In Delphi, in ancient Greece, at a famous pagan temple these words were carved above the entrance: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (Gnothi Seauton), which in English means “Know Yourself.” It’s a universal spiritual principle, not just something the Greeks thought up.
For example, in 12-Step Programs, the first step to recovery involves admitting to yourself that addiction has made your life unmanageable. Without that self-knowledge, the rest of the program is a non-starter.
In the Bible, St. Paul makes this exhortation to the believers in Corinth: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!” (II Corinthians 13:5).
Perhaps the key to knowing yourself involves presenting yourself honestly to God, as in this verse from Psalm 139:
Probe me, God, know my heart;
try me, know my thoughts.
But self-knowledge is not necessarily an easy thing. In Practical Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill said, “Few can bear to contemplate themselves face to face; for the vision is strange and terrible, and brings awe and contrition in its wake. The life of the seer is changed by it for ever.”
So what does it really mean to know yourself? What is the contemplative dimension of such essential self-knowledge?
I think there are at least four ways we can know ourselves, and we need to make sure we are paying attention to all four.
Knowing yourself physically. Because of our centuries old mind/body or spirit/matter dualism, this is one that many spiritual seekers “forget” about. Well, we need to remember. Here are the kinds of questions I ask myself, and perhaps they will be helpful for you: Am I taking care of my body? Eating a healthy diet? Getting proper amounts of sleep, and maintaining optimal levels of physical activity? Do I know my biometrics: my blood pressure, cholesterol level, body mass index, or other key indicators of physical wellness (depending on your circumstances, you may need to be watching your triglyceride level, your markers for kidney or liver disease, or — for men — your PSA number).
Am I listening to my body? Paying attention to tension, or aching joints, or other signs of discomfort? Am I seeing my doctors regularly, and making ongoing efforts to maintain or improve my health? Am I noticing when I need to slow down, take a break, take a nap, or make sure that I’m not over-stressing myself?
Knowing yourself psychologically. Like physical wellness, mental health is something that requires both self-knowledge and self-care. Again, my questions: Am I paying attention to my mood, noticing when I am sad or depressed, irritable or angry, nervous or obsessive? Am I responding to my internal fears and anxieties with love and self-care? Do I practice “mental hygiene,” working to make sure I keep my thoughts positive, hopeful, and encouraging? When I am out of sorts, or angry or depressed, do I seek out connection with a loved one, good friend, or counselor? Am I honest with myself about my strengths and weaknesses (for example, by nature I tend to be optimistic and upbeat, but since I’m an introvert I have to make an effort to be outgoing in many social situations), and take responsibility for trying to nurture a loving sense of self?
Knowing yourself ethically. Now we are getting into the waters of faith. God calls us to be good — to be manifestations of God’s own truth, goodness and beauty; the extent to which we do this (or fail to) represents our ethical make-up. Do I have a clear sense of virtue (love, responsibility, fairness, compassion, hard work, honesty, humility and so forth) and seek to foster such virtues in my life? Am I willing to be honest about my foibles — my sins, my failings, my vices, whether minor (a penchant for spending too much time on Facebook) or more problematic (a tendency to over-spend or to drive too fast)?
When I have sinned, do I take responsibility by expressing contrition and repentance, and do I seek absolution? (If you aren’t Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican, this wouldn’t apply to you, but perhaps you have some other way to sacramentally express your contrition/repentance as well as your confidence in God’s mercy). Am I forgiving? Of others, but also of myself? Do I try to practice a balance between justice (having a strong commitment to what is good, ethical, honest, fair and true) and forgiveness/mercy (practicing the art of reconciliation, even with those who have hurt me or let me down).
Am I committed to social justice as well as personal righteousness? In other words, do I understand that faith means more than just staying on the straight-n-narrow personally, but also means working for a better world, particularly in regard to the struggle against violence, racism and other forms of oppression, and economic injustice? Are my political values and my volunteer efforts in alignment with my spiritual beliefs? If I am against something (like the death penalty, or abortion) am I willing to pour that passion into working for something positive (like social and financial support for single mothers, or community-based programs that promote restorative justice)?
Knowing yourself spiritually. Finally, we come to the heart of the matter — the heart of our matter. To know myself physically, mentally and ethically are all good exercises, that anyone can (and I would say should) do. But for contemplatives, there is also the question of knowing ourselves spiritually. Here are the questions: When God looks at me, what (or who) does God see? Do I recognize myself as created in the image and likeness of God? Do I recognize that I am cherished by God, loved by God, forgiven by God? That God loves me enough to die for me? What does it look like, to look like someone forgiven and loved so deeply? Do I see the image and likeness of God within me? If not, then what do I need to do to open my eyes to this Biblical and spiritual truth?
So there you go. This is probably a lifetime’s assignment, but fortunately, God is both loving and patient, and is willing to accompany us on this lifelong journey of self-knowledge. Of course, the real kicker is this: As we get to know ourselves better (and discover the love of God pulsating within us), that love will insist on being given away. To be the image and likeness of God means to be the image and likeness of Love. And Love is only love when it flows between lovers and beloveds.
What an adventure! What are you waiting for — let’s get going!