I’d like to share a chapter from my book Hurry Up and Meditate which explores this intriguing question. I hope you find it useful!
Since ancient times, the wisdom of self-knowledge has been held above all other. Some believe that it is the real purpose of our life’s journey. In ancient Greece, when seekers visited the Temple at Delphi (pictured above) to ask what the future held, they would see etched above the door the words which gave the implicit answer to their question: “Know thyself.” Later, Socrates identified this as the pinnacle of human wisdom, and became famous for his words: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
But what is really meant by “Know thyself?” When I first heard the phrase I used to puzzle over what it suggested. Applying it personally, I wondered if there was really that much to know? After all, the facts of my life, like most people’s, are easily summarised. I have some awareness of my own strengths and failings. In the past I’ve undertaken psychometric testing and a personality assessment. What else is there to know?
As it happens, it is in this area of self-knowledge that the benefits of meditation are, for me, the most significant. For as I’ve come to discover, the practice of meditation provides an inner pathway – in a sense a road less travelled – which I know I will continue to follow until at least the end of this particular lifetime.
In trying to explain why, the best starting point is probably the definition of ‘knowledge.’ Generally speaking, we think of knowledge as a linear, single dimensional thing. A school leaver may have a certain level of knowledge about human biology. Seven years later, graduating from medical school, she will know much more. We take our faulty car to the garage because we trust the mechanic has greater knowledge than ourselves to identify and repair the problem. And so on.
But I don’t believe this is the kind of knowledge referred to in the phrase “Know thyself.” This form of knowledge, involving the accumulation and assimilation of information, is essentially intellectual. And there are other forms of knowledge, specifically conceptual and non-conceptual which, in this context, are of far greater value. The differences between these three forms of knowledge are perhaps best described by illustration.
Suppose we came across a man from a landlocked country who had never been to the sea, but who wanted to know what it was like. For the purposes of this example, we’ll also assume he’d never seen the sea on TV or at the movies either.
One way to explain the sea would be to sit him down and tell him all about the chemistry of the saline environment, the biology of the sea – flora and fauna – as well as the physics of the ocean, with the effects of the wind and gravity on the waves and tides. After such a lesson, the man would have an intellectual knowledge of the sea. If any of his fellow land-locked friends had the temerity to suggest that the sea was brown in colour, or that cattle grazed contentedly on the ocean bed, he could soon put them straight. But despite this intellectual knowledge would he really have very much idea what the sea was really like, or would it still be largely an intellectual abstraction?
A different way to deal with his request would be to suggest he visualise the biggest lake he’d ever seen, and then imagine the lake extending all the way to the horizon. We could describe waves forming and breaking, water rushing up a beach to where he is standing in his imagination, the smell of ozone and the calls of seagulls overhead. Using all the sense perceptions available, we could encourage him to build up an image as vivid as possible so that he developed a good conceptual knowledge of the sea.
His experience would naturally depend on the power of his imagination. Though his conceptual knowledge would be quite different from the intellectual approach. He would experience a similitude of the sea far more like the real thing. But when he opened his eyes, his conceptual vision of the sea would disappear, and he’d once again find himself in landlocked reality.
The best way, by far, to satisfy his curiosity, would be to put him on a plane, fly him to the nearest coastal resort, and book him into a beachside chalet for a fortnight. By the end of his stay he would know exactly what the sea is like, and his knowledge would be direct and first hand: non-conceptual.
It’s easy to see the advantages of non-conceptual knowledge over alternative approaches. Both intellectual and conceptual knowledge are dependent on other people and therefore unreliable. What if, a short time after our biology, chemistry and physics lesson, someone else turned up and refuted our description of the sea saying it was deeply flawed? We were having him on with our descriptions of dolphins, whales and fish – the sea is so salty there’s no life in it at all.
The fact that this new expert lived near the Dead Sea, and was therefore perfectly correct in terms of his own limited experience, only underlines the serious limitations of intellectual knowledge, which is necessarily restrictive and subject to instant revision.
Applying these three ways of knowing things to the injunction “Know thyself,” we make the unsettling discovery that most of what we take to be self-knowledge tends to be at the intellectual level.
We can, if prompted, rattle off our biographies, our work and family lives, our likes and dislikes, our fears and aspirations. We might describe our personal quirks, hobbies and prejudices. But how meaningful is any of that information? Just because we can give a comprehensive factual account of the entity labelled ‘me,’ ‘myself,’ or ‘I,’ like the man with the intellectual knowledge of the sea, do we really have very much idea what this ‘I’ is really like?
