Know thy selfJuly 28, 2010
~γνῶθι σεαυτόν gnōthi seauton~
From the philosophers of Greece, to the astrologers of the ancient world, to the esoteric practices of India, to the modern day psychologists…the time-honoured search for who we are and why we are here has continued in different forms, but still left unanswered.
In our contemporary society, knowing thyself comes from reading Self-Help books, doing Personality Tests forwarded to you via email, reading your astrology profile online, and ticking forms that ask you for about your age, sex, marital status and the like.
We don’t think twice when people ask who we are; often we instinctively think of ourselves in terms of the roles we play in life, particularly our job position. If someone comes up to you at a party and asks you, “What do you do?” I would imagine most of us would answer our occupation, e.g., I’m a lawyer, I’m a student, “I’m not working at the moment.” That seems to be the socially-acceptable thing to say. If I answered with, “I’m a daughter and a sister to three brothers.” They’ll say, “That’s nice, but what do you do with your time?” In which if I said, “I talk to people all day, I teach whenever I can, I learn about everything that interests me, I counsel people when they are down and inspire them to continue doing the good things they are doing. I love to laugh, but know when to cry, I am passionate about life……” The person is likely to have walked off by then. One would get a similar answer if replying, “I’m a myrid of things depending on whatever circumstances I find myself in and whomever I am with. I’m a lover of life, and an observer of the world.” Wierdo…
So in our mad dash through life, we only have brief moments of reflection, and often don’t go anywhere near the core self. There are so many things obscuring our understanding of who we are, that our true identity becomes buried and forgotten.
Below I will outline some of the things obscuring our vision of who we are, and in the next blog post I will discuss the importance of seeing who we are, and how we can do this.
Obstacles to knowing thy self
- False mirrors: it is usual that we rely on something exterior to ourselves to reflect back to us our self-image. These mirrors may take the form of a generalised personality analysis, or astrology reading, etc. It may even be the people around us reflecting back to us who we are. At times, these may be the only clues we have of ourselves, and sets a basic start to our self-discovery. However, these are always generalised and inaccurate. When it comes to others’ perceptions of ourselves, they are always biased and will only be a perspective of us that is tainted by their own preconceptions and feelings about us, as well as tainted by the image we have emulated to them about us. It is biased because our friends are likely to see the goodness in us, and our enemies exaggerate our faults.
- The masquerade party of facardes: there are so many facets of ourselves, so many roles we play, and so many identities and fronts we put up to the world outside. In a way, we need to. We can’t show our true self all the time, firstly because we don’t know our true self, secondly because exposing our vulnerabilities to those who are untrustworthy could cause great detriment to ourselves and others, and finally, because a certain level of mindful restraint is required so we don’t act out of anger, ill will, greed, fear or delusion. However, with all the facardes we put up, how many of us are aware of them? How many times do we put them up and don’t (or can’t) take them off? How many of these facardes have merged into reality and taken by others and ourselves as who we are?
- The greatest illusionist…is ourselves: The most dangerous lies are those which are closest to the truth, those taken to be the truth, and those which have become so embedded into our consciousness and perceptions that even we believe that the lie is true. We lie to ourselves all the time, whether subconsciously or intentionally. We see only what we want to see. We ignore vast amounts of information every day because it doesn’t fit into our paradigm of the world as we understand it. Likewise, we see ourselves in a particular way, and we choose people as our friends because they see us in that same light. We dismiss and dislike views contrary to what we believe of ourselves. Ultimately, we are the one who is the hardest person to convince of our own identity.
- Playing hide and seek: Our identity and portrays of ourselves are in constant flux. It changes depending on who we are with, what we are doing, the circumstances we find ourselves in, the emotions and drives that are in play at that moment in time, and of course, the external mirrors and internal filters. When we feel we can lock down who we are, the self eludes us in a game of hide and seek. The more we grasp onto the self we saw, without acknowledging its ability to change and have its own agency, the further we are to acknowledging the ‘self’ as it is in that point in time.
- Self-protection of our ‘self’: For those practicing Buddhists, you would be familiar with the Pali word anatta, translated as ‘non-self’. The greatest illusion created by the self is itself, and it protects this image for its survival. The Buddha had taught in the Anattalakkhana Sutta that the dependence of the ego on the myrid causes and conditions that brought it to fruition means that it is subject to change and impermanence. As it is impermanent, it is unstable and therefore lacking in consistent unity. That is, it is non-self. Ironically though, to understand non-self, it is vital to first understand the illusion of the self, so as to break through this illusion and our attachment to this fictitious self.
In understanding and seeing the above obstacles, we can start to unravel the security blankets wrapped around our ego. You may fear that in taking down the layers of self-protection, you will be exposed and left vulnerable. In my next blog entry, I will discuss the methods to doing so, as well as the reason and importance of breaking down the barriers blocking our true self from shining with confidence, acceptance, tranquility and love.