"Know Thyself": A User's Guide
43 Levels of Figuring Yourself Out in Plain English
article by LiveReal Agents Thomas and Grace
It might seem like strange advice: “Know Thyself.”
After all, don’t we already know ourselves?
Isn’t that the one thing we should be most certain of in the entire world – ourselves? Aren’t we closer to ourselves than literally anything else? If there’s one thing I should be certain of, should it be…well, me?
On initial glance, the obvious, intuitive, commonsense approach is just to leave it alone and assume what seems easiest: “I know myself.”
After all, going the other route seems to open up a big can of worms. And for no good reason.
So it follows that some folks might assume that they already know themselves completely. Or if not, they could figure it out if they’d just spend a few minutes sorting it out. Or if not even that, well, it isn’t really a big deal anyway.
Maybe they’re right.
Or maybe they’re fooling themselves.
“Never forget what you are,
for surely the world will not.
Make it your strength.
Then it can never be your weakness.
Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
- Tyrion Lannister ala George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones
So we decided to look into the matter.
After all, this sounded like a juicy topic for us – your trusty, cuddly LiveReal Agents – to dig into.
After all, with just a cursory glance, it seemed like knowing yourself was a good thing. To put it mildly.
If we just flip that on its head, it’s revealing: the idea of going through life not knowing yourself – seems like…well, a bad way to go through life. One you’d want to avoid.
But what does it really mean? Seriously: what does it mean to “know yourself”?
We decided to dig into the matter.
What we uncovered took us a bit by surprise.
These two little words – “know thyself” – are “little” in the same way a bomb is little, before it goes off. They pack a heck of a punch. To put it mildly. They’re two little words that say a lot.
First of all, we’d probably agree with our old buddy Thales.
“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”
(Ah, good old Thales. Always getting wasted and drunk-Tweeting proverbs he probably regrets the next morning.)
If Thales is right, then folks who say that “knowing yourself is easy!” probably don’t really know themselves very well.
And it might be even worse than that: they probably don’t know that they don’t know themselves.
It’s one thing to not know something. That’s fine. But to not know something yet think you do…now that’s trouble.
To be fair: plenty of folks declare, “I know who I am!”
We aren’t doubting what they’re saying. But we’re probably talking about different things. We doubt that the folks who first said “Know Thyself” thousands of years ago meant that folks should just walk around declaring stuff. There seemed to be more to the matter than just that. But this just indicates the confusion and lack of clarity around the phrase.
Which means we should probably clarify what exactly we’re talking about here.
So let’s get back to basics.
To go back to where it all started: the phrase “Know Thyself” was carved into limestone at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi a few thousand years ago. (That’s the story, anyway.) Something along those lines is also in the Upanishads, while Socrates (through Plato) and plenty of other folks have echoed the same core idea sense then.
At any rate, whoever carved that must have thought it was pretty important.
But seriously: what does it really mean?
Why did they think it was that important? What were they trying to get across?
Here is our official, authoritative answer on those questions:
We don’t know.
We weren’t in Greece thousands of years ago. We weren’t on the subcommittee that decided to carve that particular phrase into limestone instead of, say, “Believe in yourself!” or “Live Your Dreams!” or “Question Authority!” or “Coexist!” or “Visualize Swirled Peas!”
By that standard, nobody really knows what they were trying to say.
But after digging into the matter a bit, we can offer some humble suggestions. (43, actually.)
Some – at least to us – are yawners. They’re legit, but they’re also a bit dull, boring, dishwater-mundane platitudes that are the equivalent of “eat your vegetables” and “don’t eat yellow snow.”
We won’t spend much time on those.
But there are others.
We’ve divided them into three groups:
1) The Mundane
2) The Interesting
3) The Profound
So, do you know yourself? What does it mean to “know yourself?” Do you even think you should “know yourself?”
"I am the only person in the world
I should like to know thoroughly."
- Oscar Wilde
“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be…
when all I want is out there,
waiting for me the minute I say 'I know who I am.'”
- Arthur Miller
OK, we’re starting with the easy stuff.
Assuming you aren’t Jason Bourne, or Neo, or Tyler Durden, or suffering from amnesia, or someone’s imaginary friend, then knowing your name means you’re at least off to a good start. (Or at least a start.)
(But that said…knowing your name doesn’t mean you “know yourself.” After all, who or what is the name referring to?)
Knowing yourself means knowing your name.
Our life stories can obviously tell us a lot about who we are. This is the “I am the sum of my past actions” angle.
But that said…it’s not everything.
After all, your life story is what’s happened in the past. It’s not right now. And to boot, our life stories depend on memory, and memory is an unreliable, untrustworthy narrator.
And to boot…there might be pieces missing in our stories. Sometimes big pieces.
What if we don’t remember everything? What if you really are Jason Bourne? What if you were unaware of a lot of what was actually going on in the past? (How much does a 5 year-old even truly understand about what’s happening around them? And aren’t our first five years supposed to be some of the most formative?)
Just because you’ve lived through and survived something doesn’t mean you fully understand it, are conscious of what actually happened, or have digested and interpreted it in a way that’s based on reality and integrated with the rest of yourself.
Some trauma survivors have memories resurface later in life. Before those memories surfaced, significant chunks of their life story were, for practical purposes, missing.
Understanding the major trials and traumas you’ve experienced in your life, and being able to explain and discuss them all in a way that is objective and coherent, is no small task.
Heck, it’s no small task to do that for small, mundane, everyday experiences.
“It requires more than a day’s devotion
to know and to possess the wealth of a day.”
- Henry David Thoreau
“The world is deep,
And deeper than the day could read.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
But it’s no small part of who we are.
To know yourself means to know your life story.
This is the “social roles” perspective: I’m a mother, father, son, daughter, friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc. There’s the group you belong to: family, friends, clubs, associations, organizations, schools, religious communities, political parties, etc.
Again, this seems obvious. But this doesn’t means it’s clear-cut.
There are different degree of how much these define us. Some folks might be in a family, but feel apart from it, in a group but not of the group, officially a member of something but…well, not really a member. We can be members of groups without identifying with them.
And even further: some fathers, for example, might not know they’re fathers. Or act like it. If someone is a father but does everything in his power to forget about it, ignore it, not to think about it, to that degree, we could probably say he doesn’t know himself.
And on the opposite side: some folks may define themselves entirely by a certain social role while neglecting other, very real, aspects of themselves. A father, for example, might become so consumed with being a father that he forgets about being a husband. Or a mother, a wife. Etc.
To know yourself means to who you are socially.
This is also pretty straightforward: knowing what music you like. What food you like. What clothes you like. What movies, tv shows, books, sports, politics, interior decoration, architecture, hobbies, etc etc, you like.
This seems straightforward, but there are still hazards. We might, for example, conform our tastes to those of the people around us. (“I like opera, but nobody else I know does, so then, I’m not going to like opera.”) Or we might avoid exposing ourselves to much. (“I don’t like trying new things.”) Or we might land on something we like and then prematurely end our exploration, shutting the door on everything else. (“I eat beans, and that’s all I’ve ever tried, and that’s all I want.” “I’ve listened to Lawrence Welk, and that’s all the music I need.”)
To know yourself means to know your tastes.
Plenty of folks don’t really know what they believe in.
Sometimes we just believe what everyone around us believes, so we can get along. Sometimes we claim to believe in stuff, but we don’t know why. Or we don’t really live like we believe, or act consistently with those beliefs. Sometimes we claim to and pretend to believe in stuff, but really, if we were really backed into a corner and nakedly honest with ourselves, we don’t.
