Nature abhors a vacuum, and as American culture has degraded beyond recognition and repair, an entire industry of retreat centers, yoga studios, meditation teachers and life coaches has sprung up. They haven’t helped.
The ancient dictum, know yourself, has been mined out by the mindfulness movement. That’s allowed the darkest voices in the corporate media to proffer spiritual and philosophical rubbish such as, “Is Self-Awareness a Mirage?”
Standing on the shoulders of pygmies, a second-hand thinker concludes: “Maybe we can’t know ourselves through the process we call introspection. But we can gain pretty good self-awareness by extrospection, by closely observing [others] behavior.”
Derisively dismissing self-awareness, this prominent voice in America actually has the temerity to write: “I feel bad for all those people — from René Descartes to modern commencement speakers — who said the key to life is to ‘know thyself,’ ‘look within’ and ‘do the inner work.’ This advice seems like narcissistic nonsense in light of recent research.”
He feels bad for Descartes! He feels sorry for people who say, “Look within!” It’s a blatant admission of self-ignorance. Indeed, like virtually all Americans on the right now, he tries to make a virtue of self-ignorance, backing his case for unawareness of oneself by “recent research.”
He is effectively saying, ‘I do not look within; I am not doing my own spadework; I have no inner life.’ Truly, such a person is the one to be pitied.
But is there anything to the claim that self-awareness “seems like narcissistic nonsense in light of recent research?”
Aside from the fact that “temet nosce” – know thyself — is older than Latin, and was once the cornerstone of Western civilization (however rarely practiced), what in “recent research” makes “narcissistic nonsense” out of self-awareness?
With succinct wrongheadness, our esteemed pundit explains it this way: “We have a conscious self, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources of judgment, problem-solving and emotion.”
The basic mistakes here are trying to make the “conscious self” knowledgeable about the subconscious mind, and equating subconscious content with the neuroscientifically correct phrase, “little access to the parts of the brain.”
The “conscious self” is a euphemism for the supposedly separate self/ego, which is the problem in the first place rather than having some privileged position in the brain. And self-knowing isn’t a matter of knowledge at all, but of direct perception and insight.
Subconscious conditioning, motivations, desires and maladies reveal themselves with right observation, which means observing without the infinite regress of the separate self/ego. (Of course most of us still have a great deal of dark matter from the personal, family and primeval past to work through. Hence the imperative of “doing your own spadework.”)
The opinion writer backs up his boilerplate psychology by quoting a few experts, such as Will Storr, author of “The Science of Storytelling”: “We don’t know why we do what we do, or feel what we feel. We confabulate when theorizing as to why we’re depressed, we confabulate when justifying our moral convictions and we confabulate when explaining why a piece of music moves us.”
To confabulate means to “make up some story” that explains ourselves to ourselves, such as what the commentator does in this piece. Confounding the reader further by doubling down on his well researched confusion, he concludes with a contradiction: “In telling ever more accurate stories about ourselves, we send different beliefs, values and expectations down into the complex nether reaches of our minds.” (Italics mine.)
This is risible stuff, and it’s hard not to make fun of it. But this ‘thought leader,’ and most of the psychologists and scholars he cites, are attacking something essential to the human being, and the most important element in making it through this crisis of consciousness – self-knowing.
The implicit assumption is that we “have little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources” of our motivations, problems, neuroses, etc. is simply wrong. Indeed, one of the quoted experts, Nicholas Epley, author of “Mindwise,” goes so far as to say, “We don’t have privileged access to our minds.”
That’s not only deeply mistaken; it’s radically pernicious. In fact, “privileged access to our own minds” is the only thing we truly have. For a psychologist to insist otherwise is to hand over the human mind to the AI manipulators at Facebook, Google and Apple.
Trying to erase the question ‘why?’ from therapy, Epley egregiously proclaims, “No psychologist asks people to explain the causes of their own thoughts or behavior anymore unless they’re interested in understanding storytelling.”
In truth, if a client really wants to understand themselves, and the therapist is self-knowing and competent, they enter into an exploration that can yield great insight, understanding and freedom.
For a psychologist or psychiatrist to deny the capacity of the human being to observe the movement of thoughts and emotions without the filter of the observer/self is not just malpractice; it sustains and promotes mental and emotional illness.
Observing thoughts, emotions and conditioning as they are, and as they arise within us, without judgment or interference, is the key. Doing so is neither introspection, in the sense of the observer looking within, nor ‘extrospection,’ in the sense of an observer looking without.
We can maintain an attitude of ‘I don’t know myself or anyone else,’ and learn the art of undivided (i.e. observer-less) observation. The fruits of diligently do so on a daily basis is a quiet, peaceful and joyous mind and heart, if only for a few precious, timeless minutes.
Even if it doesn’t seem like one is getting anywhere, and the task seems Sisyphean, most people these days would sorely welcome even a few minutes a day of regenerating silence and reinvigorating insight.