Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of December 16, 2019


Know Thyself - Reconsidered

Like its 20th century incarnation as self-observation, the ancient Greek aphorism, "know thyself," is widely accepted as a true path toward psychological health and spiritual development. But its benefits, real as they are, may be relatively superficial and come at the cost of damage at a deeper level.

The problem arises from the very structure of the ideas of knowing yourself and observing yourself. Regardless of how impartial the knowing and observing are, they implicitly divide us inwardly into an observer and the observed, into a knower and the known, a deeper part and a shallower part. The necessity of seeing that we have in us light and dark, loving and hating, giving and taking, timidity and courage, strengths and weaknesses, grand and petty thoughts and emotions, and all the rest, is not at issue.

The question is how to come toward that knowledge and put it to good use without hardening our many inner divisions. The light does not defeat the dark in us by standing apart from it and trying to impede it. Light does not defeat the dark in us by going to war against it, against ourselves. The light defeats the dark by embracing it, by letting love and acceptance suffuse it, by letting conscience purify it. The stance of knower and known, observer and observed, inherently divides us and prevents the transformational healing that we need.

There is a better way, the way of presence: holistic, total presence. We start with simple attention. Sometimes we are paying attention and sometimes not. Sometimes our attention is whole, and sometimes splintered and scattered. We know the difference. We know attention. The way of presence is the way of being our attention, the way of total attention. We are not trying to divide our attention to have one part watch our other parts. We simply be here entirely, doing what we are doing, seeing what we are seeing.

The work of presence is not about taking something away from our ordinary life. It is not about maintaining a separate observer in the back of our mind that looks over our shoulder at what we are doing. The work of presence is about adding to, enhancing our ordinary life, by bringing more to what we do, by fully engaging in whatever we do, by doing what we are doing wholeheartedly, with the whole of ourselves. That wholeness, that total engagement, transforms us.

Now you might ask: what about our light and dark, strengths and weaknesses, and all that? What about the things we need to change in how we are, our habits and so on? In presence, in attention, we see. We see what is around us. We see what is in us. We are the act of seeing. We are the will to see. Among the many things we see are the habits and propensities of body, heart, and mind that weaken our presence or misguide our actions. Those are the things that are profitable to change.

We also see our habits and propensities that hurt us or others. Those are the things that are necessary to change. But the seeing itself begins those changes, those healings. In presence, we are infused with conscience and, right behind it, love. Those are the true agents of personal growth, of spiritual transformation. The changes come because we see, we accept, and we care. We do not divide ourselves, we embrace ourselves with arms of compassion.

The upshot is that we live in full presence. No longer half-alive, half-distracted, too passive, we live here, thoroughly ourselves, integrated and complete.

By starting with the practice of being our whole attention, we avoid the pitfalls of dividing ourselves, splitting our inner world. We cannot afford to live as less than our entirety. If something needs to change, we help that change come organically through conscience and love. We do not try to cut away part of ourselves. We do not try to be one part and not another. We work to heal, integrate, and recognize we are one whole. Over time we find less and less that needs changing. We focus on living in and as full presence, with conscience and love to guide us. The umbrella of total presence makes us whole. In wholeness, we can live with compassion for ourselves and those around us. This is what we are called to do.

Instead of "know thyself," we follow "be thyself." Instead of self-observation, we practice self-integration.

For this week, please practice living in and as your whole presence.


        

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