That phrase, know thyself, has been around for thousands of years. It is one of the maxims thought to have been given by the Oracle at Delphi. And Plato used this saying quite a bit in his dialogues of Socrates.
That maxim is truly the gateway to happiness.
And yet so few people really understand its meaning.
Knowing oneself has nothing to do with looking in a mirror or understanding why we react in certain ways at various times. Nor does it have to do with digging into the root of our preferences, biases, and prejudices. And it certainly has nothing to do with our upbringing, childhood experiences, or even any past lives that might be elicited in therapy sessions.
Know thyself means one thing, and it is this: identifying with who we really are.
So, who are we?
Let’s start with who we are not. Unfortunately, it’s everything we think we are.
Most of us see ourselves as an amalgam of:
- Social / professional roles – e.g. mom, dad, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband, wife, partner, friend, job title, inventor, artist, entrepreneur
- Religious / societal standing – e.g. rich, poor, middle class, christian, jewish, muslim, hindu, atheist, citizen of a particular country
- Character viewpoint – e.g. polite, charitable, smart, witty, friendly, compassionate, independent, logical, practical, liberal, conservative
- Personal story – e.g. winner, loser, victim, survivor
In fact, if someone asked you, “Tell me about yourself,” you would likely give an answer comprised of the components above.
The challenge is that who we think we are is so far removed from who we really are.
When we engage in our daily lives and experience the world around us, our thoughts get sucked into the people, places, situations, and events. Usually those thoughts center upon what “this” means for me or people I care about.
If we judge it to be “good”, then we have “positive” emotions. Conversely, if we see it as bad, we experience negative emotions.
Our emotions flow directly as a result of the thoughts we have about our bodies and what’s going on in the world around us – whether it is something happening now, in the past, or might happen in the future.
But our emotions don’t just result from our thoughts – they reinforce those thoughts. Think of it this way: I have a thought about a situation. This leads to various emotions. The emotions make it even more likely that I’ll continue the same thought patterns. Which leads to further reinforcement of the emotions.
It doesn’t matter if the emotions are “good” or “bad” – what matters is that we get enmeshed with them. Meaning this: the more we relate to the emotions, the more distant we become from our true selves.
The real me is the thinker of the thoughts, not the experiencer of the emotions.
And once we deeply relate to our emotions, we no longer know thyself.
Does that mean that the key to happiness is regulating our emotions? Not at all, nor is that even helpful. Whenever we feel that we need to regulate or temper our emotions, we’re just enmeshed with a different emotion, the one that results from judging ourselves as needing to change our emotion.
Once again, the key to happiness is realizing that the real me is the thinker of the thoughts, not the experiencer of the emotions. The “false” self (also known as the ego) is the experiencer of the emotions. The false self is also the one that believes who we are is a function of what we have, what we do, and how others see us. The false self is the one that gets subsumed into the thought-emotion vortex.
When we practice becoming the observer of our emotions, we get one step closer to the source of all emotion, which is our thoughts. And from there, it is a small step to the source of thought – which is our true self, the pinnacle of true happiness.
So the next time we find ourselves in the grip of any emotion, we can remember the idea that our emotions don’t result from the world around us, rather they follow from our thoughts. It’s at that point we can recognize that we are the thinker of the thoughts and master of our experiences.
Each time we practice that gets us one step closer to knowing our true selves and experiencing real happiness.
Join me in Monday’s class where we’ll explore this concept of knowing thyself and how we can practice making such a liberating insight. I look forward to seeing you then.