Self knowledge

‘He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.’

― Lao Tzu

If knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon famously said, then self-knowledge can be seen as self-empowerment. We think this should be easy – after all, who better to know us than us ourselves? Yet, among the rush and stress of daily life, it can be surprisingly difficult to have a sense of what’s really going on inside us. In the midst of countless stimuli coming at us from outside, our internal signals can often remain unnoticed – that is, until they become so strong they can no longer be ignored. A major health crisis, the breakdown of a relationship, finding ourselves on the wrong side of the power dynamics at work – these common scenarios were often preceded by months if not years of subtle signals which we might have been ignoring at our cost.

It’s as if the temperature inside us is gradually increasing in intensity, bubbling away and gaining steam, until one day the lid is blown off and we literally ‘lose it’. This can be an outbreak of violence, such as a road rage incidence, or it can be more covert. Most of us would probably not attack someone physically, but we might become sarcastic, make some snide comment designed to hurt, or engage in passive-aggressive behaviour in the office or with our family. We might tell our boss a few home truths which would have been better addressed in a more professional manner, or we might say to our partner ‘not now’ when they want to raise a concern with us, stonewalling behind the fact it’s Friday night, or Sunday morning, or just never the right time to talk. Regardless of how it is expressed in our lives, this subterranean simmering tension, if not addressed, is unlikely to bring out the best in us.

By mindfully attuning to the early, very subtle signals, we can deal with our issues at a much earlier stage, before they get out of hand. We might notice a subtle tightening in the pit of our stomach every time we walk into the office, and ask ourselves – ‘what is going on here?’ We might feel nervous when confronting a relative, but be aware that this is a conversation which must be had, even if it is difficult for us. We might also notice subtle signs that some of our behaviour is no longer aligning with our values. Perhaps we ‘forgot’ to invite a less popular colleague to drinks after work, and notice sensations of discomfort in our bodies when we realise he or she is really feeling quite hurt.

By tuning in regularly to our bodily sensations, thought patterns and emotions, we are acting from a place of greater clarity and understanding. We do become more ‘enlightened’, as Lao Tzu said, in that we are shining an illuminating light on aspects of our lives we may have preferred to ignore.

Weekly practice idea:

Stop from time to time, and notice any bodily sensations, emotions, or thought patters. They may be subtle, or quite intense. What are these signals trying to tell you – and are you willing to take their message on board?

Anja Tanhane