This may seem a shocking, if not outrageous idea. But let’s be honest about where all these facts and beliefs about me came from in the first place. Did we discover them for ourselves, or did we get them second hand? At a very young age, when we overheard Dad telling someone that we couldn’t hit a ball to save our lives, did that start the beginning of a self-fulfilling idea that we’re hopeless at sport? When the Maths teacher we secretly admired congratulated us on our quadratic equations, did this spur us on to tackle more advanced calculations with greater confidence?
And how firmly held are these ideas about ourselves? By the time we reach middle age, most of us have experienced enough ups and downs in our personal, marital or professional lives to know how profoundly a turn of events can change long-held ideas about who we are and what’s important to us. Even without major personal earthquakes, little by little our priorities and attitudes naturally shift as we negotiate our way through different life stages.
It has become a cliché that the erstwhile bad boys of art and pop over time become members of the very establishment they once rebelled against. Die-hard socialists become the most venal capitalists. Carnivores become vegetarians – and back again. Pillars of society decamp to sunny, coastal resorts with their executive assistants.
And what’s going on when we say we believe certain things, then behave in a completely contradictory way? We say we want to lose weight, but don’t stop stuffing our faces with comfort food. We claim that world peace is important, but are always giving our spouse, kids and colleagues a hard time. Do our actions negate our sincerity, or is there some other explanation for our behaviour?
What I’ve tried to do in these few paragraphs – and it would be easy to go on – is simply to illustrate how it’s possible for us to have the most detailed and coherent ideas about who we are, but like all intellectual abstractions, these beliefs may not be very relevant, accurate or could be subject to abrupt change. How much value do they really have?
Meditation provides an entirely different approach. Instead of intellectual elaborations, it provides us with the means of knowing ourselves both conceptually, and ultimately, non-conceptually. Just as a whole load of facts and figures about the sea are not the sea, so too all the thoughts we have about me are not me. The label is not the product. If we really want to know me, we have to clear our minds of all conceptions, interruptions and distractions and find out what’s really there.
This is why when we sit on our cushions and focus our minds on just one thing, we are doing something unique that goes against all our usual mental behaviour. We are allowing our minds to settle.
An illustration of this point, which I particularly like, is the jar of swirling grey storm water. Allow it to rest for half an hour and the sediment falls to the bottom, providing perfect clarity. In much the same way, when we consciously focus our minds in meditation, if we are able to free ourselves from all the usual discursive thinking, we can start to see ourselves for who and what we really are.
Or as Dr Kabbat-Zinn puts it: “Dwelling in stillness and looking inward for some part of each day, we touch what is most real and reliable in ourselves and most easily overlooked and undeveloped. When we can be centred in ourselves, even for brief periods of time in the face of the pull of the outer world, not having to look elsewhere for something to fill us up or make us happy, we can be at home wherever we find ourselves, at peace with things as they are, moment by moment.”
Of course the best way to encounter ourselves is directly or non-conceptually, in a state of deep meditative equipoise. But this takes a lot of practise. Most of us can only hope to catch brief glimpses of our true state of being in our early years of meditation before, like clouds concealing a mountain peak, agitation or dullness get in the way.
Which is why we need to continue in our efforts, inspired by a conceptual account of our ultimate nature. Just as we might encourage the land-locked man to create a vivid image of what the sea may be like, so too when we start to meditate it helps to imagine how it might be if our mind was undistracted.
Some of the inspiration for what we are trying to experience non-conceptually tells us that our ultimate nature is like a cloudless sky: boundless, perfectly clear, undisturbed by any form of agitation. It is a state of peacefulness and bliss, paradoxically both empty of anything as well as offering the potential for everything – because all things begin with thought. This “open field” state is one in which our usually tightly-held sense of me-ness dissolves into a more panoramic vista that things simply are, without subject or object, self or other.
To me, even just to catch a glimpse of this ‘self’ is the most important benefit of meditation. I know of no other practice which has the potential to transform my understanding of who, or what, I am – and, by contrast, what I am not.
For like the once land-locked man emerging from the waves onto the beach at the end of his first day in the sea, once we have experienced the reality of who we are at a direct, non-conceptual level, no one can take the experience away from us. And we can never go back to believing ourselves to be merely a collection of intellectual beliefs and abstractions. We know that all that stuff is merely transient, ever-changing – the clouds rather than the sky.
The self with its personal quirks, hobbies and prejudices is not the subject of the edict “Know thyself.’ Rather it is the self that is subject to no boundaries, that experiences the unity of all, that abides in a state of blissful transcendence, which it is our life’s true purpose to discover.
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