Above the lintel at the Greek Temple of Apollo, at Delphi was a carved phrase, Gnothi Seauton, “Know Thyself.” It was thought to have originated from a response by the oracle’s priestess to Chilon of Sparta’s question, “What is best for man?” This injunction wasn’t intended as a marketing ploy aimed at attracting new customers or some kind of koanic riddle. Plutrach, an ancient Greek historian, and at one time a caretaker-priest of the Apollo Temple said the phrase was a salutation addressed by the God ( Apollo ), but that it implied far more. It also seems to be an admonition and a reminder to all that entered, that within the operations of their own being lie the universal principles of life. Those principles truly illuminated by the wisdom of knowing the universal workings, relationships, and intermingling of all the forces and elements of their lives, would also know, by correspondence and analogy, their workings, relationships, and interminglings of the cosmos, because the same forces and elements operate in both fields. The phrase then acts as a salutation, an admonition, and a pathway all for the purpose of pointing out to human beings the direction towards spiritual progress.
For most people the phrase, “Know thyself” escapes their understanding, usually by a dullness in awareness of relevant self knowledge, or more precisely ignorance. Most people do search for spiritual truths, but with ‘blinders on.’ Blinders on, is a horse racing term. Blinders are put on the horse to narrow the horse’s view, so as to decrease the possible obstacles and dangers the horse may see. People who search for spiritual truths with blinders-on, look exclusively for those truths within the mundane world; the world of shifting sensations and emotions. Most people believe that their identity and purpose can be found within that world. Ask any person the question, “Who are you?” and invariably the answer comes through a litany of seeming, worldly, pertinent facts: “I am Randle Redman, 6ft, 175lbs, brown hair and eyes, Caucasian, Irish/German, right-handed, Chicagoan, 20 years old, junior at Boston U., athlete, majoring in Bus. Adm., Catholic, Democrat,…” etc., etc. All this particular information combined, draws a composite picture of the entity, Randle Redman. What is more, we can track this particular entity through time and pinpoint him in space. At 3:45pm, Central Standard Time,Dec. 24, 03, Randle Redman, is in his parent’s home in Chicago, Il. As a matter of fact, his movement through all phases of cultural life can easily be compiled, recorded, and plotted: marital status, financial status, health status, educational status, work status, etc., etc. This manner of calculating human identity reminds me of a poem called the “Unknown Citizen” written by W.H. Auden. The poem describes, in a satirical manner with ironic overtones, the obituary of an unknown state “hero.”
“He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of the old-fashioned word, he was a
…When there was peace, he was for peace, when there was war,
…Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”
The poet makes us take a critical look at this kind of “real” and acceptable information, even though the unknown citizen, …”had everything necessary to the Modern Man,” and ask, ‘Are those identifiable facts the most viable measures of the true essence and value of our lives or are there other more subtle, more enduring characteristics that would present a truer rendering of our lives?’
Under a closer scrutiny, the “real” information used to define ourselves quickly brakes down. Randal may decide to change his given name, his handwriting will change, his age increases every second, certainly his weight and height will change, and according to scientists, Randal is not atomically the same even for one second, and that every seven years of his life the atoms and molecules of his body have been replaced. What appears to us as solid and real is actually in a state of constant change or to use a word coined by ancient Greek philosophers, “flux.” This state of flux is a universal principle inherent in all manifested things. Thus every thing is always in flux, coming together and falling apart. Obvious evidence for this principle literally looks us in the face every day. Most of us view our face in a mirror several times a day: when we shave, put make-up or comb our hair, etc. That face that we view in the mirror’s reflection is not the same face we viewed at age seven, fourteen, twenty-one, or even yesterday. Our outward appearance is continuously changing over time. Here is a dramatic case in point: years ago I read a story about a young women’s experience while imprisoned inside one of the Nazi’s death camps. She survived four years before being liberated. After liberation she had an opportunity to view herself in a mirror, an experience she had not had in four years. When she first saw her image in the mirror she truly thought that the reflection she was seeing was of her mother, not herself. She could not immediately recognize her own reflection because of the tremendous physical changes that had taken place over those four years of imprisonment. Self conceptually, she still identified herself as a young girl, with all her youthful, physical attributes.
We can only keep ourselves the same or “real” because of our mind’s ability to conceptualize- to create a mind picture of ourselves in relationship with our outer world. This capacity to conceptualize allows us to establish a virtual persona or ego of ourselves from our sense feedback. Our visual consciousness, gives us a sense of ourselves; our feeling and touch, gives us a sense of ourselves; our memories, thoughts, and actions gives us a sense of ourselves; our body and its pleasures and pain, gives us a sense of ourselves, but the bases for this reality of ourselves is a mental fabrication. We often hear people say, “I am not myself today” or “That wasn’t me. I am usually happy and engaging.” If that wasn’t you today, than who are you today? Are you one or two? The self that is you today or the self that is making the statement about not being yourself? Which self is the “real” self?
When we search for our “real” identity, the one we feel is happy and engaging, we find a plurality of emotional and psychological conceptual selves, all appended to our persona, any one of whom can appear in time and space if the conditions are right. We can, and usually do, spend our entire lives trying to create a solid, “real” self by tying our sense of self to our bodies, to our physical environment, and to the material things we collect and attach to; a task that consumes an enormous amount of our time and energy. No matter how long we search or how much energy we expend or how many things we collect we will not be able to find a solid and substantial self. The same is true for the world around us. We have a sense that everything is as it appears, but if we lift the veil of appearance, we catch a fleeting glimpse at the tenuity of our ego -life and the world we live in.
Do we have a real identity? And if we do, where and how can we find it? If we look closely at the criterion Randal used to identify himself, we see that they have at their core various degrees of impermanence. If Randal is to truly identify himself he must use criterion of a more universal and permanent nature. The great mystics and sages of ancient and modern times unanimously testify that our true identity can be found in the discovery of our divine nature. This divine nature, they say, is a god-spark infused within our being by the Infinite, which is the emanating , principle source of the entire Universe. Over the course is history, they have called this god-spark by many names: the Christ within, the Buddha within, the Krishna within, the Universal Consciousness, etc. In the New Testament, Colossians 24-27, St. Paul states clearly and plainly that it his task to “fully proclaim Christ’s message, which is a secret God hid through all past ages from all mankind, but has now revealed to his people… God’s plan is to make known his secret to his people… And the secret is that Christ is in you, which means that you will share in the glory of God”… This is truly good news! “Christ in you” does not however, mean that a historical Christ can be conceptually pressed into your thought stream, like a virtual Christ, or the actual spirit of the historical Christ possess you through some mystical use of his name or by some ritual, but that you as a human being have an innate, Christ principle, essence, which is always present within your being. Therefore, you need only to lift the veil of ignorance, fear. and the attachment to sensation to see and to know your true self.
In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad ( part of the spiritual text of India) it says:
…In the depths of meditation, sages
Saw within themselves the Lord of Love,
Who dwells in the heart of every creature
Deep in the hearts of all dwells , hidden
Behind the gunas (essential qualities of
differentiated matter) of law, energy,
And inertia. He is One. He it is.
Who rules over time, space, and causality.
Christhood, Buddhahood, Krishnahood, is our native state. We have lost our way playing out karma through the Great Drama of Evolution, and it is our ultimate purpose to find our way back Home. The Bible says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Gautama the Buddha says, “Though one were to conquer a million men in battle, that man who conquers himself is the greater victor.”