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.
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.”
28 July 2010