Dialogue Nights #30: On Being Your True Self With Others

| Mitch Bogen
Discussion activity

The highest-attended Dialogue Nights since the easing of pandemic restrictions tackled the perennial question of how best to recognize one’s most authentic self and bring it to all one’s interactions. Called “Navigating Relationships: Can I Really Be My True Self With Others?,” the April 5, 2024, event featured the participation of nearly 70 Boston-area university students and young professionals, the majority of whom were first-time attendees. 

During her welcoming remarks, the Center’s Preandra Noel explained to the newcomers that, in the spirit of founder Daisaku Ikeda’s legacy, the Center’s core purpose is to build cultures of peace through learning and dialogue, adding that “we do our best to curate the Dialogue Nights experience based on this mission.” And she thanked the returnees, saying that “you all are a very integral part of the community that we have here today – so thank you, thank you, thank you!” Preandra then summarized the guiding inquiry for the evening: “Whether it is in a relationship with friends, parents, siblings, partners, or co-workers,” she said, “the question that brings us all here today is, can we really be our true selves with them? And what does being our true self even mean?”

Dialogue and the True Self

Before moving on to the evening’s main activities, Preandra reintroduced the Ikeda Center’s four “dialogue commitments,” which provide the foundation for all Dialogue Nights gatherings, as well as for all of the Center’s dialogic activities. In our view, said Preandra, “these are essential for co-creating a shared safe space of intention.” Volunteers then read the commitments aloud. They are: 

  1. Avoid prejudging and categorizing people
  2. Strive to bring out the best in oneself and others
  3. Listen to and learn from each other
  4. Remember that change begins with us
Speed-connecting at April 2024 Dialogue Nights

Then, as a brief warm-up activity, everyone engaged in two rounds of what the Center calls “speed connecting” dialogue. For this, attendees paired up with one other person to discuss one question for ten minutes. They then repeated that process with another person and a new question. The questions were as follows: 1) What is at least one thing about yourself that you wish more people knew about you? 2) What is something about relationships that you enjoy the most? After the paired dialogues concluded, Preandra shared that the rationale for this activity was drawn from Daisaku Ikeda’s own dialogic practice. In the thousands of dialogues he engaged in, said Preandra, “he first always made sure to get to know his interlocutors or his dialogue partners by asking them questions about their life.” She added that “the foundation of dialogue for him was having faith in human beings, which is synonymous with believing in another person’s inherent goodness.”

The next dialogue activity was moderated by the Center’s Lillian Koizumi. For this one, called the True Self Barometer, participants moved around the room to indicate, on a scale of one-to-10, how present their true self is in the context of common relationships we all find ourselves in. As the activity proceeded, volunteers shared their responses to questions that were structured: When I am with [blank], how true to myself can I be? Their responses, excerpted here, revealed many insights into the nature of one’s true self:

  • With family. “They’ve seen me at my worst, and they’ve seen me at my best, so I may as well just be as true to myself around them as I can, because they’ve never judged me.” 
  • When I’m dating or in a relationship. “I am my true self, completely, with my partner because he loves me unconditionally, and I love him unconditionally.”
  • With friends. “I can embarrass myself, like, I can make a fool of myself and actually not feel embarrassed with my friends. So, I can be as weird as I would be by myself in the house with them.”
  • At work or with colleagues. “I’m fortunate enough to be able to get to talk about ideas all the time [with my colleagues], and … in its purest form,” which is “something that is like who I am.” 
  • When I’m by myself. “By myself, I’m hyper-cognizant of the social aspects of myself. [What’s] precious about that to me [about the social dimensions] is getting to share with other people. So, yeah, you know, I experience loneliness like anyone else. And that’s authentic.”
  • With a stranger. “If it’s a stranger then in a sense it’s the beginning of if at all. [If] you’ll ever have a relationship of any sort with that person then … you get to define how that beginning and the entirety of that relationship looks. So why wouldn’t you be yourself at that point?”

