Socrates’ exhortation to “know thyself” was a high ideal in my family ever since I can remember. But when will I know myself? Something always gets in the way. It’s taken me a lifetime to see what interferes with my knowing who I am: as I become aware, I feel such an urgency to change — to be the person I want to be rather than the person I am.
The great yogi, Patanjali, said: “All of life is but a mirror in which the soul learns to know its own face.” Not some other face I create with smiles and magic potions, or some other person I ought to work hard to be!
Yet I have been mired in the habits of a lifetime — all the more frustrating because I suspect that knowing myself can be right around the corner. No. Not even as far as that. It’s right here where I am if I choose to be present to my life, to accept myself as I am, here and now. Any physical or psychic warts and tensions I discover are part and parcel of my territory.
So what’s the problem? For one thing, I might have to admit how often I don’t want to be right here. Sometimes it’s just no fun! Great when I’m at the beach, on vacation, or meandering through the park smelling the roses. Or sitting on the couch as I did last night at my birthday dinner, while everyone cheered. But most of the time I don’t like where I am or how I am and want to move away from this naked moment.
“Well, why not drop the whole end-gaining game?” you might ask. For one thing, it takes a long time to catch up with yourself, to stop chasing your own personal rainbow of how you want to be and how you want people to perceive you. An awful lot of hours in the days of the years of our lives go by as we try to mold ourselves into being like someone else, an ideal or an admired authority. Is it to protect ourselves from seeing who we truly are (and aren’t) or to impress whoever’s out there?
Nevertheless, our situation can change; our jail cell of unflinching determination to be different can slide open its doors. As the disappointments of life repeat themselves in many forms; as the people we admired don’t live up to our hopes; as events don’t turn out the way we desired or imagined them; and as we face our own inability to be the best of the best, our focus changes. We begin to listen to what life has been trying to teach us all along. We begin to understand the importance of being who we are, where we are and what we are.
Then one discovers that to be myself is quite precious. When I give up the dream of growing from a seed into Jack’s magical beanstalk, I can watch the transformation of my own seed into my essential self. (My own inner acorn might even turn out to be an oak tree, but I’m not counting on that!).
So as I look into life’s mirror with all the courage I can muster, I gradually draw back from my tendency to imitate others or to want to be what I’m not. I turn from that eager, anxious attitude of “How’m I doin’?” and begin to say “Here I am” to others and to life.
Bless the uncomfortable doubt in each of us that rubs against our lives like an emery board, robbing us of sleep and smoothing the rough edges of the demanding ego. Who am I indeed? To find out, we need only to look into the mirror of life.