Know Thyself — But How? And to What End?

To understand oneself — one’s behaviors, thoughts, motivations, desires — is a universal pursuit. While Asian cultures refer to “self-transcendence” and non-Asian to “self-development”, the underlying quest is remarkably similar. “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened” [Lao Tzu]. “The unexamined life is not worth living” [Socrates]. The Buddha (the term itself meaning “teacher” and referring to each individual) exhorted the pursuit of self-awareness with a goal of enlightenment. Confucius taught that the normal urge of every human being is a continual striving to surpass one’s past and present self. And a personal favorite: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves” [Carl Jung].

But to what end? And in what manner?

Today, thanks to technology and particularly the Internet, we have an unprecedented access to knowledge. We can easily obtain the necessary tools and information to teach ourselves nearly anything. To understand ourselves, however, is another matter, requiring both introspection and socialization. Paradoxically, we cannot fully know ourselves without the the influence of others.
A deep and courageous process of introspection, an examination of our beliefs, values, motives, and the outward reflection in the form of behavior, is the first and most vital step. We are each the expert in our own psyches. In this careful examination, however, we can’t possibly be objective, our thinking can at times be distorted, and we can become confused in the quest for understanding. The assistance of others, then, is a critical component. Though we are distinct individuals, we’re also in cultural and social milieux, and we must understand the setting in which we find ourselves in order to gain full self-knowledge.

“If you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish.” A well-known saying in anthropology, this refers to the difficulty in understanding one’s own context; objectivity is required, but when one is the subject of the study, this is by definition impossible. It’s in this way that the assistance of others in our pursuit of self-awareness becomes necessary. Too, we are each members of many groups — culture, society, family, relationships, religion, occupation, interests — and in each case, the group influences us in a distinct manner.

If some of our thought patterns are distorted — if there is cognitive dissonance (a disconnection between conscious thought and unconscious behavior), or if our way of thinking about something doesn’t serve our values or our purpose, or is dysfunctional in other ways — it’s exceptionally difficult for us as individuals to perceive this, as the perception comes via the very mind in which the distortion resides. Here too, the collaboration of others is needed.

We can talk — or think — ourselves into a circle, or a corner. The more we think about ourselves, the more we analyze our very complex thoughts and behaviors, the more confused we may at times become.

In order to live a conscious life, in order to pursue personal development, we are compelled to look deep within ourselves. And in order to understand fully, we must rely on the reflection of others, the mirror that is those whom we trust.

Know thyself. But to what end? Why do philosophers all agree to its necessity? And how does this differ from self-absorption, self-centeredness, which doesn’t serve society or, in the end, the individual?

As a member of that very society, and of the human family, we have a responsibility to live as consciously as possible, understanding our values and motivations in order to best guide our thoughts and behaviors for the greater good. Without this self-awareness, we’re stumbling in the dark, and we make many grave mistakes that hurt others and ourselves. In order to be a contributing member of society, our self-understanding becomes critically necessary. If, in our quest to know ourselves, we maintain a motivation for the good of the greatest number, this is responsible living…and far from self-centeredness. While religions and the value systems of each of our cultures can serve as a guide, it’s the understanding of ourselves as individuals–beyond merely following the dictates of a system–which is the ultimate imperative.

Know thyself. It’s the greatest contribution to humankind that one can make.

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