Knowledge of self – what it really is – hit me in the head like a jackhammer on cement.
I’d dropped a double dose of acid during lunch hour.
I only fourteen years old, and to say that my brain wasn’t ready for what happened next is a bloody understatement.
Although I’d been scheduled to play a concert with my band that evening, by the time I’d wandered my way home, there was no way I was going to pick up an instrument that day.
I remember seeing the sun burst from my dad’s head when I came in the door. Then I retired to my bedroom to watch my Iron Maiden posters attack me on an infinite loop until he finally left the house.
I must have spent hours after that staring at myself in the mirror before deciding to head out and see some friends. There, I took more drugs, and that’s when things got crazy.
See, they had some MJ laced with PCP. And they didn’t tell me about it.
Or if they has, I wasn’t listening.
That night in the hospital, I got a real dose of what it means to have a self. And knowledge about it was coming straight at me, whether I wanted it or not.
What Is Knowledge?
“Knowledge” can mean all sorts of things, but I think it’s important to look at word origins.
The word has a few origins, such as cnawlee. It’s related not so much to an outcome, but to process and action. Like the “lock” in “wedlock.”
And that’s what I felt that night many decades ago.
My consciousness was “locked” to the process of my body.
It was literally “strapped” to the “meat tube” of my body, which is a term used often by James Swartz. In his surprisingly practice approach to awaking and enlightenment, knowledge of who and what you are is never complete as long as you are in a body.
This is because, as he says, whatever enters consciousness will exit it. Think of it like that annoying sound of the fridge. It bothers you at first, but even if it’s still going, the reticular activating system of your brain eventually filters it out.
But when we take certain drugs, the filters disappear. We’re locked into the process of being alive and we’re completely aware of what it is like to experience the process of consciousness. That awareness, in this context, is knowledge.
What Is The Self?
Many schools of thought offer a variety of explanations.
Self can relate to your personal identity in one context. It may have to do with your individual consciousness related to the collective unconscious in another. Jung has his spin on this through the archetypes, while schools of thought like Advaita Vedanta see no separation between the “jiva” (individual or what Fred Davis calls the unit) and the Brahman (ultimate reality).
Personally, I experience the self as an ongoing process in which reality “appears.” This sensation doesn’t mean that external reality doesn’t exist. It just means that I’ve used meditation to condition my mind in a particular way.
In some ways, my meditation practice has led me to “cleanse” the horrifying knowledge of reality that I experience decades ago on that horrible trip. But the experience of “being here now” created by mindfulness meditation is similar in the sense of feeling like life is just happening without too many filters.
In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva speaks of the self as an experience conditioned to identify itself against externalities. For example, a child learns over time that it is not the same as the blanket, nor is the same as its breast milk or the products we excrete from the body. But part of the “horror” of existence is that this conditioning is not true. As in the Advaita Vedanta model, we actually are all of those exterior things. And the idea that we are an “individual self” is an illusion.
Knowledge of self, then, is the recognition that your self is a conditioned construct. And what is left over after you take the conditioning away is largely unnameable. Or as Eckhart Tolle puts it in Stillness Speaks, “beyond name and form.”
Does Knowledge Of Self Actually Do Anything For You?
In a word, no.
And that’s a very good thing.
Hear me out:
All the great sages from Buddha to your friendly neighborhood Buddhist have sought to know one thing and one thing only:
The present moment.
Have you ever heard the story of Diogenes and Alexander the Great?
One day, Alexander came to him and offered to grant him any wish.
“Get out of the way,” Diogenes said, “you’re blocking my sun.”
In Ancient Greece, the sun was a symbol for knowledge. It also symbolized eternal truths like math, a part of which involves the concept of time. Diogenes may have criticized Plato, but this legend is perfectly aligned with how the sun appears as a stand in for self knowledge in the Allegory of the Cave.
And time was something Diogenes held precious above all, so precious that all he wanted from Alexander the Great was for the powerful man to stop interrupting his “knowledge” of the present moment and distracting him with promises that would only lead to more distractions.
His self knowledge was that profound and Alexander the Great recognized this by saying that if he weren’t already Alexander the Great, he would want to be Diogenes.
5 Ways You Can Develop This Higher Kind Of Self Knowledge
Variations on this story appear again and again throughout history.
The Matrix is one such example, where Cipher sees living in the illusion as preferable to living in the “desert of the real.” His self knowledge leads him to the conclusion that living a lie is preferable to the processes of actuality.
But the more important character in The Matrix isn’t Cipher. It really isn’t Neo either. It’s Agent Smith.
