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Self-Knowing and the Negative Way

Hermeneutics is a fancy philosophy word for interpretation. Humans are, Western philosophers tell us ad nauseum, ‘hermeneutical creatures,’ endlessly and inevitably interpreting experience.

self knowing 1Thus Western philosophy, beginning perhaps with David Hume, has fostered the idea that everything is a matter of interpretation, and that it isn’t possible to perceive things as they actually are.

Almost to a man (there have always been too few female philosophers), perception has become synonymous with seeing life through the filters of our backgrounds, experiences, words and images. But that just begs the question: Can we see ourselves as we actually are, or only the ‘perception’ of what we are?

The logical conclusion of hermeneutical dogma is that we never actually see anything at all, especially ourselves. That renders self-knowing a meaningless idea, which it certainly is to people who say inane things like ‘we can never catch ourselves without a perception of something else, and we can never see ourselves, only the perception.’

As I see it, there are two main questions involved in self-knowing—the question of direct perception, and the dominance of image.

The word perception has come to imply a subjective opinion, as in ‘that’s your perception.’ But is direct perception, without filters of any kind, possible? As rare as it may be, I’m sure that it is.

We all know that our image of ourselves, and the way others see us, are often two different things. The interesting thing is that for the purposes of self-knowing that may not be important.

What is essential is to be aware of what one is thinking and feeling and doing from moment to moment. This grounding in self-awareness and simple mindfulness is what it means to live from within, rather than being externally directed (and controlled).

Therefore we need to see and remain with what is. To my mind, what is is what one is actually feeling,self knowing thinking and doing in this moment. It is also what’s happening around one, both in nature and the world, in fact and in perception.

In short, our perceptions, in the sense of our interpretations, are never what is; they are simply the facts of our ever-changing interpretations. To perceive directly, without the screen of words, images and associations, the mind has to be quiet, or at least allow space by being skeptically aware of one’s thinking.

Therefore as a general principle, holding this question is essential: Is this what I think, or is this what is? Making that distinction, without generating another duality, the mind grows aware of the ever-changing nature of what is, inwardly and outwardly.

Meditation is this art of self-knowing, and the urgency of going beyond the interpreting self, however briefly, every day. One of the main benefits of meditation is to allow the things that are below the level of awareness within oneself to come into awareness, and watch them without interference. That in turn allows attention to act on our thoughts/emotions, as well as our deep down patterns, transforming them. Analysis has nothing to do with this process.

Of course, most people don’t want to look below the surface, either because they don’t want to feel disturbance, or because they don’t really want to take responsibility for themselves. Better, many seem to think, to remain ignorant of oneself, and continue with ‘plausible deniability.’

But such a stance, consciously or sub-consciously taken, is getting harder and harder to maintain. A therapist friend told me about a client that came to her office last week. A young man in his early 30’s, he had been successful in business, known many women, and travelled the world, from which he had just returned. Accompanied by his distressed mother, he wanted to kill himself. “There is nothing but darkness,” he said.

self knowing 2As information at the cognitive level overwhelms our minds; as the world at a sub-conscious level numbs our hearts; and as darkness at a core level smothers our spirits, the necessity and urgency of understanding how to renew, heal and restore innocency becomes paramount.

It’s therefore exceedingly misleading in this obsessively externalizing culture, which has produced so much mischief and mayhem at home and abroad in recent years, to advise people to ‘focus on external criteria.’ And telling people that focusing on external measures is a way of quieting the self is beyond the pale, and adds to the darkness of the globalizing culture.

The understanding of what is, which is as good of a definition of truth as I can conceive, does not mean ‘you start with data,’ or ‘diving into the tangle of individual lives.’ That too is false—the idea that the truth is individualistic, rather than individual in the true sense of the word, which literally means ‘not divided.’

There are is no ‘stairway to wisdom.’ The powerful media voices that believe they are climbing it, or have reached the top, are actually descending ever deeper into darkness, and taking others with them. What they fear most is standing alone.

Wisdom comes with negation in self-knowing, not the accretions of time.

Martin LeFevre

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