It may sound strange, but for most people there is a wide gap between "being yourself" and "knowing yourself." The first is considered desirable. When you are able to be yourself, you feel natural and relaxed, without pretense or defenses.
Knowing yourself is a different matter. A century after Freud discovered the subconscious mind, it has been identified with the darker side of human nature. We repress our urges of anger, anxiety, envy, insecurity, and even violence. Of course you cannot get along with other people if you say everything you think or act on every impulse. But there's more to it—once the inner world is identified with the dark side, people don't want to look there. They dislike and fear what they find, or might find. This aversion creates the gap I referred to.
We identify with the ego-personality, which presents the self we want the world to see, and we ignore the opportunity to deeply explore what a deeper self might be. In time, countless people actually believe that their ego-personality is their real self.
Yet there are two more selves we all possess, and they are nothing to fear. In fact, they are the richest sources of human fulfillment.
The Unconscious Self
The first is the unconscious self. Even though we find negative emotions and impulses deposited in our subconscious minds, the whole story is much more positive. The unconscious self is creative and sensitive. When you walk into a room where someone has been arguing or crying, you silently sense it "in the air." Actually, you are sensing it through your unconscious self.
At the level below everyday awareness, you constantly perceive your surroundings. You also have the power of intuition in your unconscious self. You gain "aha" moments when the unconscious self reveals something to you that your conscious mind didn't realize.
As we mature, the expansion of consciousness we begin to value is rooted in the unconscious. A mature person feels confident, self-reliant, and sure of what he or she knows. This isn't a matter of running down a mental list to count all the things you are good at. Instead, your unconscious self has given you the experience of fulfillment, which over time becomes a natural part of who you are.
The True Self
The second self we should explore is even more valuable—call it the true self. This is a level of awareness very close to our source in pure consciousness. Pure consciousness is silent and still. It has the potential for mental activity before any activity arises. It is the pure "I am" of existence. As the still silence of "I am" starts to vibrate into thoughts, images, feelings, and sensations, the first stirrings are very faint and subtle. They are very fluid and malleable, which is why desires and intentions that come from our deepest source are not distorted by all the cruder demands of the ego, which is constantly seeking pleasure and sensory distractions.
The true self is what we seek when we meditate, because only here is "I am" enough to bring total fulfillment. No external gratification compares with this. It seems strange on the face of it why the mind at its subtlest level should be more fulfilled than the mind at more superficial levels. The key is that pure consciousness contains infinite resources of creativity, bliss, intelligence, love, and awareness. By living close to the source, you have access to this infinite potential. You acquire the ability to be a genuine co-creator of reality.
The 3 Selves
I've put these three selves—the ego-personality, the unconscious self, and the true self—into separate boxes only for the purpose of description. In daily life we call upon all three continuously. As awareness rises from its source, any impulse has an unconscious component and eventually an ego component. A common example is friendship that develops into romantic love. Two friends interact largely on an ego level, meaning that they present their social persona to each other. But as friendship deepens, the unconscious reveals itself more intimately, and sometimes, if the two people feel safe enough, a more intimate kind of love reveals itself.
The spiritual journey of self-knowing operates in a similar way. We become open enough and feel safe enough to peer into the unconscious, and then even deeper into the impulses of love, creativity, and intelligence that are constantly welling up from pure consciousness.
In fact, any thought, when traced back to its origins, turns out to be an impulse of the true self. We spend our lives masking this fact, identifying only with the end stage, the eruption of mental activity on the surface, where the ego-personality functions. But no matter how hard we try to mask it, the true self never becomes distorted or crushed.
In the journey of self-discovery, the true self is both goal and guide. It promises supreme fulfillment and delivers on the promise simply by being there already.