From the time I was a small boy, the words “Know ThySelf” have reverberated like an echo throughout my life and consciousness. I remember first reading these words in the Book of Knowledge, a set of encyclopedias my mother purchased from a door to door salesman for my brother and I to expand our world beyond the ghetto streets of Trenton, New Jersey. The words made reference to an inscription on the sacred oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The next time I encountered this epithet was in college as a philosophy major studying the works of Plato. Then again while reading one of my favorite poets, Rumi, who asks the question,
“Who am I in the midst of all this traffic of thoughts?”
These words then appeared in a more modern mode in the Matrix movie series over the kitchen doorway of the matronly oracle of the movie.
Know thyself. Is that even possible? The self or what we think of as the self, the who that we are, is always changing. I am not the same person I was as a college student, nor as a young father, nor as I was a year ago, or yesterday for that matter. The self is always in flux. How many times have we said or at least thought, “He’s not than same person I once knew? He has changed.” We all change as a part of the natural flow of life. Biologically our total cellular makeup is almost completely replaced every eighteen hours. We must adopt or perish insisted Darwin.
In light of constant change, it would seem we might only know the self in retrospect. It is knowing the self by retrieving the story of one’s own life in the way one would write a biography. A biographer reviews his life after the events comprising that life have occurred and not as they happen. The act of recording an event filters the event and the self. We record our reactions and fill in the blanks as best we can. To know one’s self seemingly would entail knowing how we would react before our actual actions occur, but is that possible?
My instructor in the martial arts was a scholar as well as a teacher. He did not believe in “what if” scenarios. When asked how to defend a particular hold or attack, his answer was always the same.
Open your eyes, clear your mind, focus. Give attention to whatever is in your immediate field of energy.
This, I learned later, is the key to every situation one is confronted with in life. It is most important to focus on what is directly confronting you in that moment. In that moment of confrontation with either the self or another opponent nothing else matters. When our reactions are automatic, it is akin to having a habit. We do not clearly access the situation and respond from instinct. I learned this lesson when walking home one night a friend came up behind me to surprise me and I reacted by throwing him to the ground. I did not access the situation. I reacted to what I thought was the situation.
There have been times in my life when I thought I knew myself, but I now believe that knowing one’s self completely at all times is not possible. You have to evaluate each person and each situation on a case-by-case basis. Doing so consistently is the closest one can get to knowing one’s self. Not your reaction to a situation but your consistent method of response to any situation. That response is to “Open your eyes, clear your mind, and focus.”