I’ve collected some rocks ready to paint. It would be easy to determine the average weight of these stones and get an average weight of, let’s say 200 grams. But this tells me very little about the real nature of each individual rock and it’s unlikely any one rock actually weighs 200 grams. With stones, as with people, it is not the universal and regular that characterise the individual, but rather the unique. As I listen to the news about the coronavirus I realise that we too can be regarded as a comparative unit, as an abstract picture of “a man” from which all individual features have been removed. But to understand an individual human being we much lay aside all scientific knowledge of the “average man” and discard all theories in order to adopt a completely new and unprejudiced attitude.
We must approach the task of understanding with a free and open mind. Whereas knowledge of mankind or insight into human character or behaviour, pre-supposes all sorts of knowledge about humans in general, understanding ourselves as an individual, with all our flaws and unique qualities requires us to turn a blind eye to scientific knowledge. If the psychologist wants to classify his patient scientifically but also to understand him as a human being he has an internal conflict of duty between knowledge and understanding. He cannot take an either/or stance but needs a kind of two-way thinking doing one thing while not losing sight of the other.
Do you ‘follow the crowd’ behaving in a certain way so as to ‘fit in’ and so losing sight of the “I” or individual that you truly are? (You might not realise you are doing it). In school we are taught conformity: “This is how you do it”. We were trained to do repetitive work in factories, in a system designed for the industrial age, a system designed to produce a lot of people who act the same, think the same, and look the same.
What most of us call “self-knowledge” is actually very limited knowledge. Most of it is dependent on social factors, of what goes on in the human psyche. We often come up with the prejudice that such and such a thing “never happens in our family” or “with us” or with our friends and acquaintances. And we also have equally illusory assumptions about alleged qualities we believe we have which merely serve to cover up the true facts of the case.
Your ego is the centre of your field of consciousness, Think of it as your manager, organising your thoughts, feelings, senses, and intuition, and regulating access to your memory. It is the part that links your inner and outer worlds together, forming how you relate to that which is external to you.
People often think they know themselves well, but, in truth, they are confusing “self-knowledge” with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. Our ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious (which is huge) and its contents. People tend to measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social circle knows of himself, not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them deep in their unconscious. As with his body, although he lives in it and with it constantly, the average person knows very little about it.
Our unconscious mind is far bigger than our conscious mind and is immune to conscious criticism and control. We are defenceless and open to all kinds of influences and psychic infections. As with all dangers, we can guard against the risk of psychic infection only when we know what is attacking us, and how, and from where and when the attack will come.
Self-knowledge is a matter of knowing individual facts. Theories are not much use, they are often statistical, or an ideal average, so ignoring all the exceptions at either end of the scale and just providing an abstract mean. The mean can be quite valid though it doesn’t necessarily exist in reality.
It’s like when we look at a tree and say, “That is an oak tree”, or “That is a pine tree”. The naming of the tree, which is botanical knowledge, has so conditioned your mind that the word comes between you and you actually seeing the tree.
It is all but impossible to describe the new awareness that comes when words, and our desire to understand and control, are abandoned and we have the courage to open our minds. We are so much more than we think we are. It might be a good idea, if, like the White Queen, we practiced believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast, for we are called on to believe what to many people is impossible. But, instead of rejoicing in this glorious "impossible" which gives meaning and dignity to our lives, we try to domesticate our lives/Nature/the Universe, to make everything comprehensible to our finite minds.