Know Thyself

In the forecourt of the Oracle at Delphi, there was an inscription: Know Thyself.  Those who would receive a message from the gods first had to sit in this courtyard and consider this commandment until the Pythia decided to bring them into the inner temple. This elegant proclamation might seem simple at first, until one begins to peer inside searching for that elusive self and discovers instead the great mystery of the universe.

The Greeks understood the psyche not as a singular being but rather as a communion of passions and personal daimons.  These beings can be described as archetypes of the unconscious: constellations of meaning, memory, and emotion that lurk beneath the veil of the conscious mind. Knowing thyself requires one to venture into those inner depths.

Our self is not singular nor is it constant; it is an ever-shifting plurality. Every moment a river of images, thoughts, and feelings pours through us.  Can we remember who we were and what we experienced on a single day ten years ago?  Surely we lived it once.  But the memories dissolve back into the current.

Our selves are not even fully contained within our own lifetimes.  We inherit aspects of our personalities from our parents and grandparents, from the entire human race.  So Nietzsche wrote, “Immediate self-observation is not enough to enable us to learn how to know ourselves. We need history, for the past continues to flow through us in a hundred channels."  

This flow of psychic history is what Jung termed the collective unconscious. It is a transmission of psyche passed down through the human race.  It reappears in the commons myths and symbols that make up our art, poetry and dreams from the time of the ancient Greeks to today.

It may be just as difficult to isolate a physical self.  At first our body seems to be ours.  But the closer we look, the more we see that we are actually a community of smaller life forms.

“At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the energy that sends us out each day, are the Mitochondria, and in a strict sense they are not ours.  They turn out to be separate little creatures, primitive bacteria that swarmed into precursors of our cells and stayed there.  Ever since they have maintained themselves, replicating in their own fashion with their own DNA quite different from ours. 

These Mitochondria are responsible lodgers, and I choose to trust them.  But what of the other little animals, similarly established in my cells, sorting and balancing me, clustering me together?  My centrioles, basal bodies, and probably a good many other more obscure tiny beings at work inside my cells, each with its own special genome, are as foreign, and essential, as aphids in a anthill.

I think that they work in my interest, that each breath they draw for me, but perhaps it is they who walk through the park in the evening, sensing my senses, listening to my music, and thinking my thoughts.”
- Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell

Our cells are a collection of smaller life forms.  Likewise we ourselves are only small parts of larger living structures: species, ecologies, and the entire biosphere, which can be considered a single living cell.   

Our own bodies are extensions of ours parents’ bodies, which grew out of our grandparents. Life is a series of biological structures, each nested upon the previous one. Every living cell, every being, is embedded in the previous form.  Qualities and characteristics flow through creating a river, which leads back to the very origins of life.  In this sense our biological self extends past our bodies, into the bodies of our ancestors, our human family, and beyond through the entire web of life.   And that self is evolving.

"I died a mineral, and became a plant. I died a plant and I rose an animal. I died an animal and I was human. Why should I fear dying?"
- Jalal ud-Din Rumi, Mathnawi

As life evolves through its various stages, it develops new faculties, new senses, and more complex consciousness. Of all the biological life forms, we as humans seem to have developed a distinct self-awareness.  We have become uniquely aware of ourselves and our place in the universe.  In a way, we have become the eyes and ears of the universe, the means by which life can perceive itself. 

Geologist and Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin said, "The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself.” Being that aspect of evolution, means that we must now evolve consciously and purposefully by manifesting in ourselves our own highest ideals.

According to Islamic mysticism, this evolution of self from the natural world to the human consciousness is the process of God’s own self-knowledge.

“The universe is nothing but a manifestation of the divine Being… From the most unconscious state of existence, blind, unaware of His being, as is the rock, He has gradually awakened to consciousness of the surroundings on the surface. The gradual progress of the journey brings the Inner Being to the condition of a plant, flower and fruit, then to the state of worm, germ, and animal, until He manifests as man … the final goal of His destiny, when He realizes Himself as the whole being”
- Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Way of Illumination

With this realization of ourselves as the “whole being” we are initiated with a new mandate. We must now honor and defend the whole of life: the past, that heredity which flows through us and is encapsulated in us, and the future, that destiny that we must now consciously create together.