The Art of Knowing Thyself
The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, famously quipped that the unexamined life was not worth living. He is also cited as reducing all philosophical commandments to, “Know thyself.”
“Know Thyself” was also the famous inscription above the forecourt to the Ancient Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The assertion is that all must stand and live according to their nature. We must look deep into ourselves to find our answers.
Throughout the ages, numerous philosophers and great thinkers, such as Alexander Pope, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, have also espoused the importance of first knowing one’s self and knowing the truth of who you really are.
Sun Tze, the ancient Chinese strategist and philosopher, also writes in The Art of War, that to know one’s self is paramount if you are to avoid being endangered by innumerable battles.
Self-knowledge, therefore, is vital if you are ever to live a fulfilled, meaningful, and ultimately successful life.
A story from One Thousand and One Nights (aka Arabian Nights) is “The Story of a Baghdad Man’s Ruin”, a tale of how one man’s inheritance is spent and wasted, only to be recovered again when he returns home to Baghdad. This story has been retold for 1000 years and goes under many titles, one of which is In Baghdad Dreaming of Cairo, In Cairo Dreaming of Baghdad. Paulo Coelho’s bestselling book, The Alchemist, was also inspired by this story, and it goes like this:
A rich merchant from Baghdad loses all his in heritance. One night, he dreams of the pyramids, in which a voice reveals that his fortune is to be found in Cairo and bids him to go there.
With nothing to lose, he heads to Cairo, where he decides to spend the night in a guesthouse.
The governor’s house was nearby, and a group of thieves decide they would enter it by means of the guesthouse.
Awakened by the thieves, the servants of the governor’s house raise the alarm. Soon, the governor arrives with his guards to the guesthouse. Seeing that the thieves have already fled, they seize the merchant from Baghdad, beat him, and throw him in prison.
The following morning, the governor summons the merchant and interrogates him about his intentions of coming to Cairo. The merchant relates his dream of the pyramids and the promise of fortune, adding that the only thing he found was despair.
The governor bursts into laughter. “Poor fool,” he says. “Not once but thrice I had a dream in which I was told that in a certain neighborhood in Baghdad there was a certain house with a courtyard in the middle of which was a fountain, and buried beneath this fountain was a considerable fortune: I only had to travel there and take it. But I am not such a fool as to follow my dreams.”
The govenor then sends the merchant on his way back to Baghdad.
The merchant realises his luck. “The house described by the governor is my very own house!”
Making good speed, he returns to his house and digs beneath the fountain where his treasure is waiting, a fortune that would allow him to live well to the end of his days.
Self-knowledge is like finding a hidden treasure buried in your own house, a treasure of immeasurable value. This treasure is available to help you to prosper, and to share and to help others to prosper as well.
All you need to do is dig.
The Angel in the Marble
The Story of a Baghdad Man’s Ruin is a warning not to lose sight of your own inner treasure. Failure to do so could mean losing your fortune.
It’s actually a 1000-year-old story of getting yourself right first, then everything else will fall into place. The story is showing you that you already have what you’re looking for and advising you to first get the vision of your “I am” right before you even attempt anything else.
When I was shifting careers from medicine to writing in the early months of 2000, I had a dream in which I was being chased by criminals. Normally I dream in colour, but this dream was in black and white, like the old movies.
The criminals were shooting at me with pistols and I was running down the city streets in terror, wondering why they wanted me dead. Then I noticed that I was carrying something in my arms—a baby wrapped in blankets.
Why do they want the baby? I wondered, fleeing down the street.
I sprang out of bed at 4 am, grabbed a wad of printing paper and a pen, and rushed to the kitchen table, writing frenetically as the story of Ananda downloaded into my head.
By 10 am that same morning, I had written the complete outline of the book, which I first wrote as a screenplay for a movie and then fleshed out over the next year into a manuscript for a novel.
As this was my first attempt at writing a medical thriller, I wrote everything I could about the story, going to extraordinary lengths to describe the medical procedures that were essential for the context of the story and going into far too much detail about the locations and actions and dialogues of the main characters.
When I finally typed, ‘The End’, the total word count of the manuscript exceeded 200,000 words, which was about 100,000 words too many.
“You like to tell the reader everything, don’t you?” my editor scrawled in the margins of the manuscript.
With no mercy whatsoever, she then proceeded to slash my sentences and kill off my characters like the grim reaper of fictional editing.
When she was finished, the final word count had shriveled to just over 90,000 words, but it was a tighter, faster, and much better read. I held my breath and took the blows to my ego. It was a hard lesson in writing and editing—sometimes less is more.
Once the shock of losing half my manuscript had passed and I accepted the hard love of my editor, I realised that although my ideas were strong and my writing was solid, the story had been burdened and stifled by my own self-doubts, insecurities, and intellectual bias.
Once the manuscript had landed on her desk, her job as the editor was to sweep my fallibilities away and expose the real and more powerful story hidden beneath.
Similarly, her job as an editor is not too unlike that of a sculptor’s, whereby the deliberate and purposeful chip, chip, chipping away at the marble finally reveals the magnificent image inside.
The great Renaissance artist and sculptor, Michelangelo, embraced this ‘revelatory’ process in his most famous work, the sculpture of David. To him, every block of stone had a statue inside it, and it was his job as the sculptor to reveal it. As he famously said,
“I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.”
When Michelangelo looked at the massive block of marble, he didn’t just see a slab of stone: he saw David already inside. He then set about chipping away the marble until ‘the angel’ emerged from it.
In his mind, Michelangelo saw what was already there. He could visualise the end result, and then went to work on manifesting that vision and making it real.
The crucial point is that Michelangelo didn’t add anything to the marble—he simply removed that which wasn’t David.
So too my editor; she didn’t add to my manuscript, she simply cleaned up and removed that which wasn’t necessary to the story.
Knowing yourself is akin to sculpting and editing:
You reveal the truth of who you are by removing that which is not you.
You fashion the truth of your “I am!” by cutting away all non-essentials.
The essence of who you are already exists within you. You just need to see the angel in the marble and carve until you set yourself free.
Exercise: Knowing Thyself
To really get to know yourself, one of the best pieces of advice is just to remove what isn’t you. You don’t need to add anything to yourself. Like David in the marble slab, you are already complete inside.
Knowing thyself isn’t about knowing more ‘stuff’. It isn’t about adding layers and layers of more complexity. It’s about sculpting. It’s about editing. It’s about chipping away at all your non-essentials and sweeping away all the excess fallibilities that detract from the real story of you.
When it comes to your “I am!”, less is more.
Here is a great exercise you can do to get to the core of your “I am”, which, if you’re struggling to get a clear picture of who you are and who you want to be, I thoroughly recommend.
It’s a psychology-based exercise that I call, “Knowing Thyself”, and it’s simply this:
- Get a pen and paper and sit down somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed for 30 minutes.
- Write a list of numbers 1-20 down the page.
- Next to each number, write the words “I am…”
- Starting at No.1, describe who you are by completing each of the 20 statements “I am…”
You’ll find the first 10 statements relatively easy (I’ve given you a few clues already of what to write in the “I am” statements above). The next 5 are moderately more difficult, and the last 5 will be the most difficult and take the most amount of thought and time to complete.
But by the end of the exercise, you will have 20 statements about yourself that all begin with the powerful words, “I am”.
Now for the hardest part: of all 20 statements about you, is there 1 single word that represents the totality of who you are and who you want to be? A kind of umbrella word that captures the essence of you?
For me, my 1-word is prescriber. It defines in all aspects—doctor, author, transformologist, mentor, motivational speaker—who I have been, who I am now, and who I want to be. I like this word ‘prescriber’ because I want to be somebody who helps you to prescribe your future. My 1-word succinctly and efficiently describes everything about me: who I am, what I do, why I do it, and how I do it.
Now, it took me about 12 months of determination and contemplation to find this word, even though it was staring at me right in the face for a long time. The point is, finding your 1-word will take effort on your behalf, but it will certainly be worth your while. In any case, just be sure it isn’t already staring you in the face.
This 1-word is your ‘angel in the marble’. It is the essence of how you see yourself when everything else has been stripped away. In a way, it’s your naked self, your true being. It’s your “I am!”
Then, like Michaelangelo, start sculpting. Start chipping away at the things that don’t represent your 1-word. Be consistent. Be disciplined. Be joyful.
Then, before you know it, you will reveal the angel in the marble that is waiting to be freed.