Possibly, the sentence “know thyself” is one of the most known sensational quotes: perhaps because it’s engraved on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, or because many great characters throughout history restated this concept several times, associating it to eminent visions.
Indeed, many individuals throughout history had stated that knowing ourselves is essential: Thales, Socrates, Plotinus, and Saint Augustine had stated it. They compared this statement to the Western philosophical speculation with many ancient knowings belonging to Eastern traditions, achieving the higher pinnacles of a knowing which influenced thought systems and cultures.
Today, things are much different. It seems that even the most prominent individuals in this contemporary society don’t consider self-knowledge as crucial. However, it seems also that such a statement has a particular allure, even if in most cases, it’s presented as a generic quote, too often considered profitable to entice the ego of potential buyers who claim to be interested in any kind of spiritual research.
It seems that in our culture, the sentence “know thyself” has assumed a rational form, in many cases intended as an observation of the forms of personality. And, this is an inquiry that could be a push towards change. However, in many cases, it’s only a reinforcement of one’s convictions – a completely wrong approach.
Observation is always a good practice and can always lead to improvement of oneself, but such observation must be completely released from an egoistic gratification.
But, are we sure that the ancients intended “knowing thyself” in such a way? That the process of rationalization can lead to really know who and what we are in essence?
When speaking about self-development, it’s not a trivial matter.
Speaking about essence, it comes mind, a section of the Kena Upanishad, as translated by Sri Aurobindo.
- By whom missioned falls the mind shot to its mark? By
whom yoked moves the first life-breath forward on its
paths? By whom impelled is this word that men speak?
What god set eye and ear to their workings?
- That which is hearing of our hearing, mind of our mind,
speech of our speech, that too is life of our life-breath and
sight of our sight. The wise are released beyond and they
pass from this world and become immortal.
- There sight travels not, nor speech, nor the mind. We know
It not nor can distinguish how one should teach of It: for It
is other than the known; It is there above the unknown. It
is so we have heard from men of old who declared That to
- That which is unexpressed by the word, that by which
the word is expressed, know That to be the Brahman and not
this which men follow after here.
- That which thinks not by the mind, that by which the mind
is thought, know That to be the Brahman and not this which
men follow after here.
- That which sees not with the eye, that by which one sees
the eye’s seeings, know That to be the Brahman and not this
which men follow after here.
- That which hears not with the ear, that by which the ear’s
hearing is heard, know That to be the Brahman and not this
which men follow after here.
- That which breathes not with the breath, that by which the
life-breath is led forward in its paths, know That to be the
Brahman and not this which men follow after here.
I quoted these verses because in these words, lies the main problem of knowledge: how is it possible to know the subject that knows?
I’ll try to explain better. Our cognitive process operates in a particular way: mainly, that in order to “know” something, we need a subject which observes, and the object which is observed.
So, if I see a tree (the object), I can observe it, analyze it, define it; and, at the same time, exists an “I” that is able to recognize, distinguish and define the tree.
Yes, this is a simplification, but necessary in order to give the idea of what I mean.
In such a way, everything can be recognized and understood, at a certain level, through the use of ideas, concepts and logical criteria.
However, there’s something that thwarts the possibility to be known and understood in such a way – the subject that observes. Indeed, how can the entity which lies between the observed and the observer, be observed?
Yes, I am speaking about the mind. In order to understand it, it must be reduced as an object, and we need to find another mean, another “subject” which will be able to understand this entity. In such a way, the subject-mind becomes the object which is observed. Otherwise, it will remain unknown.
I remember one of the first things that my mentor said to me more than twenty years ago: “You don’t think. You don’t know how to think”.
This statement was very offensive to me, and made me always react with useless protests and justifications.
“What do you mean with this? Do you think that I am so stupid and incapable?”
“You don’t think because you can’t have the freedom of thought. Your ideas are conditioned by everything that surrounds you: the place and the time where you live, the culture that represents this place and time… “
I knew that he was an individual who used to provoke people, but maybe this time he had to tell me something useful in order for me to understand. Or at least, to begin to understand.
“You would like to know who you really are through your mind as it is now. But this is impossible, definitely impossible. Even if you are so young, your mind is filled by a mire of social and religious morality, rationalism and concepts taken here and there during these years of your existence.
Your emotions are reactive, your pride and presumption define you, and with this premise, to know who you are is impossible. You need to realize the possibility of a thought that originates from a completely different source – an uncontaminated source. Before beginning to know your true nature, you must convert your way of thinking.
Above all, you have to erase the Andrea you think to be, and begin to learn again to walk, to keep the back straight, to sit, to eat; you need to wake up in the morning and embrace the first sunshine, aware of the constant miracle of life.
You must make your gestures and your life a symbol, so that you can always remember yourself. You have to fight the preconcepts and fears that limit you. You must fight the ignorance, the sleep of consciousness and your comfort zones; and you have to study to the point of exhaustion, the thought of every ancient culture, and realize the world and life itself.
If you can’t do this, you don’t have anything to seek from me.”
