How to get to know yourself

September 3, 2019
Filipe Bastos

Getting to know yourself – or developing self-awareness – is important. It might seem like a self-absorbed thing to do, but it’s not. Ironically, self-awareness can prevent you from becoming too self-absorbed.  

What do I mean by this? Well, if you truly know yourself, then‘self’ takes on a new meaning. It becomes altogether more liberating. This is embodied by the Zen teaching, “To know yourself is to forget yourself”.   

Once you become truly acquainted with who you are, you are no longer self-absorbed. This brings with it a profound sense of peace and an ability to connect more deeply with others.

What is the human self?

The ‘self’ usually refers to a person’s physical body; their thoughts, emotions, values, skills, ambitions and achievements. According to the American Psychology Society, these facets help to shape a person’s self-esteem.

Acknowledging our beliefs, ambitions, and achievements is important if we want to get to know ourselves better. But defining the ‘self’ in this way is not the end of the journey. According to Zen philosophy, once we trulyknow the self, we begin to forget the self.  

Forgetting ourselves doesn’t mean we cease to exist. It means that we embody something more satisfying than the category of ‘self’.

Getting to know yourself is the journey to no self

In the 13th Century, Dogen Zenji said, “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.”

He saw ‘self’ as a limiting category that stopped people from finding true inner peace. But, crucially, he recognised that you have to first study the self in order to disidentify from it. So, getting to know yourself is a kind of spiritual practice; a journey towards enlightenment.

For example, let’s assume you are someone who loses their temper easily. If you often feel angry, you’ll probably see yourself as an ‘angry person’. But if you learn to observe your anger in a mindful, non-judgemental way, the image of the angry self may transform or dissolve.

And, if it’s possible to transform your self-image through observation, the whole notion of the ‘self’ may be cast into doubt. You may no longer be constrained by the category of ‘self’. This is a liberating realisation.

The paradox of knowing yourself

At first, it seems paradoxical that you have to get to know your ‘self’ in order to forget your ‘self’. But, in his book Know Yourself, Forget Yourself, Marc Lesser says, “there is no clarity without paradox”. If you really think about it, the only way to disidentify from the self is to fully experience it; to go through it.

This is what some Buddhist teachers called surrender. It is also similar to mindfulness.  meditation. When we are being mindful, we fully observe the present moment in a non-judgemental way. We fully accept what is, so that we can move through it.

In contrast, if you are unwilling to acknowledge the self, the image of the self will only get stronger. So, if you avoid ‘watching’ your anger because it’s too painful to do so, the anger inside you will grow. As a result, the self-image of you as an ‘angry person’ will become more deeply entrenched. Forgetting the self then becomes impossible and suffering becomes inevitable.

Is it right to forget the self?

You might be wondering if it’s actually desirable to forget the self. It seems reasonable for a Buddhist monk to be self-less. But we are living in the modern world; don’t we need to be a bit selfish? Isn’t that how we succeed?  

Well, if “forgetting the self” seems too extreme, you could try some alternatives. For example, “notice that much of your happiness is dependent on your temporary attachment to things”. Or, “resist the ego”. These sound less extreme, but they convey the same sentiment.

When you forget the self, you don’t cease to exist. Instead, you go deeper. You do not miss out on anything. Rather, you gain.

With that in mind, we could rephrase the statement to say, “To study the self is to go beyond the self. And to go beyond the self is to find peace with being.”

What happens when you forget the self?

Learning to disidentify with the category of ‘self’ can benefit you in many ways. For example:

  • You may create and experience less suffering.
  • You’ll understand why you behave in certain ways.  
  • You may be less bothered by the opinions of others.
  • You may interact with others on a deeper level than before.
  • Because you’re less attached to the things in your life, you may feel less anxious about losing them.

The first step on this journey is to become more acquainted with yourself, so let’s see how this can be done.

Define your attachments

The things we are attached to form a large part of the ‘self’. To understand what your attachments are, take a pen and paper and finish these sentences:

  • “The most important thing in my life is….”
  • “The person I love the most is….”
  • “My most valuable possession is ….”
  • “I spend lots of money on….”
  • “My most enjoyable hobby is….”

There is nothing wrong with having expensive possessions or close relationships. Rather, it is our attachment to them which can cause suffering. If we base our identity on these attachments, our sense of ‘self’ will crumble if/when we lose them.  

But, if we fully observe the nature of the attachment, the observing part of us must be beyond attachment (otherwise it would not exist). So, by default, at least part of us is beyond attachment. 

So, let’s assume you wrote, “My most valuable possession is my house”. Younotice that you are attached to your house and the sense of pride that comes with being a homeowner. If you observe this attachment regularly enough, part of you will remain distanced from the attachment. Over time, the attachment may transmute or dissolve. In other words, observing the attachment may help you to become free from the attachment.

Notice the egoic self

In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle talks about the egoic self. The egoic self is the narrative we make up in our heads about ourselves. This is similar to what other institutions call self-esteem. The egoic self is shaped by our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, abilities, and external appearance. We use the egoic self to compare ourselves to others.

For example, a workaholic may enjoy working hard because it allows them to feel superior to others who work less. But if they lost their job tomorrow and remained unemployed for a year, their egoic self would be devastated. If this person has no insight into their egoic self, they could become stuck in a rut.  

Once again, there is nothing wrong with having an egoic self. We all have thoughts, beliefs, and abilities, so it would be hard to get anything done without an egoic self. The important thing is to observe the egoic self, so you recognise that it isn’t all of you. There is space beyond the egoic self.

To observe your egoic self, put pen to paper and finish these sentences: 

  • “My greatest achievement is….”
  • “The best thing about me is….”
  • “The worst criticism I could hear is….”
  • “My most embarrassing moment was when….”
  • “I think I am better than (person)….” Or “I wouldn’t want to be like (person)…”

Recognising and observing the ego can help to transmute or dissolve it.

Try new activities  

This might seem like generic advice but trying new activities is important if you want to get to know yourself. If you feel like you don’t know who you are, this suggests you haven’t done enough exploration yet.  

For example, you may feel stuck in a dead-end career. Every day, you may worry that you don’t know what to do with your life.But if you used some of that energy to try new activities, you would better understand your skills and abilities. And this would give you a clearer image of which career path to follow. Once you understand your skillset, and you put it to good use, the narrative of the ‘self’ will become less intrusive. As you immerse yourself in meaningful work, the worries of the egoic mind will fade into the background.

So, expose yourself to new experiences. Each week, cook a new cuisine, meet your friends at a new location, or try a new sport. Studies show that trying new activities can help to keep our brains healthy and may even protect us from dementia.  

The power of breath

So, according to Zen philosophy, we should study the self in order to be free of the self. This can be done by studying our attachments, watching our ego, and trying new things. Also, a breathing meditation designed by Marc Lesser embodies this process. It goes like this:

  • As you breathe in, imagine you are getting to know yourself fully.  Fill your belly with as much oxygen as you can.
  • On the outbreath, imagine that you are letting go of the self. Remain present and mindful as you breathe out.  

This breathing meditation reminds us that we must intently observe the ‘self’ before we can go beyond it.

Going beyond the self

Getting to know ourselves is probably the most important journey we will take in our lives. What could be more important? But, as we take this journey, our understanding of the ‘self’ may change.

Dogen Zenji provides a refreshing take on ‘self-exploration’ because he suggests that we may go beyond the self.   

To achieve this, we might begin by acknowledging our beliefs, achievements, and attachments. Yet through this observation, we may realise that there is more to us than that. In essence, we may forget the self.

Perhaps it is through self-awareness that we can remedy self-absorption.

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