Retreat Inward (2022), Miles Johnston

Being agentic is trendy these days. But what if one is agentic about an agenda that is not truly theirs?

Naturally, being authentic could be a more desirable aim. Authenticity as a central telos emerged alongside the breakdown of traditional social hierarchies and religious orders in the post Enlightenment era. The loss of a unifying ethic meant each individual was free to create their own constellation of meaning, as well as pursue projects as extensions of “who they are”. Life thus unraveled as a sweeping epic of “personal projects” born from the crucible of experience, conditioning, and most importantly, the expression of one’s innate essence.  

If authenticity is the North Star of existence in the post-modern world, what’s less clear is how to get there. There are millions of blueprints that attempt to push us outwards towards predefined ways of being which can be bought, consumed, and ritualized without question. Far fewer blueprints prioritize finding authenticity through first principles, that is, the cultivation of self-trust by going inwards. Authenticity is merely the by-product of continued discernment and actioning upon the little whisper inside our hearts that just knows. A trust in who we actually are through attuning to what feels true over decades of lived experience and making that the burgeoning corpus from which all else springs.

Instead of being more agentic or authentic, perhaps a more worthwhile aim should be to pursue self-trust. A self-trust that filters chaos into resonance, alchemizing our unique source code into great works and personal values felt all the way through. A deep trust that settles our chattering bones. A sonic tug, pulling us limply across milky ways of kinetic potential towards personal expressions of value - emblems of the good, beautiful, and true in a Platonic cave of our own making.

Barge Haulers on the Volga, Ileya Repin 1870

But how do we cultivate this kind of self-trust?

Answering this question starts with investigating what prevents us from trusting ourselves to begin with, not in a “I don’t trust myself with that chocolate bar” kind of way, but rather in a primordial kind of way. An all-pervasive mistrust that saturates the water we swim in and fuels a lifetime of conscious and unconscious attempts to secure safety through external means. A kind of mistrust that’s so inherent that it almost goes unquestioned.

A kind of mistrust that goes as far back as infancy. In a groundbreaking paper, the eminent psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot, first conceptualized the notion of “holding environments” and the crucial role our parents, especially our mothers, play in shaping our first experience of reality. When we are born, our mothers are perceived as literally extensions of ourselves. A healthy separation-individuation process is facilitated by a stable, protective, and attuned holding environment from our caretakers. When it becomes disrupted or unreliable, our trust in the fundamental safety of reality also erodes. Throughout the first 5 years of life this trust can continue to fray, and depending on what age we may have experienced a particularly potent rupture, the ego reifies and develops a variety of coping strategies.

The message is clear: we cannot rely on the world to hold us securely, so we must take control. Even if we had a good upbringing, it’s impossible not to have encountered experiences that disrupted our sense of unconditional safety. We have all suffered, closed, and armored ourselves, by virtue of being human. In that contraction, we’ve not only dulled pain, but also the ability to trust both others and ourselves.

If authenticity, born of self-trust, is our ultimate aim, then the path to redemption lies in taking responsibility for understanding not only how trust was broken, but how we’ve perpetuated its repercussions into the present. Like intrepid detectives, we may pursue psychoanalytic work like ACT and IFS to understand how our childhoods have informed our patterns, bring awareness to how they manifest, and find new ways to react to old triggers with the inner-resourcing we now possess as adults. We may pursue meditation to not only develop more non-reactivity, but also use emptying or inquiry practices to tenderize the illusion of a fixed “self”, with its conditioned fears and desires.

In all cases, self-trust emerges through the process of negation. By experiencing the insubstantial nature of what we once took for as solid, we begin to get in touch with the ground of being that transcends our limited narratives - a holding environment replete with wholeness, where we are fully connected to ourselves and all that is, where our hearts are open and present to the effulgence of a trust that existed before no-time. We understand that this is who we have always been.

In the Mood for Love, 2000

Another way to increase self-trust is to be better at discerning high quality holding environments. Cultivating self-trust is not a solitary pursuit: it is interwoven with the fabric of our relationships and the environments we inhabit.

Even as adults, we continue to seek out holding environments - physical and psychological spaces where we feel safe, secure, and protected, so that we can explore and expand the frontiers of our being. These may take the form of romantic relationships, friends, therapists, and spiritual guides. They may be abstracted out towards our vocation, social status, identity-based communities, or tribalistic inclinations. Or they may arise in feeling moments of collective effervescence, altered states of consciousness, and in the deep throes of sex.

At their worst, these holding environments can literally hold us back, distort our self-image, and obfuscate our inner-knowing. At their best, they offer us a secure base from which to venture into uncharted territories to explore our shadows and our light.

A good holding environment is a catalyst for transformation, a sacred space where old wounds can be alchemized into new sources of strength and insight. It is a partner who mirrors our shadow with compassion and skill, helping us to transmute anger into grief, and grief into self-love. It is a coach, therapist, or spiritual guide who refuses to provide easy answers, but instead shines a light on the path to our own inner wisdom. The best holding environments play a role in our healing, but never usurp our own self-trust or ability to heal ourselves.

As the Buddha taught, "My teaching is a method to experience reality, not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon."

Like a cast that supports a healing limb, a healthy holding environment is a temporary scaffold, a crucible for the development of self-trust to ennoble one towards Kierkegaardian leaps of faith. It holds us as we learn to hold ourselves, until the day when we realize that we are, and have always been, our safest refuge.

Unfortunately, many holding environments don’t have the orientation of leading us back to self-trust. Our vocational or spiritual communities may demand homogeneity and a narrowing of our identity in exchange for safety with the herd. We may chase fleeting unity through drugs or concerts, mistaking it for a condition that exists outside ourselves rather than within. We may surrender our power to gurus and vendors who peddle pre-packaged solutions, rather than empowering us to trust our own discernment. Even the pursuit of authenticity has been co-opted and commercialized, making it hard to discern what is real or counterfeit.

For the most part, we live in a society which functions and profits off of our lack of self-trust, as we continuously outsource it to taste-makers, celebrities, elected officials, spiritual figures, intellectuals and industry titans.

The middle way is to neither reject nor repress these influences, but rather see them for what they are - shards of a larger truth that already resides within us. The wise among us use the world as a mirror, a catalyst for fanning the flames of personal truth within.

As Zen Master Seung Sahn teaches, “In this life we must all kill three things: First we must kill our parents. Second, we must kill the Buddha. And lastly, we must kill the guru.”

The journey back to self-trust is a revolutionary act. Combined with deficits in early childhood holding environments and an adult world replete with forces seeking to groom our preferences, identities, and wallets, the cards are well-stacked against us. It requires courage to consciously carve our own way back to ourselves. The good news is that we are the only thing standing in our own way. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Use the vehicle, and then discard it. Transcend yet include. Discern and choose your holding environments carefully. And eventually, once you become a good holding environment for yourself, you’ll be able to be a good one for others.

It is only through self-trust, that we can begin our journey to authenticity.

The Course of Empire, Consummation 1833

Some provocations: