First, know thyself

Mike Hutcheson embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Mike Hutcheson embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

mike hutcheson idealog democritusOne hundred and fifty kilometres west of Athens, on the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus, lie sprawled the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Ancient writers tell us that the words ‘Know Thyself’ were once inscribed on the portal above the temple entrance, although they have now long vanished, eroded by time and neglect.

Variously attributed to a host of ancient notables: Socrates, Pythagoras or Heraclitus, the aphorism implies we understand life best if we understand ourselves. Self-knowledge in turn leads to tolerance and acceptance of others, which segues appropriately to a further inscription carved into the temple’s edifice, ‘Nothing to excess’ a dictum – propounded by philosophers since time began – for a long and healthy life.

This raises a couple of points, firstly, not much has changed in human nature over the past 2000 years and secondly, we all need meaning in our lives, or at least a datum point from which to take headings for the journey.

For some, meaning comes through an epiphany, often triggered by a momentous event or some kind of trauma, the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus being one of the better known transformations.

Throughout the ages, mystics and religious figures, saints and charlatans alike – of all manner of faiths – have attributed epiphanies to divine revelation and many creeds and cults have been so born.

It is no coincidence that from Abraham’s rather bizarre encounter with God – when he was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, or Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, and later Mohammed’s revelations from the Angel Gabriel, through to the visions reported by Ellen G Smith, the Founder of Seventh Day Adventism, and the purported meeting with the angel Moroni in New York State by Joseph Smith, Founder of the Mormon Church – there is a recurring theme of bright lights and voices having sparked or inspired many religious movements.

However, recent medical knowledge has ascribed other causes to these revelations. Seeing bright lights, hearing voices and suffering temporary blindness are all indicators of temporal lobe epilepsy, sometimes leading the sufferers to profound spiritual insights. Epilepsy was once known as the sacred disease. Through ignorance our ancestors ascribed it’s occurrence to divine rather than natural causes.

Lenin and Napoleon were known to have had epilepsy. Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, the prophet Ezekiel, Socrates, Pythagoras and Aristotle are all presumed to have been sufferers – although such retrospective diagnosis is only based on anecdotal evidence.

While we can’t all have visions and revelations to gain insights into our inner consciousness there is a simple method that we can practice to get to know ourselves. All that is required is an honest answer to each of three questions.

Firstly, what don’t we want? We are very lucky if we know exactly what we want to do in life – we are so spoilt for choice. It’s probably easier to eliminate the things that we don’t like than it is to be clear about what we do want. In a complex world of countless opportunities we can narrow our choices and ‘get in the zone’ by setting aside the things that turn us off.

For example, we may love sedentary things and hate action; we may love words but hate numbers. We may hate filling in cheque butts and bureaucratic forms; we may love music and art and hate business and bureaucracy. But we need to think about it. When we come to a conclusion, we should write our thoughts down. Seeing things on paper makes them real.

Secondly, what do we want out of it? Once again it should be things that are top-of-mind. And it will undoubtedly change at different stages of life. Is it self-centred things like money, power, fame or wealth, or things more altruistic, a chance to save the planet, help others, plant trees? Is it a combination of a number of things?

Thirdly, when are we at our best? We need to be in touch with our biological clocks – our circadian rhythms, as well as our social preferences. Are we fowls or owls – are we at our best in the morning or at night? Are we indifferent to the time of day? Are we happiest in the city or in the country, on a mountain or at the beach?

Do we work best in isolation – autonomously, or collectively – as in a team? If we do like working in a team, what kind of team? A relay team where we run a leg on our own then pass on the baton, or a football or basketball team where we act in concert with others?

The answers to these three questions will give us a framework of preferences, enabling us to make decisions that will satisfy our inner aspirations.

Who knows, when we get it right, we might even get to be happy!