Article by Maurice Gibbons
Know thyself….The unexamined life is not worth living. - Socrates
Get a Glimmer
In the introduction to his book, What Should I Do with My Life? Paul Bronson says that when his old life was no longer working, he became interested in people who unearthed their true calling. He says, Nothing seemed more brave to me than facing up to one’s own identity, and filtering out the chatter that tells us to be someone we are not.
In the midst of his own transition, he began asking others how they handled theirs. And what has he found? That there are amazing stories everywhere of people daring to be true to themselves.
If you want to be one of those people, you will likely “only get a glimmer” of the direction to follow, and then it will be up to you to find your path and fight the devils you will meet along the way.
Bronson cites the example of the man who blamed himself for his brother’s suicide, which impaired all of his other relationships, especially his relationship with his daughter. When he discussed it with a confidante who had a similar experience, they both realized that they were taking responsibility for events that had nothing to do with them.
If we examine important events in our lives, that often opens a doorway through which we get a glimmer of ourselves.
Who is this?
If I ask, “Who are you?” how do you feel? Do you pass it off as weird, or does it hit you like a punch in the mind? The fact is that many of us have no idea who we are and don’t want to find out the truth. We are in hiding, and in denial about who is really lurking within us.
My friend Alex told me that his marriage was in trouble, that his wife left him a note and then disappeared. When he found her and convinced her to go with him to a counselor, it came out that he has regular fits of anger and had sworn at her several times. Even so, he denied that he had an anger problem even while saying he would do anything if they could get back together again. Alex not only did not know who he was, he didn’t want to know. He chose to be an illusion. He never addressed his anger; they never got back together again.
Do You Want to Know?
So the first thing about knowing yourself is that you have to want to know. That requires a firm determination to see yourself with fresh eyes, and sight that can crack through the shells we have formed to repel the truth.
The best way to make this breakthrough is in the company of others whom you trust, perhaps a good friend who knows you and will be a fair witness to your struggle to see yourself clearly. Or see a counselor who can guide your search and hold you to the path.
Look in Two Directions
Once you are on the hunt, you can look in two directions: one outward to the world of things, people, and events; and the other inward to the world of thoughts, feelings, and memories. Whichever direction you choose to begin with, it will inevitably lead you to the other. Outer and inner are interactive; each is a part of the one thing.
If Alex at last sees his anger, he will have to look inward to find out where his anger comes from, and then he will have to look out ward again and decide how he will change the way that he is in the world. He will have to find another way to handle his frustrations.
As you look outward, you can learn a lot about who you are, too. Look around you. Do you have a lot of books or none? Is there athletic equipment and games everywhere? Is your kitchen large and well used; do you love to cook and are meals events? What do your surroundings tell you about yourself? Think of it as a kind of science experiment: “What does what I see happening in this lab of my life indicate about who I am?”
My home-office, for example, is full of books, papers, equipment, and art. It’s a mess. My wife’s office is impeccable; neat, organized, collections of Dinky Toys carefully displayed, everything in its place. Our spaces reveal a lot about us.
A good start is to list the things out there that are distinctively you--your spaces, clothes, habits, activities--anything that you sense reveals something about you. And then write opposite each item what you think it tells about you. My messiness tells me I like things in motion, I like to have things happening; but I’m also lazy. I waste a lot of time looking for lost things. Maybe I have an undisciplined mind, too. So order is worth working on--even a basic order in bins would be a start.
That’s one look outside; now let’s look inside. Situations that stimulate strong feelings within you can also reveal a lot about who you are too.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the wonderful feeling that he calls “flow,” a feeling that comes when we are very skilled, working in a field we love, and become so absorbed that time stands still. We are carried along in the flow that many people report as their peak experience. If you experience flow, you know that the activity involved is an important part of who you are. How many such signature fields of experience can you identify? You can include activities that are almost there--that are just really interesting, too.
You are made up of a lot of great things that reveal wonderful things about you. Do you love music and do you play an instrument, or would you like to? Do you donate to causes or do you volunteer your time to help people? Do you spend time with family and friends regularly and enjoy their company? Do you work hard at a job for pay or not, and do it well? Is there something else that you do that gives you pleasure and satisfaction?