He stopped for a moment, looking straight into my eyes, such as he was evaluating the damage made to my offended ego. Then, with a smile that released my every concern and anxiety, he continued.
“If you wish to enter the path of inner development, you must become such as those individuals who, thousands of years ago, before every religion or ready- made spiritual thought, realized to be imperfect, and grasping the possibility of becoming perfect, they asked themselves how to fill this distance.
Many of those individuals embraced a path of purification in order to “ascend” towards such perfection that they imagined to be somewhere in higher dimensions or in the sky. It was a path of purification from ignorance, identification, and lack of awareness, until becoming “similar” to God.
But, near to this vision, another one developed. And, this different vision sought the Divine in everything belonging to this world and beyond. Instead of the “ascent” towards perfection, they developed the wondering that if God is present in everything, then God was present in every human being. Thus, they realized that they had to become aware of this and awaken.
Those who accepted this first school of thought, embraced the renouncement and the asceticism, while others immersed themselves in life, with the knowing that if God is in everything, nothing can be considered less divine”
He became quiet allowing those words to impregnate my mind. Then, with a slow gesture, he tasted a sip of coffee. In those gestures, in his silence, in those sips, I saw that he was completely present. He was at the same time, in the conversation we had and in that coffee he was drinking, as if savoring the pleasure of that flavour.
He put down the cup of coffee in a way that seemed to me a wish to establish an order on the table and, at the same time, in my mind. He was looking at me such as his gaze was embracing also the entire environment, making me aware that I was also part of this environment or, if you wish, part of the whole. It was a strange feeling that shifted my perception for some moments in a way that was difficult to explain.
Then, he continued.
“In some way you are lucky, because you are very young, and your mind is not yet crystallized; however it’s already filled by concepts and beliefs. If you really seek your true nature, you can’t accomplish this task through the mind that you have formed in those 17 years of your existence. The part of you that is convinced to have a thought is only personality – a mask, conditioned by the stimuli you experienced, from the morality and prejudices that you confuse with reality. What you see isn’t the real world, but an interpretation of the same, mediated by a subjective vision.
This is why you don’t ‘think’, because your mind remains identified with what you consider yourself to be, and what you consider to be true.
So, before beginning to experience the path of self-development, you must devote yourself to study. And I don’t intend theoretical speculations you find in books, non- books, however ‘spiritual’, which doesn’t give you anything but words that fill your beliefs. On the contrary, you’ll have to convert every gesture and every attitude, comparing it with the imposing corpus of knowing that survived through millennia on this planet. Such knowing opened the way towards Truth more than what every technology we have today at disposal, could do.
Indeed, we control more and more matter, but we are more than ever ignorant regarding our true nature. In such a way, we are increasingly more identified with appearances, and we lose every contact with the essence. And, essence is, in the end, the only real thing which we can count on.”
Essence was just what had became my obsession from the first time I heard of this term. The Self, the intimate part of us, the only real part of us and, at the same time so impalpable, submerged by a mind that thinks to know in such a way, that it is impossible “to get in touch” with it.
And, everytime I thought to have understood this principle, my mentor immediately put me in the face of the fact that this was another identification, a trick of my mind, a colored way for the ego to find affirmation.
I had understood that the True Self can’t be realized through ordinary means, and that it should be observed from an external point of view. But who or what could observe it?
In such a way, the sentence “know thyself” seemed to me to be an absurd pretence, indeed, a paradox. And every effort to receive from my mentor, a glimpse of an answer, was useless. Indeed, he often seemed to minimize and take time when I was questioning him about such a topic.
So, without an answer, I was wondering: how is it possible to know the Self?
The first answer came only a few years later. In that period, I was in contact with my mentor almost every day. One day, he had begun to show me some reproductions of Baroque paintings. One of these was Caravaggio’s “Narcissus”. The perfection of the forms of this master had some strange power to harmonize the usual tumult I was feeling in mind and heart.
“Narcissus” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
He waited awhile in silence, almost knowing the effect that that painting had on me.
Then, perhaps noticing that it was the right moment, he began to speak.
“You are impressed by the forms. But what gives form… to the forms?”
“The contrast between light and shadow”, I answered.
He nodded with a subtle smile.
“The light. Yes, it’s the light the reveals the objects, the world, things. If you illuminate a room, all that is inside becomes visible, so you can recognize all that is in that room. You can know what’s in that room because of the light you turned on. And, even the source of that light, the light bulb, becomes visible in virtue of that light. All that is in the room is lightened and becomes known. But what leads us to knowing the light itself? What ‘illuminates’ that light?”
I remained looking at the reproduction of that painting. Narcissus who stares at the reflection of his face in the water, a marvelous representation of the human illusory perception of themselves and reality. I was astonished. Maybe, for the first time, I was really able to state to have understood something, even if a glimpse of the whole story. At least, now I had somewhere from which to begin to understand.
And, this meant only one thing, and in that moment I was aware of it: this was a fundamental piece of the puzzle to accomplish the aim of the statement of the wise- “know thyself”.