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Know Thyself: The Fourth Way

| October 19, 2020

by Robbie Douglas

[This reading is from Robert Douglas, DevOps Engineer at the Cornell University Library.  He is an alum of the MOR Cornell IT Leaders Program.  Robbie may be reached at [email protected].]
[Editorial Note: an earlier version of this reflection was written as a program reflection at the beginning of 2020, pre-COVID.  However, still a timely and relevant message.]

My fellow leaders,

If you are like the majority of the human race of a self-reflective age you probably spent some time around the beginning of this year on your annual reflections about your past and future recently.  What a long time ago that feels like!  Think of the mindset of those new beginnings to help with the fertile soil for ideas needed for ideas from this reflective exercise to take hold.

The first part of reflection, and really anything else, was written in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi so many years ago and is roughly translated as “Know Thyself”. There are many other Delphic maxims, but this one has always seemed the most important and encompassing to me. I think if we are clearly in possession of knowledge of ourselves, whether we are at work or at home or in our community, we will be capable of acting with the highest capacity for whatever our intention may be.

But what does it mean to know oneself? Is it to know you really want to stay on your diet just before drinking that 600 calorie beer, or is it to know you really care for the person you are about to be angry with because you think they have wronged you, or to be well-prepared for a meeting or event and know it and to begin the encounter with confidence and a strong presence? Or is it something deeper, more encompassing than moment to moment realizations? I think it must be, or at least an aspect of self-knowledge must transcend moments.

I used to think about this kind of thing a lot, much more than I do now, and eventually came across the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff on the Fourth Way, which pointed to many misconceptions we have about ourselves and others. Some of the basic premises, which admittedly can be hard to swallow at first, are that we are usually in a state of unconscious imagination as we move throughout our day, we are made of many competing personalities, where each of them don’t realize the existence of the other personalities, and we imagine ourselves and others to be fully conscious (read: enlightened at times even). Therefore, whenever someone slights us or makes a mistake they must be doing it from a place of full consciousness and therefore completely on purpose. Then we are offended or believe that person to be incompetent. You can plug any interaction/emotion with another individual in this scenario. We forget about the moments of our own unconsciousness and by and large have an illusion of uninterrupted awareness. This is really a fallacy unless we are honestly working on maintaining awareness from moment to moment, event to event, hour to hour, day to day; which is really, really hard to do.

The first steps in doing “The Work” are observing oneself and validating the truth of the fact that we are actually unconscious most of the time. Next is having compassion for those around us with our understanding that they are actually unconscious as well. Only then can we start to know our true selves and grow in meaningful ways. With this we may learn to live and lead as a more complete person, not just an ever changing, ego-emotional caricature of what we imagine ourselves to be.

So my goal is to know myself and all that it entails.




This reflection was featured in a MOR Tuesday Reading of Alumni reflections on leading change in changing times.