Artwork by 孙 影.

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” ― Lao Tzu

You know those people who say things like “X is my life” or “X is all I am”? (feel free to replace x with a job, an activity, an idea, you get the gist). They identify so much with the X that if, due to some external circumstance, that thing is taken away from them, they completeley fall appart. It makes total sense to feel like your entire life has ended when you lose your identity. 

But the truth is identity is a construct and we are more than a job, a thing we do, an idea we care about and losing an image of ourselves is not always the worse thing that can happen. It can serve as an alarm clock that tells us that maybe it’s time to begin to unravel the many layers of who and how we really are. 

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In the past years I faced my own crysis. I used to be a person with poor self-esteem and little confidence and it took me a long time to understand why that happened and even longer to become more grounded and connected to my true self. 

To be fair, I didn’t use to give too much thought to the question of who I was. Not on a deeper level anyway. Like many people, I kept my self-knowledge at surface level: I defined myself through things like gender, the roles I had in close circles and society, the things I did. As mentioned before, the overall image constructed for myself was that of a deeply flawed person. I needed exterior attention and confirmation and, at the same time, I wanted to change and improve myself. 

To accomplish that I searched for solutions in books, websites, other people. To a certain extent the method helped, but I still didn’t feel right. Something was missing. And the reason that happened was because I was looking for answers in the wrong place. 

It took me a while to figure out that in order to change myself I first needed to know and understand who I was.

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They teach us many things at school, but few of them focus on learning who we are and how to navigate ourselves and the world. 

Know thyself is one of those aphorisms that gets dismissed because there are more important things we need to concern ourselves with – things like being productive, making money, being successful. And yet knowing who we are is one of the most important things we can do as human beings. Everything depends on it. 

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Knowing ourselves is like having access to a map towards our inner world and by extension to a good, fulfilled life. The map helps us understand how our bodies, minds and emotions work, how they connect with each other and how their processes affect us. 

In order to read the map, we need the pieces that build it and to get the pieces, we need to begin to observe ourselves.

Self-observation helps us put together a collection of mental snapshots of ourselves in order to gather as much information as possible.

Before you read further, I want to give a warning. All this takes time, lots of time and effort. It is messy and difficult and you have to really want it.  And you need to always remind yourself to do it and why you do it. It’s so easy for the mind to get distracted that one moment you might begin observing something and the next a thought will come and you’ll follow it and forget all about what you set up to do.

We can observe lots in ourselves, things like: postures, body sensations in various contexts, how we behave and interract with different people, the roles we take in different social contexts, the way our voice fluctuates, how we think when we’re upset and how we think when we’re happy, what habits we have, how we do things, etc. 

Since it’s a lot to work with and it’s easy to get distracted, it might be useful to set little goals first and develop in time. Start with the smallest thing that’s available, for example pay attention to how you sit in your chair at the desk. Notice the position and how the body feels. Later you can try observing what happens when you get irritated and notice what’s the trigger, what reactions it causes in you, what are the body sensations that accompany it, what thoughts and associations appear that are connected to that emotion. After more instances of the same thing try to see if there’s a pattern in all that. 

To keep track of things, tools like a notebook or a computer are quite handy. Audio or video recordings work too, yet no matter what you choose revisit the information to keep it fresh in the mind and later to better connect the dots. 

In time, self-observation will prove to be quite an illuminating instrument. As we observe, we become aware of things that usually remain unseen and we gain an in depth understanding of our inner mechanisms. 

We’ll begin to notice better the many facets we have, the things that trigger us, where our attention goes, what distracts us, how we block ourselves and why we don’t manage to keep those New Year resolutions. 

And with this, transformation will come too. As Gurdjieff said, ” self -observation brings man to the realization of the necessity of self-change. And in observing himself a man notices that self-observation itself brings about certain changes in his inner processes. He begins to understand that self-observation is an instrument of self-change, a means of awakening.”

Self-observation not only puts a mirror in front of us, but it builds a sense of self-awareness and brings up the possibility to be in more control of ourselves and our lives.

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