At the other end of things, of course, many other folks believe in certain things, and know why they believe in them, and act consistently with those beliefs. (What folks claim to believe can be highly overrated as a measure of who someone really is.)
Sometimes we surprise ourselves. We suddenly discover that we don’t believe in stuff that we thought we actually believed in. Or vice versa.
To know yourself means to know what you believe in.
“Knowing yourself” to many folks refers to merely having an accurate map of traits. These traits could be external (race, etc) or internal. Various psychological tests like the Myers-Briggs and others measure such things as how introverted or extroverted you are, whether you’re more of a thinker or feeler, judger or perceiver, etc. Based on tests, these might profile you as an INTJ, ESFP, etc.
Other approaches are geared toward measuring intelligence, such as IQ, emotional intelligence, social or interpersonal intelligence, etc – not to mention various talents and skills such as music, math, etc.
These are different from deeper character issues, as we discuss below (are you cowardly or brave, compassionate or self-absorbed, prone to addiction or seemingly immune, etc)
While these can sometimes be tautological or circular (“Are you introverted or extroverted?” “I’m introverted.” “OK, our scientific results indicate that you are introverted. That’ll be $500.”)…they can sometimes be revealing.
To know yourself means to know various personality traits.
“Knowing how you act” here, means knowing, well, how you act and what you do in various situations.
This might seem straightforward again, but then, for example…some folks wake up after a night of hard drinking and ask, “what did I do last night?”
If we don’t really know who we are, we won’t really know or be able to predict how we act in certain situations. If we think of ourselves as heroic, but find ourselves running in terror at the first sign of danger, then well, it might be said that we don’t know ourselves all that well.
This is different from knowing what you believe in, why you do what you do, or various virtues & vices, etc.
To know yourself means knowing how you act.
"Man's got to know his limitations."
- "Dirty Harry” Callahan
This is one of the classical, old-school Greece angles on knowing ourselves.
Back then, in ancient Greece, one of the greatest sins, most harshly punished by the gods, was “hubris,” or thinking that you were something more than you are. (Luckily, the self-esteem movement wasn’t in full swing then.)
Let’s imagine an out-of-shape, lazy, overweight, blind, couch-surfing, Dorito-eating, three-foot-tall quadriplegic math genius who has set all his hopes and dreams on playing basketball in the NBA this year. It might be gently suggested that a wiser course might lie in pursuing some kind of alternative plan. (Some folks (we’re talking about you, Disney) might disagree, we know. Hollywood is sometimes described as a place where folks can die of hope.) “Knowing your limits” is out of style these days, it’s true. But that doesn’t make it bad advice.
Of course, the opposite is true as well. Sometimes folks impose artificial limits on themselves and aim too low. They build prisons of their own ideas and decide to live within those prisons, when in reality, they are capable of much more. This is the opposite of hubris. It’s crippling oneself unnecessarily by underestimating oneself.
There’s a line between working toward noble and reachable a reality, and fantasizing about something that will always exceed your grasp. Every person has to find that line for themselves.
Knowing yourself means knowing your limits.
This one is simple, but not easy.
If you're working on figuring this out, we recommend Finding Your Element by Sir Ken Robinson. It's the best book we've found on this so far.
To know yourself means knowing your natural talents, abilities, gifts.
There’s who we are, and then there’s who we pretend to be.
The word “personality” derives from Latin and Medieval Latin (“personalitas,” “personalis,” “persona”) which in part refers to “a mask, a false face” such as the masks ancient actors wore in plays. We all put on masks – our personality – to present ourselves to the world.
But what’s beneath the mask?
We all know the experience of smiling while furious or in despair, acting calm while in turmoil, pretending to be strong when we’re feeling weak. There’s appearance and reality, and they can be two different worlds.
Sometimes we might put on a mask, leave it on for a while, and eventually forget we’re wearing it. Sometimes we might put on a mask to fool others, but eventually, we wind up fooling ourselves.
To know yourself means knowing who you really are, and not who you pretend to be.
A lot of folks don’t really know what they want out of life.
That’s understandable. Life is confusing.
A lot of the stuff that we want, and eventually get, winds up disappointing us. Some of what we want, we know on some level, isn’t really good for us or anyone else in the long run. A lot of the stuff we want won’t give us true happiness or lasting fulfillment. We sometimes sense this, and it can make us hesitant, indecisive, or even jaded in regards to wanting anything.
Freud said sometimes we can’t even really admit what we want, even to ourselves, because it’s too horrific.
That might be a bit dramatic (Freud had a flair for that.) But it does seem to be the case that we can forget, lose touch with, or never even really discover what we really want most deeply.
To know yourself means knowing what you really want.
Many of us have no idea how we come across to others.
We see ourselves subjectively while others see us objectively. This can sometimes create a huge mismatch.
Many of us seem to lack self-awareness to an extent that can be a bit alarming. (These are often the most active folks on social media, apparently.)
Someone who is oblivious in this realm has no idea how they come across to others. They might think every word they utter is brilliant (when it isn’t.) They might think they’re being humble when they’re transparently humblebragging (and aren’t fooling anyone.) They think they’re being generous when they’re actually being completely selfish. And so on.
This can happen to the other ways as well. Some folks think they aren’t beautiful while others see incredible beauty in them. Some folks think they have little to say when others really want to listen. And so on.
Folks often see us in ways that we don’t see ourselves. At its worst, it’s everyone else being in on some kind of joke that you aren’t in on. Life can be a bit cruel that way.
But we can use this to our advantage if we reverse that. We can turn this situation on its head, and use that that knowledge to widen our ideas about ourselves (instead of merely avoiding it because it’s difficult to hear.)
It can benefit us to know who our best friends, family, and the people who love us most see us. It can also benefit us to know how our enemies and people who disagree with us see us. Sometimes our enemies can see something about us that others can’t, or don’t want to admit to us. In this way, we can get valuable feedback about ourselves.
“There are only two people who can tell you the truth about yourself – an enemy who has lost his temper and a friend who loves you dearly.”
“The more we love our friends, the less we flatter them; it is by excusing nothing that pure love shows itself.”
“True friends stab you in the front.”
- Oscar Wilde
“A friend can tell you things you don’t want to tell yourself.”
- Frances Ward Weller
Sometimes we care too much what other folks think about us, and try to conform ourselves to be what they want us to be.
Other times, we do the opposite: “to heck with all of them – I’m going to be/do/say what I want, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”
Both extremes has risks. There’s danger in too much conformity, but there’s also danger is completely disregarding all feedback, ignoring any suggestions from others, and only listening to ourselves alone.
Either way, it’s a benefit to at least be aware of how other folks perceive and understand you.
To know yourself means having the ability to see yourself as others see you.
The self-esteem movement over the past few decades has been in full swing. For better and worse.
Without diving deep down a huge rabbit hole (a critique of the self-esteem movement), we’ll just say that there are hazards in “esteeming” yourself too little. And there are also hazards in “esteeming” yourself too much.
To know yourself means knowing how much to “esteem” yourself.
Psychology has recently been investigating and discovering some stuff that’s actually useful and helpful to normal folks.
Briefly, psychologists have been discovering biases (heuristics, shortcuts) that seem to be hard-wired into our minds. They skew our perception of the world and ourselves. Confirmation bias, confabulation, bias blind spot, and so on are just a few notable examples of this.
