“Know thyself,” read the famous words chiseled into the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. A phrase at the forefront of cringe-worthy self-help platitudes, as well as of thorough considerations in the minds of great thinkers of the past and present.
Knowing oneself might sound as a clear instruction, after all the verb to know and the noun self are unambiguous words. Yet this self-knowledge encompasses more than one might initially think. To know oneself includes knowing one’s strengths and weakness, knowing one’s likes and dislikes, knowing one’s desires and fears, but also knowing one’s past, knowing one’s pathologies, knowing one’s dreams, anxieties, tendencies, habits, knowing one’s view of the world, of destiny.
It is a great feat to embark on, to know oneself, to try to see ourselves for who we really are, to see ourselves naked, turned inside out; for some a rather scary thought.
Others claim such a feat is doomed to fail from the start. We are not the same today as we were yesterday, and who knows what tomorrow will bring. They think knowing oneself requires that the inner I never changes, that it remains permanent from the point of our inner glimpse on.
This, however, rests on false assumptions. There are things to see when looking inside we try to understand ourselves that don’t change. Our past doesn’t change, if anything it grows with every moment, and its pull doesn’t disappear with more time, at most it mildens but still remains an underlying factor.
Likewise, to know thyself means precisely to know that you are not exactly the same today as you were yesterday, or the way you will be tomorrow, and to know that you are not exactly the way you perceive yourself to be. This can only be discovered through a daily attempt to look inside and grasp as much truth as we are able to see.
But why would someone even want to embark on such a journey, to the depths of the inner self? As a regular adventurer, I came to discover a few reasons for why is it worth the effort, pain and time. My findings can be put into four words, understanding, freedom, compassion, self-assurance.
In general, we like to think we know ourselves, who else if not us? Apart from the fact that the people around you might have a unique and often true perspective on the way you really are, the self-knowledge we commonly refer to is but the surface of a deep pond. Truth be told, most of us have no idea who we are.
When you look inside, when you cut the noise and start to question who you are, why you behave in certain ways, why do you fear, desire, hope for, strive for, certain objects, activities, or people, you start to gain deeper sense of who you are.
And although it is true that we change, and that even the ones who made it their chief goal to go as deep as they can in the journey to self-knowledge might just be fooling themselves, the likelihood of this is much smaller than if we had never dared to look, to question, to dig.
The discoveries can seem trivial, such as finding out that the reason why you fail to do things on time is your laziness and procrastination. However, digging deeper you might discover that the reason behind your procrastination is the fear of facing your inability, of giving it your all and still failing. If you gave it your all and still failed to perform, you would have to face the reality that you don’t live up to the perception you have of yourself.
In self-knowledge, depth is the metric to aim for. To most of our behavior, there is greater depth than meets the eye.
When you are able to go deep, deeper than you were ever able to go, you can discover the root cause of many of your current ailments. It can be an idea contained in a book you’ve read as a child that now influences the way you perceive your role in the world, with a direct effect on your aspirations, on your greatest fears, on your desires and joys. Or it can be a painful experience of abuse that now surfaces in lack of trust, in fear of opening up, or it can be unmet expectations placed on you from young age that now result in struggle for lasting self-esteem. Whatever root you find, it can only be found through the laborious process of self-examination.
Yet, upon discovering this truth about yourself, after gaining this understanding you can gain personal freedom, compassion towards yourself, and self-assurance.
Self-knowledge has the capacity to release us from bondage. Enslaved by our past, by our beliefs, fears, anxieties, tendencies, habits, by the unconscious self, our hope is to break the spell, to see behind the curtain and expose the puppet master. The irony is that we are our own puppet masters. However, when we make the discovery we can decide to cut loose some of those strings and connect ourselves to others that we want to be guided by. When we gain the necessary self-knowledge we can take charge of what is affecting the way we behave, what we fear, what we dislike. Of course, completely reprogramming myself simply by knowing that there are some things that affect me in ways that I dislike is impossible. However, to see behind the curtain and discover the strings gives me clarity in what I need to fight against if I dislike the behavior that ensues.
I might still fear the same things, but if I know the underlying reason behind my fear, which can be quite irrational, I have greater freedom to battle my fear, to see its irrationality, which often makes it disappear.
I might still desire the same things, but I can realize that the underlying problem behind the desire will not be best solved by obeying the impulse. I might want to indulge in that ice cream, but I can recognize that it is just a form of an escape from the anxiety I am now feeling, which can be further explained by something deeper.
Again, I gain greater freedom to choose a different path.
Self-knowledge creates space to realize why we feel and think a certain way, which further allows us to build our ability to make a choice not to go with the dictate of the unconscious.
In the pursuit of self-knowledge and through the attempts to take charge of my inner compulsions I gained deeper compassion for myself. I was able to see why particular things kept repeating, why I felt a certain way, and to realize that it isn’t my fault. I am not responsible for the things of the past that lead to the fears and anxieties of today. I no longer blame myself for things that aren’t of my choosing. There is no point in beating myself up for what is the result of pathologies I couldn’t have affected.
Also knowing how formidable opponent the unconscious self is I have more compassion when I fail to live up some standard I set for myself. Life is a long journey and maybe I will have to live with all the scars, impulses, and fears for the rest of my life. Yet, the attitude that can lead to healing and real change is one of compassion.
Self-knowledge allows you to foster this attitude. Through the freedom and understanding self-knowledge brings, you can realize that the bad music you dance to hasn’t been chosen by you.
Now you can try to change the music.
“I am Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true Emperor Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.”
(See the scene here.)
This scene from Gladiator gives me chills every time I watch it. It is Maximus’ assurance in his answer to Commodus’ question, who wants him to remove his helmet and tell him his name. Maximus knew who he was, he knew his painful past, he knew where is he coming from, he also knew where is he heading. He was to have his vengeance for all the injustice that had been done to him and his family.
In likeness of Maximus knowing who you are on a deep emotional level, with all your pathologies, wounds, desires, fears, beliefs, gives you a strong sense of self-assurance.
This kind of confidence is not based on your ability to do certain things, it is based purely on your self-knowledge, on being in touch with your identity, with your inner self, regardless of how dark and wounded it is. You know who you are, you know where you came from, you know what you have gone through, you might even know where you are heading. You can stand and live not as a stranger to yourself, you can live in unity with the unconscious, even though you are working to overcome it.
It can bring clarity and support to all other confusions and turbulences that come your way. One thing always remains steadfast, you have given the hard effort to find who you are. Now you can live according to what is true to you, according to what you find important.
And although we all change, so will our self-knowledge, thus keeping with the impermanent self, which will allow us to sustain the inner calm.
The pursuit of knowing thyself allows us to gain this self-assurance, confidence to be experienced rather than put into words.
Thus, in attempting to know myself, in my journeys through the depths of the inner self, I discovered understanding, freedom, compassion, and self-assurance. Every day affords an opportunity to uncover more, and there is still a lot to find. And although the journey is often painful, exhausting and scary, what I find is always well-worth the effort.
I hope this has inspired you to begin your journey or to take a few more dives into the pond.
If you are asking where is any guidance on how to go about this soul searching stay tuned for another essay where I will share some of the things that helped me and others in the search for themselves.
Until then, get digging.