings in order to help breathe into – or rather awaken within – the student the spirit that underlies the truly skilful action.
Arnold Schönberg, the Viennese composer, explored this distinction. (He was not the first – it is as ancient as humanity’s earliest artistic endeavours and awakening of spiritual sensibilities.) Schönberg tried to articulate it in his essays, a selection of which were edited and published in 1975 by Leonard Stein in ‘Style and Idea’. We learn forms (technique) which Schönberg referred to as Style, but then we also have to learn from form, leaning into it to feel the spirit of the artist that is hinted at beyond the form, the quality the artist wants to convey, what Schönberg called Idea.
Chuang Tzu, one of Taoism’s greatest writers alongside Lao Tse, illustrates this with a story about the art of archery. A famous archer who can split the end of an arrow with another at a great distance learns of another who is said to be even more skilful than him, and so goes to visit him. Our archer demonstrates his skill, to which his host responds by going to the edge of the cliff, and standing on it without fear, with his back to the deathly precipice, letting fly an arrow that pierces the end of his visitor’s own. The visitors blanches, and realises that he is in the presence of true mastery. It is the spirit of the person that guides the hand that holds the tool that makes all the difference.
There is a quality within the true art of anything that goes beyond the outward form to the inner attributes that breathe life into it. It is precisely those intangibles and indefinables that distinguish the artist or craftsman from the technician. The latter may be highly accomplished, startling and impressive, but it is the former who inspires us, touches us and awakens us to our own finer sensibilities.
So it is with authenticity. Authenticity is the opposite of imitation. The roots of the word lie in the Greek authentes: hentes a doer, and auto, from within. A person who is authentic makes an independent assessment of a situation, and then makes an independent choice for which they take full personal responsibility. They are, and recognise themselves to be, full authors of their own actions: author, from the Latin autor, meaning a creator or progenitor, autor also being related to the Greek authentes. The authentic individual is an artist, making something new in each moment, daring to step out of what they know to choose what is unknown but what their inner ‘knowing’ tells them is right, in and for that moment.
Authenticity is a dynamic, in-the-moment process of constant creation, new minting each moment without having to refer to anything from the past or any rationalisation. This may seem a risky business, without checks and balances. And yet authenticity is the check. It is the way we find the perfect action and the right balance. It is a felt sense that cannot be explained. Only acknowledged, and then obeyed. ‘This is how it is, this is how things must be.’ How do we distinguish pigheadedness or tyranny from conviction born of authenticity? By softening and leaning into our inner stillness. The words that come closest to it (but are not actually it), are intuition, gut, instinct, inner voice.
The intellect will constantly nag us (and perhaps it should), asking whether this is any sensible or safe basis on which to make choices. And yet, some of our most important decisions are made this way – shall I take this job, marry this person, buy this house, have a child, sign this deal, walk away from this apparently golden opportunity, say the unmentionable that’s on everyone’s minds? Following our gut takes guts. Intuition is the teaching of ourselves that comes from within ourselves: in-tuition.
The Zen artist or martial artist begins often by being inspired by the example of the master. They then strive to copy the master’s technique through long years of study and practice. If they are courageous enough continually to face themselves, they eventually discover the spirit within the form, the importance of the feelings, beliefs and attitudes that govern how their technique unfolds and is refined. When they have discovered this, and they live and breathe these principles (metaskills?) and qualities, the techniques become superfluous. The student has learned that true technical mastery is simply about mastery itself, mastering oneself, and understanding how to be in and flow with life itself. The form – whether archery, calligraphy, relationship, or in a more modern setting, management – is no longer the thing, and the person discovers that they are quite happy to let go of their attachment to the form because they are now operating at peak performance, and the lessons apply equally to any setting, role or activity they find themselves in. The archer learns that she no longer feels the need to pick up her bow, and the painter realises he does not have to go to his easel, for each has found what the true art is about, and they can express this through any medium of their choosing.
