“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ~Aristotle
Four years ago I left a corporate career, belongings, a nice home, and family and friends, ejecting myself from the outer world and fiercely diving into an inner journey.
Jumping into the deep end of the pool—an inner terrain I was wildly unfamiliar with, having been very oriented to the outer world—has been quite the adventure.
I wasn’t totally sure what I would be looking for (myself possibly?), but something about the way I had been living my daily life, with angst in the backdrop, told me that this was the right move.
Extreme, and yet right.
Having been steeped in a spiritual practice and inner work these past four years, it is clear to me that one of the biggest purposes this type of journey serves is to help us really meet ourselves. It pushes us to take responsibility for understanding ourselves, our patterns, and habits so they don’t unconsciously run our life and relationships.
Some would call this mindfulness.
With mindfulness—a loving, non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness—we have a tool to personally mature, become more intimate with our inner workings, and create space to cultivate wisdom.
To take it a step further, in knowing the depth of our body, heart, and mind, our ego can drop away and we can show up more present for life.
Or, as Dogen says, “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.”
This process of actually studying the self—sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to know themselves at a deeper level? But how do we actually go about this?
Through my committed journey of self-discovery—including months of meditation retreats, weekly somatic coaching sessions, living in a Zen Center the past four years, and working in an industry that supports this work—I’ve discovered five valuable tools that help in getting to know ourselves:
1. Becoming familiar with the mind, its relentless habits, recurring stories, intricate workings
Take the time to totally stop and get to know the mind. Know that you can witness all that arises without having to react or do anything with the content of what’s arising. Instead, you can watch it and see how thoughts, sensations, feelings, and images come and go, like clouds passing by in a vast sky.
The mind is a phenomenon that is always producing thought, and oftentimes, they are just that—thoughts, not truth. When we learn to bear witness to our experience, we learn that we do not have to identify with it.
Instead of thinking “I’m not good enough” and feeling down or “It won’t work out” and feeling anxious, we can observe what’s going on in our minds and choose not to get caught up in it.
There are countless resources out there to help you start a meditation practice, which will help you develop mindfulness. You can find a local sitting group or utilize online resources. Two of my favorites are HeadSpace and UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
2. Getting to know your younger self—the child you, teenage you.
There is so much wisdom in these earlier versions of yourself.
A friend and I recently discussed how we need to let go of the past in order to be our highest and best self. While I think this is true, I don’t know if it’s possible to consciously let go of the past without first knowing it.
Growing up, I had rough teenage years in a broken home. After my mom died when I was twelve, my new step-mom created an unsafe, chaotic environment. As a teenager, I was defiant, sassy, rebellious, fierce, independent, and angry.
Not until recently, when revisiting the past, did I realize that I felt ashamed of teenage Cat and thought she no longer served a role in my life. I had this belief that I needed to “grow up” teenage Cat instead of meet her.
When I asked her for her wisdom in meditation, she had so much to tell me. While I saw that certain patterns from that teenager version of myself no longer served me, I also recognized warriorship, strength, and survivorship that are all large parts of who I am today.
By meeting and honoring her, I could transform her from the “useless, rebellious teenager of the past” to the fierce, courageous risk taker who protects this precious life.
I invite you to find an old photo of a time in your childhood—any age range—and ask that child what wisdom s(he) has to show you. Let yourself be surprised by what comes forth.
3. Meeting grief
Oh, grief. The word itself seems to have a sigh and unfamiliarity automatically built into it.
In our American culture, we don’t frequently acknowledge this natural wellspring in life. But there is tremendous value in doing this; as Rumi wrote, “Joy lives concealed in grief.”
My sense is that many of us spend our days avoiding the grief we have all experienced from being human—our broken hearts, crushed dreams, and dashed hopes. And this grief, unfelt, accumulates.
The past several years, I’ve shed more tears than I ever thought possible, and my life is better for it. Grief has a way of clearing out the staleness of the heart and opening it; of healing wounds that continue to hurt only because they have not been attended to.
You don’t have to go hunting for grief to know yourself. If you naturally allow yourself to find compassion and patience for yourself, it will show itself. And while you may have this belief (like I did) that once it starts, it doesn’t stop, the truth is actually the very opposite.
Once this grief is felt, there is a clearing that makes room for joy. And a clearing away of old stories and unexamined ‘stuff’ is a beautiful way to know the self; it makes room for the true nature and effortless joy within us to arise.
4. Getting clear with the ego
“You need to get really clear about your small self,” a Zen teacher told me not too long ago.
I would’ve been terrified by her directness months before this, but at this time in my life, I felt ready to meet truth.
One way to get to know the self is to really understand where we get caught. For example, I saw that I worried about what people thought. Because of this, I couldn’t really show up authentically and instead showed up in the mask I thought would be most liked.
Another small self (aka ego) I saw was the part of me that’s drawn to status and power as a way to feel safe and secure. I also recognized that growing up, I’d formed the belief that certain classes of people with particular material possessions, degrees, and job titles were better than other types of people.
Ultimately, I have found that our small self is steeped in old, dated, unexamined stories and beliefs that keep us fearful and suffering.
Find the courage to get to know the conditioned parts of yourself that constrain you and get you stuck. Be gentle. There’s no need to judge it or shame it; all these parts of yourself are welcome, and all is okay when held with compassion and patience.
In my experience, you can usually feel this somewhere in your body—for example, the way the jaw or hips tighten when a certain stressed pattern arises.
5. Finding honest relationships—those you trust who are committed to self-awareness in the same way you are
The reflections and support from a good friend, a therapist, a spiritual teacher, or coach can be an invaluable resource. Without the resources I’ve sought out over these past few years, this journey of knowing myself wouldn’t have been possible.
It is with the compassion, love, and support we receive from others when we show up honestly that we begin to learn how we can meet ourselves in the very same way.
We all have access to knowing ourselves. We’ve just layered ourselves under habits of thinking, avoiding, running, and being busy and distracted instead of meeting what is—our beautiful, joyful true nature.
About Cat Li Stevenson
Cat is an explorer of the human journey and a lover of well-being. She is living and practicing at an urban Zen Center in San Francisco, and working for Wisdom 2.0, an organization that strives to bring wisdom and awareness into the digital age. You can add her as a friend on FB or find her writing on Medium.