Know Thy Self 2September 6, 2010
The long-awaited sequel to my previous post is finally here.
My last post discussed the obstacles to gaining a true view of who we are. This post will outline the importance of obtaining this true view, and ways to do this.
Why we need to know thyself
The importance of coming to know ourselves in an honest and non-egoistic way can be seen in the difficulties in life that stem from our lack of insight and acceptance with ourselves. A good example of this is the way we deal with other’s praise and blame.
Our society is one that is both judgmental and opinionated. Everyone has a view about everyone else, and often that view is told to us whether we like it or not.
Yet our perceptions of others is often inaccurate or incomplete. After all, if we don’t even know the person we spend the most of our time with (i.e., ourselves), how can we assume to know someone else? We may only see what they want us to see, or we may only see what we want to see. We see facets of people, interpret their actions based on our preconceptions, and measure their value based on our own biased standards, without considering how different sets of conditions apply to them.
So if your self-worth and self-identity are based on the praise and blame of others, you will find a difficult time in pleasing everyone, and ultimately in pleasing yourself. Of course, the perception others have of us are valuable in providing us a perspective to ourselves that we may not be aware of. It allows us to reflect on how we are coming across to others and gives us an impetus to change any unskillful ways.
However, if you take the opinions of others unquestioningly, and that opinion happens to be very different from what you know of yourself, it can really destabilise you and your understanding of yourself. Moreover, it can just be plain wrong and you would waste your mental energy and time trying to appease the unappeasable.
I have come to realise that there is no way to control how others view us, and sometimes people hold a particular perception of us, no matter how wrong and unfair it may be. I have come to see that the source of their distorted view is due to their own inner defilement (such as jealousy or anger) or ignorance (such as their immaturity or misinterpretation). Most importantly, I have come to see that sometimes no matter how much kindness, patience and leniency we have towards those with a distorted view towards us, it will not change their view if they are not ready to let go of their attachment to their view of us and deal with the defilement or ignorance that plagues them.
Yet if you are grounded in a solid understanding of yourself, the perceptions of others would mean just that: perceptions. You can then in an honest way use them as tools for reflection to see whether there is any truth to them, and discard them with wisdom and ease once you see the lack of value in them. If there is truth to them, then use that as a sounding board for your self-improvement.
How to know thy self
To really know ourself, is a life-long endeavour, because we are changing every moment through every experience. But as the Chinese proverb goes, a thousand step journey begins with one step. So here’s some ways to take that very first step to self-discovery:
- Be open: I think the first and foremost thing to do is adopting the right attitude and approach. This includes being open to the experience of self-discovery, the different methods to try, and whatever discoveries that may arise.
- Be honest with yourself: This is much harder than it seems. Just as others hold a particular perception of us, we have a biased view towards ourselves. We need to mentally prepare ourselves to look into ourselves in an honest way, stripping down the carefully constructed facardes and protection mechanisms.
- Be brave: Finding ourselves sounds great, but to really face ourselves – faults and all – takes great courage. Often we discover things about ourselves we weren’t aware of. However, don’t let this dissuade you, as the next factor is a good counter to your fear.
- Love and Acceptance: I know this is a bit overrated in our new-age self-help society, but nonetheless with love and acceptance for ourselves – our real self with our perfections and imperfections – we can slowly learnt to accept and embrace all the facets that make us who we are without condemning ourselves with criticism and put-downs.
- Just watch with disassociation: Those who have practiced mindfulness and insight meditation would be aware of the process of disassociation where we are able to “watch” ourselves without being caught up in our self. Just as one can see the body for what it is to allow us to disassociate with any pain in our body, we can also come to investigate our feelings, reactions, and temperament as if they are external to us in order to understand them and not be controlled by them. This is the ultimate freedom of mind. The disassociation also allows us to be more honest with ourselves as we see pass the smokes and mirrors we have set up as a way to protect our ego.
- Keep a reflective journal: document any insights you gain about yourself, as well as any changes. Write a stream-of-consciousness piece where you write whatever comes to your mind without filtering your thoughts. Allow your heart to hold your pen and then analyse what arises after you have finished your writing. If any parts of your writing causes a feeling of pain or unease in you, return there and review why that is so.
- Write your biography: This is a combination of the last two points. By writing about yourself as a third person, this can be an easier process of engaging with disassociation (now that’s an oxymoron!).
- Book a beach house: A monk suggested to me to skip going to a temple for a retreat; just book a week at a beach house, alone away from the hustle and bustle of life. He tells me it would be excruciating for the first couple of days as all the defilements of the mind would arise (such as boredom and craving), and at a greater intensity that usual. I’m told hopefully these would settle and insight would appear, that’s unless I’ve already packed my bags and returned home. I have yet to do this, but certainly some quiet time either in meditation or just watching the waves on the beach, would give us the space to ourselves to be present to all that we are without the noise of others.
I had intended to write an article that would be deeper than this, but I realised that the discoveries I have made in the last couple of months are still churning in my head and have yet to crystalise themselves into something I can share with you in a comprehensive way. Nonetheless, I hope the suggestions above are food for thought anyway, and I encourage you to walk your path of self-discovery in whichever suits you.
The parting thought I leave you today is please don’t underestimate how complex, interesting and spiritually rich you are. What we know of ourselves is only a fraction of all that we are. Without proper understanding and acknowledgment of the whole, we continuously run into problems in the way we deal with people, the direction of our life, and the way we care for ourselves.
So maybe next time you see yourself in the mirror, you should greet your reflection with, “Hi, nice to meet you.”