The people I trust the most are those who are always tenderly wrestling and negotiating with their own shadows, making pre-emptive strikes on their personal share of the world’s evil, fighting the good fight to keep from spewing their darkness on those around them. I aspire to be like that, which is why I regularly kick my own ass.
– Rob Brezsny
I may be a little unusual, maybe even a little weird, but from a very young age, I have been obsessed with knowing myself. I wanted to know the good, the bad and the ugly – what made me tick, what pressed my buttons, what turned me on and what turned me off. I would look for clues in numerology, astrology, palmistry, the enneagram and various personality tests; later I would use yoga, meditation, writing, reading and various self-awareness techniques to further plumb the depths of my own self.
But why? What’s it all about, and why, after more than 40 years on this planet, do I still feel as though there will always be more work to be done? I can’t fully explain it, but it’s something to do with this idea I have that the work we do on ourselves is some of the most important work that we can do for this world. Maybe it’s my strong feelings about not wanting to fall into the trap of being complacent, self-satisfied and arrogant that keeps me on the path. Or maybe it’s that icky feeling of not being honest with myself, of falling for my own bullshit that I hate.
To be truly honest with ourselves requires courage, awareness, time and silence. It requires presence and awareness. We need to ask ourselves lots of questions about our actions, reactions, beliefs and thoughts and take nothing for granted. I know that other people think like this as well, people who are truly my heroes, such as Byron Katie and her The Work (available for free on her website), who has given us four questions to challenge our thoughts with deep and compassionate inquiry. Brene Brown, in her book Rising Strong, asks herself constantly: What is this story I am making up? Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now asks us to come back to our body, to connect deeply with the present moment, and to remind ourselves of what is actually happening now, rather than at some imagined time in the past or present.
My point is that although your work can only be done by you, we don’t have to do it alone. I am fortunate enough to have a partner of nearly 18 years who knows and loves me me very deeply, and who just happens to be my favourite butt kicker, both mine and his. I often return the favour :). My mother also has the capacity to bring certain things to my attention – you may have a valued therapist, friend or relative to do this for you.
Craving and pursuing deep knowledge of oneself sounds kind of selfish to some people, and I get how a person might think that. In my view, however, to live an unexamined life, where you are acting, speaking and thinking unconsciously, causing harm and distress to other people, is the selfish choice. The other aspect to self-knowledge is that it puts you in touch with your gifts and purpose, with which you can do good in the world. Knowledge is power, and self-knowledge gives you the power of your Self. You know what you like and what you don’t like. You know how you are feeling and why. You know what to do to patch yourself together after a rough day, and you know how to make choices that are right for you, no matter what the external pressures are. My friends, these are uncommon abilities, and I’m not sure why.
Actually, I think I do know. We think being honest with ourselves is scary. But you should know that shining the light of your attention on your inner mind is like turning the light on in a dark room. Filling the dark room with light is not the frightening part – the dark room is the frightening part. What we don’t know frightens us; so knowing more moves us away from fear to what I think is fear’s opposite – understanding. With understanding comes insight, forgiveness and compassion, not just for yourself, but for everyone. That’s my aim, and that’s why I never get sick of this work.
This week, when something presses your buttons, ask yourself, what is really going on? Have you felt this way before? What is the emotion behind the emotion? What is the story that you have just made up about the person or the situation? Write it all down, let it sink in and prepare to be amazed at how things are not how you thought they were at all.