Know Thyself (Video Script)
The Greek philosopher Socrates is famous for arguing that the unexamined life is not worth living and that each individual should strive to “know thyself.” Rather than sitting in silence and looking within as some contemplative traditions have espoused, Socrates advocated an interpersonal process of dialectic – Socratic dialogue. In other words, you learn about yourself and what you believe by interacting with others in relationship.
Throughout the centuries philosophers, and more recently, psychologists have continued Socratic quest for self-knowledge. Notably, Sigmund Freud’s triune model of the personality and his contributions in appreciating the layers of the psyche (both conscious and unconscious) made a strong impression on the Victorian society of his era that is still with us today. The idea that each human being is a complex psychological entity with multiple, sometimes hidden aspects, is a theme that we will pursue in some detail in this and subsequent lessons.
With regard to the interpersonal aspects of Freud’s theories, the parent-child relationship is central. According to Freud, the development of personality is forged in early childhood as a result of the relationship between the parent and child. As the child matures and becomes an adult, relationships with other people are shaped and flavored by those early childhood impressions.
Although classic Freudian psychology has fallen out of favor over the decades, some of his basic ideas strongly influenced subsequent generations of social scientists and particularly the practice of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy as a tool for understanding and changing oneself for the better is based on relationship. Whether in a one-on-one relationship with a therapist or relationships between members of a group, we can often know ourselves in reflection – another person can serve as a mirror in which we can see our self objectively.
Yes, one can gain some understanding of self through impersonal questionnaires and inventories. Certainly one can gain important insights by looking within during meditation and self-reflection. And yet, the interpersonal, interactive dimension of human experience provides one of the most powerful tools for self-exploration and change that we have available.
As Socrates supposed, we come to know ourselves – who we are and what we believe, by interacting with others. Relationship is essential for having a sense of self and knowing who we are. But if we are to truly understand the meaning of relationship and the basis of self-knowledge, we must go back much earlier than Socrates to uncover the origins of the self that we seek to know.
The Origin of Self – A Creation Story
The idea that self-knowledge is not only helpful, but essential in our search for God has a long and varied tradition that includes the readings of Edgar Cayce. There are several reasons for this emphasis, but the central point is that we are each a part of God and that God is within each of us. Furthermore, God desires relationship. Thus to know ourselves is to know God and be in relationship with God.
Sounds kind of complicated doesn’t it – sort of like one of the Zen poems that seems to turn in on itself in a nonsensical play of words. And yet it is a living truth for anyone who has experienced the reality of such knowing in relationship.
To help us get our minds around this complex subject, it may useful to consider this simple explanation of origins given in the Cayce readings. Rather than tracing everything back to childhood experiences as the basis for relationship as Freud theorized, Cayce provides a grander, more comprehensive explanation based on a cosmic creation story.
When asked about the reason for creation, Edgar Cayce affirmed that it was God’s desire for companionship and expression. This fascinating explanation for the source of the universe is based on the dynamics of relationship.
Truly fulfilling companionship (a connection with another) requires an opposing or balancing by expression (a separate sense of self awareness or autonomy). There is an inherent push and pull that results in a greater unity much as we find in the ancient Chinese concept of the ying and yang – complementary opposites – as expressed in the Tao.
Thus, an individual needs a healthy, separate sense of self and the ability to express that INDIVIDUALITY as a precondition for being able to function in a healthy relationship. Desiring companionship and recognizing the full implication of what that requires in terms of selfhood, the Creator endowed each soul with the ability to make choices and express itself. This is part and parcel of being a co-creator with the First Cause called God. In this essential respect, souls were created in the image of God. We call this gift of the Creator “will.”
However, the choice was not a forgone conclusion. Some souls chose to reject the offer of companionship with the Creator and seek other forms of self-expression. Pay close attention to that four letter word – self. We are not talking about the healthy sense of self that is the basis for individual identity and relationship to others. Rather, this is an exaggerated sense of self – selfishness. The choice of selfishness was essentially a spiritual rebellion – a rejection of the Creator’s plan for companionship and co-creation.
Thus some souls chose the path of selfishness. Other souls stayed close to the First Cause. This is essentially the story told by Jesus in the parables of the prodigal son and the little lamb that went astray.
