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Let us know ourselves in 2008

The elections are done. It is now time to stop asking what your leaders can do for you, and start asking what you can do for yourself. For that is how development and progress actually happen: by one’s own efforts.

But there is a very important step we must take before we rush to action. We must make sure we know ourselves very intimately.

I recently wrote an article lamenting what we have done to our religious festivals. In response, a gentleman named Roy Gachuhi posted a long and very thoughtful piece on my website. His key point is worth elaborating here (you can read the full response on www.sunwords.com, “Let’s Put Nobility Back into Festivals”, 18 November 2008).

Mr Gachuhi wrote: “I am fully convinced that the root cause of all our problems is the incompleteness of our education – religious and secular. In my experience, complete education has three aspects to it: the subject of knowledge (i.e. the knower), the object of knowledge and the process of gaining the knowledge.

Our modern education deals only with the objective aspect of knowledge. Therefore, we become very good at whatever objective field of study we pursue. Illiteracy in the knowledge of the self makes a professor and a peasant who has never opened a book equally susceptible to the same problems in life: greed, vanity, anger, jealousy and false attachment to material things. Sometimes the professor has these vices more in abundance than the peasant.”

I asked in my original piece why our religious leaders, in all religious traditions, are failing to take us towards higher thought and better values. Mr Gachuhi had a ready answer: “We sometimes wonder why our religious leaders are not guiding us to the light and we are thus consumed in the darkness of alcoholism, debauchery and aggression. The truth is that we are in the same boat. They don’t know better. They can quote the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, from start to finish but that does not make them any better than those of us who may only have heard of those holy books. They can only be qualified to instruct us if they are themselves structured in the knowledge. And the instruction must be practical, not academic. This has nothing to do with intellectual understanding; it is entirely experiential.

At the experiential level, all human differences dissolve. There is no Christian, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, Kikuyu, Digo, rich, poor, Mzungu, Mhindi, tall, short – or any of the other myriad superficialities. There is only Truth. This is what modern education – religious or secular – has failed to implant in our consciousness. Objectively, we know that God does not belong to any of our tribe, religion, race or gender. How come we are unable to live according to that knowledge? This is simply because modern education is incomplete. It does not deal with the subjective field of life. The knower is a total stranger to himself. He knows everything else except himself.”

Powerful stuff. Roy Gachuhi is echoing the famous words of one of the most famous thinkers of all time: Socrates. The father of western philosophy said: before you know anything else, you must “know thyself”. To Socrates, the unexamined life was not worth living. To go through life without ever asking who you are, what you stand for and what your prime motivations are, is to live the life of a beast of the forest. We are given the capacity to reason for a reason: we must use it!

Instead, most of us plod through our lives living the values of others, being led like sheep to places good and bad, and waiting for someone to make it all better. Even seemingly accomplished humans often know very little about themselves.

Socrates pointed out that we must be wary of conventional knowledge, of taking things as given. We often think things must be a certain way because we have never stopped to think how else they could be.

Self awareness is the first step on the path to wisdom. We ourselves are the true instruments for understanding and shaping our lives. We consult priests and astrologers, shrinks and experts, but we never consult ourselves. So much easier just to sit before the TV set, or just read book after book, or sit at the feet of elders.

As you read this, a newly elected government will be preparing for office. That is all very well, but no amount of roads, clinics, formal education or constitutional changes are going to make you a bigger, better, wiser person. All those things are very necessary, but in themselves will give you nothing.

You would do far better to quietly, gently ask yourself some very basic questions. What is my purpose in this life? What do I need to have done before I die? What do I really, truly believe in? Why do I behave the way I do? What are my weaknesses, and how have they limited my life so far?

The answers may bring you great wealth in 2008. A year of wisdom to all.

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