It is undeniable that we can find truth by looking within ourselves. We can detect our pains, tight muscles, and feelings. We also have the capacity to know right from wrong. As many agree, we are wired to know moral truths. However, can we attain wisdom and accurate self-understanding by looking within?
Here is where we encounter great differences of opinion. The highly acclaimed spiritual guide and mystic, Ken Wilber, comes out in favor of finding the truth within:
· The mystics ask you to take nothing on mere belief. Rather, they give you a set of experiments to test in your own awareness and experience. The laboratory is your own mind, the experiment is meditation…the whole point is to re-member, re-collect, and re-discover that which you always already are. Indeed, the soul's duty in this life is to remember. The Buddhist smriti and sati-patthana, the Hindu smara, Plato's recollection, Christ's anamnesis: all of those terms are precisely translated as remembrance… And so, the soul that finally remembers all this, and sees it however vaguely, can only pause to wonder: How could I have forgotten? How could I have renounced that State which is the only Real State.
Any self-knowledge depends on remembering, but are we able to do this without bias?
In “Stillness Speaks,” mystic and New Age Guru, Eckhart Tolle, suggests that wisdom and self-knowledge are attainable merely through stillness and self-observation:
· Wisdom comes with the ability to be still. Just look and just listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking, and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your words and actions.
Although, self-knowledge is theoretically available from within, these writer claim that it is not so easy:
· “Sometimes, when you don't ask questions, it's not because you are afraid that someone will lie to your face. It's because you're afraid they'll tell you the truth.” (Jodi Picoult)
· “The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.” (Voltaire)
· “The author concedes that humanity had the fatal tendency to shape truth to our beliefs rather than beliefs to the Truth.” (Frank Turek)
Why do we run from self-knowledge? It is just overwhelmingly painful. In “A Study of History,” Arnold Toynbee expressed his reservation about self-knowledge:
· Unless we can bear self-mortification, we shall not be able to carry self-examination to the necessary painful lengths. Without humility there can be no illuminating self-knowledge.
As many point out, true self-knowledge is humbling. It shows us who we truly are. As a result, many psychologists have observed that normalcy is self-delusion. One representative study reported:
· “In one study of nearly a million high school seniors, 70 percent said they had “above average leadership skills, but only 2 percent felt their leadership skills were below average.” Another study found that 94 percent of college professors think they do above average work. And in another study, ‘when doctors diagnosed their patients as having pneumonia, predictions made with 88 percent confidence turned out to be right only 20 percent of the time.’” (Abcnews.go.com; “Self-images Often Erroneously Inflated,” 11/9/05)
Many such studies demonstrate that self-delusion is pervasive. Although we have the inner resources for self-knowledge, we seem to lack the willingness to make use of them. In “Positive Illusions,” psychologist Shelley Taylor sums up the evidence:
· “Normal people exaggerate how competent and well liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more even-handed…On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases.” (214)
Perhaps pain isn’t so bad? Perhaps it’s even necessary! Sadly, once the psychological torment passes, these aggressive tumors return. Taylor confesses:
· “When depressed people are no longer depressed, they show the same self-enhancing biases and illusions as non-depressed people.” (p.223)
This demonstrates that these “self-enhancing biases and illusions” are entirely human and serve to explain why we flee from self-knowledge. We are simply addicted to the pleasure of having an inflated self-esteem, and we will reject anything that might threaten our comfortable addiction.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister has extensively researched the relationship between high self-esteem and performance:
· For three decades, I and many other psychologists viewed self-esteem as our profession’s Holy Grail: a psychological trait that would soothe most of individuals’ and society’s woes. We thought that high self-esteem would impart not only success, health, happiness, and prosperity to the people who possessed it, but also stronger marriages, higher employment, and greater educational attainment in the communities that supported it. (http://imaginefirestone.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/RethinkingSelf-Esteem.pdf)
- Recently, though, several close analyses of the accumulated research have shaken many psychologists’ faith in self-esteem. My colleagues and I were commissioned to conduct one of these studies by the American Psychological Society, an organization devoted to psychological research. These studies show not only that self-esteem fails to accomplish what we had hoped, but also that it can backfire and contribute to some of the very problems it was thought to thwart. Social sector organizations should therefore reconsider whether they want to dedicate their scarce resources to cultivating self-esteem. In my view, there are other traits, like self-control, that hold much more promise.
Baumeister, Wilber, and Tolle each share the same goal – having accurate self-knowledge. However, it seems that this goal is obstructed to such a degree that the disciplines of remembering, self-reflection, and stillness are incapable of breaking through, and perhaps we don’t even want these disciplines to break through.
This is where Jesus’ words can offer us a renewed hope. One night, a Jewish member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus, came secretly to question Jesus and was told that he wasn’t even ready to hear the answers:
· Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
According to Jesus, real truth, although available, is not attainable unless we are reborn of God. Elsewhere, in His final moments, Jesus startled His disciples with a teaching that must have seemed over-the-top to them:
· Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5)
It is terribly humbling to learn that we “can do nothing” apart from Him. It is something that we will not allow ourselves to see, without entirely destabilizing our lives. At all costs, we will resist it.
However, this truth, embraced by AA, has made the difference in many lives so broken that they were ready to receive it. Let us all be so broken!