By John P. Van Mater
Know thyself — these words were carved above the entrance to the temple at Delphi. They epitomize the ancient view of man's situation. The Mysteries, the myriad paths offered by the various faiths, all were originally designed to assist man, first to learn about himself and his relations with the universe; second, to understand the crucial importance of disciplining and purifying his nature; and third, to seek to bring into his daily life more of the noble, intuitive, and impersonal influences of the higher nature or Self. All these steps finally led to the Greater Mysteries when in fact the grander Self was brought to birth in man — the second birth.
The Druids gathered in the open air under massive oaks and sought by progressive stages to achieve the birth of the spirit, as did older peoples before their time, in ancient megalithic or underground holy places. In the cave temples of India, the monasteries of China, Tibet, and Japan, the effort was to purify the soul and make it translucent to the influences of the inner god. The same goals were sought and achieved in the pre-classic Mediterranean, Asia Minor, and Egypt — whether in a grotto or simple room, or in the "holy of holies" of some majestic pyramid, ziggurat, or other mighty testimonial to man's constructive genius.
The Lesser Mysteries and the Greater, the former disciplining, informing, prepared the aspiring soul for the second birth; the latter an actual experience of what had previously been inculcated in theory.
Large portions of the populace often participated in presentations of the drama and the other arts at such festivals as those at Eleusis, when all present were given the opportunity to know the cleansing (katharsis) evoked by tragedy. But only the few, and these with finger on lips, were witness to the genuine "baptism of fire"; fewer still were actually illuminated by the inner light, crowned with the solar splendor.
These ideas may sound strange to us in these days when for the most part our realities are things and we feel we have yet to "prove" that man has a soul, much less is a soul. So far as an inner god is concerned, such a notion belongs to the remote and abstract world of metaphysics. Yet even in these prosaic times when anything grandiose is looked upon with suspicion, we are surrounded on every side by evidence of man's soul and also his divine nature. Who would doubt the truism that great men are large of soul and little men small of soul? Who will deny that shining down through the ages, illuminating the history of all peoples, have been transcendent men and women, wise, pure, unselfish? Were these freaks of nature, chance products of genes? Or are they examples of what all souls may one day achieve in the long course of many lives? Even the ordinary person can rise to the heights if the occasion draws it forth. The potential is there all the time, but we are asleep to it.
It is valuable to examine the words Know Thyself. Man has myriad aspects, but in the context of this ancient injunction, clearly it is man the seeker, the yearner after a larger life, that is challenged. Our experiences in daily life eventually bring us to question the seeming injustices and impel us to search for explanations that will satisfy both mind and heart. It is this everyday man that the Greeks sought to awaken to his divine heritage.
The word know has many sides to it. Which aspect of knowing best fills the injunction Know Thyself? There is book knowledge. We may read works on modern psychology and exclaim, "I know a great deal about man" — when obviously our "knowledge" is largely an abstraction. Knowing intellectually is important; reading what the greatest human beings have written or said can be enlightening. But only through experience can we make this knowledge our own. Thus learning through countless experiences during many incarnations is not merely inescapable, it is irreplaceable.
Yet because we have many, many lives behind us, it is not necessary to seek experience. We do not need to go out and rob and murder to know about these things. Life itself will bring us what belongs to us by karma out of the past. What we have neglected or misused will create by the law of cause and effect the opportunity for a learning experience that will tend to enlarge the nature precisely where needed. It may be that just witnessing or even reading about an event or situation will be enough to awaken in us a "knowing" or recalling of a wisdom earned ages ago. We thus have within a wide variety of knowings, insights, which in this incarnation need only to be reawakened in the conscious mind.
Perhaps the most profound aspect of this topic is contained in the old adage "to know something, one must become it." Add to this the saying that one cannot see anything outside himself that he does not have within, and we have the basis for an absorbing and practical philosophy of life. We respond to greatness and beauty because we have within the elements of greatness and beauty. Sensitivity to the welfare of others, love not only for those nearest us, but for all beings, these characteristics indicate that within is a stored-up wisdom which transcends the experiences of this short lifetime, and which seems to reside in a more enduring part of us — call it the inner Self.
Know THYSELF — but which self? We appear to be poised between the animal forces of our nature and the spiritual forces, and to vacillate between the two, now succumbing to acts or thoughts quite unbecoming to our humanness, and in another moment transcending ourselves splendidly and unselfishly. The Indian philosophers looked upon the complete human constitution as a chain of selves or monads linked together like the beads of a necklace by a "thread self" or sutraman. The latter, they asserted, gives to the whole compound entity its own unique individuality or essential characteristic, whatever its kingdom or station. Maybe the Delphic injunction means to come to know all our selves in the broadest sense.
From another viewpoint, however, it is obviously the higher self that is referred to, in the spirit of the advice given by Polonius to his son, "to thine own self be true . . ." (Hamlet, I, 3, 78). He was obviously not referring to the selfish side of Laertes. In one way, man's personal nature represents his present, the arena of everyday consciousness. He has in former cycles been through the animal stage, so that his bestial leanings may be said to represent his past, still pulling upon him. And his future stands before him — that larger, grander self into which he will one day grow.
If we follow the reasoning of the ancients, this evolutionary course extends over many incarnations and is sometimes spoken of as the Path. On this Path there are innumerable awakenings or births of new awareness. At times understanding will flood our nature and so alter our outlook that we are never again the same. At other times insight glows for an interval, but fades in the confused welter of daily events. The old saying has it that "the Self can only be grasped in each moment as it passes." When we go out under the stars and gaze into the immensity of space, something marvelous stirs in us — to which we cannot give labels and which cannot be confined in a human mind. The deep without us calls forth the deep within us — indeed what is outside and what is inside? Our human consciousness cannot contain it, so no matter how many times we bring ourselves back to the scene, the magic moment, though evoked time and again, cannot be sustained.
There is a paradox often repeated in literature about the Path — that Way leading through the heart of man to the heart of the universe: in order to find the Self, one must lose the self. When we contemplate what must be the characteristics of the inner god, we can only guess that it must be, indeed is, universal, impersonal, all loving, all understanding, unselfish; qualities which our ordinary natures do not usually possess in abundance! Hence we must lose the self to find the Self. If the highest knowing is becoming, when we truly know our Self, we shall be it.
For us in the here and now, there is "each moment as it passes." Every moment, coming as it does fresh and clean out of eternity, can be imprinted with the joy of service, with unselfish resolves that can affect the entire future course of evolution. In this sense, by using the will life can become a series of rebirths and our natures step by step less selfish and personal, more universal and compassionate.
(From Sunrise magazine, March 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press.)
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