Know thyself

Like many things in Paganism, the instruction to ‘know thyself’ looks really simple at first glance, and gets more complicated the more you engage with it. How we establish who we are is one of the issues that has been keeping philosophers in paying gigs for a very long time. So to ‘know thyself’ you have to start out by deciding on what terms you will do that.

We might undertake to know our bodies through action and physical discipline, and that will also reveal to us facets of mind and character. We could use the tools of psychology to try and understand our minds, and introspection to become more aware of our emotions. We can seek the opinions and insights of others, or go into a process with our biographical history, our ancestral history as well. We can study the norms, assumptions and habits of our culture to see where we fit. We can take on cultural, philosophical or religious stories about who we are. Fallen or evolving, reincarnating, sinning, full of inner light, sparks of the divine or probably damned, we might also consider, in light of that, who it is that we want to be, as well.

As we wander through life, we pick up labels and stories about who we are, what we do, what we’re useless at and where we fit. Much of how this works depends on how you match with your culture. The gay child of fundamentalist monotheists will have a very different initial sense of self to the gay child born to fluffy hippy people. In some cultures, a set of behaviours will get you drugged and incarcerated, in others you would be respected as a magical person. Further, not all of the people who label us do so kindly, or accurately, so it is very easy to wind up with a set of labels that have nothing to do with who we are, and everything to do with the people who disliked us. Many cultures tell women that they can’t be leaders, sporting heroes, career people, great thinkers, or responsible for choices about their bodies.

I don’t think there’s a ‘pure’ untainted inner self that we can somehow find and get back to. We start with our genes, and perhaps a spirit that informs character (I’m unsure) but from the moment of arrival, experience teaches us stuff about who we are and where we fit, and because we are inherently communal animals, we internalise a lot of that. We learn that certain things are not for the likes of us, or we learn that some things are beneath us, and those influences can be subtle and far reaching.

The only thing to do, if you are not happy with the sum of yourself, is to unpick, unravel, try to understand, trace threads back to origins and work out what, of the things you have swallowed, you might be able to cough up and leave behind. Experiment with who you are, try thinking and acting differently, because change is always possible.

I had been given to understand that I’m not very practical – not safe with sharp implements, not capable of thinking technically. I was intimidated by power tools from an early age, which didn’t help. I spent most of my life thinking I had no skills for anything mechanical, technical or requiring a bit of engineering. In the last few years I’ve had more opportunities, and no one telling me I couldn’t… and it turns out that I can do a good deal more than I’d assumed. It also turns out that I’m especially good at taking things that are otherwise rubbish, and rigging them up to be useful.

That makes me something very specific…

That makes me a womble.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

12 responses to “Know thyself

  • treegod

    Identity and self-knowledge are very interesting subjects, which are two different but related things. The former gives us material to work with, the latter, a means to make sense of it.
    The ego is a fragment that thinks it’s a whole, but once it realises that the human psyche is higher, deeper and wider than it’s own limits, well, we have a whole journey on our hands!
    The closest I come to a “pure self” is the “I” without identity, it is the conscious, directive element in the psyche, and around this has formed the baggage of the ego (i.e. identity – there is a distinction here between identity and identifier). Roberto Assagioli said: “We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we dis-identify ourselves.”
    Identity has it’s function, but it is less fundamental to my being than I often think. In studing Psychosynthesis, I’m learning that this “disidentifiying” has nothing to do with rejecting my identity (who I think I am), but simply changing my perspective of it as something that is not at the centre of the whole psyche. I “disidentify” from the ego’s box, which allows me to integrate and accept elements of the psyche that don’t fit in with the ego’s prejudices.
    Sense of self expands and the process of psychic wholeness, or individuation, begins, moving the centre from the ego to the Self.

    (a long comment, but I’m studying the subject of identity right now, and in the context of “know thyself” 🙂 )

    I’ve been inspired to write a triad (this is going for the OBOD board’s Eisteddfod!):
    Three keys essential on the path to self-knowledge: acceptance, rejection and synthesis.
    Acceptance of those elements that are ours but we have rejected; rejection of those elements that aren’t ours but we have accepted; a synthesis with a more adjusted sense of wholeness and centred in a more essential sense of self.

  • Éilis Niamh

    Don’t know what a womble is, but sounds like an interesting label. Are you sure it’s actually who you are, or still a nice summary of what others think you ought to be given your behavior and actions? Why look outside yourself for your essence in being? You won’t find it out there.

    Yes challenge yourself. Write down all your “I’ve been told I cant…….” and “I believe I am not…..” statements, confront them, feel them, live the exploration of whether and why you aren’t belonging to the truth. If you do this and run up against an actual limit, your raw honesty with yourself will help you have compassion and accept that as spiritual beings having a human experience, we do have boundaries and finite abilities. Know yourself. Forget about the meems. Take the mirror in your hand and shine it inward, illumine the shadows of the disowned, love them, rock them in your arms, love the dark and the light in you, find peace in your own solitude, realize your own immensity, and as John O’Donohue says, “Come in from the cold to the hearth of your heart.” The ones who walk your journey hold the light up to you to see without judgment or conditions, call you in the silent cry, they say, come home, child. You are a star that lights the world. You are needed and loved. Shine, shine radiant you.

    • treegod

      The reflection of being a “womble” I think is Nimue’s way of reclaiming the gadgetry part of her that she wasn’t familiar with. As she says… “It also turns out that I’m especially good at taking things that are otherwise rubbish, and rigging them up to be useful.” I.e. a womble. 😀 It’s an outward symbol of her (and many people’s) inward nature. In which case, I’m a womble too! lol (as the song goes, remember you’re a womble!)
      I wasn’t good at sports, or rather, I didn’t enjoy the competitive sports, which generalised to “I’m not a physical activity person.” But I’ve realised over the years that I love physical work, I enjoy walking in the countrysidem, and learning a martial art without the competitive edge is teaching me otherwise. My “I don’t like doing sport” got confused with “I don’t like physical activity”. I wish the me of the past could see me now. 🙂

      • Nimue Brown

        oh, that really resonates with me. I didn’t like competitive sport either, and being more academic was discouraged from doing any of the ‘vocational’ options so missed out on a lot of the more practical things. Walking, and making stuff now is giving me a whole other perspective

    • Nimue Brown

      Wombles can be found on youtube, they’re fro an old series of books/children’s programs, and are all about recycling other people’s rubbish. I acquired ‘house elf’ in deep bitterness some years ago, so this is a move away from that, for me, and also a bit silly, which tends to be a good thing. It’s amazing, also, how much difference it makes sometimes to just write things down as they seem, in bald, unvarnished statements…

  • Know thyself | Tales from the Conspiratum

    […] conteplation from Druid Life by Nimue Brown October 3, […]

  • bmc

    Thank you for your inspiring words, Nimue.
    Your article has been re-published on:
    Best wishes to you!

  • Aurora J Stone

    The world would be a much better place with more wombles such as yourself and others who live the wombling ethic. To be a womble is indeed a high and honourable aspiration.

  • Identity and Self-Knowledge « Druid in Training

    […] a regular reader of Druid Life, which has interesting articles such as Know Thyself. Nimue Brown was also helpful in publicising the Vote for the Conservation of the Glorieta Stream. […]

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