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Why must we understand ourselves?


Credits: Tim Coleman

We could start this discussion by arguing how the present time — in the light of social, political, health, and environmental crises — requires a deeper understanding of ourselves than ever before, but then I would not be able to convince you that any other time did not require an equally deep understanding of ourselves. So we avoid invoking such momentary urgency and go straight to the matter. However, before we ask ourselves why we must understand ourselves, let us inquire together into what it means to understand ourselves, so that we are on the same page when we begin to inquire into the heart of the matter.

All of us understand ourselves to varying degrees of confidence, therefore when we ask why must we understand ourselves, surely our own thoughts on the matter emerge in our minds. So let us pause for a moment to observe the fireworks of thoughts when we ask, what does it mean to understand ourselves? What is the texture of this feeling of understanding ourselves? Is there a feeling of confusion, an overwhelming sense of mystery, or perhaps a sense of clarity?


Mind you, we are concerned entirely with the psyche here. Furthermore, we are not inquiring into “what” we understand about ourselves, therefore, we can let go of the particulars and inquire about the very nature of this understanding. About this feeling of understanding, do we not feel like there is an authority inside us that feels it understands itself? Would we not say that this authority has developed a set of conclusions and insights over time, which guide our behavior, knowingly or unknowingly? If so, are these conclusions and insights self-understanding? We are inquiring into this together: by that I mean, we do not read passively, but go into this together, actively, full of energy, resolved to find out for ourselves what it means to understand ourselves.


Suppose we took self-understanding to be a set of conclusions and insights developed over time by this inner authority, then, does this understanding not belong to the past, almost like a memory, carried over into the present by thought, and projected into the future? If that is so, how does it help us understand ourselves in the moment at hand, say when a completely new feeling arises fresh in the moment? Suppose it is a feeling we are not quite sure what to call yet: we notice the feeling but very soon, we relate it to a feeling we have felt in the past; we recount from memory what the feeling was, “ah loneliness”, and all of a sudden, onto a feeling that was totally fresh, is projected all that is associated with loneliness: fear, shame, sorrow, guilt, separation, and the whole lot. Even if the feeling was to have a different trajectory, it starts to follow the trajectory of how we felt the other day when we were seized with “loneliness”. As a result, we begin to invoke strategies we may have deployed previously to rid ourselves of the feeling, ranging from pulling our phones out to eating to talking. If one of the strategies clicks, the feeling is pushed back down into the abyss from whence it arose. Life resumes till the feeling arises again, and sends us scampering about, till we suppress it back down only for it to come back up again, and again, in different garbs. It is as if the feeling is looming over our shoulder all the time, and because we run away from it in fear, it is ever so ready to creep into us, hurling us into periodic states of fear and anxiety.

Through this very typical situation, we observe that most of us find ourselves in a similar condition: when a feeling arises in us, we begin to relate it to past feelings about which we have certain conclusions and insights, that govern the trajectory of the feeling. We seem to have very little capacity to observe the feeling at hand: we react to the feeling, burdened by our prior “understanding”, which can more appropriately be called thought and memory of the past. In the light of this observation, can we ever fully attend to a feeling arising freshly in the moment?


Clearly not! For our attention is dominated by the memories of past experiences loaded with their intense feeling tones. Given that this is how we always functioned, and what we call understanding is derived from this very way of being, could there be any clarity in the understanding of what is arising freshly in the moment at hand? If that is how we have always understood ourselves, is it really understanding after-all? But consider for a moment, that the word understand in “what it means to understand oneself” was a verb, a highly active state of being.


Before going deeper into this, we must make it absolutely clear to ourselves that thought and memory are of incredible importance to many aspects of life, so we ought to understand their right place: we need memory to remember the directions to the grocery store, and need to think to tame the spread of a virus. But we are inquiring into what may be the right place of thought and memory in the understanding of the psyche. It has become clear that there may be more to the act of understanding ourselves than thought and memory of conclusions about ourselves, as observation of the moment at hand is perpetually and severely compromised by thought and memory.


