The Possibilty of Self-Knowledge

People frequently talk about the possibility of self-knowledge. Numerous books have been written on the subject, and one sees it brought up on Internet discussion groups about this or that teaching or teacher. Yet, when you look closely, you see that the subject of self-knowledge is often presented in an abstract, disembodied way, as though thinking about the inner and outer dimensions of one’s being is more important than actually experiencing them.

My own experience of self-knowledge, or what I often call direct self-knowing, includes not only my many sometimes “messy” manifestations of sensing, feeling, thinking, and behaving, as well as what I can observe of the relationships among them, but also, and behind all these manifestations, presence itself. Sensations, feelings, thoughts, and actions are continually changing, but the presence, the light, in which they are experienced (when they are actually experienced first-hand) seems somehow to be changeless. For me, direct self-knowing is intimately related to the changeless presence that lies at the heart of being.

A couple of years ago, I included on one of my websites the following experience of direct knowing—an experience that has visited me in many different forms over these past years. Perhaps this experience can help convey what I mean:

“It’s 6:30 AM. I’ve just woken up. The first sensations of my body are relaxed and comfortable as the visual remnants of my last dreams vanish. Thoughts in the form of questions and ‘shoulds’ begin to arise: what’s happening with the war in Iraq?; I should get up and go to the other room to meditate; I should get the paper and read it. The arthritic pains I have lived with for the past 20 years begin to enter my awareness. I sense the habitual urge to get up and get moving. Perhaps that will help. Somehow I close my eyes instead and allow my attention to move deeper inward, toward the unknown center without losing awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations on the periphery. I touch something that I can only call Being—a subtle, pervasive, energetic sense of I Am, without being anything in particular. This energetic sense of I Am is both very familiar and very new. A direct knowing that I cannot objectify in any way. Somehow I know that that is what I am. And with it comes a new sense of freedom.”

Lao TzuNow, of course, this is just one of many possible ways to describe the essentially indescribable experience of direct knowing. Lao Tsu said: “The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things.” Once we start naming “things,” which, of course, is an inevitable aspect of being human, thought takes over and “things” seem to multiply and become more complex. There is obviously great power in naming things. The world we see around us, with all of its many tremendous problems and contradictions, is very much the result of this power. We find ourselves seduced by constant naming, judging, analyzing, and so on, by “taking sides,” and easily forget that it is from the “nameless” that all things arise, from the silent ground of being that Max Picard refers to when he says “In every moment of time, man through silence can be with the origin of all things” (The World of Silence).

To free ourselves from the power of this seduction, however, what is necessary is to allow our attention to move, to expand, in two directions at once: toward the periphery in which naming is the norm, and toward the center, toward the nameless silence and stillness that makes the experience of all things possible. We don’t have to try to rid ourselves of the tendency to name things, which for most of us would be a futile endeavor; we only have to be present to it. It is presence, the inner welcoming of impressions of what is, that brings with it the self-knowledge, the direct knowing, that many of us wish for.

Copyright 2010-16 by Dennis Lewis

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