Like everything, these are tools. The benefit lies not merely in the learning about them, but in the application of them towards de-biasing ourselves. Essentially, these can help us see the world more clearly.
To know yourself means not fooling yourself based on the way our minds are built.
The “cognitive bias” discussed above are tidy, measurable distortions that are neat, contained, and predictable in a way that scientists love.
But of course, real life is much more messy and complex.
There are other ways that we fool ourselves that are better described as “weakness” rather than “cognitive bias.” In a nutshell, it’s when we fool ourselves, and we don’t want to admit it, because the cost will be too high.
Example: on some level, we know our husband is cheating on us. But we don’t want to admit it – to ourselves, to our husband, or to anyone else.
Knowing yourself in the sense doesn’t mean being perfect. But it does entail being fully and completely honest with yourself, even if it’s a secret between you and yourself, even if it’s difficult and painful.
To know yourself means not fooling yourself due to weakness.
“A genius in the wrong position could look like a fool.”
- Idowu Koyenikan
This is another aspect of “knowing yourself” in the classical sense.
It’s similar to “knowing your limits.” In ancient Greece, the thinking seemed to be that there are certain jobs for humans, and there are jobs for the gods. Humans should do their stuff; gods should stick to theirs.
Trouble seemed to start especially when humans try to do something that was the job of the old Greek gods, or God, or fate, or the universe, etc. (“Hubris.”) Nowadays, this is the realm of stories like Frankenstein (and tons of horror movies.) Humanity is meddling in things we shouldn’t meddle in.
To know yourself means knowing your place in the world.
A lot of folks assume they understand the world and themselves.
We walk around as if The Big Questions have been answered, and now the only issue is working out the details. Many folks assume that their understanding of the world is complete, that they have the world pretty much figured out, more or less.
That’s OK. Rethinking our fundamental assumptions about the world isn’t most folks’ idea of a rockin’ Saturday night activity.
That said, it’s good to know what we don’t know.
Socrates, as the story goes, thought of himself as not knowing much at all. But he didn’t stop there; he went around talking to all the smartest people he could find. What he discovered was that…well, those folks didn’t know anything either. They only thought they did.
That’s why Socrates was said to be the wisest (by the Oracle, the most respected/wisest/highest authority at the time.) Socrates knew that he didn’t know. The other folks thought they knew, but actually didn’t.
A lot of folks these days seem to think they know a lot. For example, they might think, “I have an iPhone, and Shakespeare didn’t, therefore I am superior to Shakespeare.” (An alternate viewpoint: folks who think like that are idiots; Shakespeare wasn’t an idiot; and having an iPhone doesn’t mean you know more than Shakespeare.)
To know yourself means knowing the limits of your knowledge.
Do you have courage? Wisdom? Love? Patience? Compassion? Persistence? Generosity? Grit? Humility? Justice? Understanding? Toughness? Honor? And so on.
Sometimes we think we have virtues we actually don’t. Sometimes we surprise ourselves with virtues we didn’t know we had.
Sometimes we have them naturally, effortlessly, as if we were born with them. Other times we work to develop them, and do it one tiny moment step at a time.
Sometimes a moment of virtue can almost completely define us.
A person is often remembered – as seen in funeral speeches – by the virtues they embody. We say he was kind, she was loving, he had such courage, she was so generous and loving, and so on.
A single virtue can nullify an army of faults. A single moment of heroism can make up for decades of weakness.
These overlap to a degree with certain psychological traits, mentioned above. But they’re also very different animals. They belong in a completely different category of quality than merely neutral, descriptive psychological traits like extroversion and introversion, for example.
Both have their places. Virtues are less likely to be pinned down safely in the antiseptic laboratories of a psychology experiment. They’re more raw, real-life, untamed. They’re the stuff of myths, stories, legends, heroes and tragedy, comedy and drama.
They’re inspiring. They move us deeply. And they define us.
To know yourself means knowing what virtues you have.
Are you cowardly? Inconsiderate? Ignorant? Selfish? Easily prone to anger, impatience, greed, jealousy, envy, laziness, complaining, denial, etc? Do you have a weakness for alcohol, drugs, gambling, surfing online for stuff that’s not nearly as great as this article, bad daytime television, clickbaiting, chocolate fudge sundaes…should we go on? Are you starting to get uncomfortable yet? (We are.)
Knowing yourself doesn’t mean being perfect, superhuman, flawless.
But a lot of times, we turn a blind eye to less savory qualities of ourselves. Many of us have a bit of Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle happening inside us. We wrestle with inner demons. And sometimes, our inner Jekyll-and-Hydes don’t really communicate with each other all that much. Sometimes they’re fully compartmentalized and sealed off completely.
This has the potential to put us in the dark about one half of ourselves, half of the time.
To know yourself means knowing your faults/vices/weaknesses.
Some folks don’t really know what they’re doing with their lives, or why.
That’s understandable. Life is pretty confusing. And really figuring out what to do with your life (and why, no less) is hard.
But that said…to know yourself means knowing what you’re doing with your life. And why.
Some folks don’t really have an aim in life.
Some folks do.
The idea of having an “aim” overlaps to a degree with the “knowing what you want” idea, with some slight differences.
An “aim” can be an ideal – wisdom, for example, or courage, or love, and so on. It’s not measurable, tangible, achievable…but that’s OK. We’ll never “reach” True North or put our hands on the North Star, but we can still use those to navigate by.
Having an aim might mean to become something – to “become” a real artist, scientist, Christian, Buddhist, mother, father, businessperson and so on. “Wanting” something often implies a desire to acquire an object or person – something coming to you – while having an aim means a desire to change or move yourself toward something else.
Some folks, of course, might decide to have no aim – to simply live in the moment, enjoy whatever comes, be here now, etc. (Of course, we could say that “living in the moment and being here now” is actually an aim itself – their aim is to be and remain aimless…but that might make them “be angry now.” Either way, there’s plenty of room for a wide variety of approaches here.)
To know yourself meaning knowing what you’re aiming for in life.
This might sound a little cheesy. (OK, it might be a little cheesy.)
And we’re pretty that, whatever those folks in Greece a few thousand years ago were talking about, they wouldn’t have phrased things exactly like this. But that said, this ties together several of the ideas we’ve discussed above.
Businesses typically have a “mission statement”: a brief description of who we are, what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why.
What we’re talking about here is the same thing, but on a personal level: something that defines who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.
This brings together many strands we’ve already covered (and a few coming up): if you know what you want, what you’re doing, what you’re aiming for, and why, then you probably have something like a core personal mission statement, whether you’ve actually written it down or not.
To know yourself means having some kind of core personal mission statement.
Knowing what you “should” do brings us into the realm of morals and ethics.
After all, it’s a Big Question: how should we act in live, and why?
This could be a deep dive down a big rabbit hole. After all, it’s a Big Question: how “should” we act, and who says, and based on what, and why? (OK, that’s a few Questions.)
Without delving into that question now (we do that here) we can say this: lots of folks know what they do. Fewer folks know what they should do. Fewer still actually do what they should do.
To know yourself means knowing what you should do.
There’s an idea that was once popular, but has gotten a lot of abuse lately.
In a nutshell, to the best of everything science can tell us and all human knowledge that we’re aware of: every human has unique toe prints, tongue prints, retinal capillary patters, DNA, and more (those are just some we know about – there might be plenty more that we aren’t aware of.) To all human knowledge, nothing in the universe exactly like you has ever existed before, and nothing exactly like you will ever exist again.
In other words…you’re special.
