Discovering Who We Are: Rembrandt’s Self-portraits as a Means of Self-discovery

Posted on November 9th, by Dr. Puff in Articles. No Comments

Though I was born here in the United States my relatives from my mother’s side and some of my father’s relatives came from Holland. I think because of my ancestry I’ve always been attracted to Dutch painters. One of my favorite painters in the world is Rembrandt. One of the things that Rembrandt loved to paint were pictures of himself. He would create self-portraits or have paintings where he inserted himself into the portrait.

I’m sure Rembrandt was a very wise person and perhaps there was a part of him that was trying to teach his audience or viewers about who we are. His work is a good example of who we are, actually. Our lives are being painted as we live them and we are the painters of our lives.

At the deepest level, however, there is just a painting and just beingness. We are living our lives and our lives are being painted for us. There really isn’t any volition and yet at the deepest level we are just the beingness out of which everything comes. This is just a picture of who we are. You can’t ultimately describe who we are but it’s a clue; Rembrandt perhaps was painting a hint of who we are.

We spend so much time in our lives interpreting, analyzing and interacting with our external world. This is about looking at our internal world: who are we at our fundamental level? Rembrandt painted himself as a way to look at the “Who am I?” question. Perhaps we can do the same. Instead of constantly interacting with the world and never thinking about the answers to “Who am I?”, we can spend some time and examine who we are.

We must understand that we are being painted and when we understand that we can just relax. We can say, “Oh, yes! I am in this picture” as well as “Yes, I am the painter.” But ultimately all that we can prove is that “I am.” Out of this “I am” everything comes; both the picture and the painter are held in the “I am.” Here exists beingness.

Our minds love to paint pictures. We are just so naturally prone to painting pictures and we get caught up in this painting activity that we think it’s real. It seems so real, rich, varied and diversified. But it all comes out of the mind. If there wasn’t consciousness or the mind, there would be no paintings.

Let me use another example to really illustrate how incredibly powerful our minds are. What we’re trying to do is look at the mind and go beyond it. But first let’s see how potent it is. The first time I ever met my wife (we met through acquaintances) it was a very brief meeting. I thought she was pretty but that’s all I thought because I didn’t know her and I knew very little about her. The moment passed. I think it was many months later when I got to meet her again and I had the chance to get to know her better. After much time, our relationship started and we became acquainted and then we got married, had children and have created quite a life together. My mind has created a scenario that has painted a picture of us together. It went from just seeing her that first time and grew into a rich, full painting of us living our lives together. Yet without the mind, without the concepts, there would be no other. There would only be beingness.

It’s like having a blank canvas and painting a beautiful picture on it. Sometimes the pictures are beautiful, but sometimes they can be dark and dreary. But ultimately they are just paintings. Without the mind they wouldn’t exist.

We should take some time to look at our minds and ask “Who is this thinker? Who ultimately is the one creating this reality? Who am I?” Without memories, desires and fears the picture couldn’t be painted. There would be no picture at all. There would just be beingness. That, ultimately, is all that there is.

What we’re looking at here is who we truly are at our ultimate, permanent selves. If something is impermanent, then we cannot be that. Though we can look at a beautiful painting by Rembrandt such as ‘Night Watch’ and say “Ah, that is so beautiful”, we don’t think that’s the ultimate reality. He just painted a picture of what he saw.

What he saw doesn’t exist anymore. The only thing that exists is us looking at the picture of ‘Night Watch’ right now. If we weren’t looking at it, would it even exist? No, it couldn’t exist unless we were looking at it. The only time we are able to look at it is right now, because we don’t know what the future will hold and our minds conceptualize the future. Our minds also conceptualize the past. The only thing that ever is that we can ultimately prove is right here and right now. And it is beingness.

The conceptual pictures that I’m painting today are to help us quiet the mind and just be. Another concept that may help us in this task is that of imagining we’re in a very dark room, so dark that nothing can be seen. Then someone opens the window – images arise and we can see! We can see shapes, perhaps even other people in the room. Everything changes because now light has been streamed into the room. Beyond this, though, is the sun which creates light. Let’s look at all three parts of this scenario: the dark room is like Rembrandt’s canvas – it holds infinite possibilities. When the light shines in, it’s like applying the paint to the canvas. And again, these different images are able to appear.

The sun is that out of which everything comes. The sun doesn’t need the dark room. The sun doesn’t need the painting or the images either. The sun just is. It always has been and it always will be. Infinite possibilities can come out of the sun. But the sun is that which cannot be described. It cannot ultimately be altered in any way, because the sun always is. Often we identify with objects in the room. But what if we were to identify with the sun, with the beingness, with that which always is and always has been?

Let us, like Rembrandt, start doing self-portraits where we look at who we are. We can then go one step further than this. We can look at whose painting we are, then we can look at the background, the space on which the painting and painter are being painted. We can look at the empty space, the infinite silence that is so beyond words yet so beautiful. It is infinite love, which we are. Let us be that.

Resource Box:
Dr. Robert Puff, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, international speaker, and meditation expert who has been counseling individuals, families, nonprofits, and businesses for over twenty years. A contributing writer to Psychology Today, he has authored numerous books and creates a weekly podcast on happiness at He also creates a weekly podcast on meditation, and a weekly podcast on spiritual enlightenment, His retreat schedules can be found at You also might find his blog useful at If you are interested in having Dr. Puff speak to your organization or company, you can learn more about his speaking services at

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