There are two kinds of knowledge that are most important in life: knowledge about the world, and knowledge about the self. In the long run, the second one is the more significant. Without self-knowledge, we will just be carried away by the pressures of the outer world. With self-knowledge, we are able to determine our own destiny. Laozi wrote: “He who knows others is wise, he who knows himself is enlightened. He who conquers others is strong, he who conquers himself is powerful.”
Gurdjieff wrote: “Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.”
How do we start in our quest for self-knowledge?
First, we need to realize that we are not just this physical body. Materialists say that there is no soul, and that our thoughts and feelings are just the byproducts of our physical brain. When we die, it’s the end, there is nothing else.
Evidence shows that this is not the case. We have higher levels of consciousness quite independent from our physical body. Scientific studies have demonstrate this, such as in near-death experiences. This has been affirmed since the ancient times in mystical and religious traditions, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish Kabbalism. St. Paul speaks of the triune distinction of the body, soul and spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of the three kinds of souls, the vegetative, the animal and the rational. But what is important is that these can be validated by our own personal experience. Let us look through them:
1. Next to our body, there is an etheric body or etheric double which can separate itself from the physical body at certain times, such as during near-death experiences. Doctors all over the world have reported authenticated cases of people who had no pulse or breath, and yet these people found themselves floating above their bodies able to see and hear what was going on. This double is the vehicle for prana or qi energy that flows through the meridians and which can be manipulated by acupuncture. The energy emanation of this body can be photographed using Kirlian photography. When it is seen by the human eye, it is described as the human aura.
2. Finer than our body and etheric double is our emotional nature, sometimes called desire body. This is the center of our feelings. It is closely connected with the etheric double, such that when we feel a feeling, energy in the etheric double surges up. For example, when we are angry, we feel this energy in our head, chest and hands.
3. Then we have a mind that has two parts: (a) the lower mind, which is also called the concrete mind. Thoughts on this level have images, sizes, colors or shapes. They are closely connected with feelings, and hence are part of our personality. (b) the higher mind or abstract mind. This is capable of understanding concepts that are abstract such as infinity or square root. This level of thinking is impersonal, and transcends what we personally like or dislike.
4. Above the mind is our transcendent consciousness. This level of experience has been described by thousands of people who have attained it since the ancient times till today. It is called mystical experience. Christians call it contemplative or spiritual consciousness, Buddhism and Hinduism call it prajna or buddhi. Many great people, whether religious or non-religious, have reported to have attained this, such as Alfred Tennyson. The psychologist Abraham Maslow called this self-transcendence.
5. Universal Consciousness. This level is spoken of by many mystics but few appear to have attained it. It is called Nirvana by Buddhists, Union by Christians, fana by Sufis and Moksha by Hindus. It entails the dissolution of the ego and the merging into one of the individual consciousness and the cosmos.
The above divisions help us in understanding many important things, such as the explanations to paranormal phenomena, such as healing, apparitions, life after death, etc. It also shows us what is our higher potential as a human being, which is the awakening of these higher inner potentials within us. It enables to gain self-mastery and thus be able to attain our life goals.