Was the exaggerated separate sense of self, chosen by some souls, the “original sin” or “FALL” described in the Bible and some theological traditions? Or was it a great adventure that was simply too irresistible for the fledgling souls? I guess it depends upon your perspective about the meaning creation and the dynamics of relationship. So as we pursue self knowledge – to know thyself – let’s be clear about what we mean by “self” in this broader context of the soul and its spiritual origin.
The Separate Sense of Self
Now that we have an inkling of the expansiveness of selfhood and the potential for personal growth and development inherent in this approach, let’s ponder the meaning of the separate sense of self with regard to the purpose of life:
And that purpose is that you might know yourself to be yourself, and yet one with the Creative Forces, or God. (2030-1)
Yes a separate sense of self is valid, but can and does present a problem when it becomes an end in itself rather than a means of healthy relationship to God and others. The tension of having a separate sense of self and yet being one with the whole is the experience of being a free-willed soul. Thus you become aware of yourself as a soul, as an eternal spiritual being, created in the image of God and possessing the potential for becoming Godlike – a god in the making, as it were.
As a soul in transition – growing, developing, maturing to become a fit companion to the Creator, the sense of self may also expand to include experiences that stretch the mind and extend your consciousness. You will become aware of yourself as a soul making its way through eternity, finding its way back to its Source. This is the basis for true self-knowledge. This is the beginning of “know thyself.”
The Biology of Self
Modern neuroscience reminds us that there is more to self-knowledge than psychological theory and metaphysical speculation. It has developed a sophisticated model of selfhood that integrates the biology of the brain, genetics, and environmental factors into a compelling explanation of the source and meaning of selfhood.
In neurological terms, the experience of consciousness, of having a sense of self, is simply the product of brain chemistry. Over millions of years of biological evolution the human brain has developed the capacity to become self-reflective.
Thus to know ourselves, we must understand the chemistry of nerve cells in the brain. It all boils down to chemical messengers called neurotransmitters that convey information from one brain cell to the next – processing data and sensory experience – storing and retrieving information as memories – regulating thoughts and emotions.
Brain imaging technology allows us to view brain processes in real time – to see which regions of the brain are active when we think certain kinds of thoughts or have specific types of emotional experiences. Thus we have the modern, materialistic model of “know thyself.” Any experience of God or the mystical side of life has been reduced to brain activity – nothing more or less. Knowledge of the self is strictly biochemical. Any notion of the soul or a spiritual dimension of reality apart from brain tissue is a neurological phantom produced by the misfiring of brain neurons. I doubt that Socrates would be impressed.
The fascinating truth of the matter is that the advancements in modern neuroscience can help us to know ourselves as spiritual beings expressing ourselves in flesh bodies. It’s simply a matter of recognizing that scientific insights are only part of the answer and that the philosophical assumptions of materialistic science can color the interpretations of research findings.
To put the biology of self into a broader context, we need to expand upon the creation story we began earlier in this overview. As souls explored the newly created and evolving universe and found their way to solar systems with planets such as earth, some became more intimately involved as co-creative partners than was the original plan.
Some souls became entangled in flesh bodies. To shorten a very long story, this is the situation we find in the world today – souls inhabiting flesh bodies, manifesting through the biology of the physical body in ways that neuroscience is just beginning to understand.
Each human being is a triune soul entity – spiritual, mental, and physical – with attributes befitting the soul’s growth and development in this realm. The physical dimension of selfhood is abundantly apparent in the flesh and bones, fluids and organs of the body.
At the physical level, the mental manifests through the nervous systems – not a big surprise considering the modern scientific emphasis in this direction. The mental mediates between the physical and the spiritual, but is not limited to the brain that it uses to function in this material universe.
Glands provide the spiritual interface for the soul. The association of the glands with the spiritual manifestation might appear a bit peculiar. The Cayce readings define the activity of a gland as the ability to reproduce itself. Thus almost any organ of the body can be considered a gland. The endocrine glands, which secrete their chemicals directly into the bloodstream for distribution to the entire system, are called spiritual centers.
Thus we are not physical bodies with souls – we are spiritual beings inhabiting a physical vehicle. Understanding and caring for the physical body – treating it as a temple where we meet with God is an important part of knowing ourselves and fulfilling our search for God.