Know Thyself!

It has recently occurred to me what a slow learner I am. I don’t mean with respect to facts. You could tell me the height of Mount Everest is 8,850metres or whatever then I would have a fair chance of remembering it. But when it comes to human behaviour, and mine in particular I am pretty slow on the uptake.


The issue came to my attention again when an executive in an organisation I have been working with was becoming difficult, being judgmental and lacking patience with those he saw as “inferior’ to him, creating conflict and impacting significantly on organisational effectiveness.


Whilst my discomfiture with his behaviours hadn’t resulted in anger, I was becoming frustrated and irritated by his inappropriate behaviour. Fortunately, rather than just indulge in such an inappropriate emotional response I was self-aware enough to take pause and consider what was happening to me.


As I have written many times, the good Dr Phil has taught me that human behaviour is largely determined by our biological history and our socialisation which are factors largely beyond our control. But the other important factor, which we can influence and has a huge impact on our behaviour, is our world-view.


So my problem executive (for simplicity let’s call him Fred – which is of course not his real name, and hardly anyone is called Fred these days which may be a good thing!) sees the world different to me. Does that make his world-view wrong? Only if I believe I have exclusive access to the truth which of course I don’t! How might I judge whose world-view is most appropriate? Basically the test should be how well it enables us to deal with the world.


I, of course, in my conceit believe I deal with the world better than he does. It seems I have more equanimity and am not generally motivated to indulge in emotional responses that hurt and manipulate others in order to get my way.


Let us pause here, for I have unearthed a dilemma about which I need to take great care. Psychologists (beginning with Freud) tell us that what we find odious in others are often faults which we, ourselves, possess to some degree. The process is called projection.


So above I was critical of Fred for “lacking patience with those he saw as ‘inferior’ to him”, and now if I pass judgment on the inadequacy of his world-view I am likely to make the same mistake. And I suspect my irritability with Fred suggests that I had already made this inappropriate judgment.


If I progress far enough down this track I will start delineating people as to whether they are the “good guys” or the “bad guys”. I have fallen into the trap of separation (see my recent blog “The Apple Tree”) and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that not only do I anoint as the “good guys” those who share my world-view but often those who share just some elements of my world-view. As a result I can now justify my aberrant claim of separateness on my nationality, my religion, my politics and even my gender.


I am thus reminded to be more tolerant and forgiving. I should heed what Shakespeare had to say in The Merchant of Venice:


“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, –

It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed, –

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes;”


We need also to remember, as Robert E Draper put it,


“Simply put, those who attack, even in the most violent outbursts of rage, are people in trouble and pain and, in some ways, may be in even greater distress than those whom they are treating badly. Second, when we find ourselves justified in joining with one and excluding the other, we are the ones in need of correction.”


Leo Tolstoy in Wise Thoughts for Every Day; On God, Love, Spirit and Living a Good Life wrote:


“People aren’t punished for their sins but by their sins which is the most difficult punishment.”


I touched on these issues in my recent blog essay titled Forgiveness of Ignorance.


A Course in Miracles similarly teaches that what we call sin is merely ignorance. So what I find offensive in Fred’s behaviour is similarly due to his ignorance and should also be forgiven. But I should not engage in the hubris which would result in an assumption that I am without such ignorance. And appropriately for Easter I quoted in that recent blog essay the purported utterance of Jesus whilst dying on the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. (This was reported in the Gospel of Luke but nowhere else.)


Admission of my own ignorance is the first step to learning. And if those who exploit others are actually like the rest of us in most ways then we can learn from them too. What we see as their faults are often imperfections in ourselves which we seek to deny.


Again quoting Draper, he writes:


“Denial helps no one. Without getting in touch with our own inclinations towards what is, to put it plainly avarice (or indeed whatever sin we are critical of), we will never find freedom from its influence.”


A useful step in dealing with these issues is the development of our own self-awareness. We have talked about this in previous essays as well. Can I hark back to the advice of the good Dr Phil who suggests that in order to attain psychological maturity that we must:


Know ourselves,


Accept ourselves, (and then hopefully have the wisdom) to


Forget ourselves.


The question we must ask ourselves is how do we uncover and resolve the problem of ignorance of self? How do we truly get to know ourselves (or at least to gain reasonable knowledge of ourselves, for there will always be blind spots in our knowledge of self)?


Philosophers over the ages have been admonishing us “To Know Thyself!” Classical scholars refer to an inscription to that effect in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo where legend has it that the Oracle of Delphi resided. But, as is the case for many teachings about spirituality and human psychology, the thought has been pervasive in many of the wisdom traditions. It takes but little research to find the theme arising in Egyptian and Chinese history as well as the Greek, and the wisdom traditions of Buddhism, Sufism, Vedanta and Hinduism promote the theme as well. In more modern times the theme was promoted by such prominent figures as Alexander Pope, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Walt Whitman. More recent philosophers such as Krishnamurti and Anthony De Mello, (and of course the good Dr Phil) championed the concept as well.


But in practical terms what can we do to aid the process of acquiring a better understanding of self?


To begin with we must become self-aware. To some degree we must stand outside ourselves and observe what is going on. This takes some practice and is assisted by meditation. The critical issue here is to disassociate with our emotional responses. The unaware identify with their emotional responses – “I am angry”-“I am sad” – or whatever. Those more aware will notice the beginning of a change in their emotional state and have then the opportunity of thinking, “Something is beginning to disturb me – what is it?” Then instead of indulging in the emotion we become aware of likely triggers and can intervene before we are overwhelmed by the emotion.


