It was my freshman year of high school. Among my every day courses in biology, algebra, composition, biology, and history, there was one course that only met one time each week. I looked forward to it. There wasn’t a text book nor was there home work. It was more informal than the other courses, with lots of discussion. It was simply called “freshman guidance.”
The class was taught by the freshman guidance counselor: a rather large man who sweated profusely and often bellowed in the hallways, yelling at students while his face turned red and veins bulged in his neck. Even at the young age of 14, I couldn’t miss the irony of this generally out-of-control man having the responsibility to provide us with “guidance.” (The man did not live a long life, dying from a heart attack.)
Despite the guidance counselor’s very obvious personal limitations, there were lessons he taught that I continue to carry with me. Among them was the day he walked into the classroom, took hold of a piece of chalk, and abrupty wrote on the black slate board a two word dictum: “Know thyself!”
The origin of the aphorism, “Know thyself,” is attributed to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It’s a phrase found in Plato’s accounts of the discourses of Socrates. A similar sentiment is also found in Egyptian temples.
While I didn’t grasp the significance of this wisdom when I was a freshman in high school, knowing oneself is an essential element for personal and spiritual growth. Self knowledge enables us to live in the present moment. It prevents us from allowing the demons of our past and the worries about the future from drawing us off course. Self knowledge provides us with the ability to befriend and be comfortable with ourselves, including both our limitations and our strengths.
The great Spanish mystic of the Christian tradition, Teresa of Avila, understood self knowledge as essential for healthy spirituality. In her autobiography, she wrote:
“This path of self-knowledge must never be abandoned, nor is there on this journey a soul so much a giant that it has no need to return often to the stage of an infant and suckling….There is no stage of prayer so sublime that it isn’t necessary to return to the beginning. Along this path of prayer, self-knowledge and the thought of one’s sins is the bread with which all palates must be fed no matter how delicate they may be; they cannot be sustained without this bread. It must be eaten within bounds, nonetheless.”
From this quote, we come to understand that self-knowledge is an essential aspect of the spiritual journey. Self-knowledge includes the awareness of the ways we miss the mark – the ways we fail to be the people we were created to be. But Teresa also understands that the quest for self-knowledge and an awareness of personal frailty can lead to self-preoccupation and self-absorption. There’s always a need for balance. In other words, we need to grow in knowledge of self while also leading our lives in full, rich ways. (Remember that Teresa is also known for frequent jokes, a hearty laugh, and the love of chocolate!)
Knowing oneself is also an outgrowth of the practice of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. The Buddhist practice of living in a disciplined awareness of self in the present moment enables us to let go of illusions about self and to live with acceptance of self and one’s surroundings. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s adaptation of mindfulness meditation as a technique in cognitive therapy helps to illustrate how mindfulness can lead to self-knowledge by growing in awareness of one’s thoughts and changing what is unhelpful in what one says to self.
Know thyself. It’s been more than a few years since I first heard these words in the freshman guidance class. As it turns out, it’s really a life-long lesson. My experience is that the more I learn about myself, the more pervasive my wonder with the mystery of life becomes. So it is that I come to reiterate Teresa’s words of wisdom, “This path of self-knowledge must never be abandoned.”
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.