Monday, April 21, 2014

Know Thyself

Do you have a moment to talk about your lord and savior? Don't worry, I haven't converted. I'm not talking about Jesus Christ or any other religious figure.

I'm talking about you.

We've already discussed how your brain defines the reality you experience, how denying or ignoring certain negative aspects of yourself leads to misery, and how happiness resides within. If you're still following along, you'll notice that the above themes all have one thing in common: you.

If you're looking for salvation, look in the mirror. You hold the key to your own happiness, well-being, and success. Only you, not some mythological being or historical figure, can make your life a torturous hell or paradise of delights.

If I founded a new religion, "Know Thyself" might very well be the first commandment.

Objective reality exists. It's all around you. But what you experience is a subjective model of reality generated by your senses and brain. This model is unique unto you; it's colored by your past experiences, biases, and a slew of other factors. If you ignore the underlying factors that influence your model of reality, you lose the ability to experience objective reality as it truly is. 

In other words, you can never know anything accurately without first knowing yourself as you truly are.

Knowing yourself requires vigilance. You must constantly monitor thoughts as they enter your mind, assessing their value and accuracy. You must also seek out hidden biases, judgments, irrational beliefs, inconsistencies, and contradictions hiding in your psyche. The sole purpose of these is deception. They are impediments to enlightenment and must be yanked from your mind as one yanks weeds from a garden, so that they never take root again.
This constant self-questioning can be tiresome. It can also be painful. The ego is never completely dissolved. It always keeps a foothold in your psyche and will often pipe up, especially after you discover a fallacy that is central to your character. Uncovering nasty habits and long-held prejudices in yourself stings. You may feel disappointed, ashamed, or plain embarrassed. It's important to remember that every painful revelation is an opportunity for growth and self-improvement.

There is no shame in doing wrong unknowingly, only in leaving known wrongs untouched. Silence your ego, resolve to amend whatever thought or behavior caused you shame, and move on.

So, are you ready to meet the real you? Good. It's a bumpy road to enlightenment but if you open your mind and heart to the journey, you will learn things about yourself you never knew existed.

In order to understand the process by which one comes to know oneself accurately, we must discuss  two aspects or byproducts of the human psyche and how each one relates to the other. Here I will refer directly to Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and one-time partner to Sigmund Freud, whose work has had an immense influence on modern psychology.

The central thesis to Jungian psychology is the process of individuation, by which the two halves of human psyche--the conscious and subconscious mind--are integrated together while maintaining their relative autonomy. According to Jung, the conscious and subconscious minds speak entirely different languages. The conscious mind--the narrator in your head, the voice of your inner-deliberations--speaks in words while the subconscious--the storage shed where all the stuff that never made it to your conscious mind is kept--speaks via instincts and symbols.

This lack of communication between the two halves makes it difficult for you to explore the hidden catacombs of your psyche. The conscious mind is largely in your control but it is also subject to powerful influence from your subconscious. Your subconscious connects memories and emotions together, cementing biases and prejudices without the consent of your conscious mind. A traumatic event in your early childhood might dictate your thoughts and behavior long after the memory has been relegated to the vaults. This connection between an event and a set of emotions is difficult to sever.

Now your subconscious attempts to communicate with you in a variety of ways but its messages, spoken in an entirely foreign language, require some deciphering.

Jung, like Freud, spent a great deal of time analyzing the dreams of his patients over the course of his career. Unlike Freud, who thought dreams carried messages of hidden desires (often of a sexual nature), Jung believed that dreams were symbolic messages from the subconscious mind. He found that dream-symbols were archetypical, meaning that they appeared in much the same form in the dreams of all people regardless of age, genre, or culture. It was this discovery, along with the universal themes of far-flung myths and religions, that fueled Jung's theory of a collective unconscious shared by all humankind.

Dreams are not the only means by which you can come to know your hidden self. Bits and pieces of your subconscious are constantly floating up to the surface by way of habits. Whether physical or mental, habits are automated programs that hide in your subconscious and affect your thoughts, speech, and actions at the surface level.  By turning a critical eye onto yourself, you can often discover underlying issues buried in your subconscious.

Habits of mind and body are formed through repetition. So if your friend is a notorious exaggerator and liar who constantly proclaims himself to be a paragon of truth, you can safely assume that he lacks knowledge of self. The way he envisions himself is at odds with his dishonest behavior, which was hammered into its present shape by constant repetition. This friend lies so much it has become a habit; meanwhile, his conscious mind recognizes that dishonesty is a bad quality and denies the behaviour.

How can such a person ever come to know others accurately? How can he ever know objective, unfiltered reality if the very means by which he explores and interacts with reality is skewed, twisted, or distorted?

"I look gooooooood"
If you wish to see yourself as you are, listen to your subconscious. Scrutinize your thoughts, words, and deeds constantly, taking care to eliminate inconsistencies, fallacies, biases, and prejudices regardless of their source. That is the only way to remove the veil from your eyes and see the universe for what it truly is.

As Jung puts it,
as long as [man] is unable to control his moods and emotions, or to be conscious of the myriad secret ways in which unconscious factors insinuate themselves into his arrangements and decisions, he is certainly not his own master.
Or as Nietzsche put it, "Where pride is insistent enough, memory prefers to give way."

Know thyself.