Sir John Whitmore is a racing driver turned international performance coach, and leading light in learning how to learn, and change organisations for the better. He has used this understanding of what I call ‘the art of art’ in his own approach to coaching (what he calls an alternative to psychotherapy or spiritual teaching, both of which are stigmatised some eyes, and as such gaining less success). I once watched him in a keynote presentation coach an opera singer to enhance her sound and performance, having no training in singing or music himself – and it made perfect sense to me. Something of his secret can be found in what he said in an interview in 2006:
I do know that if I am still and quiet, and I listen, I will always get the answers and the way to go. I trust absolutely that that is there. It’s not even a question, ‘is it?’ to me, it just is. The only question is, ‘am I listening?’
This is authenticity in action, the act of listening inwardly to that felt sense of ‘knowing’, and then acting upon what we hear.
The authentic person is impossible to copy, because they never do or say the same thing twice. When we look back over the lives of those we admire, and whom we know personally, it is not their accomplishments that impress us most (impressive though they usually are). It is more often the person themselves that we remember, the quality of their presence, and how we felt in their company. As David Whyte writes:
The consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task.
David Whyte (2002) Crossing the Unknown: work as a pilgrimage of identity, Riverhead Trade
Pursuing what is good
The authentic person makes choices on the basis of what the therapist Carl Rogers in his person-centred theory would call ‘organismic valuing’, which is by reference to our own inherent, reliable sense of what is good for us, what is most healthy. This deep Good is compatible with also what is good for others and ecologically for our environment (Satish Kumar, the founder of the social enterprise, Schumacher College sums this up in the idea of the interdependence of ‘soil, soul and society’). Sometimes this ‘good’ is immediately apparent, and sometimes not, which is why we must always fall back on our own judgement and powers of discernment. The validity of our choices cannot be defined or measured by others’ responses. Our most important resources are found by looking inwards:
The only thing you have to offer another human being, ever, is your own state of being … everything, whether you’re cooking food or doing therapy or being a student or being a lover, you are only doing, you’re only manifesting how evolved a consciousness you are. That’s what you’re doing with another human being. That’s the only dance there is! … Consciousness … means freedom from attachment … You realise that the only thing you have to do for another human being is to keep yourself really straight, and then do whatever it is you do.
Baba Ram Dass (1974) The Only Dance There Is, Anchor Books, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, p.6
With this consciousness, we scan for what Aristotle (4th century BC) called in his various writings on ethics, the Highest Good, which cannot be defined in any terms other than itself; it is what is desirable for its own sake, and all other ‘goods’ are so because they lead to this Highest Good. Aristotle talked about this in terms of eudaemonia, which is variously translated as ‘happiness’, ‘wellbeing’ or ‘flourishing’. Interestingly, the Greek idea of eudaemonia came from their belief in eudaemones, which were like the Judaic idea of guardian angels who looked out for the welfare of their mortal charges. Daemones, means ‘knowing’ or ‘wise’ (quite different from the negative images of ‘demons’ that later Christian tradition turned these figures into). And the 5th century BC philosopher Socrates spoke of having a daemonion, (a ‘divine something’) that frequently warned him in the form of a voice or sign when he was about to make a mistake, though it never told him precisely what to do. In this story, there is a connection between intuition, ‘inner voice’, authenticity and what is the best course of action. The fact that Socrates’ daemonion did not prescribe what he should do means that he had to use his ethical sense in order to discover the authentic direction he should take.
So now we begin to realise there is a relationship between authenticity, and pursuing not only what is good, but also what is healthy and ethical for both the individual and the collective. Whitmore reminds us that “true happiness [ie eudaemonia] comes when you start to follow your own path”, but most crucially, it is when we follow the stirrings and leadings of our own authentic selves, so that we discover what our unique contribution is, and what value we can add to the greater Good.
Authenticity is practical
What this all means is that authenticity is inherently and eminently practical. It makes the kind of difference we need if we want to improve our lives, or improve our organisations. It pursues excellence, and what is best for all concerned. It may take more time than some methods, but then it also ensures that we take the shortest time possible to arrive at the Highest Good, and therefore promotes what is most efficient. Its exercise ensures the highest possible levels of personal engagement, responsibility and accountability. And its motivational value is also high, in that it connects people with what gives them meaning. It is open-minded and oriented towards awareness, spontaneity, change and creativity, and therefore is responsive to wherever the greatest opportunities lie for evolution and growth.