A Way to Live: The Path of Self-Knowledge



For all the scarcity in the world, one thing we never seem to be lacking is advice. We’re constantly deluged with exhortations of one sort or another – for diet, exercise, health, wealth, happiness, spiritual illumination. Of course these pieces of advice often conflict.

The question then becomes, whose advice do we take? There are few, if any, sources of authority that have not been called into doubt: church, society, government, the media, even the grand edifice of science itself. Consequently we’re thrown back on ourselves as the final arbiters of our own decisions, and while this may give a sense of freedom, that very freedom can feel dizzying and disorienting.

In putting together some brief suggestions about how to live one’s life, I’m making no claim to grand success or touting myself as a model, but having looked at many of these things from the perspective of the Western esoteric traditions, I can at least offer a few thoughts.

To my mind, there is one and only one universal and inflexible commandment that is to be applied at all times and in all situations: it is the old Greek axiom inscribed in Apollo’s temple at Delphi, Gnothi seauton: “Know thyself.” This exhortation has many levels of meaning. At the most basic level, it calls us to understand the truth about ourselves and our actions in daily life – such as knowing how many cups of coffee you can drink without facing insomnia tonight, or recognising how far you can be trusted (or trust yourself) in a delicate moral situation. Could you spend a weekend alone with your best friend’s spouse and keep everything above board? Maybe you can, maybe you can’t.

Knowing yourself in this relentlessly honest way, making what the Twelve-Step programs call “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” is necessary not only for freeing oneself from addiction but for facing the challenges of day-to-day life as well. It calls for a merciless honesty in realising all one’s weaknesses and limitations – but without the insane and compulsive guilt that often results from such realisation. It does little good to moan, like the more fanatical Christian saints or characters in Dostoyevsky’s novels, about how you are the most wretched sinner on earth, particularly since in all likelihood the truth is that you are no better and no worse than anyone else.

This realisation may be deflating (we all want to excel and will choose to excel in our sins if we lack any alternative), but it’s also freeing. Furthermore, it leads to the next dimension of knowing yourself: having compassion. The French have a saying: Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner: “To know all is to forgive all.” This is applied to ourselves as well. Christ urges us to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). In one sense, this verse means that in order to live in any truly meaningful way, we have to see ourselves with two eyes: one of remorseless honesty, one of forgiveness and compassion. If we lack one or the other, life soon goes out of balance. Compassion without honesty becomes a license for anything; honesty without compassion breeds pathological guilt.

Given these principles, how are we to apply them to everyday life? Let’s begin with our relationship to the body. Not so long ago, what was healthy was (or seemed) reasonably clear: a balanced diet, regular exercise, moderation in (or abstention from) use of alcohol or tobacco. Today, on the other hand, we’re deluged with claims that any number of things in our daily lives are bad for us. There is probably no food product that hasn’t been hailed by one source as a cure-all and damned by another as a poison. Fruits and vegetables? Laced with pesticides. Meat? Riddled with antibiotics and hormones. Water? Polluted. Even organic products have come under suspicion. If we took all these claims seriously, we would be unable to let a single morsel pass our lips.

Claims about what’s healthy are often equally preposterous. I was amused, for example, by a study conducted by Harvard University several years ago. It showed that men who ate more than ten servings of tomatoes a day had a 35 percent reduced risk of prostate cancer. Even if we grant that the study was sound, who is going to eat ten servings of tomatoes a day? Probably if you did, the harm done to your stomach by the acid in the tomatoes would probably more than outweigh the benefits to your prostate. And this is merely one item. If you multiplied this sort of claim for everything on the market, it would require a Gargantuan diet to protect yourself from all illness – and then, of course, you would have to deal with obesity.

I make this point at such length because health (of which nutrition is, of course, merely one aspect) in many ways has become a preoccupation, even a neurosis in contemporary society. The American esotericist Manly P. Hall once said that there is a type of person that confuses God with vitamins. This kind of confusion is partly the handiwork of the mass media – for whom sensationalistic claims are the very lifeblood – but we are most susceptible to it if we remain disconnected from ourselves.

What can you eat, and what can’t you eat? The answer varies wildly from person to person. Some people need meat; others find it loathsome or nauseating. Some people can drink alcohol; others ought to stay away from it at all costs. The same goes for coffee or tobacco or almost any item you can put into your mouth. As for residues and contaminants, we have to face the issue with common sense. There is no way of avoiding them all. The most sensible approach is notice what adverse effects any given product has on you and act accordingly, while staying away from products that have extremely high risks associated with them.

Even so, it’s important to remember that scientific reports and media broadcasts all have this in common: they are talking about generalities and probabilities. There is nothing wrong with this in itself; it is how science thinks. But we ourselves are not generalities or probabilities; we are individuals, and what applies to people as a whole may not apply to us.