Of course, we can take this idea a bit too far. And get made fun of for it.
This idea probably got overplayed a bit recently – probably another effect of the self-esteem movement – and has gone out of style, even becoming a somewhat-deserved object of ridicule. As Tyler Durden said in Fight Club (ala David Fincher ala Chuck Palahniuk, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”)
In one way, Tyler (David, Chuck) is right: there are some ways that we aren’t special. In the immortal words of Han Solo: “Don’t get cocky.”
But that said…facts are facts. Don’t argue with legit science.
Think of someone you love. Very likely, you are aware of something very unique and – yes – special about that person, that only you and a few others really know. Maybe nobody else can see it the way you do, but it’s still there. And it seems to be the case that every person has that thing – whatever it is – on some level, whether even they are aware of it or not.
Sometimes it takes some digging, some hunting, some figuring out.
To know yourself means figuring out what makes you special.
This might seem like a strange one.
A person might know what they want, their limits, their place in the world, their aim, their virtues, their vices, their mission statement and so on…but they still might not necessarily feel like themselves.
They aren’t necessarily there yet.
Some folks feel this in moments of intimacy. “I am most myself when I am with this other person.”
Some folks feel this during a certain activity: “I am most myself when I am teaching, painting, singing, acting, feeding my baby,” etc.
Some folks feel the opposite of this: when they’re having an off day, when they wake up on the wrong side of the bed, when they’re sick or depressed or anxious for no discernible reason – or for no reason at all, they just feel “off.” Sometimes we just don’t feel like ourselves.
There’s a certain feeling that comes over us sometime when we really feel like ourselves, at least compared to other moments.
We can extrapolate from this that there is something – something like a “real self,” for lack of better words – that we’re either more in touch with or less, moving closer to or further from.
As strange as it might sound to say…
To know yourself means to feel like yourself.
“...man must find his own Soul.”
- Chandogya Upanishad
Knowing yourself means digging in to The Big Questions:
(There are other Big Ones, but that’s a good enough taste for now.)
But now this leads us to another question: does “knowing yourself” mean fully answering the Big Questions?
That’s another good question.
And a tall order.
To briefly dig in to this, let’s go to something Gabriel Marcel talked about: the difference between a “problem” and a “mystery.”
1+1 is a problem.
It can be solved. It comes to an end. It’s settled, resolved, done, complete. It’s convergent, in that there’s one right answer, and only one, and once you find that, you’re finished.
A mystery, on the other hand, doesn’t work like that.
It’s more open-ended. It’s less structured. It’s not contained: it spills over into lots of other areas, and might suck lots of seemingly unrelated factors and fields into its rumblings and workings. It’s divergent, in that there are lots of possible answers. There may not be only one right answer. In fact, there might be several right answers. Or, there might be none. Or there might be a right answer for one person that’s wrong for another (like medicine). Or maybe the problem was formulated incorrectly in the first place.
Of course, none of this means that “all answers are right,” or “anything goes,” or anything along those lines. Some answers can be clearly wrong or inaccurate or incomplete.
This also doesn’t mean that mysteries never get solved. Clearly, some mysteries do get solved. Otherwise we could fire all our detectives, artists, and scientists.
It gets messy.
That makes it interesting.
Just because it’s messy and difficult doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t tackle it, or that we could even avoid it if we wanted to.
It’s like “a problem that encroaches on its own data,” where the detective becomes part of the case, the reporter becomes part of the story, the interrogator discovers that he or she is tied up intimately in the answers and facts of the case they uncover.
It’s like the snake that winds up biting its own butt. (Ouroboros, to use the fancy medical jargon.) The objective becomes subjective, which becomes objective again, and so on.
It’s like the problems we run into in physics and anthropology and psychology experiments where the act of simply observing conditions changes those conditions. We have to observe them – we can’t know conditions without observing them – yet observing them changes the conditions.
These aren’t problems that can get solved by a detached, objective, impartial judge who stands back at a distance, fully removed from the situation.
These get personal.
“Figuring out what to eat for dinner” is a problem. “Falling in love” is a mystery.
Mysteries are better. They’re way more fun.
They’re the stuff of grand adventures. They underlie all great stories. (All stories, in a way, are really explorations of these questions.)
All of these Big Questions are mysteries.
Perhaps the job of each of us is to solve those mysteries, for ourselves, on a personal level, in the best possible way.
But to come back to where we started: does knowing yourself really mean “solving” these mysteries?
Some problems can’t be solved, they can only be transcended.
Einstein said it well: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Which mean, to get out of certain questions, we need to change our level of thinking.
This might mean throwing everything we’ve got into it.
Rilke said it a bit more gently:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
However you approach the matter, it seems safe to say that if you don’t know who you are, where you came from, where you’re going, and so on…then you don’t really, completely, fully know yourself.
To know yourself means to know – and to ask – The Big Questions.
Why do we do what we do?
“It’s because they’re stupid, that’s why. That’s why everybody does everything.”
- Homer Simpson
Homer aside, we often reach just a few inches away for the nearby, easy, short-term answers (“I did that because I wanted to!”) that don’t really tell us anything new. (“I think it so because I think it so!”)
Or when we try to go deeper, we often either reach for some elaborate, hyperintellectual, made-up theory or other based on flimsy evidence. (More rationalization than reason.)
Or maybe we just say we don’t really know. (At least that’s honest.) Stuff just seems like a good idea at the time.
Either way, it’s clear that lots of folks fool themselves about their own motivations. They think of themselves as compassionate, loving, unselfish, brilliant and so on. But if you’d follow them around with a camera all day, you might see that in fact, no small amount of their actual behavior is unkind, inconsiderate, selfish, dumb, silly, and so on.
And the opposite. Some folks might think of themselves as nothing special – or worse – yet they consistently act with kindness, compassion, courage, wisdom, and other good stuff.
There are also entire realms of stuff we do without knowing why. Compulsions, for example. And why do we dream? And why did I make that rude remark to my coworker? Why do people climb Everest? Why do people want to be famous, even though it seems pretty clear that fame is often a burden? And even our most mundane, obvious behaviors can be a mystery: after all, really, why, ultimate, do we work, marry, divorce, laugh, cry, dress fancy, have sex, have children, eat cupcakes and so on?
Of course, there are easy answers to all these, that are oversimplified. And there are deeper answers, that really dirty up the hands digging into the “why.”
To know yourself means knowing why you do what you do.
What keeps us from knowing ourselves?
There are outer obstacles (distractions, misinformation, and thought police, to name just a few.)
And there are inner obstacles.
Sometimes, depression, anxiety, stress, addictions, various obsessions or compulsions, angst, lack of confidence, overconfidence, anger issues, fatigue, meaninglessness and so on are just part of life. They’re natural, unavoidable, and they aren’t “problems” –they’re things everyone who is actually living their life experiences. We experience them, and after a little while, they go away.
But sometimes certain conditions come and stay.
And sometimes these conditions “feel like us,” and sometimes they don’t.
To use a bit of jargon: psychologists call it “ego dystonic” or “ego syntonic.”
If depression feels like it’s part of you, it feels like you, it’s consistent with your self-image, then it’s “ego syntonic.” If depression feel like it’s not part of you – if it bothers you, troubles you, it doesn’t feel like you, if it feels like something different or foreign or alien that you want to fix or cure or get rid of – then it’s ego dystonic.
The point is: anxiety, depression, stress, angst and so on in themselves aren’t necessarily contrary to knowing yourself. Anyone who is living a full life – taking risks, experiencing ups and downs and so on – will experience these at some points.
