Once, a Unitarian minister was sitting in his study when the door bell rang. He went down to the door and there stood a familiar man. It was a member of his congregation. The minister welcomed the man warmly, but the man looked oddly puzzled and confused.
“You know me?” The visitor asked?
“Of course I do. I see you almost every Sunday morning”, replied the minister.
“Oh, thank goodness” said the man at the door. “I found myself on a number 19 bus this afternoon and I can’t remember a thing before that moment. I found this flier in my pocket and I went to the address on here hoping someone could help me. Will you please tell me who I am?”
The minister ushered his guest into the building and made him comfortable. He phoned and asked the man’s partner to come to the office. And then he sat down with his bewildered guest.
“Please, the man said”, tell me who I am. He quickly replied “you are Joe Bloggs.”
“Joe Bloggs” repeated the visitor. “Joe Bloggs…” Trying out the sound of this unfamiliar name.
“But that’s just a label” said Joe, “what I really want to know is who I am. Who am I? Who is Joe Bloggs”
The minister calmly proceeded to tell Joe about his partner of 10 years, his civil service job, his two children, and his pet cat. He warned him about his lactose intolerance and allergy to penicillin. And Joe listened to all of this with deep concentration. He was fascinated to be learning about the person called Joe Bloggs. But when the minister stopped speaking, he continued to stare at him, waiting for more…
“This is a big help. Now I know what I do. Now I know something of the other people in my life. I imagine they are very important to me. But what is completely missing is who I am. What kind of person am I? What do I think? How do I feel? What do I value? What are my deepest hopes? What I need to understand is – the question I have still is – who am I?
Just then, the doorbell rang again. It was Joe’s partner Pat. The two of them quickly headed off to seek medical help.
“Saved by the bell” thought the minister, for the challenge of Joe’s repeated question had forced him to realize two things: first, he thought how very hard it is for any of us to know the inner workings of another. And second, it occurred to him that not only could he answer the question “who am I” for Joe, he was not so sure that he could answer it very well for himself.
At the ancient Greek temple of Apollo at Delphi were inscribed two words. They translate into English as “Know Thyself.”
Many great sages throughout the millennia have echoed this prescription. Kahlil Gibran, the 20th century Lebanese immigrant to the US whose book “The Prophet” has became such a classic of modern wisdom, put it this way:
“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.”
From the popular media, if you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ll remember when Neo visits the oracle – an elderly black woman who cheerfully smokes cigarettes and bakes cookies. Above the door, as Neo enters that mysterious kitchen are words in Latin that again have the same meaning. “Know thyself.”
Parker Palmer, a living Quaker educator and author, wrote about the difficulty of knowing yourself in his wonderful book “A Hidden Wholeness.”
He talks about the authenticity of a child – the child who lives out exactly who she is. And then, before long, she experiences that an action of hers displeases a parent and – due to the importance of that relationship for her very survival - she puts away a part of her at a distance… placing a brick that separates who she is and the self she shows. As the years pass, more and more bricks join the first one and, eventually, a tall wall separates who she is from how she interacts with the world. The wall has grown so high that even she no longer knows the true self hidden on the other side.
“A Hidden Wholeness” – the potential wholeness that comes of rediscovering ourselves and integrating ourselves into a complete whole.
If we noticed this loss happening, we would try to do something about it – knock the wall down before it is too tall and strong. But, we do not recognize this subtle loss. The 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard put it like this “The greatest hazard of all, losing one's self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed.”
Our readings – poems by David Whyte and Pablo Neruda – speak of the lifetime challenge of finding ourselves. Whyte writes that I “spoke for the first time after all these years in my own voice.”
I know the uncomfortable feeling when the words I am speaking are not true to who I am – when I am not speaking in my own voice.
Neruda’s uneasiness at the many different apparent selves that emerge from time to time is a not foreign feeling to me – you probably recognize this in yourselves as well.
When the fictitious minister of my story thought “saved by the bell”, he was not only reflecting how difficult it is to discover and know our true selves, he was reflecting on the difficulty of the concept of self and how very differently it is thought about different traditions.
Taoism’s Lao Tzu, the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, says “Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing the self is enlightenment.” Like the ancient Greek advice, Lao Tzu thought of self knowledge as the key, not only for the individual, but for entry to a greater truth of the connection between all beings.
Christianity conceives of a self that is twisted and poisoned by sinfulness. The soul, on the other hand, is constant and pure. Dissolving the self lets the soul connect more perfectly with God and to do his work.
Buddhism teaches that there is no self at all. What we think of as our unique self is merely the sum of our sensations, experiences and thoughts. We are, in this way of thinking, constant but ever-changing like a river or a flame. Our apparent constancy is an illusion - we remain but we are never the same from one moment to the next.
An introductory review of the various religious and philosophical understandings of self, soul, spirit, and ego could fill a very thick volume, and we will not dwell on it now. I will be leading a series of workshops on world religions beginning in September, and I’d encourage you to sign up for that if you are interested.
For now, it remains important to ask practical questions.
As people who aim for spiritual growth and an approach toward wholeness, what should our path look like? Are we to dissolve the self or to know it? Or should we, perhaps aim to recognize that there is, in fact, no self to dissolve?
For me, the answer has come down one simple thing: the artichoke. If you don’t like artichokes you might have to think of something else, but artichokes work for me. When I look at that odd vegetable, I have confidence that – despite its intimidating appearance, I have faith that deep within – hidden by an area of tough, spiny leaves - is the delicious, creamy, nutty heart that I love.
The question for me is not “what’s inside?” but what is keeping me from it.
The question is not whether nirvana or the soul or the spirit or the true self lies within – for we cannot know until we get further and see the signs - as we begin to see the leaves turning more tender, gentle, and delicious and hinting at the true centre within.
What is it that keeps you from approaching the heart?
Sing (to the tune of Taize chant Ubi Caritas)
Deep within my heart, undying flame
Deep within my heart, spirit of my life
For this moment, try to put to one side the intellectual part of you that wants to focus on the details – the side that wants to amass information and argue about specifics. For this moment, allow yourself to enter into a space more dominated by feeling and knowing than thinking.
Notice the thoughts passing through your consciousness. Notice them, and let them pass away like falling leaves passing through your view.
If worries arise, gently put them to the side. If difficult feelings arise, put them too, aside for this moment.
Imagine within yourself a cleared space forming – free of all of the distractions and challenging feelings that often occupy us.
What is in that cleared space? Imagine a glow beginning there, a warmth without words – an illumination that does not need description or labels.
Feel the quality of this light within. Stay with this sense for a moment.
How would your days be different if this light occupied you more often? How would it be if the distractions were absent more often? What would others see that is different from the way they see you now?
Take a minute now to stay with this feeling and let it become increasingly clear within you.