Again, of course, this can turn into a license for anything. A man may destroy his health through smoking while insisting that he, unlike everyone else, can smoke without harm. But you can cut through a great deal of this nonsense (inner and outer) with a certain amount of self-knowledge and inner honesty. Self-knowledge naturally includes a knowledge of the body, and this does not so much mean knowing the body as an abstract anatomical object as knowing how the body feels, even from moment to moment. Someone who is attentive in this way is far more likely to have a clear picture of what is good for her and what isn’t. It will be much easier for such a person to be able to connect, say, a feeling of late-afternoon fatigue with a skimpy breakfast eaten several hours earlier. Consequently, it will be far easier to fine-tune your diet according to what you really need rather than what the books and magazines say you need (advice that, in any case, usually turns out to be contradictory).

I could say much the same things about any other health-related issue – exercise, sleep, medicine. But let’s go on and suppose that your investigations reveal that you need to make some changes in your way of life. In order to accomplish this, you will again need a certain amount of self-knowledge to know what will work and what won’t. Take exercise. Many people admit that they could use more exercise, but the vast majority of these do one of two things: procrastinate (the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff once observed that the sacred quality of hope had in modern man deteriorated into a noxious disease called “tomorrow”) or launch into some regimen that they have almost no chance of maintaining in the long run. If you’ve spent the last twenty years in front of the television, it makes very little sense to declare by fiat that from now on you will work out for two hours a day. You will probably quit within the week. Someone who is both more serious about exercise and more honest with himself might start with ten minutes a day. Ten minutes a day, after all, is better than nothing, and it has a far greater chance of remaining enjoyable or at any rate manageable to someone who is just beginning. Notice also the element of compassion: rather than inflicting exercise on yourself like a punishment, you are introducing it into your life in a kind and thoughtful way. As the regimen becomes more of a habit, you can expand it, and maybe after a few years (we are, after all, talking about a long-term change in life habits) you will find yourself working out for two hours a day.

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to extend these principles into most areas of your life. In the case of finances, for example, say you realise you need to save more money. How much, really, are you going to be able to save from month to month? It’s far better to aim for a more modest amount that you will be able to sustain rather than to put away a huge chunk that you will only need to dip into a month or two from now. Some changes may be astonishingly easy to make; others require more patience and skill.

When you begin to examine these dimensions of life through the lens of self-knowledge, you will almost certainly find resistance of one kind or another within yourself. Looking through my own life, I’m constantly amazed by what forms resistance takes and where it manifests. The most obvious types have to do with things I find unpleasant – doing a dirty job, delivering a message the other person will not want to hear – but often I find myself curiously resistant to doing things that on the face of it require no unpleasantness at all – sometimes even something as simple as returning a phone call from a friend. Beyond a certain elementary point it’s useless to analyse why I don’t feel like making the call. What’s more important is simply being aware of the resistance and consciously going past it to do what you need to do.

All of this may seem obvious enough, but there is another, subtler dynamic going on. It’s one that, for example, I have almost always found to be involved in procrastination of any sort (procrastination being merely one form of resistance). The need to accomplish something, when it runs up against inner obstacles, creates a curious cycle: the energy that you would have devoted to the task starts to feed the resistance, so that you finds yourself going around in circles. I need to make the phone call; I don’t want to; the fact that I don’t want to makes the task seem larger and more obnoxious than it is; which in turn makes me want to do it even less; and so on. I have known people who have tied up practically their entire lives this way. Sometimes the task does indeed turn into something daunting, as is the case with hoarders, who find themselves so buried in clutter that an entire day of cleaning will hardly make a dent in it.

Where does the solution lie? In his book Skillful Means: Gentle Ways to Successful Work, the Tibetan lama Tarthang Tulku writes:

Once we understand how we escape from our difficulties and fears, we can resolve to change this pattern. The next time you encounter a problem and find yourself looking for a way around it, you can make a conscious decision to redirect your energy, to go into your problem and find a solution. Although you may at first feel a resistance to doing this, the positive feelings you will gain from honestly facing work and life will strengthen your ability to meet future challenges directly, and you will increase your incentive to grow.

When we honestly evaluate our motivation, our attitudes, our strengths and weaknesses, we begin to see a deeper side to our nature from which we can draw a vital energy that lends real meaning to our lives.

Tarthang Tulku speaks of gaining energy as a result of facing resistance. This is an important point. You may literally feel that there is a subtle wall of energy between you and your task, and you almost find yourself bouncing off it as if it were a force field. All of this is, of course, your own creation, and you can pierce through it simply by “honestly facing work and life” and plunging in. My own experience with this leads me to formulate it in what may be a strange way: when I confront the task, it sometimes feels as if I am somehow slicing into this wall of resistance.

The good news is that “slicing into” the resistance immediately begin to free up the energy that was bound up in it; it is as if some subtle membrane that was keeping things bottled up has burst and the energy is now free to circulate into the task itself. As a result, simply overcoming the resistance can give you much of the energy you need to accomplish the job.

These are, I realise, only rather brief indications of a process that individuals need to explore for themselves. Usually it’s easiest to do this in the context of an esoteric school of one sort or another, where tasks are often set up to create this kind of resistance and to teach the student how to overcome it. One of the most common techniques is to give a student a job he or she is not particularly good at. The intellectual is sent to carpentry; the businessman is told to paint a picture; the dreamer is given financial accounts to reckon. Indeed one of the functions of esoteric schools is precisely to teach the skills of overcoming resistance to the pupils. Finding one’s way in daily life with only a few indications is a harder task, but with luck it can be accomplished.

