"The only journey is the journey within." — Rainer Maria Rilke
There may be nothing more difficult in life than having a true, deep inner knowledge of yourself, and yet, there's nothing more necessary and essential to living a full, satisfied and enriched life. Perhaps this type of awareness is so difficult to attain and master simply because many people misunderstand what's meant by the phrase "knowing yourself." It's easy to misinterpret it as meaning you know your likes and dislikes, your preferences and opinions.
However, true self-awareness extends far past mere personality idiosyncrasies; it's a profound understanding of the perceptions that define your identity and the roles you play throughout each and every day of your life. By extension, it's also a cognizance of your "tics" — do you move when you don't want to move? How does your demeanor and energy change when you're made to feel uncomfortable? Does your mind wander frequently from the moment at hand when you're confronted with inconvenience or anxiety? Do you often get lost in memory and reverie?
The underlying purpose for pursuing this particular kind of knowledge is gaining deeper insight into your unique identity, understanding the various roles you've played throughout your life and attaining peace with who you are right now in the present moment. Here's a closer look at the nature of understanding yourself — or, perhaps, your selves.
"Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny." — Lao Tzu
At its core, self-knowledge and self-awareness are the practice of watching yourself. Observing how your states may shift and change from one environment to another, noticing your habits and instinctual reactions to different situations — this is where "the journey within" truly begins.
At first, this proves to be much more difficult than it sounds like it should be. Life is filled with overstimulation and distractions that can easily divert your attention from faithfully watching your thoughts and emotions from one moment into another. Perhaps this is why many view the concept of self-awareness as a spiritual endeavor or a Zen regimen; there truly is a certain discipline to it that can be tough to master, especially if you're often beset with feelings of anxiety or disquiet.
However, this inner disquiet that may inhibit your self-awareness is the very reason the practice of watching yourself so crucial; it's an exercise in inner silence. (Which, in this day and age, seems harder and harder to attain.) Eckhart Tolle once said, "The equivalent of external noise is the internal noise of thinking. The equivalent of external silence is internal silence."
"Silence is the absolute core of reality, the inner nature of all that is." — Swami Premodaya
But what exactly does inner silence have to do with understanding your own identity? The answer may seem strange at first: It reveals what's real about who you are and what isn't. For this very reason, the concept of a true and a false self has long been the primary preoccupation of modern psychology; Carl Jung introduced the notion of "the shadow side" in his own work throughout the 20th century. He wrote, "The ego confuses itself with the facade of personality... and forgets that it also possesses aspects which run counter to its persona."
By practicing inner silence and becoming more and more familiar with your inner "shadow," you grow to know yourself on a deeper level than anyone else ever could. At this point, you're no longer just observing habits and behavioral patterns within yourself; you're recognizing your different "selves." These are all the faces you've ever worn, all the roles you've had to play and all the people your life has required you to be. This idea may seem daunting — or, on the other hand, downright nonsensical — but take a moment to think back over your life. Can you say your identity has remained the same throughout your entire life? That you've only ever been one person, or one kind of person?
Think of all the things life has demanded of you, all the ways it morphed and molded you over years and decades, both within yourself and in your relationships and interactions with those around you. Think of all the environments you've inhabited and what each individual one stirred within you; the jobs you've had and shoes you've filled; the things you learned from other people, the things you learned from specific periods of your life, the thing you may have learned from yourself.
As you reflect on your own personal gallery of faces and moments and places, chances are you'll recognize that the name you were given at birth came to encapsulate many characters, each one a different role you played on your way to the next one. This revelation is accompanied by the realization that your identity is not one sole individual but rather the totality of a multiplicity of individuals, each one equally you.
Understanding the depths of peace and freedom in this idea can enrich your life in such a way that reaches it on every level, from mental and emotional health to how you deal with stress and challenges in day-to-day life. At Bethesda Gardens in Arlington, we encourage our residents to explore themselves every day through whatever means brings them fulfillment, from physical exercise and brain games to social interaction and spiritual growth.