But knowing who you are without certain kinds of anxiety, depression, stress, angst and so on – when you’re at full strength, maximum clarity, thinking your own thoughts at full power – well, that might be closer to real self-knowledge.
The basic point is simple: many folks who overcome these obstacles feel “more like themselves.”
Sometimes, to know yourself means overcoming these psychological obstacles.
Each of us has a vast storehouse of ideas about ourselves.
Some of these ideas we’re aware of. Others, we aren’t. Many of them are unconscious.
Some folks think of themselves as beautiful, brilliant, talented, fun, generous, good, loving, compassionate, understanding, intelligent, classy, attractive, friendly, and so on.
Some folks think of themselves in less glowing ways.
Some of these ideas might accurately reflect reality. Some might be totally false.
But here’s the thing: all of these are ideas.
And like any ideas, sometimes these are way off base. For example, there are beautiful folks who think they’re ugly, intelligent folks who think they’re dumb, wonderful folks who think they’re bad, folks who think they’re brilliant when actually they’re pretty dumb.
We all have ideas about ourselves. Some of these ideas are fairly accurate. Some aren’t.
To know yourself means knowing the ideas you have about yourself.
We usually see ourselves subjectively. “From the inside out.”
A total stranger who doesn’t know us and doesn’t need or want anything from us…they see us relatively objectively. “From the outside in,” like a scientist observing a specimen, or Spock observing a specimen.
We don’t have to get into a discussion about whether absolutely objectivity exists or not. Degrees of objectively work just fine here. A stranger will see us more objectively than we see ourselves. All we need to say.
Some folks only know themselves subjectively.
Yet we have a strange capacity not just to see from the inside out, but also to see ourselves, in a way, from the outside in. Sometimes we’re able to get a fresh view of ourselves, view ourselves in a different way, that’s more objective than it was before.
That’s a lot of what makes relationships so interesting.
Think American Idol, or any scenario where a singer performs onstage.
Someone up on a stage, lost and carried away by the sound of their own voice, is generally seeing themselves subjectively. After the judges critique them harshly (assuming they’re good judges) – and if the performer listens to and understands and even agrees with their critique – then that performer has a more objective view of themselves.
They know, see, experience themselves in a new way. They user intersubjectivity to redefine themselves in a way that might (or might not) be closer to reality.
Knowing yourself means knowing yourself not only subjectively, but objectively.
A human being is a complex system.
We’re made up of lots of parts. Lots of interrelated, interconnected, multi-leveled parts. 100 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses – the brain’s memory capacity is around a quadrillion bytes. (source here) ) (We could keep going with crazy facts like this for quite a while. )
That’s just a small glimpse of what’s under the hood of this mysterious machine that we’re all driving around.
Part of knowing ourselves means understanding the elements, components, systems and sub-systems that make us up. You wouldn’t say you “know” cars unless you understand how they, overall – and their parts – really work.
So, what are these parts? Parts of ourselves?
To name just a few: your body, mind, thoughts, emotions. Your drives, instincts, hungers, desires. Your sexuality. Your relationships. Your imagination. All your deepest hopes and fears, memories, dreams, ideals and intuitions. And if you want to go all the way down, we could start talking about things like the soul, conscience, spirit, and more.
And by knowing these things, it’s not just a matter of knowing about them, or knowing that they exist, or being able to put names to them. It means really understanding how they function, what their larger purposes are, how they work together, how they all fit together into a larger, interconnected ecosystem.
To know yourself means knowing your parts.
Jungian psychologists work with a concept known as the “shadow.”
Essentially, the “shadow” consists of aspects of ourselves that – somewhere along the course of our lives – we rejected, cut ourselves off from, pushed away, forgotten about, repressed.
This was an inner event – something that happened within only ourselves – that might have been completely invisible to the average person seeing it from the outside.
For example: let’s say a young boy gets angry. His parents punish him harshly whenever he expresses anger. He learned to not express his anger, and eventually, to not even feel it at all.
In this instance, we could say that anger has been pushed into the unconscious. It’s become part of his “shadow.”
The solution to this is to make the unconscious, conscious.
To know yourself means to know your shadow.
We hear a lot about knowing who you are. But we hear less about knowing what we are.
Are you a highly evolved animal? Or are you a being with some sort of spiritual nature? Or some combination of both, or neither?
Are you primarily a physical body? Or are you something else – something like a soul or spirit? Or both, or neither?
We can say we’re “human.” Does that mean you’re different from an animal, a plant, a rock, a planet? How?
We can say we’re “human,” but to know what that really means, beyond just putting a label to it…well, that’s a different matter.
To know yourself means knowing what you are.
It’s one of the Big Questions. But there’s also a practical, everyday experience of it.
And it makes intuitive sense: knowing yourself means knowing where you’re heading.
If you don’t know where you’re heading, then at least to some degree, by definition, you’re heading into the unknown. You might see a few steps in front of you, but on a bigger scale, you’re stumbling around in the dark.
When it happens on a small scale – if we’re walking with our eyes closed, or driving at night with the headlights off, or wandering through the woods without a clue of where we are – we put a stop to it immediately. We’d say it’s dangerous, it makes no sense, and it’s literally pointless.
But when it happens on a big scale – meaning, with our life itself – we brush it off like it’s no big deal. (“Bah! What’s on Netflix?”)
Of course, if you really want to go there – trigger warning/spoiler alert: ultimately, our physical “destiny” is taking the Dirt Nap. Dancing the Mortal Coil Shuffle. Coming to a sticky end. Going into the fertilizer business. Checking in to the pine box condo. The Final Destination.
And what lies beyond that? Nothing? Something? Heaven? Nirvana? Waking up from a dream, like Neo from The Matrix?
To know yourself means knowing where you’re headed.
“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”
- S. E. Hinton, The Outsiders
It’s another Big Question: to know where we came from. Our origin.
But there’s another meaning that’s closer to our everyday experience. Folks often reference this when they say things like “don’t forget who you are” and “don’t forget where you came from.”
One definition of Zen: “To see directly into one’s original Nature, this is Zen.” (From D. T. Suzuki.)
Taoism: “Realize thy Simple Self, Embrace thy Original Nature.” (Tao Te Ching, XIX)
Christianity: “…become like little children.” (Matthew 18:3)
What are we talking about here?
Our “original nature,” or becoming “like little children,” might refer to some aspect of ourselves that we seem to have repressed, cut ourselves off from, fallen away from, forgotten about, lost touch with.
Psychologist Michael Washburn describes ego growth in three stages: 1) the preegoic (before ego develops, when we’re very young); 2) egoic (normal human adulthood); and 3) transegoic (beyond normal human adulthood).
He describes a “Primal Repression” where we disconnect from what he describes as the “Dynamic Ground,” or what Suzuki or Taoism might call our “original nature.” (The “transegoic” phase he describes is a stage of reconnecting with what was lost in stage 1.)
Most of us can remember back to more innocent times, when we were children. And sometimes, when we think about how spontaneous, how energetic, how alive we were back then, at least in some ways, we long for it.
But long for what?
If it’s our nature – our original nature – well, that sounds like a big part of ourselves. A part of ourselves that we should get to know, if we can.
To know yourself means knowing your “original nature.”
Knowing your conscience
If you ask most folks whether they have a conscience or not, most folks will probably say something along the lines of, “why yes, I sure do!”
If you ask them what exactly they mean by that (“OK, so, what exactly is ‘conscience,’ anyway?) they’ll usually say something about knowing right from wrong.