Coming back to our example of a feeling arising freshly in the moment: if we found ourselves in front of a flower blooming all of a sudden, would we take our eyes off this affair? (Maybe we would, to pull our phone out, alas. But let’s say our complete being knows that not a moment must be missed). We stare at the flower, without a thought, completely awestruck, with your eyes wide open, observing its every movement as it unfurls. A moment later we may say “how beautiful”, which is a thought, and if we continue to fixate on the thought and image of the blooming flower in your mind’s eye, we stop observing the flower that has bloomed into being and unfolded eternity into our presence. Similarly, as a feeling arises, is it too not like a blooming flower, in that it is completely alive and fresh? So the question is, can we observe the feeling too, with our complete being, just like we observed the blooming flower, with curiosity and awe, not stirring one bit, completely undistracted. We may feel like running away from the feeling, but we observe this tendency too, and continue to observe as we scamper around to distract ourselves, observing that we are seized with fear, that we may be stuck with this feeling forever: the feeling may last a few minutes or a few hours but we observe its every movement. This lucid observation of the feeling as it continues to unravel in our being is a state of total understanding: it always belongs to the moment at hand, not one conclusion or insight has to be carried forward in time, because such an act would burden the mind and distract it from observing lucidly what arises in the next moment, and the next.


Please note that we have said nothing of the sort that we ought to “live in the present moment”. Such proclamations too, burden the mind, and accentuate its tendency of self-judgement when one is not acting in accord with the proclamation, distracting us from observing what is arising in the moment at hand. What we are understanding together is, that we are interested in a complete understanding of our being, for which we must observe all that arises in us, including the memories of the past, fantasies of the future, each and every movement of thought, because when we are thinking, we are the thought, therefore, if we are interested in understanding ourselves deeply, and completely, we must observe every movement of thought.


So together, we are finding out that as we observe all that arises in our being in the moment at hand with innocence, curiosity and lightness, we understand ourselves as we are, noticing that we have a tendency to burden ourselves with thoughts of the past, the future, as well as thoughts that seem quite precious, all of which makes it impossible for us to observe and understand deeply, what arises in the moment at hand.


Therefore, understanding oneself must be a dynamic, active, lucid, wakeful state of observation, belonging only to the present moment; any set of conclusions carried over from the past, can more appropriately be called memory or thought, which do have their right place in our minds, but more generally, are stale and distracting. The moment at hand is what is alive, fresh, and rich, and only a mind that is fresh, active, and lucid, full of innocence, vitality and curiosity can surrender to this richness.


Finally, before we move onto the question of why we must understand ourselves, we must note that the lucid and active state is not a state to be achieved over time by practicing, exercising, and controlling the mind, for this very idea divides what is clearly one entity, our being, into a mind and some part of us that is trying to gain control over the mind, an idea which is akin to separating the blooming of the flower from the flower: the blooming is the flower, similarly, the controller is the controlled, and the thinker is the thought. To observe each and every movement of thought is to observe what is, without naming, without separating the thinker from thought. This faculty is already here, lucid, and active by virtue of our existence, for that is why we were able to observe the blooming flower without a thought. This very awareness, is what channels the energy of our attention towards observation and understanding of each and every movement of our being.


Why must we understand ourselves?

We note that whether or not we understand ourselves in the way we have just discovered together, we can all attest to the fact that we are deeply conditioned by our past, that of the few decades of our lives, and of our ancestors over the millennia of evolution. This conditioning, interacting with the current state of the world governs our actions in life. In addition to the basic demands of survival, the infinite layers of conditioning interact with each other in ways that bring an immense degree of disorder in our being, manifesting through states of conflict, commonly felt as anxiety, loneliness, envy, greed, hate, sense of comparison and separateness etc. These tendencies wreak turmoil in our being, and harm our relationships with other humans, animals and the environment in general. Because we do not understand the depths of these conflicts, they perpetuate forward in time, unresolved, entangling ever more strongly with each other, leading to deeper states of disorder in our actions. So, the eternal question is: do we take the consequence of these conditions as necessary, argue that our conflicts are unsolvable, that they may even be healthy for survival, and move on with life, or can we do something about it?


