By Cat Li Stevenson | Tiny Buddha
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ~Aristotle
Four years ago I left a corporate career, belongings, a nice home, and family and friends, ejecting myself from the outer world and fiercely diving into an inner journey.
Jumping into the deep end of the pool—an inner terrain I was wildly unfamiliar with, having been very oriented to the outer world—has been quite the adventure.
I wasn’t totally sure what I would be looking for (myself possibly?), but something about the way I had been living my daily life, with angst in the backdrop, told me that this was the right move.
Extreme, and yet right.
Having been steeped in a spiritual practice and inner work these past four years, it is clear to me that one of the biggest purposes this type of journey serves is to help us really meet ourselves. It pushes us to take responsibility for understanding ourselves, our patterns, and habits so they don’t unconsciously run our life and relationships.
Some would call this mindfulness.
With mindfulness—a loving, non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness—we have a tool to personally mature, become more intimate with our inner workings, and create space to cultivate wisdom.
To take it a step further, in knowing the depth of our body, heart, and mind, our ego can drop away and we can show up more present for life.
Or, as Dogen says, “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.”
This process of actually studying the self—sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to know themselves at a deeper level? But how do we actually go about this?
Through my committed journey of self-discovery—including months of meditation retreats, weekly somatic coaching sessions, living in a Zen Center the past four years, and working in an industry that supports this work—I’ve discovered five valuable tools that help in getting to know ourselves:
1. Becoming familiar with the mind, its relentless habits, recurring stories, intricate workings
Take the time to totally stop and get to know the mind. Know that you can witness all that arises without having to react or do anything with the content of what’s arising. Instead, you can watch it and see how thoughts, sensations, feelings, and images come and go, likes clouds passing by in a vast sky.
The mind is a phenomenon that is always producing thought, and oftentimes, they are just that—thoughts, not truth. When we learn to bear witness to our experience, we learn that we do not have to identify with it.
Instead of thinking “I’m not good enough” and feeling down or “It won’t work out” and feeling anxious, we can observe what’s going on in our minds and choose not to get caught up in it.
There are countless resources out there to help you start a meditation practice, which will help you develop mindfulness. You can find a local sitting group or utilize online resources. Two of my favorites are HeadSpace and UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
2. Getting to know your younger self—the child you, teenage you.
There is so much wisdom in these earlier versions of yourself.
A friend and I recently discussed how we need to let go of the past in order to be our highest and best self. While I think this is true, I don’t know if it’s possible to consciously let go of the past without first knowing it.
Growing up, I had rough teenage years in a broken home. After my mom died when I was twelve, my new step-mom created an unsafe, chaotic environment. As a teenager, I was defiant, sassy, rebellious, fierce, independent, and angry.
Not until recently, when revisiting the past, did I realize that I felt ashamed of teenage Cat and thought she no longer served a role in my life. I had this belief that I needed to “grow up” teenage Cat instead of meet her.
When I asked her for her wisdom in meditation, she had so much to tell me. While I saw that certain patterns from that teenager version of myself no longer served me, I also recognized warriorship, strength, and survivorship that are all large parts of who I am today.
By meeting and honoring her, I could transform her from the “useless, rebellious teenager of the past” to the fierce, courageous risk taker who protects this precious life.
I invite you to find an old photo of a time in your childhood—any age range—and ask that child what wisdom s(he) has to show you. Let yourself be surprised by what comes forth.