But this seems to be something pretty profound that’s hiding in plain site.
The idea of there being some deeper part of us – something within us – that knows something extremely valuable that the rest of us apparently isn’t aware of – well, that’s a pretty profound idea. (And one definitely worth exploring more.)
But one thing we can definitely say about it now, if there is anything real to any of this at all…
To know yourself means knowing your “conscience.”
As the story goes, a few years ago, a fellow named Siddhartha Gautama had himself what we’ll call an enlightenment experience.
After that experience, a movement formed around him that eventually turned into what today we’d call “Buddhism.”
When he was asked about that experience he had, his response was something along the lines of this:
“I am awake.”
Now presumably, the kind of experience that Gautama had was a pretty rare one. (After all, Gautama struggled mightily, full-time, for many years – fasting, meditating, studying under many teachers, mastering many techniques and practices, and much more before he had that final experience under the Bodhi Tree.)
We’ll say here, for the sake of argument, that most of the rest of us haven’t had an experience quite like that.
Which leads us to this: if his experience was becoming fully “awake,” and the rest of us haven’t had an experience quite like that…
…then it seems to be the case that the rest of us, to some degree or another, aren’t fully awake.
Meaning, a lot of us, at least to some degree, are sleepwalking through life.
It makes sense to us that if you’re sleepwalking – or sleepy at all – then you probably don’t fully know yourself. After all, to really be on your game, you have to at least be fully awake.
To know yourself means to be fully “awake.”
Einstein once said something pretty interesting.
He said that most of us are deluded. His words:
"A human being is a part of the whole called by us ‘Universe,’
a part limited in time and space.
He experiences himself,
his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest,
- a kind of optical delusion
of his consciousness.
The striving to free oneself from this delusion
is the one issue of true religion.
Not to nourish the delusion
but to try to overcome it
is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind."
- Albert Einstein
So, what the heck was Big Al talking about?
A delusion in our mind?
An “optical delusion” of our “consciousness”? Meaning, a flaw in our very mind, or awareness, or ability to perceive the world?
After all, suffering from an “optical delusion” of our normal vision would be one thing. We all have visual blind spots. No problem. But a delusion of our own “consciousness” – our very awareness of the world, and ourselves? Well, that seems pretty serious.
The basic idea seems to be that in our normal state – which means most of us, right now – we aren’t seeing the world, or ourselves, properly, in some kind of fundamental way.
This seems like a pretty radical statement. After all, much of humanity seems to carry on its business full of confidence, never doubting whether or not they basically see the world as it really is.
But is he right?
Well, from what we can tell, he’s onto something. It seems like Plato, Shakespeare, the Wachowskis, William Blake, Lao Tzu, Aesop, old Pakastani stories, and lots of other folks have said something roughly along the same lines. The idea is pretty universal.
And if anything close to this is actually the case, then well…we need to overcome it.
To know yourself means to overcome the “Core Delusion.”
From the first moment we’re born, we’re struggling to master ourselves.
First we have to master some very basics: breathing. Eating. Lifting our head up by ourselves. None of this is anything we’re capable of at first; we have to struggle and achieve it.
We move on to potty training.
Hopefully, eventually, we “master ourselves” in that capacity. Some of us are still working on it.
We learn how to speak – mastering the tongue, in a sense. And we learn how to move, “mastering” our arms, legs, fingers toes, and so on.
The first few years of life, we struggle to master our bodies.
Soon after, we struggle to master our emotions.
To experience them, become aware of them, express them, name them, understand them, control them to a degree, prevent them from spilling and bursting out inappropriately in socially awkward situations, harnessing them without repressing them, overcoming them when they’re working against us, and eventually, hopefully, understanding and integrating them.
Eventually, if all goes well, we become adolescents. Then, there’s sex.
Then everything falls apart and we here we probably have to go back to struggling to master the emotions again.
Then, somewhere around this point, we work to become functional again, and then usually, we stop struggling. We basically stop growing.
Something like this gets said every so often: on the outside he’s 40, but on the inside, he’s 12.
On the inside, a lot of us are maybe 20, 25, 30. But beyond this, well, a lot of times, we stop developing.
But we could keep going.
Meaning, we could continue working to fully master our bodies, the way athletes do.
And then we could possibly keep going even further.
We could work to master our emotions.
We could work to master our minds.
And we could possibly keep going even beyond that. This gets us into the realm of “actualizing yourself” (that we dig into below.)
All this, of course, is no small feat. It’s the Mount Everest of the self, mastering the toughest challenges we know of. It’s difficult, it’s challenging, it may even seem impossible.
But lots of folks seem to see all this as pretty important.
“No one is free who has not obtained the empire of himself. No man is free who cannot command himself.”
“He who has conquered himself by the Self, he is the friend of himself; but he whose self is unconquered, his self acts as his own enemy like an external foe.”
- Bhagavad Gita, VI. 6
“Valor is the conquest of one’s own self.”
- Srimad Bhagavatam, XI, xii
“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”
- Proverbs XVI.32
“There is no greater victory in the life of a human being than victory over the mind….the true soldier is he who fights not the external but the internal foes.”
- Swami Ramdas
“…either thou killest iniquity or art killed by iniquity. But do not seek to kill iniquity as if it were something outside thyself. Look to thyself, mark what fighteth with thee in thee, and take heed lest thy iniquity, thine enemy, defeat thee…”
- St. Augustine
“He who conquers others is strong;
He who conquers himself is might.”
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, XXXIII
To know yourself means to master yourself.
Let’s get back to where we started: Know Yourself.
But let’s stop for a minute and ask:
What does it mean to “know”?
It might seem like a silly question. But it gets interesting.
In the original sense, “knowing” didn’t mean simply memorizing some random, useless fact for a test. (“I didn’t know the definition of ‘mellifluous,’ I looked it up, now I ‘know’ it.”) That’s merely intellectual knowledge, mere information. And that’s not it.
Originally, the word “to know” didn’t mean mere intellectual knowledge, but something closer to this: “to become intimate with.”
Case in point: “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived.”
To take it further: to become intimate with something is, in a sense, to become one with.
To know is to become.
We must become ourselves.
To know yourself means to become yourself.
“Man’s main task in life is to give birth to oneself.”
- Erich Fromm
“You shall become who you are.”
To know yourself, you need to become yourself.
There’s an old saying that “…we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” (Shakespeare)
So…what may we be, exactly?
Instead of “actualizing” ourselves, let’s think of it more plainly: “realizing our potential.”
The words “human potential” get thrown around (and abused) quite a bit.
Usually they’re thrown around in the context of somebody nagging somebody else. (We’re either the naggers, or the ones being nagged.) Often it’s just in regards to homework. But when it’s about potential itself, typically, either somebody’s telling us we aren’t reaching it, or we’re telling someone else that they falling short of it.
But falling short of what, exactly? We rarely stop and really spell out what, with some precision, “it” is.
Of course, that might be an impossible task. After all, what is our potential? What are we capable of?
Well, there’s plenty of advice out there one how to squeeze and extra buck or two out of somebody, how to get twenty minutes worth of work done in ten, how to make yourself look/act/feel just a little better, and so on. All well and good.
Meaning, we often think about our potential as doing pretty much the same thing we’re doing now, but doing it bigger, better, faster, stronger.
That’s not what we’re talking about here.
We’re going to throw out just a few options on the “human potential” front that don’t seem to really get much air time.