Two Takes on Authenticity

Next, two members of the Ikeda Center youth steering committee, Saloni and Anna, shared personal reflections on what the true self means for them. Specifically, explained Preandra, they “have been reflecting on and engaging more deeply in a relationship in their own lives where they have been wanting to be more true to themselves.” Speaking first, Saloni noted that there really is no single relationship in her life that stands out as problematic but that there are “various aspects of each relationship that I struggle with.” In fact, it was a “profound realization” for her to see that there have been difficult conversations with just about everyone she knows. As one example, she recalled a recent talk with her mom during which she felt unable to express encouragement or empathy for her when she shared difficulties she was having. In another, related example, Saloni explained how she has trouble speaking her mind in work situations “because of fear of failure or fear of being rejected” – adding that “I expect people to read my mind and when they don’t, I begin to doubt myself.” Her question then was: Is this reflective of her true self? Perhaps, but she also believes that “deep down” she possesses another true self, one that is wiser and “more insightful.” It is here that the empathy for her mother resides, waiting to be expressed. But to act on that, said Saloni, she “needs to be more honest with herself” and acknowledge that the discontent she feels with her lack of communication is actually a message from her true self. Now, after this investigation into the true self, her goal is to “reflect and tap more into what deep down feels like.”

Speaking next, Anna framed her remarks in terms of that feeling you get when you are somehow “just not hitting the mark” – in your “relationships, in life, at work,” or really in “anything.” She actually “feels this way a lot,” she added. For this reflection she said she would be focusing on her relationship with her workplace. Essentially, at work she has felt tired and also “scared of being perceived as unproductive” – possible indicators that she isn’t engaging her true self there. She acknowledged that one option for her could be to look for a new job, but instead she chose to focus on challenging herself to be more productive in her current position. Her chance came when she had a rare one-to-one meeting with her boss. Once the meeting was over, instead of looking for external validation, she focused on her own “real sense of accomplishment that I was able to complete the task that I had shared with him.” Reflecting on this, she recalled a quote from Daisaku Ikeda that always inspires:

The risk of failure is part of trying. If you never attempt to do anything, you’ll never fail. Should you fail, the important thing is to summon fresh courage and get right back on your feet again. No matter how many times you may fall, keep pressing forward with an invincible determination. Victory and defeat in life are not decided until the final moment. 

And, as she wrapped up her reflections, she shared another quote from Mr. Ikeda, one the event planning team had shared with her and Saloni to help them prepare for their investigations.

Our human relationships are like a mirror. So if you’re thinking, “If only so-and-so were a little nicer to me, I could talk to her about anything,” then that person is probably thinking, “If only so-and-so would open up to me, I would be nicer to her.” You should make the first move to open the channels of communication… My advice is that you hold fast to your identity with the spirit that “others may change, but I will stay who I am.”

Ground Rules and Relationships

The next dialogue activity gave attendees a chance to practice applying the Center’s newly-created “ground rules for genuine dialogue,” which were developed based on observing best practices at several years of Dialogue Nights as well as lessons learned from Daisaku Ikeda’s dialogue ethos. They are meant to complement the already existing “dialogue commitments.” The new ground rules include such guidance as: We will work together to create a safe space where we can be vulnerable and imperfect. We will embrace new perspectives with the openness that we may not always be right. We will not devalue or “put down” anyone’s experiences or lack of experiences. [View the full list here.] Each small group went through the ground rules together before delving into three discussion questions:

  • What unresolved relationship takes up space in your mind? How do you feel about that relationship now? 
  • Reflecting on Anna and Saloni’s experiences and Daisaku Ikeda’s perspective on relationships, do you feel like you were/are your true self in that relationship? If not, why? 
  • What steps can you take to be more like your true self in this relationship or any other relationship?
Group activity

After this small group dialogue session, the Center’s Anri Khare led a final activity in which small groups considered the question: What aspect of your true self do you want to bring out more in your relationships? Each participant wrote their response on an individual paper cut out shaped as a human. These cut outs were then glued to a paper ship, specifically a “relation ship” capable of helping us “navigate our relationships over life’s stormy waters.” Finally, the small groups were tasked with giving their ship a name, which would indicate key themes and guiding principles for this endeavor. After a few minutes of discussion, there was time for a few groups to share their chosen names, along with some of the related qualities they discussed. 

  • The first to share said her group chose to put forgiveness at the top, “because we all decided [that] to have a good relationship, we all had to forgive – either ourself or the other person.” They noted that this is dependent on the other qualities of their ship such as compassion, since “if you have compassion [for] yourself or other people, it leads to forgiveness.”
  • The next was named the G Ship. The “G stands for genuine, because we want to show up more genuinely in our relationships.” Supporting qualities included patience, sincerity, and good listening.
  • The ship for the last team to share was the Love Boat. The main supporting quality was “transparency [in] facing problems” that arise. “You want the problems out there, you know, to face them head on and not let those obstacles be in the path of something that could be great.”

With the evening drawing to a close, Preandra said “we recognize there’s so many things out there on a Friday night you could be doing. So thank you for being here!”