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Know Thyself

Socrates said that to Know thyself" is the greatest of human endeavors, yet most people are regrettably ignorant about the operation - as well as the moment-to-moment content - of their minds. Since consciousness is related to self-awareness (or knowing that we are alive and knowing what we are doing as we are doing it) the bottom line is that most of our actions and thoughts are not entirely conscious. We live most of our lives automatically. We even think automatically, as you probably realize when you notice a familiar thought pattern cropping up for the ninety-ninth time in two weeks. For instance, every time your friend does that one gesture - or doesn't do the gesture - your mind is off and running: "There he goes again, trying to embarrass me. He doesn't like me, or he would not do that! If he doesn't like me, then I don't like him . . ." and on and on. The Sanskrit word is samskaras - somewhat like grooves in the brain created by habitual ways of acting and thinking. Once we fall into one of the grooves, it can be surprisingly difficult to extricate ourselves.

When we pause to think about thinking, we realize how many different activities are going on in our head. Stepping into the stream of consciousness, we discover that we have memories(some sharp, some hazy; some happy, some sad. We become aware that we daydream about anything or nothing. We rehearse our lives and create expectations for the future, and then plan out these expectations step by step: "After I finish writing this paragraph I'm going to get a cup of tea, then go for a walk, then come back to my desk and work again until six o'clock. And after that . . ." We talk to ourselves (self-talk) and to others (internal dialogue) via some projection of them in our own minds, and we then make up potential outcomes of these conversations. We form concepts - of everything from galaxies to subatomic particles - by sorting through masses of concurrent sensory data: some coming from outside sources, including the reactions of other people, and some arising within our own bodies, like what we call our "gut feelings." We then compare and contrast what we have most recently received with what we've already filed away. We create mental images, we analyze, we evaluate, we make unlikely associations and call it art or poetry, we render judgments of good and bad on everything we see, feel, hear, or think about. We create a composite internal picture or description of who we are - the self-concept - and, for better or worse, we call it me. Depending upon our focus - a spreadsheet to analyze or a beautiful image in an art gallery to enjoy - we will experience ourselves differently. We tend to solidify our most recent descriptions of ourselves and others, and often much to our own detriment, despite the fact that we are all changing from moment to moment. Then we venture out into the world, attempting to live from these descriptions as if they were "the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

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