Know Thyself

Die to the future, die to the past, and wake up now.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn

I have come across this incredible resource on philosophy – BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas. The presenter of this programme, Melvyn Bragg, asks a question of philosophy, such as “how can I tell right from wrong?” to a panel of experts including philosophers, scientists, historians and writers. After the programme, each panel member then investigates the question further for their own follow-up programme.

I came across the Know Thyself short animation as part of the “What does it mean to be me?” episode. This animation touches on four thinkers – two philosophers and two scientists. It begins with Socrates, who went to great depths to know that he didn’t really know much. Then to Thomas Hobbes who said that by engaging in introspection, observing ourselves and understanding our thoughts, feelings and desires, not only would we know ourselves better, but so would we too of others. The unconscious plays a big role in knowing who we are, and it’s something that we still don’t fully understand. Freud believed that our repressed desires only come out in dreams or slips of the tongue, making us wonder whether we ever truly understand our behaviour. Finally, the evolutionary psychologist Bruce Hood said that actually the self is just an illusion – there is no self to know.

Therefore, how do we know that we actually exist if there is no self, or at least the jury is out on what ‘the self’ is? The philosopher René Descartes said that we exist because we have thoughts. But, in contrary to Descartes, we are more than our thoughts. As Aristotle reminds us that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

According to probably one of the most well-known mindfulness practitioners – scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn –  he says that the key to the good life is to know ourselves. In a recent lecture of his, he basically explained that to be mindful is to be awake. In order to be awake, we have to tap into ourselves. This talk reminded me of a story that I read recently, as part of a book on philosophy. It is a fictional story about two passengers on a plane. The female passenger doesn’t like flying, so she takes a sleeping pill that lasts the whole flight. Yet, she’s not actually asleep, it’s her awareness that is. She still functions as a normal human, having deep and engaging conversations with the passenger sitting next to her. She tells him about the pill she has just swallowed, and he is amazed at how she appears to have full use of her senses.

How many of us spend our days being fully functioning but not actually awake? “Die to the future, die to the past, and wake up now,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn.

To figure out how to know oneself is probably one of the hardest things to do, because identifying what the self is in the first place is still a tricky task. For now, I turn to poetry as a source of help. For my post on ‘Know your value, know your self‘, I referred to a part of the poem ‘Nosce Teipsum’ by Sir John Davies. We can easily go to each end of the poles, and yet still be unacquainted with our own soul.

For this post, I leave you with the poem by the St Lucian Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright, Derek Walcott, which Jon Kabat-Zinn recited during his lecture.

Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

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The shy Iranian

“There is the shy Iranian in all of us who dances in quick bursts of energy.”

– Omid Djalili

“Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” This quote from Oscar Wilde has chimed with me for many years. I have often tried to be myself, but I am never really sure what this means. There is also another “be yourself” quote which I hear regularly, attributed to Marilyn Munroe: “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”

Growing up, I was frequently told to “be myself”. Especially when it came to dating, my friends encouraged me to stay who I was, and that the right guy would inevitably love and accept me for me. My favourite boss told me to never change who I was. These were lovely sentiments that made me feel very good.

I also had friends, family and colleagues telling me what I was like. A former colleague of mine once described me as a “thinker, not a doer”. A loved one told me that I am sometimes “too nice” and that I try too hard to please others. In my early twenties, a forty something singleton friend of mind told me that I reminded her a lot of herself when she was my age.

It’s funny to think that on the one hand people tell you to be yourself – the uniqueness that is you, and yet on the other hand, they tell you who they think you are.

One of the keys to happiness, says Tal-Ben Shahar on his Happiness 101 lecture, is the permission to be human: to express your emotions, frailties and vulnerability. I think that we all should do this, but only to a certain degree. I believe we have an obligation to one another to bring our best selves to the table as much as we can. And sometimes, bringing our best self means being someone we usually aren’t.

I used to find it very hard to temper my emotions. I got great joy from raising my voice and shouting people down. I used to fall in love quickly and deeply, and then be brought down to the depths of despair when it all went horribly wrong, which was most often the case. I believed in confrontation, in righting the perceived wrongs done against me. Somedays fear and self-consciousness would paralyse me in anxiety. Other days I would bounce off the walls, full of extroversion and energy.

The F**k It philosophy says that we have many sides to our personality, character and behaviour, and that it’s far better to just accept these different sides and not attach any positive or negative associations to them. The danger in fully accepting this philosophy is that it excuses the behaviour which prevents me from living freely. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that when we are a slave to our emotions, we are not truly acting freely, because we are letting them rule us. When I let my emotions overpower me, I wasn’t being my authentic self, because my authentic self would chose to act in a more responsible way.

I think we can be many things and we can change or adapt behaviour to become someone different. We can fake it until we become it. And how do really we know what we are like until we test the boundaries of what we are capable of? For instance, I didn’t think I was a particularly good flirt, but actually since I’ve been practising, I’m becoming quite good at it. I didn’t think I was particularly artistic but since I’ve started making cards, I consider myself a bit of an artist!

My nephews (who are 9 and 11 years old) brought the British comedian Omid Djalili’s quote to my attention when they wrote it in my birthday card. At the time, I had no idea why they chose this particular quote. With hindsight, I realise that they are geniuses. We all have shy, dancing Iranians inside of us. We just have to dare to bring him or her out.

Let’s not believe in who we think we are, and let’s not be overruled by our emotions. Let’s play, and test, and dance. And let’s always bring our best selves to the table, even when we don’t think we can.

Last week was Living room philosophy’s first anniversary. Thank you, dear readers, for this wonderful year.