One of the most difficult things in the world is to know who you really are. I’ve spent half my life now getting to know who my Self is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. For over two decades I’ve followed the Greek maxim inscribed at the Temple of Delphi: “Know thyself.” And I think I do. I think I’m a salmon.
Salmon can journey hundreds, even thousands of miles to return to their source. They can leap waterfalls that are two miles high. This is absurd. Preposterous. Impossible. Except that it isn’t. These fish are driven by an internal motivator and guided by an inner compass. They know when they must go, and go they do.
The journey to the Self is a lot like the salmon’s upstream odyssey to spawn. You have to travel great distances, face tremendous resistance, have enormous endurance. You’re heading back to your source, to the place that will foster new life. Sometimes you’re not sure if you’ll survive the journey. Sometimes it gets to be just too much: too much work, too much pain. But something inside urges you on to the place where life begins anew. You’re headed home.
Usually, people begin the journey home when Big Things happen: when loss or illness hits and they start to question everything. Or sometimes a lingering depression or vague anxiety keeps poking them until they finally have enough, finally plop down and say, “What the hell?” Mid-life is a most provocative Big Thing; it’s the cosmic pop quiz for which you are woefully unprepared. Who are you? What’s the meaning of your life? What do you want? Are you happy? Why or why not? Explain. Leaving those questions blank will not garner good things.
Only the most courageous take up the effort to discover who they are, why they’re here and what it’s all about. Indeed, so many things make knowing and being our real selves an upstream battle. Childhood traumas and parental expectations can set up patterns and beliefs around the need to please, to be quiet, to be a man, to achieve … in short, to be someone you’re not. Our culture, the waters in which we swim, eschews “knowing thyself,” lauding the superficial pursuits of money, power, fame, consumption, and coolness. Our own internal fears of being judged, ridiculed, disliked, abandoned, or rejected can strand us, leaving us flopping on the shores of pretense.
But for those who persevere, magic awaits. There’s a reason salmon swim upstream—a very good reason. That special spot is where new life begins. It’s the place you discover your roots, your purpose and your essence. If you don’t make this trek, you are in danger of living what poet David Whyte calls, “…a life that anyone could live, or living someone else’s life that you’ve mistaken as your own.” Your true self, your god-self, will not come alive or bless this world with it’s uniqueness unless you make this journey and bring forth your true Self. As the Gospel of Thomas says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.”
Swimming upstream, facing into our pain and suffering and resisting the inertia of living a common, outer-directed life, is how we reconnect with the voice of our soul. Our soul is our utterly unique and authentic essence. It is our inner compass and motivator. It contains our purpose and connects us with the Divine, the All-That-Is. What greater gift, what greater satisfaction, than to know your purpose and to live from that place, free from pretense and the pressures of external expectation?
I will admit, it’s been a long, 20+ year swim upstream for this salmon. I’ve tried to be a lot of things that I am not. I’ve attempted to fit prescribed molds in order to feel good and valid and successful. I’ve been slowed and lost in the shallow eddies of grief and depression, loneliness, inertia and fear. But despite the suffering and the exhaustion, it is hugely gratifying to find familiar, forgotten waters and to know who I am. At least, more days than not.
As you welcome the new year, let your resolution be this: to dare to swim against the tides of conformity to find your source, the place your soul dwells, and to know thyself.