We need to know these things about ourselves so that we can appreciate them and to feel good about who we are. These form the groundwork for self-esteem, that great power-giver for contentment and productivity.
Our Revealing Difficulties
We can also see ourselves reflected in our difficulties, and not only learn about ourselves, but also discover opportunities to become more like the person we want to be.
Alex needed to recognize that he gets angry and to understand why. It turns out that he has been getting angry since he was a child. He remembers being ‘beaten with an ironing cord’ for minor offences by a father who was also an angry man. When he realized this, Alex had a choice; to continue reenacting his father’s anger, or to recognize his behavior as dysfunctional and decide to change his response.
We all have that choice in the face of behavior that doesn’t work. Look for moments in which your initiatives or responses bring out reactions that you don’t want and don’t expect. Be prepared to deal with your own denial as Alex had to. Select one example of behavior that doesn’t work and find its roots, understand why you respond that way, and make adjustments that will improve the situation for you. Brainstorm alternative things that you might have done in that situation and select the best response. Mentally rehearse using the new response when the situation arises again, then actually use it when the situation does occur.
Alex did a lot of work on why he got so angry when his expectations were frustrated. Finally, he realized that he didn’t have a reason; he was simply imitating the model he had at home. His reaction was physical and emotional. Once triggered by frustration he did what he called “Huffing and puffing” and then he found the words. He worked on relaxing and stopping his auto-response.
As with any self-exploration, If you feel the slightest discomfort during any of these activities, stop and see a professional counselor. ************************************************
Turning inward to compile an inventory of our essential features can be daunting, especially since we are not looking at a solid substantial thing, like a fish or a cucumber, but rather something elusive, dynamic, marked by shifting darkness and light as the events of our lives tumble and flow.
Still with a little care and sleuthing, we can find themes and in those themes, traces of ourselves. Finding the traces takes attention and practice. Once we slip through the portals to our inner selves, we start with the basics and can proceed to the more mysterious and esoteric experiences within ourselves.
The simplest are the products of our senses, but even they require attention and rehearsal. When I attended a personal development workshop at Big Sur years ago, the fellow sitting next to me was asked to lock eyes with the trainer and tell her what his hands were doing. They were cupped in his lap, but he strained and twisted in his seat, then finally looked down to find out. That was the most extreme case of alienation from one’s own senses that I have ever seen, and underscores the importance of the first step in self-knowledge, and that is being in touch with the world through our senses, and sharpening them so that we have a clear picture of the world and ourselves in it. It’s twelve o’clock; do you know where your hands are?
A Proposed Catalogue for Starting Your Inner inventory
Think of turning inward as entering a world and universe as vast as the ones that surround you. Here are some of the layers we encounter. Each of these fields can be distinguished from the others, and each can be experienced and practiced.
1. The inputs of your senses.
2. Your thoughts—those you experience and those you generate.
3. Your feelings—what you feel now, and what you have felt at other times.
4. Your memories—what you recall of your life and work.
5. Your visions—products of your imagination, what you create.
6. Your assumptions—the concepts about yourself, others, and the world that you believe to be true.
7. Your values—the attitudes, behavior, and convictions that you consider important and use to guide your life.
8. Your intuition—what you sense to be true even without evidence to support you.
9. Belief—what you believe about the mysteries of life that are difficult to answer.
Turning inward is most easily conducted in quiet solitude that allows you to concentrate on your inner experience without interruption. Once you are relaxed and in focus, you can turn your attention to any of these ten themes and practice your ability to experience them and work with them.
There is no upper limit to practice for any of them, even something as simple as listening. You may know that it’s music, that it’s classical music; you may know that it’s Bach and that it’s The Brandenberg Concertos, but can you tell who is playing and if he is playing well? You can continue to experience and develop all of these themes and in so doing you will continue to enhance yourself. We are a fascinating study, especially to ourselves. And the amazing thing is that as we enhance our experience of ourselves, the same process is developing who we are. Alex, by dealing with his anger, not only solves a problem, he also opens up new possibilities in his life. Make this journey into yourself the richest cruise you have ever taken.
Remember to be aware of any discomfort you feel when you are working with your inner self. We cannot, and do not, take any responsibility for what you will actually experience because people are all so different. So monitor yourself. Stop if you feel any stress and, if necessary, seek professional help. ************************************************