Sunday, June 21, 2009

Know Thyself

I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.
~ Kahlil Gibran

This seems to be the appropriate post to make a disclaimer. I don't presume to have any answers. What I write in this blog represents only what I have learned in my life. In the words of Socrates, the only thing I know is that I don't know much. I truly believe that. I have done my best to learn from the great teachers throughout history and apply their lessons to my life. In some cases it took a very long time before I was able to grasp the truth in their ideas. In my last post, I wrote briefly about the ancient Greek aphorism, "Right thinking leads to right emotion and right emotion leads to right action." I pondered those words for nearly a decade before the truth of that statement dawned on me.

Emotions guide our every action, even the most trivial. If you don't believe me allow me to pose a question. Why do you brush your teeth? I'm sure most of you automatically responded in your minds with something along the lines of "its a habit" or "so my teeth stay healthy". I'll argue that its one of two emotions, or possibly a combination of the two, that compels you to routinely stick a brush in your mouth. If you are honest with yourself, the answer is likely that you either fear what will happen if you don't brush your teeth (the pain of a cavity, poor appearance, or fear of rejection because of bad breath), or you love your own appearance enough to maintain it (vanity). Chances are its a bit of both. I'm not making value judgments about what the proper motivation for oral hygiene should be. I'm simply making the statement that there is a motivation behind every choice we make and that motivation is one or more emotions and behind those emotions are one or more beliefs that make us feel that way.

The reason I make that point is this. We are all more alike than we are different. Its easy to look around us and point out the differences between ourselves and the people we encounter in our daily lives. Often those perceived differences can be a source of great frustration. How frequently do you think to yourself, "why did he do that?" or "what is wrong with her?". Thoughts such as those are an expression of how we feel about those differences. However if you reflect on the motivations that guide your own actions, you will realize that people are all the same. We all want to be accepted as part of the "tribe", respected as an individual, receive love, and live without fear (the list is much longer, but I will let you fill in the rest). The problem is this. We all express our emotions differently.

As an example, it is complicated enough when we all fear different things, but even when we fear the same things, we express that fear differently. One person's fear of rejection may manifest itself as someone who appears brash and rude and for another it may expose itself as overly friendly or even promiscuous behavior. For those that fear failure, it may be expressed by being a workaholic or conversely by simply not trying at all. In my experience, that difference in the expression of our emotions is the source of more conflict and confusion than any other in human relationships.

Once I realized this it changed the way I viewed people and more importantly, it changed the way I reacted to the things they did. It does not mean that I stopped getting frustrated, disappointed, or disgusted with people. I still do. However, its easier for me to identify the emotions that are motivating their actions and it helped me to control my reactions because I could relate to it.

Fear is our most basic emotion. It is the reason why we lie, make excuses, avoid doing certain activities, get caught up in activities that are self-destructive, avoid pursuing our dreams, and it is the reason why we resist change. Its why its such an effective tool in advertising campaigns and as a means for control by our parents and other authority figures. But fear is also useful. It can help us to understand our "authentic selves" and help us to identify the things we truly want in life. Once we are able to look upon ourselves without illusion and see the emotions that guide our choices, we can begin to find the courage to master those fears. Notice I said, "master", not "eliminate".

People often comment on how courageous I am to have quit my job to follow a dream. The truth is that if I were courageous, I would have done it much sooner. Don't get me wrong, it still scared the hell out of me. Fine art painting is a profession where few succeed and all you hear about anymore is how bad the economy is. My last post should have explained what finally gave me the courage to do it. However, I have to find that courage anew every day. Fear will give me all the excuses I need if I choose to go out and find a regular job tomorrow. The act of taking the leap did not eliminate the fear. I work at mastering my fear every day.

One of my greatest fears is facing a blank canvas. That fear kept me from painting for many years. I feel the empty face of the canvas staring back at me and daring me to fail. Each day it feels as though the canvas and I are engaged in mortal combat. I either walk away having bloodied the canvas with paint and hung it on my wall like a trophy head, or I wipe it clean as if I were its slave and return it back to that state which intimidates me so much. These days the canvas wins more often than I do, but I go back every day to face it again. Each day I pick up a brush and set it to the canvas is a day that I have mastered my fear.

"The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day." ~ Steven Pressfield, author of
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Obviously, fear is not the only emotion we feel, and therefore not the only emotion that can influence our behaviors. I just think it is the most basic emotion and the one emotion over all others that prevents us from living the lives we want. I also believe that if fear is our most basic emotion, then love is our most evolved emotion. It seems to be one of the few emotions that is capable of overriding fear. It is why a mother will rush into a burning building to save her child. It is why a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his comrades. Their love for those people is greater than their fear of death. It applies to ideas as well as people. I value the truth. Which is to say that I love the truth. Fear still tempts me to lie but my love for the truth makes me tell it and then take my lumps. My love of art and the pursuit of mastery helps me find the courage to master my fear of the blank canvas and the fear of failure.

Please don't get the impression that I'm one of those people that walks around handing out flowers telling people love is the answer. I'm not. Its just an observation about how love of a thing can help you overcome your fear of another thing. Just as often, it is fear that dominates and keeps us from nurturing and protecting the things we love. Love has its own problems too. Just as we express our fears differently, we express our love differently as well. Take a moment to think about how that affects your relationships. We wrongly assume that because we have one idea of love, that the people in our lives will automatically know what our conception of it is. It then causes conflict because we get frustrated when they don't demonstrate their affection for us in the way that we want them to.

So what is the point of all this? Simply this. Know thyself. It is not an easy task to strip away the bullshit we hide beneath, remove the armor, and set aside the persona we project to the world, to see the naked self - but its worth it. You may not like what you find there, but there is strength in arming yourself with the truth. It is the place where "right thinking" begins. The right emotions and actions will follow. You can't change your reality by living in the world of illusion you create for yourself. Once you truly know yourself, you will understand everyone at the most basic level and many things that you find so difficult in life will become much easier. You'll be less concerned with what people think about you and stop living in fear of how they might react to the things you do or say. It will be easier to communicate what you want and have people listen. You will become a better listener, more tolerant, patient, and understanding to the people you care about and even the ones you don't. The things that prevented you from getting the things that you truly want out of life will no longer seem insurmountable. You'll stop being a walking ego, going around complaining about all the problems with people without realizing that you are the problem.

In knowing oneself you set yourself on a path to master your fear. Once you achieve mastery, fear loses its power over you.

1 comment:

Kay said...

Glad to have found your blog. Much to think about, thank you.