But of course the major obstacle to self-awareness is ego. As the good Dr Phil says, “We cannot afford to know that which we are unprepared to accept.” Consequently we are reluctant to take on board information that is at odds with our self-concept. As usual, we prefer to filter information and take in only that which confirms our preferred world-view.


When I work with my clients trying to have them improve their self-awareness I encourage them to take on board information from people whose opinions they trust (not like, mind you – but trust).


As well we can learn more about ourselves by using non-judgmental techniques such as undergoing psychometric testing. But even this is assimilated better if you talk it over with a spouse or a trusted friend.


If we truly know ourselves then we are far less likely to be offended by people like Fred who is in many ways largely suffering from his own lack of self-knowledge. The great Indian sage Krishnamurti said:


“Without knowing yourself, without knowing your own way of thinking and why you think certain things, without knowing the background of your conditioning and why you have certain beliefs about ….your country, your neighbour and yourself how can you think truly about anything?”


It is easy to make a case then that all our discomfiture with the world comes from our own misperceptions. Our egos contrive to prevent us from knowing ourselves. Consequently in order to preserve our sense of specialness we strive to highlight that which exaggerates our sense of separation from others. It is because of this trap I look down at people like Fred with “holier than thou” condescension thus avoiding the obvious fact that Fred and I are the same. If my world-view is less dysfunctional than his it is only good fortune that has made it so and, as much as I would prefer to believe otherwise, not some special talent, some unique skill, some clever outcome resulting from my own doing. And when you come to understand this, no matter that external circumstances might indicate otherwise – “All is Well!

4 Replies to “Know Thyself!”

  1. The difficulty with knowing yourself is that you could discover someone you would prefer not to know. It is too scary to contemplate so we continue with the charade. It is for the greater good. They will be better for my comments in the long run and so on. I think there is a real threat to the ego when we truly know ourselves Ted. It takes great courage and honesty for most of us to observe and accept who we really are.

    1. Thanks Greg – what you say is true and exemplifies what Phil says that we can’t afford to know that which we are not prepared to accept! I will probably write a little more about this soon.

  2. Thank you Ted, good piece of philosophy as far as it goes, but as always you focus on one’s self. Bread and butter for humanists and existentialists. But I prefer the Theist view, in particulat the Christian view, that says peace is achieved through what one does for others not what one does for one’s self.

    You may have seen on TV over Easter the re-enacted example of the Master washing the feet of the Servants, of the God dying in place of his people, of the shepherd giving his life for his sheep, and so on it goes right throught the Christian ceremonies and rituals – an exhortation to leave one’s self behind and to love your neighbour.

    Mother Teresa says it nicely (and walks the talk too) –
    “the fruit of prayer is faith,
    the fruit of faith is Love,
    the fruit of Love is service,
    the fruit of service is peace”.

    That’s my philosophy Ted, I believe peace and happiness and nirvana and whatever state of bliss you seem to be seeking within your mind is actually outside you, is in your love of others – it’s in the You and the Them, not in the I, we, me, self-awareness.

    Different paradigm Ted. May I suggest you’re still in the old paradigm. In the dark paradigm of self. You might care to experience the famous paradigm shift that the management gurus talk about.

    1. Well Jack that is an interesting comment. I might suggest you read the essay again.

      My essay actually talked about a process to “forget the self”. Perhaps you should read “A Course in Miracles” (ACIM) which suggests that what you Christians call sin is merely ignorance which the ego throws up to defend its sense of separateness. ACIM comes replete with biblical references which you might find easier to accept than my more ecumenical approach to spirituality.

      And you say again that Christianity is somehow special because it exhorts its followers to “love their neighbours”. Most religions and of course many that predate Chrisianity have propagated similar beliefs. As I have previously argued, there is nothing particularly unique about Christianity and most of its core beliefs are concepts stolen from the pagan religions that preceded it.

      Let me say I was pleased to hear of your new Pope washing the feet of sinners including a few women, to the chagrin of the traditionalists in your religious tradition. I admire his humilty and lack of pomp – which is worthy praise for him but reflects badly on his predecessors.

      You know Jack I have many good Catholic friends and to them I have solemnly promised that I will convert to Catholicism when you anoint the first black, female Pope. (I don’t seem to be in much danger of this, mind you!)

      But returning to the critique of my essay you rightly say that our salvation (however you might want to interpret that loaded term) comes from loving others. Haven’t I been promoting such an idea assiduously in my essays? Haven’t I on many occasions suggested to my readers that “we are all as one”” – that is without separation, which I believe is what we mean by love. Our love of others in any meaningful way comes as a result of self-knowledge and self-acceptance which enables us to identify the oneness in us all and doesn’t strive to assert our specialness.

      Unfortunastely Jack, despite your undoubted intelligence and wisdom, it is you who are stuck in the old paradigm. You accept the ideology of a religious tradition that was established two millenia ago, that is replete with unsubstantiated mythology and childish notions of the supernatural.

      I would not evoke such criticism except that I know you are not fragile and will no doubt produce a robust defence!

      I am surprised however that you could interpret my writing (leaving aside the cliches you use in criticism) as not promoting love.

      Michael Leunig once wrote:
      “Therre are only two feelings: Love and Fear.
      There are only two languages: Love and Fear.
      There are only two activities: Love and Fear.
      There are only two motives,
      Two procedures,
      Two frameworks,
      Two results,
      Love and Fear.

      Love and Fear.”

      Leunig was essentially right. In the last few decades I have tried to promote the cause of love in as many forums and contexts as I can.

      Your religion, whilst purporting to propagate love, finds it hard to give up the goad of fear.

      Over to you old friend!

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