‘Know thyself’… Pausanius tells us it was inscribed in the court before the temple of Apollo at Delphi. We are given to understand it is associated too with the Inner Temples in ancient Egypt. It is one of the first phrases we come across in esoteric studies and where else could we begin? It is not the easiest thing to look into the mirror of the soul and admit to oneself what one finds there. Even less to share that openly with others by dropping the social masks and simply being who we are.
I first learned the concept as a child from my grandfather, but it was one it took years to begin to truly understand and longer still to try and put into practice. As we grow through adolescence and youth our self-image constantly shifts, changing as it reflects the desire to become who we think we ought to be, the image we feel the world should see, the mirage of our desire to become something different, perhaps, from who we are.
I have a feeling that it is only later that we have the inner space to truly look into that mirror, and by that time the masks we wear are so firmly in place it is difficult to strip them away and see what lies beneath. Many of us find it difficult to admit our worse characteristics, our fragilities and weaknesses. Even more, perhaps, do we find it difficult to truly admit our good points, gifts and talents as human beings. Our society tends to call this pride or ego and we see that as something to be shunned. Yet why should we fail to recognise the good when we can, it seems, accept the flaws far more easily? We are complex creatures.
Of course, unless we know ourselves from all angles, understanding who we are, how we move in the world, what the impulses are behind our reactions and actions, we cannot even begin to make a conscious change. Without that knowledge the changes that occur naturally through time and experience are simply reactions. Yet there is a difference , too, between knowledge and understanding. A child may know that fire is hot and learn not to touch. A parent sees the danger of the invisible ‘fire’ in radiators, hot irons, cookers… and understands how to keep the child safe.
I want to learn, to know. To understand. Both inwardly and outwardly… my inner self and the life around me, for I feel the two to be inextricably linked. Life, of course, involves me in a very personal way, the ultimate intimacy. It demands that I take account of, and responsibility for, thought, word and deed… it demands my awareness and my active participation in my own conscience, my own being. And this awareness is not separate from the rest of my life, but permeates every part of it. It provides the matrix by which I can live with my eyes open, allowing me to begin to glimpse the pattern.
Yet I was reminded recently that there is more to the phrase than the two words so often quoted. It is said that in learning to know oneself one can begin, however dimly, to see God. Whatever Name we choose to give to the Divine, there is that small spark of Light, a memory of our origins, and perhaps a foreshadowing of our destination, burning brightly like a jewel in the soul. Perhaps we have to look beyond not only the masks society sees us wearing, but also beyond the complex contradictions of the human personality we assume, to see that spark of Light within.
Not only is there a need to understand the impulses and characteristics that move us through the world daily, wearing a familiar face, but there is, I think, a need to look deeper towards the inner mysteries of who we are. By turning inwards in silence, which may at first glance, seem a self-centred thing to do, perhaps we are actually opening ourselves to a reality wider, vaster, deeper than we may see elsewhere, and by looking within we open ourselves to the whole wonderful vista of manifestation?