The unexamined life is not worth living.
What does it mean to know oneself? Answering this question is not at all easy. For one there no recipe or manual that sets out the exact path to getting to know oneself. Despite the gazillion self-help books available that promise all kinds of personal insights and metamorphoses that will culminate from having read their contents, there is no one script; no exact list; no path that can be prescribed that will guarantee self-knowledge. Can some of those books help? Possibly. Can they be a hindrance and distraction from the real thing? Frequently! Secondly, there is no end result that can be defined. There is no exact “state of knowledge” one can attain and then tick off on a list thereby indicating: “Now, I know myself!” Further, there are some aspects to self-knowledge that defy cognitive description. As we get to know ourselves better and more deeply, there are some things we come to know that cannot be put into words or be explained in any fashion. Our insights are felt, experienced or apprehended at a deep level. Getting to know ourselves is deeply personal “stuff!”
Getting to know ourselves remains a lifelong mystery because who we really are is a mystery; a mystery we will never solve. Our task of course is not to solve that mystery but to live the mystery in the very best way we can. Living the mystery that is our lives means getting to know and appreciate as many of its elements that we can.
Since our lives are a mystery, getting to know ourselves as best we can is a life time’s work; an ongoing quest; a never ending journey of discovery. It is not a one-off task or event. The journey itself has both shallow and deep periods. There are times when the journey appears to be slow, as if nothing is really moving. And there are times when things appear to be moving fast as huge changes in our lives usher in new insights in what seems dramatically rapid succession. During the journey we find that we evolve and change over the years. The person we thought we knew at thirty, and then forty and then fifty keeps changing. Nothing is static. Nothing remains the same. Just as everything else in the world is changing all the time so are we.
Knowing ourselves is not achieved by simply making a list of our strengths and weaknesses and our likes and dislikes, although that is a beginning. Getting to know ourselves does also not depend on 360 degree feedback that is sometimes carried out as part of organization personal development programs, although that can provide a small piece of the puzzle too. Getting to know ourselves requires great dedication and personal attention. Real self-knowledge comes from observing oneself. The Buddhists refer to this as “bare attention.” Here one observes the movement of one’s thinking; watching one’s own mind at work. Bare attention requires that one does this without reaction or judgment. One simply observes. One watches oneself as one responds to people and situations; one watches one’s reactions to events; to new news; to people’s behavior. One observes one’s feelings as one reacts to what one believes in and what one does not. One pays attention to all of one’s feelings as they arise and as they disappear. One watches the way one handles relationships with everyone and every living thing one encounters. Does one pay extra attention to those who have titles and status? Does one ever notice the beggar, the person in the wheelchair or the mangy dog? How does one respond? How does one feel? One observes everything within and around one. One studies oneself without self-congratulation or condemnation. One studies oneself just as one is. By observing how one responds to one’s relationships in the world one learns about one’s deep desires, fears, biases and prejudices. One also learns about one’s yearnings and hopes and one’s capacity for cruelty and compassion.
Getting to really know ourselves requires us to open the door of the dark room inside us where our enemy within resides. There we need to access that often times elusive enemy and find out, as best we can, which of our suppressed and repressed feelings she is taking care of. These feelings could include our anger, resentment, disappointment, envy, shame and despair over lost dreams. They could also relate to the weaknesses we believe we have or our parents and families assure us we have, going back many years ago. Getting to know ourselves means getting in touch with our shadow side: that part that we conceal from others but that is always there waiting for expression.
Getting to know ourselves includes being in touch with our attitudes and feelings towards people who have authority over us; our desire for power, and our propensity to take risks. Getting to know ourselves necessitates our knowing how to respond to new realities: whether we procrastinate, avoid, or ignore them as long as possible or whether we rapidly reflect on the changes they imply and engage in the work of adapting.
Getting to know ourselves means being in touch with our fantasies; our hopes; our dreams. We need to know truly and deeply what it is we really long for; what it is we desire above all else, and above all, what we believe we would die for. We need to know what moves us to love, to hate, to cry and to laugh. We need to know those circumstances that bring out the best in us and those that make us frightened and confused.
One thing we learn as we study ourselves is that our minds have no idea of the truth. All they carry is a myriad of thoughts, opinions and judgments. To get to know ourselves we must study ourselves as we are, recognizing that this is a never ending pursuit. Once we claim we know ourselves we cease learning about who we are, and that is a perilous place to be. Why? Because we, like the rest of the world, are changing all the time. We are an evolving force in continuous motion and adaptation. Once we put the mirror on ourselves in the closet, we are highly likely to lose touch with ever changing reality. And when we pull it out again, like Dorian Gray, we will shudder to see the ogre we have become.
Getting to know ourselves is no picnic, yet there are many moments of deep self-appreciation along the way. Traveling that inner road is the surest path to self-confidence and self-awareness of who one really is and what one is capable of. Hard work that it may be, the payoff is precious beyond description.
Getting to know ourselves is a huge job! Getting to know ourselves is the biggest job we will ever take on in our lives. It is our job; a very personal job; one that can and never will be outsourced! It is an ongoing job; one that is never finished or never closed. It is a job that takes awareness, courage, patience, compassion and time. It is a job that unveils many uncomfortable truths and challenges us with surprising hurdles and unexpected delights along the way. It is the job of our lives!
Personal leadership begins with us getting to know ourselves. This is our inner journey which accompanies our outer one. As we become more in touch with our inner selves we become more attentive to how our inner journey parallels our outer one. Wherever we are in our outer lives right now, is a mirror of where we stand on the inner road. Although the inner road plays a significant part in our destiny, regrettably it is often the one less travelled. It is on this inner path we will likely find both wisdom and opportunity we never imagined possible.
The central idea about being CLEAR is about knowing where we stand. If we are standing at the edge of a cliff it would be helpful to know that. If we are standing on top of a glorious hill of happiness and triumph it is good to know that too. Being CLEAR is not about judgment or evaluation. It is solely about clarity. Clarity is our greatest teacher. Unfortunately some of its lessons are those we would rather not learn. But once we bite the proverbial bullet we are all the better for having “looked through the mirror darkly” and seen who we are and the kind of person we are becoming. The reality is that we are always in the process of “becoming.” What an incredible opportunity!
Extract from STAYING CLEAR: LIVING LIFE FROM A PLACE OF INNER FREEDOM – ANNABEL BEEREL, PH.D
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.