“Know Thyself” was written on the wall of the ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It is the basic requirement of our work. Our approach is observation of self.
Notice that the Delphic advice is not to accumulate self-knowledge or to learn about yourself. To know is an active quality that occurs in the present…not knowledge but knowing. Framing in language what is known, what has been observed, is not the aim. Conclusions are not the aim. As soon as you think you know yourself, you have ceased to know.
Fortunately, our self is constantly revealing itself…in gestures, postures, facial expressions, tone of voice and so on. We begin there. Perhaps you would like to know about your soul or spirit or you would like to observe thought. These diversions will yield nothing. Begin with objective facts.
I must learn to know. I have many ways of not knowing such as thinking, analyzing and assuming that I already know.
Another great obstacle to knowing is partiality. Consider an example. I sense that I am experiencing a state of physical agitation. My breath is quick and shallow. My diaphragm is contracted and my hands are clenched. Mind recognizes this as anger and the word arises. No problem so far. I know this state. Knowing and recognizing are not antagonists as long as I remain attentive to present facts.
Perhaps I see that the anger is a reaction to words spoken by another. Still no problem. This is knowing. These are facts.
Do I now justify my anger? Do I criticize myself for being angry? Do I experience guilt and try to hide my anger? As soon as I engage in any of these things, I no longer observe impartially. At this point, I am self-observing. One of my identities, perhaps the one that feels guilty or the one that blames others, has stepped into the role of judge. This is the moment of truth. If I see this occur, this process of identification, perhaps I can observe the judge, the critic, the blamer, the partial self that seeks to take control. Can this identity be the observed, and not become the observer? If so, knowing self continues.
When I am partial, one part of me observes another part. When I am impartial, all parts of self are observed. This is the difference between self-observation and observation of self.
Who or what is the ‘I’ that observes impartially? It is attention, and the seat of attention which we call presence.
Many times a day, impartial observations occur. We have moments of non-identification, moments of being present. We see our self in operation. Then our reactions take us out of these moments.
Therefore, our reactions are key material to observe. In doing so, can we learn not to identify with them? Knowing precisely the process of falling into identification and remaining outside of it is a great skill that arises from observing self. Can we trust that repeated impartial observation is sufficient to neutralize our reactions? That impartial observing is the genuine path to unlearning them? Or do we let our identities take charge, falsely assuming that they can overturn themselves?
When reactions lose their power, there is much more to see. Beneath the reactions you will find the being that they have obscured.