When it comes to how one should live, the West and East recommend different approaches.
The western approach originated in the 5th century BC with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and his student Plato, but it was really fleshed out by Plato's own student, Aristotle, who coined the term "ethics" to offer a set of rational moral principles, or virtues, as to how one should conduct themselves during any interaction so as to achieve the best possible outcome. In Aristotle's ethical approach, self-knowledge and the awareness of facts relevant to the existence of one's self were critical to the pursuit of eudaimonia, a state of being happy, healthy, and prosperous (1). Bad actions were thought to result from ignorance, and that if a man truly knew the intellectual and spiritual consequences of his actions, he would choose to do the right thing every time.
The eastern approach appeared in its current form around the same time with the founding of Taoism by Lao-Tzu, a philosopher and poet from ancient China, as well as Buddhism by Siddhartha Gautama, a teacher commonly known as the Buddha or "Awakened One" who hailed from the Indian subcontinent. Both of these philosophies differed starkly from Aristotelian ethics in that they emphasized that human desires were the source of all suffering, and that these desires were derived from the "illusion" of one's self. One could only escape human suffering by abandoning their illusory self, thus attaining enlightenment, a state of freedom from all desire and therefore all suffering (2).
Thus, the good life in the West emphasizes the pursuit of eudaimonia, while the good life in the East emphasizes the attaining of enlightenment. The two philosophies appear to be at odds with one another - from a Western point of view, if one abandons one's self, then no self knowledge can be attained and eudaimonia never pursued, whereas from an Eastern point of view, by pursuing knowledge of one's self, one is actually worsening the source of all their desires and consequently will never attain enlightenment.
So what exactly is this "self"? Though we all have an idea about what self is, it can be difficult to pin it down. One dictionary definition is that the self is the essential being of a person that distinguishes them from others (3). This is a simple definition, but we'll take it for now. However, before discussing this "essential being" or self, we must contrast it with the walls that so often obscure it.
Life constantly exposes us to difficult and stressful situations that seem to affect us in negative ways. To avoid or protect ourselves from these situations, we erect temporary walls consisting of emotions, thoughts, or behaviours that allow us to cope with them. Here are a few examples:
(1) Upon finding out that her husband is having an affair, a formerly trusting young woman becomes distrusting of people in general; the distrust is a wall that prevents her from being hurt like that again. (2) When talking to close friends, a politician speaks candidly, but when he is in a public forum, he is evasive; the evasiveness is a wall that prevents him from looking weak or indecisive in front of his constituents. (3) Although she is happy and affectionate with her family and friends, a nurse becomes stern when she is busy at work; the sternness is a wall that deters patients and other staff members from demanding too much of her.
In every case, the emotion, thought, or behaviour that constitutes the wall is a reactive phenomenon to a specific situation deemed to be negative. This cannot be emphasized enough; the wall is reactive, not intrinsically generated, and would not exist without the situation that triggered its formation.
Although walls are meant to be temporary coping mechanisms, if the perceived negative situation is repeated for long enough, a wall will become integrated to such an extent that it may appear to define a part of one's self. This is unfortunate, for what the wall is actually doing is creating a barrier around one's self.
If we ignore the walls around one's self, much of what remains are intrinsically generated passions and interests; these are not reactive to specific situations like walls are, rather they are intrinsically generated regardless of the external circumstances. Here are a few examples:
(1) The young woman loves yoga and meditation before, during, and after her husband's affair; she has an intrinsically serene and peaceful nature. (2) Regardless of his voter ratings, the politician secretly donates money to charities in his constituency; he has an intrinsically generous nature. (3) Whether she is busy at work or not, the nurse still makes time to do clinical research; she has an intrinsically curious and scientific nature.
Unlike a wall, when one is immersed in an intrinsically generated passion or interest, a "flow state" results in which one is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the activity (4). During a flow state, time loses meaning; hours may seem like minutes. Moreover, the walls disappear while one is engaged in flow - for example, when reading an exciting book, these reactive coping mechanisms vanish as one is lost in the story.
Thus, by "losing yourself" during flow - and by this I mean removing the walls - all that remains is the experience of a true passion or interest. This is the true definition of self; one's intrinsically generated drives, passions, and interests that constitute one's uniqueness or essential being and that appear during a flow state, minus the walls. So to find yourself, you must first lose yourself - the walls - by finding flow.
Does your self-identity largely consist of these reactive walls erected in response to difficult situations in your life, or do you actively seek flow?
Who are you, really?
References (1) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/eudaimonia. (2) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enlightenment. (3) http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/self. (4) Csikszentmihalyi M. 1990. Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row.