Self knowledge and Selflessness

True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self. (1)

One of the distinguishing features of human beings is the capacity for self-knowledge.  Animals are wonderful but there is no evidence that they spend a lot of time reflecting.  A common objection to the development of self-knowledge is that it will lead to selfishness.  This happens because self-knowledge is often confused with pride and conceit. 

However, as the Holy Books of all religions recommend knowing yourself and also recommend selflessness perhaps the road to selflessness might include self-knowledge? After all, you literally can’t forget what you don’t know.

It’s like driving. Once you become a competent driver, you’re no longer conscious of every single thing you do as you drive.  In effect, you ‘forget’ you are driving.  But it is essential for you to really know how to drive before this forgetting can happen.

Mastery of anything – including the self – is only possible through knowledge, so perhaps if we are also interested in being selfless as well as being in control of ourselves, then perhaps we must first have a good understanding of who we really are and how we work.

Diversity Rules – OK

There are hundreds of examples of how two or more seemingly opposite things can happily co-exist.  Take for example, the use of colour in mourning rituals – black is the traditional colour of mourning in some cultures, in other cultures white is used to signify mourning, in this simple instance three truths co-exist.

  • A: Some people believe they must wear black when they mourn;
  • B: Some people believe they must wear white when they mourn;
  • C: Colour has no intrinsic value to the mourning process but can be used to symbolize feelings that are difficult to express which makes it a useful statement of emotional state.

A useful first step in understanding anything – including ourselves and others – is realising that there is no need for dichotomies or indeed multichotomies.  It is entirely possible for two – or more – things to be true at any given time, especially when we add the element of subjectivity.  Once we become comfortable with this fact we can relax quite a lot as we are no longer required to defend our own experience of reality.  Learning to think for ourselves requires that we know ourselves.  Once we ‘know’ ourselves we can ‘forget’ ourselves – but not until then.

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. (2)

TomorrowThe Laughter of the Gods

(1) Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 156

(2) Tao Te Ching

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