"Know Thyself" [101/1]

Embodied Philosophy 101 (Class 1)

 "The Death of Socrates - Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825)"

"The Death of Socrates - Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825)"

The popular maxim “Know Thyself” has been a resounding call for curious seekers throughout the ages.  Originally attributed to several different sages of the Ancient Greek period -- perhaps most notably philosophers Socrates and Heraclitus -- this message speaks to us at a universal level, encouraging the deepening and expansion of spiritual, philosophical and self-improvement projects that have been inspired by a variety of traditions.

Embodied Philosophy is first and foremost a response to this calling. We seek, at the most fundamental level, to know ourselves deeply and profoundly, to leave no question unquestioned, to leave no mystery left out of our experience of wonder and amazement at the flows and forms of Existence.

In our process of questioning and exploring the dynamic terrain of conscious experience, we arrive at the inevitable questions: what is the self, after all, and what kind of knowledge am I seeking? The self I speak of and the knowledge I intend to have of that self are themselves up for investigation. Is the self the body; is it the mind? Is the knowledge I’m looking for the kind of knowledge one finds in books?

For many of us at Embodied Philosophy, it was yoga and the wider Eastern philosophical tradition that offered us meaningful ways of approaching these questions, and so here you can find thought-provoking writings and educational materials on subjects related to Hinduism and Buddhism, Shaivism and Taoism, as well as the illuminating symbolism of mythology, mysticism, archetypal metaphor and some teachings and traditions from within the Western philosophical canon.

However, this practice of exploring Ancient (and not-so-ancient) wisdom is not in the service of merely intellectual passion - even though many of us have such passion -, but is rather involved in a process of becoming more integrated with our bodies, with our emotions, with our friends, our family and our planet. To that end, Embodied Philosophy is not just a place for the introduction and exploration of ancient wisdom texts, but is a home for remarks and musings about social justice, mental health, the political landscape and the contemporary human condition. By bringing ancient wisdom and practices into dialogue with the world as it is today, we become richer in our capacity to respond to today’s issues with clarity, lightness, and balance.

 Hartwig HKD / If you meet Buddha on the Path - VII

Hartwig HKD / If you meet Buddha on the Path - VII

“But why study at all?” some might ask. “Why not just get involved with a good cause?” Getting involved with a meaningful organization or cause is admirable and timely, but embodied study is no less important, for ideas, in our view, are not simply empty abstractions. Ideas have a material component and affect; therefore, ideas matter. An idea has the capacity to change our bodies and therefore the world around us by influencing the way that we perceive and interact with other beings and our environment. For example, when an individual operates from a fear-based idea that the world is out to get him or her, we see the shoulders cower forward, the chest sink back and the gaze stay to the ground.  A recent study showed that the postural habits caused by excessive cellular phone usage can literally change our moods. Ideas are therefore powerful material, but unfortunately many people take their ideas for granted, assume they represent reality, and fail to realize the profound potentiality that exists in each of us to think, and thus feel, and thus be more fully.

To consider this more deeply, let’s return to the two questions that arise when we consider the maxim “Know Thyself”: “What is the self? What is knowledge?” If we were to ignore these questions and simply take “know thyself” at face value, we might consider the calling simply to be to get to know better the various features of our personality: “I like this and that. I don’t like this and that. I respond to these stressors this way. I favor this over that thing. These are my dreams and ambitions. This is what made me this way.” Etcetera and so on… Certainly becoming familiar with these qualities serves the overall goal of “knowing thyself”, insofar as these personality features illustrate the various ways that consciousness can function, but this is not the whole story for us at Embodied Philosophy.

In the Eastern Philosophical tradition, one can find at least three fundamental claims about the self:

  1. The Self does not Exist.
  2. The Self is not the Personality.
  3. The Self is All there Is.
 Hartwig HKD / Rinpoche's Tree / Flickr

Hartwig HKD / Rinpoche's Tree / Flickr

Depending on what tradition you are exploring, sometimes these positions overlap, and sometimes they conflict. While it is beyond the scope of this introduction to get into the specifics, needless to say “what the self is” is by no means self-evident. In fact, much of the traditions, cultures and texts we explore at Embodied Philosophy deny that the self-as-personality model is all there is to say about the topic of the self. In many instances, the personality actually becomes an obstacle to “knowing thyself” and perpetuates negative moods and experiences of psychological suffering. The personality, in other words, is an idea, and one that very well may stand in the way of knowing ourselves in the most expansive way possible.

Like the self, knowledge also has a way of presenting itself as self-evident. What could be more obvious than what knowledge is? I either have a knowledge of how to fix cars, or I don’t. I either know the history of U.S. immigration, or I don’t know it. Knowledge, in these examples, is something outside you. It’s a kind of object, and you either have it or you don’t have it. Also, with this kind of knowledge, you can have or not have a certain knowledge, but the self (who you are) remains the same. There is a subject (you) on one side of this knowledge equation and an object (how to fix a microwave) on the other. Therefore, here there are two “substances”: the subject and the object (of knowledge).

While we want to save the Sanskrit words mostly for later in your Embodied Philosophy journey, there is one word that captures a second kind of knowledge that is important to our discussion here: jnana. Jnana means “knowledge” in Sanskrit, but this kind of knowledge is an embodied knowledge. In other words, you don’t simply have this knowledge – you become this knowledge. This kind of knowledge pervades every aspect of your being, changes you, and shifts the coordinates of who you are and what you considered yourself to be.

For a recent Chalkboard Yoga Studies Episode exploring Jnana, go here

Jnana is more than a knowledge that you read in books at the library. Jnana is a knowledge that radically transforms the way that you perceive and interact with the world. This is not to say that book knowledge and “how-to” knowledge are not important. Certainly they are, for someone first has to be introduced to knowledge in the “object-ive” way before one can step into this knowledge and embody it.

 Hartwig HKD / Buddha's Light / Flickr

Hartwig HKD / Buddha's Light / Flickr

Thus, as should be becoming clear, the kind of investigation (knowing) of Self that we are involved with here at Embodied Philosophy is more than simply a practice of armchair theorizing. It is more than simply a process of abstract intellectualizing. It is instead very much an ethical practice that informs everything that we do. It informs our interactions with others, our perspective on the world, and even our base perceptions and impressions. Being involved in this process is to be transmuted in an alchemical way. Like mercury becoming gold through a slight shift in its atomic structure, through the practical philosophies studied here we take on new form and expression.

Know Thyself. We respond to this calling with openness, curiosity and wonder. The body-mind is a malleable instrument conducive to this process of expanding awareness, but obstacles inevitably arise, one of which is the familiar experience of suffering. In the next article of this introductory series, Embodied Philosophy 101, we look at suffering and especially a cultural myth that has arisen around this experience.

In Article Two of Embodied Philosophy 101, we explore psychological suffering and a pervasive myth about the brain.

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