Whether it takes place in the context of an esoteric school or in an ordinary office, this overcoming of resistance again takes us back to knowledge. You can only overcome resistance if you see it. A friend of mine who was interested in the spiritual side of animal training was trying to teach her dog not to bark. “To stop a dog from barking,” she said, “you first need to make it aware it’s barking.” So it is with resistance: to overcome it, you must first see that you’re caught up in it. If you avoid this realisation through excuses, self-justification, blaming other people, and so on, you have lost before you begin.

Because awareness is so important to all aspects of inner growth, it’s usually made a central point of many esoteric teachings. Gurdjieff called it “self-remembering”; the Buddhists call it “mindfulness”; whatever the name, the process is more or less the same. You are to see yourself, and you are to see yourself as you are now, not in some past or future that is in any event largely the creation of your own imagination. To do this requires conscious presence, and there are many ways of practicing this on a day-to-day basis.

So far I’ve been speaking of self-knowledge in a comparatively external sense: seeing clearly one’s own strengths and weaknesses in daily life and coping with them as a builder has to cope with defects in a site or materials. This kind of knowledge is not to be despised; it can add tremendously to one’s efficiency and productivity. But it assumes that you know what your work is, and for many people this remains a highly vexing issue.

The answer, I believe, lies in a concept for which there is no word in English. In Sanskrit it is called svadharma, and it roughly means doing one’s own duty. The classic text that discusses it is the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the greatest of the Hindu sacred scriptures, written probably between the fifth and second centuries BCE. This book forms a part of a much larger whole, the titanic epic known as the Mahabharata, which culminates in a great war between two rival clans, the virtuous Pandavas and the corrupt Kauravas. One of the greatest warriors among the Pandavas is Arjuna, and his charioteer is Krishna, the incarnation of the god Vishnu. As the lines are drawn up for the decisive battle, Arjuna sees his relatives and some of his closest friends on the opposing side. He knows that enormous numbers of them will be slain, and he loses heart. He turns to Krishna and says he does not want to fight; he has no appetite for the power or glory that victory would bring.

Most of the Bhagavad-Gita consists of Krishna’s reply. It contains philosophy and cosmology as well as directions for yogic practice, but all of this centres on Krishna’s urging Arjuna to fight. Arjuna is a Ksatriya, a member of the warrior caste, and it is his duty – his dharma – to take part in the battle. Krishna goes so far as to say: “Better one’s own duty [to perform], though void of merit, than to do another’s well: better to die within [the sphere of] one’s own duty: perilous is the duty of other men.”

The word for “one’s own duty” here is svadharma. It is not a moral duty in the ordinary sense: rather it is the duty that is embedded in your deepest self. No one else can do the job that you were created to do. Liberation consists not of inaction or withdrawal from the world but of performing your duty selflessly and without attachment to results. Arjuna’s dharma is to fight in this monumental battle, which has more than a political or even moral function. It is destined to bring an end to the age and to restore a corrupt cosmic order.

People learn their svadharma, their special functions, in many different ways and at many different times of life. One person knows hers from childhood; another discovers it only in middle age. It is revealed by still, small voices and by visions on the road to Damascus, but also sometimes in a career aptitude test or by answering an ad in the classifieds. It may remain steadfastly the same, a ridgepole upon which one’s entire life depends, or it may gradually change and shift as time and circumstances change. In any event, it has a single core feature: you have (or come to have) the unshakable sense that this function, whatever it is, is why one exists, is what you were created to do.

For the Hindus, svadharma is intimately intertwined with svabhava, one’s own being, the core of one’s essence. To know your own work is to know your own being; you can’t understand one without the other. For some, this function may involve wealth and position; for others, modest and humble circumstances. It may call one person onto the magnificent stage of history and may require another to spend his life in obscurity. In any case, to know one’s task is in a very profound sense to know oneself.

Such a perspective leads us very deep into the recesses of our own nature, and as we make this journey of self-knowledge, we paradoxically go past the self as it’s conventionally conceived – the ego, the street-level personality. Ultimately we move toward our true nature, what we may call the “true I,” which Christianity calls the spirit or the kingdom of God, which Hinduism calls Atman or the Self, and which is known in countless other traditions under countless other names. The Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi went so far as to say that simply following the question “Who am I?” as far back as possible in oneself will lead to enlightenment.

Strictly speaking, however, one can never, perhaps, truly know oneself. This is simply because what one is, the “I am” at the core of one’s being, the Self, is always that which knows. “The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it,” says Christ in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Men do not see it because it is the very principle in them that sees. The path to this realisation is, it would seem, an endless one, not because progress is impossible but because progress, if it is real, always opens up new horizons and new directions to move in.

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RICHARD SMOLEY has over thirty-five years of experience of studying and practicing esoteric spirituality. He is the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (coauthored with Jay Kinney). Smoley is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and of Quest Books. His latest book, Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, contains many articles that originally appeared in New Dawn.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 104 (Sept-Oct 2007).

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