We’re talking about two capacities: of our hearts, and of our heads.
It might be the case that we’re Ferraris that typically get driven around in first gear.
Or we’re 50-story buildings where people only live in the basement.
Or caterpillars that don’t often change into butterflies.
Meaning, we might have some great, vast potentials: four more gears (if we’re a Ferrari), 49 more floors to hang out in (if we’re a building), the ability to sprout big, colorful wings and fly (if we’re butterflies. Or Iron Man. If it’s rocket boosters instead of wings).
What are we talking about, specifically?
Philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff call them our “higher intellectual center” and our “higher emotional center.”
Hinduism describes the Causal, Buddhic, and Atmic (Turiya) Bodies.
Buddhism describes the Alaya-Vijnana (Subtle Mind) and the Buddha Nature.
Islam describes the Ruh, Qalb, and Fitrah (primordial nature).
Chinese Traditions describe the Ling and Shen (T’ien/Speakable Tao and the Unspeakable Tao)
Judaism describes the various Sefiroth.
Christianity describes the soul and the spirit.
While these terms might be ignored, misused, or muddied up through misapplying them to all kinds of things where they don’t really apply…the basic idea is that we might have higher faculties than what we often think about in our day-to-day experience.
It could be like having the ability to read, but never being around books, and one day stumbling across an incredible novel. Or having a talent for music, but growing up with no music or instruments around, and one day hearing Beethoven or Beyonce. Or having a talent for dancing, but growing up surrounded by people who only walk, sit, and lie down, and that’s it…and suddenly, one day, meeting someone who busts out some moves. Full Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, James Brown.
Point being: discovering entirely new experiences we didn’t know we were capable of or even existed.
It might be like the experience of suddenly discovering that the Ferrari we’ve been driving has four more gears we haven’t even used yet. We’ve been driving this thing, this entire time, in first gear!
These higher faculties could be the mechanisms that moments of inspiration, elevation, illumination, “aha” experiences, peak experiences, work through.
These faculties could be part of our potential development for each of us.
Maybe a caterpillar hears some kind of crazy rumor about becoming a butterfly, but dismisses it as some kind of wild fantasy hogwash. Even if he were to take it seriously, he wouldn’t really know how to go about doing anything with it. It’s maybe just a lofty platitude (his mother caterpillar nagging him, that he’ll never reach his potential to become a butterfly) – instead of a hard reality. So he decides to spend our time on celebrity gossip instead.
Gurdjieff said something else: “The one great art is that of making a complete human being of oneself.”
In this sense, we are all artists, and our greatest work of art is – or is supposed to be – ourselves.
You know yourself when you’ve become all that you are capable of becoming.
Many folks are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
It’s a relatively modern, at-a-glance answer to “why we do what we do.”
At the bottom of the pyramid: physiological (air, water, food, etc.) Moving on up the pyramid: safety, love/belonging/esteem, and at the top, “self-actualization.”
That’s the traditional and most well-known version of the hierarchy.
But as the story goes, the secret is now out that Maslow actually intended to add an additional category above self-actualization: self-transcendence.
What does it mean to “transcend ourselves”?
Nietzsche, long before Maslow, said “I am that which must always overcome itself.”
What was he talking about?
Well, since Fred isn’t around to interrogate, that’s tough to say we know exactly what he meant. But we can definitely say this, which should make sense to all of us: we can go beyond who we think we are.
The snake shedding its skin is a common metaphor in these realms. We outgrow old skins and have to leave them behind. It’s part of growth. If we aren’t shedding old skins, we aren’t growing.
Ideas – about the universe, things, others, ourselves – can sometimes become too constricting, old, outdated, restrictive. Sometimes we just outgrow them. It’s natural.
In a way, we do this often, and naturally. Infants grow into toddlers, and transcend infancy. Toddlers grow into kids, and transcend toddlerhood. Adolescence transcends the kid stages. Adulthood transcends adolescence.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)
The process might well keep going beyond adulthood, into higher stages of growth (that isn’t merely degeneration in old age, but a higher stage beyond the typical adulthood).
At each new stage, if everything goes well, we develop new powers, responsibilities, pleasures, struggles; we’re aware of new things and unaware of others. We essentially move into different realms of being, and leave behind old ones.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of letting go of the old stuff, the past, what we used to be, leaving it behind us…so we can become…whatever we are actually are, right now.
In the same way, it might be letting what’s new in us – whatever seed of some higher stage that we might have within us – grow, develop, blossom, become. And it might be the case that we don’t really know ourselves until we take that as far as we can go.
You know yourself when you transcend yourself.
Many folks fall in love.
Some fall so in love that they, in a way, lose themselves.
It might be falling in love with another person. It might be a group of people. It might be a set of ideas. It might be a process of discovery or exploration, like science. It might be an activity, like painting or singing or raising children. It might be an act of creation, like starting a business. It might involve something like contemplative spirituality.
Whatever or whoever it might be…when it happens, ”we” don’t matter anymore. What matters is whatever or whoever it is that we fall in love with.
Basically, we lose ourselves. We forget ourselves. We leave ours old selves behind.
Of course, this is a sword that can cut both ways.
Sometimes, for example, we can lose ourselves in whiskey.
Sometimes we can lose ourselves by devoting ourselves to some political or religious cause (for better or worse.) Sometimes we can lose ourselves even in something good – such as raising children – for the better…unless it becomes “for the worse” because it takes us over completely, at the cost of everything else. Sometimes we lose ourselves in dysfunctional relationships or codependency.
Sometimes, we become aware of something much larger than ourselves.
And paradoxically, sometimes, by losing ourselves in it, we find ourselves.
Again: this can happen for better or worse. A great deal – maybe everything – depends on what we “lose ourselves” to. But that said…
You know yourself when you lose yourself.
There’s a quote from a famous Zen Master named Dogen: “To practice Zen is to know the self. To know the self is to forget the self.”
There’s another quote from our good buddy, Big Al, aka Albert Einstein: “The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self.”
C.S. Lewis said “…self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self…”
Viktor Frankl said “…the real aim of human existence cannot be found in what is called self-actualization. Human existence is essentially self-transcendence…”
August Turak said “it’s in our self-interest to forget our self-interest.”
…and so on. (We could keep going with quoting really smart folks, but instead, hopefully we can just agree that they were all on to something, and getting at roughly the same thing.)
Paradoxically, it just might be the case that to know yourself, you must move beyond yourself.
To know yourself means to move beyond yourself.
"The true value of a human being
is determined primarily by the measure and sense in which
he has attained liberation from the self."
- Albert Einstein
Some folks have said some pretty interesting things about knowing yourself.
Some of it seems to involve what our potential – what we’re able to become – actually is. They seem to be a vision for what it means to actually realize our potential (instead of stopping at the dreamy platitude stage.)
Whatever it is they’re talking about…to fully know yourself means incorporating that.
“The Self is the goal of life; attain this goal.”
- The Upanishads
“Realize thy Simple Self,
Embrace thy Original Nature.”
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, XIX
“Those who realize the Self are forever free from the jaws of death.”
- The Upanishads
“Let me know myself, Lord, and I shall know you.”
- St. Augustine
“Whosoever knows himself knows his Lord.”
- Hadith of Rasul (SAW) (Islam)
“It would be easier to roll up the entire sky into a small cloth than it would be to obtain true happiness without knowing the self.”
- Shvetashvatara Upanishad
“The kingdom of heaven is within you.”