I know that’s a provocative statement, but here’s why I think Agent Smith is really the One:
He’s self aware that he is built from the very construct he’s trying to escape. Whereas Neo ultimately escapes The Matrix and does the Christ-thang by sacrificing himself at the end of the series, Agent Smith is finally absorbed back into the “system.” He was never separate from it in the first place and his only mistake was rebelling against the arrangement.
In this way, Agent Smith is like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He would rather suffer in hell than serve in heaven.
So the trick is to work out the different parts of your personality and resolve them so you can “play” the game of reality in a better way. Rather than sacrifice yourself, live in an illusion or rebel against the system that infuses every aspect of your being, you can surrender to the process.
A simple way to summarize what I’m about to suggest is to engage in activities that help you realize true self knowledge. I believe it is defined very well like this:
You do not do the Tao. The Tao does you.
Let’s dig into some activities that will help you realize, and more importantly experience this principle.
One: The Daddy Issues Exercise
We all have a personal history. It is deeply important to how we are formed.
In Beyond Good and Evil, for example, Nietzsche argues that “one cannot erase from the soul of a human being what his ancestors liked most to do and did most constantly.”
By “soul,” Nietzsche really means what we today call “mind,” and I think he’s right. We’re the product of our genetics and the predispositions of our ancestors. But we’re also the products of procedural memory. We are literally playing out deep memories from our past.
Let me give you a personal example:
Sometimes I catch myself ranting and raving. It’s not really “me,” but rather it is the deep memory of my father. He always went on tirades when I was a kid, manic tangents that never seemed to end.
It took me years to figure out that when I was doing these things, it was really deep procedural memory. I can be as genetically stubborn and hot-headed as my dad, but it’s ultimately a replay of what I observed as a child.
An exercise that helped was to write out all the memories I have about my dad. It hasn’t completely erased the problem, but it’s helped a ton, particularly because acting like my dad can cause a lot of self-hatred.
Dr. Nick Bendit advises maximum care with this kind of activity, however. Shame around our behaviors can create self knowledge, but this kind of wake up call isn’t necessarily going to be pleasant. You might even find yourself in need of some anxiety relief.
But I believe that building a profile of your past is one of the fastest and easiest ways to get a grip on who and what you are.
Obviously, if you haven’t got a dad, you can do the same exercise with your mom or other care giver. You can also extend the exercise wider, which we’ll talk about next.
Two: The Life Grid Exercise
I often teach my memory students how to build Memory Palaces. They’re basically mental constructs that you use as canvas on which to paint. And in order to find lots of Memory Palaces, I encourage students to excavate them from their pasts.
You can also use this exercise to develop self understanding. There are at least two ways to engage in it:
- Numerically, grade by grade or year by year
Normally, I do this exercise on a school grade basis. In a journal, you start with the earliest grade you can remember. Devote an entire page to it and write all that you can remember. Then move on to the next grade.
The alphabetical version involves thinking through your friends. If you start with the letter A, you can journal all of your memories about friends whose names start with that letter.
For example, I have been friends with two musicians named Adam. They both impacted me in different ways. Working through these memories has created powerful insight into my knowledge of who I was when I knew them and allowed me to spot the traces of their influence moving forward.
Sometimes how our friends and their behaviors rub off (literally training our procedural memory) is a good thing. Other times, how we’ve imitated others can make us cringe.
And when bad memories arise, you can do like Diogenes and wave them away. An interesting mantra I’ve been exploring is, “Get out of my sun!” whenever bad memories arise. It’s an alternative to the technique I shared in this TEDx Talk:
Three: Self Inquiry
In my TEDx Talk, I shared the story of how I learned about a particular kind of self inquiry.
In my practice, I memorize Sanskrit slokas. The ones I’ve been working with are particularly designed to cause what one person has called Radical Metacognition. He said this in the comments on a discussion I had with Theories of Everything – what a great gift from the comment section!
As I interpret this wonderful term, Radical Metacognition, I basically trained myself to combine a kind of Inner Sherlock questioning of every thought that comes into my mind with procedural memory.
Whereas in the Daddy Issues Exercise and the Lifegrid Exercise, we’re cleansing old and bad procedural memory problems, with self inquiry, we’re training our procedural memory to replace unwanted mental content with… nothing.
Happiness Beyond Thought is an excellent book on the topic of self inquiry and some sample questions you can start asking that will nullify the sting of unwanted thoughts include:
- Are my thoughts useful?
- How do they behave?
- Who is it that is thinking these thoughts?
You might be wondering…
What do you mean, “Who is it? I’m obviously thinking these thoughts!”
But that’s the point entirely. It’s not “you” as such. It’s the version of you in that moment. It could be the childish you, the selfish you, the cowardly you, etc.
