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Getting Beyond “Know Thyself”

Perhaps we are moving beyond a space of needing to “know thyself.” Perhaps we are entering a new space where it is enough to realize the process of knowing, without getting hung up on knower and known and so forth.

The self seems to be that which has certain identifying data (name, birthday, place of residence, family constellation), which data morphs into narrative (likes and dislikes, significant life events, hopes and dreams, hobbies, secrets, et cetera).


A profusion of flowers in the garden, a lovely tangle that makes me happy and grateful.

But before identity and narrative, there is that to which identity and narrative apply. There is that for which they are relevant or significant, that which attends them and which they attend in turn.

This “that” is a distinction that in our current state of thinking and speaking we refer to as a “self.” First comes the self, the particular distinction, and then come identity and narrative, which are effectively window dressing for the distinction to which they apply.

Perhaps part of the spiritual process is just seeing clearly this order: the self is that which to which identity and narrative apply. And then a further part of the spiritual process is attending the self, the that-which-occurs-prior-to-identity-and-narrative.

It is possible to give attention to that self, and to experience it in a direct way. This direct experience can be quite intimate and intense, given that time and place, identity and narrative apparently dissolve in it.

Yet there is also a potential for confusion in such intimate intensity. We sometimes end up identifying with the intensity, that pure state of awareness. As Ramana Maharshi put it “that Awareness which alone remains – that I am.”

Yet this “I” remains a distinction. It cannot be otherwise. In order to distinguish “I” we automatically distinguish “Not-I.” To bring forth a “self” – any self at all – we must also bring forth “not-self.” Else how would we know it?

Thus, the self for its existence relies on the other, who is also a self relying for its existence on another.

It is tempting to observe this circularity, this mutuality, and declare with respect to it: we are one. But this declaration is limited. A and B, who mutually specify each other, also mutually specify C, which is their unity, their oneness. It is this oneness that allows A and B to be both self and other (even though each is aware of only one self and one other).

But in order to specify C, we must thereby specify not-C. On and on it goes. That is why the declaration “we are one” is limited. C brings forth not-C, which in turn brings forth D, which in turns bring forth not-D. It’s true we are one, you and I, but we are not “only” one, or “the only” one.

It seems like we are locked into an infinite regress here (C leads to D leads to E leads to F et cetera). But rather than focus on that, it’s helpful to focus on the circularity that inheres between A and B, or AB and C, or ABC and D. Each forms a circle in which each is the full equal of the other, and in which each brings the other forth.

This circularity undoes – or dissolves – the inclination (which is premised on linearity) to ask about first causes, beginnings, before-the-beginnings, et cetera. There is no beginning. Nor is there any end. There is only being, wherever and however one looks, that is all there is. Being.

I am suggesting one actually go into this. I am suggesting one actually observe the distinctions and the distinguishing and reflect on them. They are living processes, dynamically capable of being observed.

And I suggest that in doing so, one comes up against lawful limits (there is a self that is not alone but exists in mutual codependence with others who could be one’s own self), and that these limits are nonetheless experienced as essentially infinite and eternal (without beginning or end), and that at some point in the inquiry, the giving of attention to all this, it becomes possible – it becomes desirable – to just breathe and say “okay, this is it” in a relative rather than absolute way.

This breathing (I am not being metaphorical but really indicating giving attention to one’s experience of breathing, of being breathed) – this relaxing into (not resisting, not adapting, not altering) what is as it is – is what makes us fundamentally happy, peaceful, coherent, creative and so forth.

Finally, I think a language around this process that is not inherently spiritual or religious or therapeutic but basically logical – like directions for screwing in a light bulb – is helpful. That is, rather than spiritualize our confusion and inattention, why not just be clear and attentive?

rain falls on the river out back, low in a dry summer, like the rest of us longing for that which we are.

In a funny way, it is actually easier to be clear and attentive than unclear and inattentive. But we have to want to see it that way.

Part of why I suggest a non-spiritual/religious mode of dealing with this material is that spiritual/religious modes tend to be conclusive. And any conclusion with respect to the self (or Truth or God or the Whole or whatever) strikes me as incoherent in terms of logic and – more importantly – community.

It is incoherent logically because we can never stand outside the domain of experience in order to compare it any putative truth. Therefore, experience is always conditional – it is what it is, but what it is, in the ultimate sense, is foreclosed to us. Statements like “there is only this,” while tempting because of their pretense to certainty, and the comfort certainty brings, are effectively superstition. They are magical thinking. We just don’t know.

More significantly, it is a distraction in the communal sense, because our problem is that we are unhappy, and fixing this is not complicated – we just have to let go of what makes us unhappy! It’s not a spiritual problem. It’s not a psychological problem. It’s a mechanical problem. If you see a rattlesnake on the trail, you don’t need a metaphysician to know to stop walking. You stop walking; you give the snake its due, and this happens naturally. Like that, happiness is natural. To be is to be happy. But we can ignore this, or forget this, and thus make ourselves unhappy.

We can turn the rattlesnake into a problem of God or metaphysics, what are basically undecidable questions. When those questions are posed in the sense of “I have to answer this in order to be happy” rather than “asking these questions makes me happy” than we are effectively screwed.

I speak from considerable experience in that regard . . .

But it seems that we are beginning to move beyond that space, the space of complicating things in favor of a space where our natural proclivity for joy, helpfulness, peace, cooperation and so forth might prevail. I hope so. We need that, as a species, and the ecosystem of which we are such a problematic part needs it, too.

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