- Luke 17:21
“If the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”
- William Blake
“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
- Jesus, as quoted in The Gospel of Thomas
(Note: this isn’t official canon. But still – we’ve heard worse.)
“If you want to know me,
Look inside your heart.”
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“When a man rightly sees his soul,
He sees no death, no sickness or distress.
When a man rightly sees,
He sees all, he wins all, completely.”
- Chāndogya Upanishad, 7.26.2
To know yourself means knowing whatever the heck these folks are talking about.
Let me guess: you’re completely overwhelmed.
OK, maybe not. But when we look at the above…well, at least for some of us, it’s a bit overwhelming.
If much of the above is anything close to being on target, then at the very least, we’ve successfully demolished the idea that knowing yourself is easy. Old Thales and his drunken Tweets actually seemed to be on to something.
But that said…it also seemed to be worth doing.
Hopefully some of the above captured the sentiment that, well, “thyself” is a pretty good thing to know. At least as worthwhile as the starting roster of the Yankees or the latest celebrity gossip.
But what now?
Well, we can offer a few gentle suggestions.
1) It’s OK not to know who you are.
These days, many folks seem to be in a frantic rush to prematurely declare themselves as somebody, something, anything.
Maybe it’s everyone branding themselves, carving out niches on social media, trying to hit puberty and mid-life crisis as soon as possible…we don’t know.
But here’s one gentle suggestion: don’t know who you are for a while.
“I’m sick of not having the courage
to be an absolute nobody.”
- J. D. Salinger
This leads us directly to the need to…
2) Explore and experiment
Knowing who you are, at least to some degree, in some stages, comes from open, free, unpressured, experimental exploration.
(This isn’t to say that sometimes it also doesn’t come from putting yourself in high-pressure, white-knuckled, heart-pounding situations. But we’re starting with the basics here.)
It’s a basic point: you can’t know what food you like and don’t like without trying lots of food.You can’t know what work you like without trying different kinds of work.
Ideally, our younger days can be full of experimentation and exploration. Hard-won, first-hand knowledge sticks. The rest we usually forget.
“How can we learn to know ourselves?
Never by reflection, but by action.
Try to do your duty and you will soon find out what you are.
But what is your duty? The demands of each day.”
Which brings us to…
3) Avoid dead-ends, black holes, and self-suckers
You don’t get much hard-won, first-hand knowledge about yourself by chain-smoking Netflix series or video games.
This isn’t to say that you need to cut out Netflix or video games completely, either. We can learn stuff from just about anything with the right attitude. But we’re going to go out on a limb here and say this: there are limits to what you can learn about yourself through couch-surfing, and accepting all the endless distractions that life today offers.
The world, right now, is trying to swallow your time, money, energy and attention.
Don’t let it.
“Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle
The world is trying to distract you, steer you, persuade you, manipulate you, right now.
Don’t let it. Steer yourself.
“To be nobody but yourself
in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else
- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight
and never stop fighting.”
- e. e. cummings
This leads us to…
4) Figure out who you are by figuring out who you aren’t.
Often, you can’t attack issues like this with a frontal assault, a straight charge right up the middle.
Obliquity works better. An indirect, organic approach.
Meaning, back away from everything that isn’t you.
And see what’s left.
“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart.
We know so many things, but we don't know ourselves!
Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox's or bear's, cover the soul.
Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.
5) All these definitions overlap and interconnect.
Let's imagine you're walking down the sidewalk one summer evening, and suddenly you see that a neighbor's house is on fire. And you hear a child inside.
What do you do?
Well, let's imagine that you "know what you should do" (#23 above) - we'll assume that this is to go save the child - and you have the courage to do it (#18) which means you've overcome fear of doing it (#19), which means at least to some degree, you've mastered yourself in that respect (39). You define your aim (21) and your personal mission (22) as at least in part helping other folks, and doing the right thing, you aren't fooling yourself about that (15, 16). Your conscience is telling you what to do (36) - but at any rate, you just totally forget yourself (43) and do what needs to be done.
You save the kid.
Obviously, the above is a messy, tangled overlap of all kinds of stuff going on. But hey, it resulted in your saving a kid from a burning building (in our imaginary scenario, at least.)
This is the kind of stuff that is all invoved in "Know Thyself," the way we see it.
We can imagine that that are lots of ways that, if you don't know yourself, that scenario could have gone very differently.
The point is: in those few minutes, with that act, you both revealed yourself and, to a degree, defined/shaped/formed yourself.
This kind of stuff happens all the time, in many ways, large and small.
Drama reveals character. That's one reason why we're so fascinated by tv, movies, drama: it reveals who people really are.
And life is full of drama. Your life can reveal who you really are, almost as if it's really true that "all the world's a stage."
We don't always have lots of opportunities to be heroic in a big, flashy way. But we never know when the opportunity will come. We shouldn't wait until we're in deep water to learn how to swim. We need to learn it before we need it.
And we might not always like who or what gets revealed about ourselves when we have real-life drama.
All the more reason to "Know Thyself" now, while there's still time to do something about it.
6) Some things are more conducive to figuring yourself out than others.
Meditation, stillness, and solitude, for example, has a long and rich history of folks discovering themselves on much deeper levels.
“Experimenting” with, say, copious amounts of drugs and alcohol has a long and chock-full history of folks getting themselves more confused, out of sorts, incompetent, messed up in a thousand different ways, and imprisoned. (We aren’t teetotaling here. Just bringing up some well-established evidence.)
Steering towards general activities and people that tend to be more conducive to clarity, sanity, reality… and away from activities and people that tend to be more conducive to confusion, conflict and general mayhem…well, we can just say that this will probably improve the odds of knowing yourself.
And while we’re talking about improving odds…
7) Results are generally proportional to time and energy applied
Zen teacher Richard Rose used to say that “results are proportional to energy applied.“
It’s true in virtually any field – medicine, art, music, engineering, parenting, and so on. Of course, time isn’t the only factor. Walking in the wrong direction is still heading in the wrong direction.
But the idea is that this stuff is, at least to some degree, within our control.
You can choose to take actions that make a difference, improve your odds, foster insights, spark revelations.
If you come up with “I don’t know” to much of the stuff mentioned above…the way we see it, that’s perfectly OK. (You’re with folks like Socrates. Meaning, you’re in good company.) Life is a chance to discover those things.
But here’s a suggestion to consider:
Adopt an attitude that your purpose in life is to discover your purpose. Your mission in life is to discover your mission. Who are you? You’re someone who is figuring out who they are.
It’s an honest answer. Way better than a lot of others out there.
This doesn’t have to work as a permanent answer. Socrates admitted that he hadn’t solved the problem, but he never stopped trying – actively, purposefully, deliberately, relentlessly – to solve it.
That’s the best answer we have for now.
We're still looking for better ones. Your lovable, cuddly, ever-vigilant LiveReal Agents are always on the lookout. (Unless we're asleep, or passed out, or stuck elbows-deep in a diaper-change. But aside from that...ever-vigilant.)
Hopefully some of this has been useful.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that some of what we’re touched on above could easily be pursued through the entirely of a person’s life.
Or we can say it a different way:
To know yourself requires embarking on a kind of quest.
There are books to be read, thinkers to be explored, ideas to be considered, experiments to be run. If this kind of quest is taken on and not avoided, there will be hardship and confusion, struggle and pain, risk and even danger, and worse. As there is in any adventure worth its salt.
But the reward?
The reward is…well, yourself.
It’s worth taking.
“For there is only one great adventure and that is inward toward the self.”
- Henry Miller