Do You Really Know Yourself?

Do You Really Know Yourself?

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The words ‘know thyself’ appear frequently in the work of the Greek philosopher Plato and have been used by writers and philosophers for thousands of years. But what does it mean to know oneself, why is it important, and how can a person acquire such knowledge?

We suspect that some people would be uncomfortable, or even offended, by the suggestion that they don’t know themselves. We spend 24 hours a day in our own company and while it can sometimes be difficult to interpret other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, we can’t use this excuse when it comes to ourselves. We have direct access to our inner psychological world and in theory, we are in an ideal position to cultivate an in-depth understanding of who we are.

However, the truth is that many people are not aware of the events unfolding in their mind. At any one moment, a vast number of psychological processes are happening inside them, but at best, they are only partially aware of a small number of these. Consequently, their behaviours are the automated product of a complex – and sometimes competing – assortment of impulses, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and memories. Rather than consciously allowing these psychological processes to influence their choices, they are effectively ‘processed’ by them. Instead of collaborating with the mind and using it as a tool, they find themselves ‘lived’ by the mind.

Changing this habit is easier said than done but there are some remits of human endeavour that may be able to assist us. In particular, we can look to modern science in order to gain insight into how we can develop a better understanding of ourselves. In order to acquire knowledge about a given phenomenon, scientists engage in the process of observation. This observation takes on many forms. It can involve observing phenomena in their natural state or it can involve observing how phenomena behave under a given set of experimental conditions. However, either way, careful observation is a crucial part of scientific enquiry and if we adopt the same principle in order to gain insight into ourselves, it is likely that our journey of ‘inner scientific enquiry’ will bear fruit.

By stepping back and observing our inner psychological world, a number of ‘truths’ about ourselves become apparent. Firstly, given that it is possible – particularly when using meditation – to observe our thoughts, feelings, and impulses, we must conclude that we are something more than these psychological processes. Secondly, we must also conclude that there exists a part of us that can ‘consciously observe’ our own mind. As we continue to engage in the process of inner observation, this ‘conscious observer’ part of us steadily grows, such that it becomes easier to maintain concentration and observe ourselves for longer periods of time.

A third truth that we may come to understand about ourselves is that the closer we observe, the harder it becomes to establish exactly who and what we are. The reason for this is that we don’t exist as standalone or isolated entities. We exist in reliance upon all other phenomena in the universe. We breathe in the out-breath of every other living being. When we drink a glass of water, we are effectively drinking rivers, clouds, and oceans. Our visit to the bathroom produces food for the plants and trees. Being embraced by a loved one can change a bad day into a good one, and a single heartfelt smile can completely change another person’s life.

In order to truly know ourselves, we have to fundamentally change our ideas of who we think we are and of how we think we exist. In effect, in order to find ourselves, we have to let go of ourselves.  When we stop thinking in terms of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’, we start to see the world differently. We start to experience that the boundaries between ourselves and other phenomena become blurred. It becomes difficult to determine where the ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins. We adopt a much looser definition of ‘self’ yet somewhat paradoxically, we start to understand more about who and what we are.

Letting go of self really means that we are embracing the universe. The universe has existed for billions of years and it contains lots of knowledge. It contains the knowledge of creation, existence, and dissolution. We are an indispensable part of the universe and it relies upon us just as much as we rely upon it. By exploring the inner universe of our mind, we can weaken – or even remove completely – the boundary that we think exists between our inner psychological world and the external physical world. In other words, our practice of inner scientific enquiry and observation can, in time, cause our inner and outer worlds to collide. When this happens, we find ourselves flooded with the knowledge of the universe and the universe becomes flooded with the knowledge of our mind.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Just a Thought

Just a Thought

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The term ‘thought’ is widely used in contemporary society. For example, most people probably don’t go for more than a day or two before they say or hear an expression such as ‘I’ve just had an interesting thought’, ‘What are your thoughts on the matter?’, or ‘I’ve thought more about what you said’. However, although common human experience tells us that thoughts definitely exist and are a normal aspect of human functioning, have you ever tried explaining to another person exactly what a thought is? It is difficult to outline in precise terms exactly what constitutes a thought, and even the dictionary definitions of this term are somewhat ambiguous. For example, the Oxford English dictionary describes a thought as ‘An idea or opinion produced by thinking, or occurring suddenly in the mind’. Although this dictionary definition informs us that thoughts are the product of thinking, it doesn’t actually provide us with a definitive account of what constitutes a thought.

An object such as a table can be described to another person without too much difficulty. According to the Oxford English dictionary, a table is ‘a piece of furniture with a flat top with one or more legs, providing a level surface for eating, writing, or working at’. This definition introduces a number of defining characteristics (such as a ‘level surface’, ‘one or more legs’, and ‘surface for eating’) which – whilst allowing for differences in interpretation – would probably make it reasonably easy for a person to picture in their mind what a table is, and then try to locate one should they wish to do so. A thought, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any tangible characteristics that would allow a person to create an accurate picture in their mind. For example, thoughts – as far as we know – do not have a shape, colour, texture, size, sound, or smell. They do not have a top or a bottom and their surface (if indeed they have one) cannot said to be level or undulating.

Neuropsychological studies allow us to study certain aspects of thoughts by measuring (for example) electrical impulses and changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain. However, although such studies provide important information relating to thoughts, they cannot measure thoughts directly (i.e., an electrical signal that corresponds to a thought is not the thought itself) and are not able to observe the ‘raw material’ that thoughts are made of. Likewise, neuropsychological studies are unable to ascertain the precise location from which thoughts originate or how many levels of thought can manifest simultaneously. Therefore, although through scientific study and shared human experience we have learned a lot about thoughts, it is arguably fair to say that contemporary understanding of thoughts is still at an elementary level.

It is perhaps also fair to say that in general, people (and to a certain degree modern science) have a tendency to take thoughts for granted and to overlook their importance. For example, with each and every thought that we have, we change the trajectory of the present moment and reset the future. This may sound like a remark by one of those authors who has jumped on the meditation and mindfulness bandwagon, and who is trying to impress readers by writing a book full of (what they deem to be) deep and meaningful remarks. However, it’s not meant to be a deep or meaningful remark and if you stop and think about it, it’s a perfectly true statement. The world as we know it is shaped by (amongst other things) the words and actions of human beings. Our thoughts influence (and in many cases underlie) our words and actions, and our (and other people’s) words and actions also influence our thoughts. A person’s decision and intention to pursue a particular career might have originated in a single thought. The same applies to the words and actions of leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King – perhaps their motivation to inspire political and spiritual change traces back to a single thought that they once had.

From this perspective, it is fair to say that thoughts are incredibly creative. With our thoughts, we shape who we will be in the future. We also shape how other people (and the world more generally) will be in the future. With each new thought, an entirely new future, and an entirely new world, is born. In many respects, thoughts are the creative energy of the universe. In fact, perhaps it is conceivably possible that thoughts are made of the same ‘raw material’ that caused the universe to be created (i.e., during the big-bang). If this statement is correct it would mean that during the process of giving birth to a single thought, the mind draws upon the underlying primordial energy of existence, and that it serves as the strata within which thoughts explode into existence and thus create an entirely new universe. What a marvellous thought!

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon