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Self Knowledge

Know Thyself - this has been repeated too often. We've read this short phrase at many places, many a times and it has probably existed for thousands of years. But what does it mean? Does it hold any value, any significance for us? Do we really know ourselves?


Most of us don't. That is what is meant by the word "ignorance". We never observe ourselves, we never look at ourselves as we are. There is a difference between what one is and what one thinks one is. Most of us don't see ourselves as we are but rather as what we would like to be or what we think we should be. Apparently, to look at ourselves directly is very difficult for us. We cover the up the self by various excuses, ideas and ideals. As it is, there are various distractions and means of entertainment at our disposal.

At the slightest hint of a problem or conflict, we run away from it and escape through these various means.

We never actually look at the problem itself. We never solve our problems but merely escape them. We follow some ideology, read some book, and begin to identify ourselves with that. Through that identification, we feel that we are secure. And when something goes against that, there is conflict, contradiction. Then there is also a recent development - Positive thinking, which means no matter how much mess I am in, I must think positive, implying that merely by my thinking positively - which means not acknowledging the problem, not looking at it - it will go away. So, we distract ourselves through positive thinking. Then there is this other thing - "believe in yourself". This is also quite a recent development - coupled with the idea of success and self-improvement. I may be completely ignorant, a fool, but I believe in myself, think positively!

That's exactly what many of these so-called self-help books tell you to do. To believe in yourself, to have faith. Faith in what? In something that doesn't actually exist. I can only have faith in something imaginary because that is what "faith" implies - believing in something you know nothing about. It is easy to see that it is merely an escape, a distraction away from what actually is, meant for merely gratifying and comforting oneself. And most of us deceive ourselves very easily through all this. Self-deception, apparently is one of the easiest thing to do.

Seeing all this, and understanding the urgent necessity to learn about oneself, to know oneself as one is, what is one to do? Surely, to learn about oneself, one must be aware of one's reactions, thoughts and feelings. One must be aware of the words one uses, one's thinking and why one thinks in a particular way, why one believes in certain things, one's behavior and relationship to others. One must be aware how one reacts to situations, to ideas, beliefs and people. One must be aware how one listens to another and how one looks at another. That means being sensitive, which does not mean that one becomes emotional, sentimental, which would be a greater foolishness.

Surely, without understanding oneself, without self-knowledge, there is no real basis for one's thought. Without self-knowledge, what you think may not be right. In the vast jungle of ideas, superstitions, beliefs and points of view, how can one find out what is true and what is false unless one doesn't start from the starting point - which is oneself? If one is at all observant, one will see how there are many beliefs, ideas, opinions and points of view in the world – each different from and in contradiction with the other. And somehow, one tends to think that it is normal. As if so many realities are possible; as if all the point of views can exist simultaneously. Seeing all this and not knowing what to do, one tries to hold on to something – be it a belief, ideology or an illusion for the sake of certainty, surety, wherein one feel comfortable and secure.

There are so many books and people who try to describe reality or which tell you what to do, how to think, how to live and so on. Seeing all this and not knowing anything for oneself, one becomes confused. And in seeking a way out of that confusion, we make experts and specialists all important. We belittle ourselves by imitating others. We try to learn about ourselves through what others have written or said. So, we really don’t learn about ourselves, but only about what the other thinks, even if one may think that one is learning or “progressing”. If we look at ourselves through another, through an intermediary, then we do not look at all. What we then look at is the image, the idea created in our minds through that intermediary. By reading some psychologist or a philosopher, I learn about him and not about myself.

Out of our confusion, we create authorities and are exploited in one way or the other. Whereas, when there is intelligence, which can only come into being through self-knowledge, all the books and specialists become irrelevant and unimportant. Then you can see on your own and learn on your own, from everyone and everything. Then we need not depend; need not see through another that which is right in front of our eyes. Then we can truly experience life in all its forms because we are free and do not depend on anyone or anything else. Then we can walk on our own without anyone guiding us. Then we can truly be a light to ourselves.

Self-knowledge is important so that you don't create any illusions for yourself. It is important so that you don't accept any authority and become an imitating machine. Most of us don't know about ourselves. Most of us depend on others - books, priests, saviors to tell us what to do and for our so-called "salvation". Most of us have already built up images of the world, life and other things - most of which are derived from what we have been told since generations, from books, education and so on. And we never question them. Unless one knows about oneself, one can't be related to others, one can't be aware of the wholeness of life. Unless one doesn't know oneself, one can't see the false as false and the true as true. Without self-knowledge, there is no basis for one's thinking, no matter how clever, intelligent, or knowledgeable one supposes oneself to be.

It is quite an interesting thing to do. To observe yourself, how you think, act, react and so on. It is quite a joy to learn about oneself. But one must look at oneself dispassionately, without getting tangled in the web of introspective analysis, which is merely a form of condemnation, judgment and control. Also, as one learns about oneself, one must not be afraid to look at what one may find. For I may not like it. I may not choose to look at it, to acknowledge it, to face it. My whole background, accumulated experiences, may tell me to stay away from it. To see myself as I am is difficult, and it requires passive awareness and dispassionate observation of oneself. Most of us are afraid to look. One gets uncomfortable, shrinks from looking and sometimes the mind reacts most violently. It is afraid to look at something which is not of its own self, something which it doesn't already know, something which it can't identify. Identification is a problem that the mind must resolve when learning about oneself.

Life demands that one be self-aware for only then can one truly experience relationship in all its forms, with people, with nature and with the whole of life. To begin to understand oneself, one must begin with the most fundamental aspect of oneself, which is thought. In understanding oneself, in learning about oneself, is implied discipline. There must be a sense of discipline to learn about the very complex structure of one's own self. To have that discipline requires initiative. There must be on the part of each of us, the intention to know ourselves, to understand ourselves as we are and the world around us.


Let's face it: most of us don't want to understand ourselves. Self-knowing is an arduous task. You have to be watchful and observant, not letting your prejudices and acquired knowledge and tendencies interfere with the learning. It requires that we give it our energy, as we give to going to office daily or doing some other similar stuff.

It is totally up to us if we want to address these things and go into them. It is generally understood that by reading a book on self-improvement, self-help or by taking an expert's advice, we can improve, change ourselves or become better. We think that by following someone else' ideas and opinions, we can solve our problems. However, without thinking through our own problems and being self-aware, none of our problems can be solved. Through the means and methods provided by others we can escape from problems but we can never understand them.

Understanding requires that each one of us face life as it is and look at our problems directly, and not through any specialist or book, no matter how great, old or widely acknowledged. Understanding requires that one be able to stand alone, without depending upon anybody or anything. As it has been said: self-help is the greatest help. Yet, it is ironical that even for self-help, we have to look to others. But self-help means helping yourself, which we can only do by being aware and by understanding the total process of our minds. For this, no one can help us but ourselves.

Contributing Writer: Ashutosh Ghildiyal is a salaried professional based in Mumbai, India. He was born in Lucknow in 1984, where he completed his schooling. He completed his graduate studies in New Delhi and his post-graduate education in Mumbai. He is the author of To Think or Not to Think and Other stories (Book), various blogs, articles and short stories.

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