Most of us are well aware of the problem of conditioning to varying degrees. Some of us are in the barracks, battling these problems on a daily basis as they rip our beings apart, while others feel they creep into our beings every once in a while, the experience, nevertheless, quite horrific, still. Whatever degree of intensity we may be in, the problems are real. Most of us will also agree that as an intense emotion surges in our being, we floor the gas pedal of self-expectation, expecting to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, to rise to the heights of well-being, realizing not that we are in the most vulnerable state of being and unlikely to pull such a feat; many of us will take refuge in food, tv shows, and tune our way out of it, later sulking in self-judgement. Clearly, neither tendencies have helped us solve the problem completely: they continue to loom over our shoulder, as we look away, and hide and run in fear. But can we ever solve a problem without looking at it, without understanding it? So, can we begin to observe the problem, together? Mind you, we do not have to be on the brink of breaking down, to address the problem: the anxiety, envy, greed, inferiority, and loneliness are all alive in us on a daily basis: we must find out together how we can go into them, to find out if we can end them.


This is why we inquired together into what it means to understand ourselves. As we observe all that arises in our being, perpetually, with innocence, lucidity, and vitality, we begin to understand our tendencies: what we previously called loneliness is actually an interesting phenomenon that takes a life of its own every time it arises, though it may be dark and heavy, its shades have a sense of freshness, for it is never quite the same as the previous time: noticing this, we begin to stop comparing how we feel in the moment at hand to how we felt previously. Seeing what arises in us for what it is, perpetually, gives us a great sense of understanding, which deepens our awareness of how our tendencies affect all our actions, and those of others, who like us, are also acting from similar conditioning. In this way, we suddenly find ourselves in the realm of humanity, and while the contents and intensities of our feelings may be different from others’, the basic texture of our feeling is almost the same, for after-all, we are the same organism as the rest of humanity.


A perpetual observation of all that is present in our being is the first step in understanding and resolving the conflicts that arise in us, both at a personal level and at the societal level because we are society and society is us: each one of us resolving conflicts, perpetually, with such a voracious appetite brings a great sense of order to our actions, hence bringing order to society. Every conflict that thus arises in us can be greeted with the light of this clear observation, unraveling the process of understanding and resolution in the very moment it arises.


Once again, we note here that we are not speaking of a practice or an exercise we must engage in periodically, so that one day, we can resolve our conflicts and relieve our suffering. We have come to understand deeply, together, that we can only end conflict in our beings by focusing our entire energy in observing and understanding what is arising in the moment at hand. Any path that delineates practices, claiming supremacy over others, is itself subject to the condition of comparison with others, and like greed, envy, and hate, is divisive, limiting, so it perpetuates conflict, and therefore cannot be the way that resolves conflict completely.


Understanding oneself in this way means that one sees oneself as one is. We may notice that we often act to reinforce an image of ourselves, or an image others have of us, but the moment we see this, we understand this tendency: we realize that this is a deep source of conflict in our being because it blocks us from seeing ourselves as we are. In fully understanding this tendency is the transformation we seek. Hence, we run away from the conflict generating psychological habit of wanting to become something else because our complete being has come to understand the danger of acting in this manner, just like we understand fully not to go near a dangerous animal. Not only that, we also begin to feel compassion for ourselves for this conditioned tendency, for we can see the state of innocence in which we may have acquired it, perhaps because of our parents’ applause or neglect. This understanding restores a great state of innocence and compassion in our beings that we felt as children, becoming the second instance of unconditional love — the first being the love we felt as kids — manifesting with the same innocence towards ourselves and others in the grips of similar tendencies.


Please let us take a moment to check ourselves to make sure that we are not intellectualizing about abstract ideas of love but are simply pointing out at the love borne of understanding and sensitivity. This love is an engagement of all faculties of our being, akin to a state when we see a dog or a child in pain: there is no intellectualizing or contemplation, our love is the right action. Similarly, as we observe lucidly how a conflict arising in our being brings a great deal of pain, we bathe ourselves in the love of our understanding, a process that disentangles a knot of conditioning, which, if suppressed, would have become more entangled with the larger web of conditioning. This perpetual state of observing, understanding, and loving breeds an intense level of sensitivity to the conditions of our existence, from which follows the right action, most naturally.

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