Many years ago I read a book by Alice Koller titled An Unknown Woman, subtitled A Journey of Self-discovery. It didn’t claim to be a spiritual book or make any claims other than being an autobiography by someone who had found something about herself that changed her life from one of confusion and misery to one of understanding herself.
Alice had done a PhD in Philosophy at Harvard University and as she said herself, this gave her to tools to know how to ask a question and to be able to follow that question down to its roots.
At around age thirty, she was so miserable and confused that she decided to spend a winter alone on an island, Nantucket, and to turn this questioning on herself.
This book is a documentation of the detailed process of her thinking, during that winter. She looked at her own thinking and “decoded” it. She saw the connections between her thinking and her misery.
She saw through many of her assumptions, motivations, beliefs and so on and saw how these were causing her suffering.
In those days I didn’t know the term self-inquiry, nor had I heard of it as a method for getting to the roots of our suffering but this book did start me on the practise of questioning my own thinking.
At the time I was simply trying to understand myself better, in the hopes of finding ways to make myself feel better. Little did I realise that I had started on a profound journey of not only of understanding myself but of inner transformation that would eventually lead to Self-realisation, the ultimate solution to our human confusions.
At the time of reading this book, I had no idea that such a transformation or more accurately, metamorphoses, was possible for humans.
Below are a few quotations from that book and a later one she wrote, The Stations of Solitude, that are worthy of contemplation.
These books are still available on Amazon, I think.
“I compelled myself to become aware of my ways of perceiving the contours of a situation, of responding to other persons, of recognising the impact of others on me and mine on them, of gathering information, of selecting what would count as relevant, of deciding what to do and when and why. I did not rest from my questioning. And one day I came upon the purpose I had been pursuing all the preceding years. I had not known I had been doing that thing: I had believed I had been doing something quite different. So, it was a huge thing to learn. Understandable, but ugly. Not palatable in any way.”
“I found that I knew how to call things by their right names, so that what was real stood out sharply from what was only phantom”.
“You begin marking your line of travel in the instant you recognise the extent to which you are alone: thoroughly, unremittingly, without other human beings. I call it “being alone elementally”: as an element, unconnected. It is the essential human condition”.
This is about taking every detail of one’s reactions, responses, interactions etc seriously. First you have to notice what is going on and then you have to interpret it. It takes a willingness to be open to whatever comes up and to understand what you are doing and why.
“Yet that fearsome being alone is merely the starting point in an exhilarating process, the first step along a continuum whose end point is so far from terrifying that is is beyond price”.
“By aborting the process at its early harrowing appearance, by rushing toward surcease through other human beings, no matter whom, no matter at what cost now or later, you deprive yourself of the one gift you can give yourself that no one else can ever deprive you of: the person you wish to be, the life you wish to live”.
“Being solitary is being alone well; being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement. It is your distinctive way of embodying the purposes you have chosen for your life, deciding on these rather than others after deliberately observing and reflecting on your own doings and inclinings, then committing yourself to them for precisely these reasons”.
“To become genuinely solitary, to be alone well, you must first have been alone elementally. For that, no “here” will do. An island is not necessary. Only be away from everything familiar: every person, every relationship, every circumstance. Friends, a mate, an analyst, a priest, a teacher, your family to take you in, even one person you can talk to, liquor, drugs, the occult, the divine: if you have any of these you are not ready to undertake the interior journey that will let you confront the person you are”.
I encourage people to spend time alone, go on solitary retreat, as a way of finding out more about ourselves. Living as we do in such a busy world, spending time alone is not encouraged. It is seen as a waste of time. But, is knowing yourself a waste of time? I’d say it is the most valuable activity you can do for yourself.
As Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true”. Becoming true to oneself is not an automatic thing. It takes effort and an appreciation of the notion that it is a valuable activity, valuable to yourself. The question is “are you going to take yourself seriously?” or are you going to let others dictate your life for you.
Whose life are you living anyway?