There is a well-known verse in the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu that goes: “Knowing others is wisdom; Knowing the self is enlightenment.”
It reminds me of the Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself,” once used by Socrates to explain why he was not interested in mythology but thought it more important to know oneself instead.
Naturally, the self I am writing about today is different from the “self” that Buddhism regards as a fiction.
We may understand that existence has no inherent meaning but this does not mean we should be content with a mass of meaningless experiences throughout life. With self-knowledge, we can at least interpret our experiences in order to better shape our present life and future. Knowing oneself is also knowing what sort of principles we want to live by and understanding our relationship with other living beings. It is how we grow to have a fuller experience of life.
This is the true purpose of mindfulness. Becoming calmer, less stressful, and so on, are really just benefits we gain through the process of self-discovery.
Back in August I wrote about “not knowing.” I mentioned that Lao Tzu called not knowing “illumination” (Ch. ming). This same character, ming, is found in the verse from the Tao Te Ching I quoted above, taken from the still popular version by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English published in 1972. The character is a picture of the moon and a window. Moonlight shining through a window symbolizes brightness or illumination.
Arthur Waley, in his 1934 version, translated the verse like this:
To understand others is to have knowledge;
To understand oneself is to be illumined.
To conquer others needs strength;
To conquer oneself is harder still.