The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.
Quote attributed to Socrates 470-399 BC
Socrates, from around a century after The Buddha and four centuries before Jesus is attributed with have given us this advice or teaching.
It is as relevant today as it was in his day. The question of what it means to be human is always relevant to humans. Judging by the teachings of Buddha in India, Jesus in Judea, and Socrates in Greece, to name but a few of the great teachers, the same problems beset the humans of old as do today, just expressed in different cultural mediums.
Suffering is suffering regardless of the circumstances or language in which it is experienced. Anger, resentment, jealousy, fear of rejection or abandonment, want in love and belonging, insecurity of all kinds, lack of meaning, fear of death and pain, are the lot of the human condition.
The first inclination of humans is to deny or repress these attributes. We try to ignore or suppress them or distract ourselves from them in the hope that they will disappear. But they don’t. Modern day psychology, having realised that ignoring our suffering doesn’t work has invented the “talk about it” cure. This certainly helps in getting us to admit our problems and in seeking to identify and heal them but it usually remains at a surface level. Of course, you have to start at where you are at so psychological work is a good starting place. Psychiatry with the support of pharmacology lean on chemical substances to alleviate the mental suffering of the masses. These chemicals are very helpful in getting us through a crisis but to to continue taking them on an ongoing basis is to succumb to the notion that life is an ongoing crisis. It doesn’t have to be if we are willing to look for the root of our suffering.
But that is only one half of the picture. The other half is about our inbuilt capacity to imagine happiness, contentment, joy, security, and love in full measure. The very fact that all of us has a sense of something being wrong with ourselves or the world we inhabit is an indication that we know something other than this suffering condition. Within us there is a template of “perfection” or completion, a place, a time, a condition where all is well but somehow we cannot quite articulate it or remember it. We are always striving towards or wishing for this “perfect” place and I don’t mean any geographic place but a way of being in ourselves. We have a sense of what it is to be at home with ourselves but cannot slip into it. Something prevents us from being what/who we want to be to ourselves.
“a life worth living for a human being” in Socrates statement refers to this sense of “completion”, the sense and possibility of becoming a completed human being.
To live a life that does not honour or strive for this place of completion is what I take Socrates to mean when he says that a life that does not take into account this inner sense of lack is a life not worth living. It’s the life of the robot, to use George Gurdjieff’s phrase.
The fact that human beings have within us the potential to strive towards this place of fulfilment as opposed to ignoring it is the life worth living. It is the opposite of the life of denial, of repression or ignoring the potential for completion. It is the challenge to the robot, the ego aspect of our natures. It is the courage that says “there must be something more to life and I’m going to find it”.
In mythology there is a stage of life referred to as “The Call” – the call to take on the journey towards fulfilment or completion. It is the call to examine our lives. It is the call to reconsider our values and the direction of our lives. It is the call to honour our inner longing for completion and happiness. It is the call to consider what it means to be a human being. It is the call to take ourselves seriously as a human Being. It is the call to have the courage to examine our life.
So, how does one go about examining their life? This is the business of all spiritual teachings and paths. The various traditions have developed various techniques and mythologies in an effort to do this and all of them have at their core the notion of self -completion.
Gurdjieff says something along the lines of: man is an incomplete being and it is up to himself to complete his being.
I come from a tradition of self-inquiry. This is the process of exploring and uncovering, down to the roots the causes of all our emotions, behaviour patterns, values, beliefs, motivations, expectations, disappointments, ideologies, and so on.
It is not about changing who we are but about looking at ourselves with the intention to “Knowing Ourself” as is written over the door in Delphi, the ancient Greek oracle. (Know Thyself)
We can start by asking ourselves questions such as: why do I do what I do?
How do I actually spend my time, knowing that it is limited?
Is how I spend my time in accord with my goals?
And what are my main goals? Where did these goals come from? Did I set them myself or adopt them from society around me?
Am I interested in the possibility of self-completion or have I accepted the role of robot in the world as all that is available to me?
What do I value most – myself or the demands of others?
How does valuing myself and my goals fit in with my normal life?
Is it selfish to be self-determining?
Where does my value of my life fit in the scale of all my other values?
Where did I get this notion or that? What do I believe in and where did that belief come from?
If I knew I was to die next week, how would I spend the week?
Do I take myself seriously in light of the fact that I will some day die or do I just ignore that fact?
When I feel bad do I look to see what is the underlying thought or belief behind that feeling?
What expectations have not been met in my life and are they realistic? What are the assumptions behind any particular expectation?
What ideologies that I am attached to? Why do I hold (if I do) particular religious, political or other ideologies precious? Why have I chosen those over others or did I merely accept them as part and parcel of family or societal ideologies?
Why do I feel threatened when someone does not agree with me?
Am I resentful or jealous of anyone, and if so why?
Am I bored or depressed and if so what do I do to alleviate boredom and does it work?
Why do I fear rejection, even by people who have no significant role in my life? What is the underlying thought behind such fear?
Questions such as these are intended to provoke a deeper understanding of yourself. It is best if you generate your own questions based on your actual experiences. Self inquiry is all about you – you asking your own questions that are relevant to you as the situation presents in your daily experiences.
There is no one method of self-inquiry because it has to be specialised for the individual but the type of questions above are a good starting point for anyone.
Since all of us take our values and meaning from the culture around us we tend to have similar questions to begin with. Once you start on this path of deep self examination, and I don’t mean psychological analyses, the process is likely to carry you along in your own unique way. It’s your exploration into you. It can be done in the midst of daily life without anyone being aware of it, unless you wish to share it with them.
The goal of this kind of deep self examination is to find the truth of who you are, not to function better in the world. Your external life continues as usual and you are using it as fodder for examination into the foundations of who you are really.
Finding, becoming the truth of who you are in essence results in your completion. It reveals to you who or what you are beyond your earthly aspect.
Only by examining our lives are we likely to become our true selves, Human Being beyond the incomplete humanness that causes all the suffering.
A life examined is a life worth living.
As Shakespeare said: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.