Self inquiry creates great insight into who you are in the moment of your practice. I suggest applying questions like these as often as you can.
Four: Find Your Weaknesses And Label Them
We all want to think we’re big and tough.
In reality, we’re just naked apes.
And you’ve probably had the experience of deciding that something is a bad idea, committing that you’re not going to act on it, and yet… you do it anyway.
The ancient Greeks called this problem akrasia, or weakness of will.
One of the reasons it’s so painful to discover and confront just how weak your will really is comes down to the assumption that selfhood is a stable configuration of the parts of your personality. Some philosophers call this unified agency or the illusion of being a unified entity.
The brain is constantly changing, however. Its size literally changes depending on how hydrated you are in any given moment. So with all due respect to the gnostics who think you can be unified with a “Divine Mind,” it’s much more likely that the reason why most representations of the gods boil down to psychopathic and childish behaviors is because these behaviors of reflections of our weaknesses.
Instead of scapegoating the gods, you’ll enjoy much more knowledge of self when you call a spade a spade and own your weaknesses.
Even if you never work on improving them and flaunt your faults like a diva, if you’re willing to admit them, you’re probably going to be much better off.
But I do recommend at least trying to work on your faults. Doing so will reveal even more of your true character to you and possibly help you experience something like unified agency.
Five: Read The Enemy
One reason so many people have low self knowledge is due to confirmation bias. They read only the information they agree with written by the people they like.
This is a sure fire way to limit your personal insight to the extreme.
Rather, you should read widely and with a special focus on ideas you don’t agree with, or don’t like.
Challenge yourself to get through boring topics too. You’ll probably find more gems in them than you were expecting.
Also, give different people more of your time than you feel comfortable with. The brain is always trying to take short cuts and give you every excuse to refresh your dopamine supply by clicking away to this that and the other thing.
One simple exercise to prevent this is to spent at least 90 days watching only videos that are at least one hour long. Do not pause them or click away. This long form dopamine reset will heal your brain and fill your mind with countless new perspectives because you allowed some depth to seep in for a change.
When it comes to reading, do what I call “Digital Fasting.” Leave all of your apps and devices at home. Read for an hour or longer in a park or by the sea.
To really maximize the benefits of these exercises, journal about what you’re reading or share the knowledge verbally with others. Doing so will deepen your memory and understanding even further, increasing the chances for even deeper insights as time rolls on.
The Only Example Of Self Knowledge That Matters
Although you can doubt the veracity of your self knowledge until you’re blue in the face, one fact is usually quite clear:
That doubt occurs within you.
Or, looked at another way, you are the bearer of that doubt.
This fact is extraordinary.
No matter how many problems one faces in life, they are opportunities to reflect on the nature of what it means to experience the sense of self.
Sure, you sometimes get bored. Sometimes we even go to the boredom of others for entertainment. Sarte’s Nausea goes on at great length about the horrors of existence, for example. It’s a tremendously entertaining book if it’s your kind of thing.
It certainly helped me. It’s one of the many books I read while trying to heal my young mind from the eight hour trip I took into life without any filters. And I wound up suffering anxiety attacks for years and generally feeling that life was little more than a meaningless curse.
And not even that because curses have to be cast by someone. The notion that we symbolize our feelings with ideas like sentient entities messing with ourselves only makes our suffering worse.
It’s worse because it’s absurd. As Pema Chödrön has pointed out, we rarely shake our fists at the clouds when it rains. Yet we blame the universe all the time.
But where is that universe?
Self knowledge shows beyond any doubt that it is situated in you.
Or better said, your perception of it is the production of the chemical bath in your brain. How you perceive it is governed by laws and operations of memory, which is all the more reason to cleanse your memory using some of the exercises we discussed today.
And if you’d like to take the next step, I’ve got a bunch more exercises for you in The Victorious Mind. It shares more of my story and how I’ve been developing this particular “philosophy of memory” as a means of better understanding oneself as a “disunified agency” on a quest to be comfortable with exactly that.
Rather than chase after fantasies of wholeness and oneness, we can experience Radical Metacognition that attunes us to the ever-changing flux of the mind, a mind that is constantly pointing to itself. And when you finally see that, you can be temporarily free. And you can extend that freedom for longer and longer periods of time.
Remembering that anything that enters consciousness is bound to exit it, including bliss, is the path to experiencing even truer bliss as you seize the value of what you get along the way. And in sum, knowledge of self is that there is no self, except when aspects of it arise.
But these can be readily showed away if need be.
Just remember Diogenes. “Get out of my sun!”
And if you enjoyed this post, please consider going through my Daily Discipline Masterplan guide and video course. It’s free: