As soon we begin to question ourselves about our own identity and nature, either as a result of shocks in life or under the influence of exceptional moments, the question arises as to whether, instead of giving ourselves up more or less completely to events and thus to a course of evolution which we cannot control at all, there might not be in that evolution something which depends on us and could be influenced by us.
Thus it becomes obvious that the wish to be fully oneself will not leave a person completely unaffected, and the first necessity, which is as urgent as the organic need to eat, should be to find out if something in this direction is effectively possible for us, and in what way.
We can look outside us for the answer in books, philosophical systems and doctrines, in what the religions say, and, for a while, these answers may satisfy us. They satisfy us so long as life has not seriously brought us to question their effectiveness. Put to the test in life, the most solid religious faith in revealed truth is finally shaken, if it is not supported and confirmed in lived experiences. And, furthermore, we are so made that we rely indelibly and unshakably on what we have lived and verified for ourselves, in ourselves, by ourselves.
If we question ourselves deeply about ourselves and our possible evolution, we see it is within ourselves and through ourselves that we shall ultimately have to find the answer. And if we ponder what is the meaning of this world around us, it is again only in ourselves and through ourselves that an answer can come that we recognize to be our own, and in which we can have faith. In addition, self-knowledge has from the beginning of time been fundamental in many doctrines and many schools. Not an exterior analytical knowledge, such as modern western science has been pursuing for so long, avoiding as the inner questions or trying to reduce them to purely materialist explanations, but rather an inner self-knowledge wherein, to avoid distortion, each element, each structure, each function, as well as their relationships and the laws which govern them, are not looked at only from the outside, but must be experienced in the whole context to which they belong and can only be truly known “at work” in that totality. This is a completely different attitude from that which modern science has accustomed us to, and the one does not exclude the other. But, for our possibility of inner evolution, one thing must be clear. What is required is not intellectual knowledge, which, properly speaking, is mere information. Such information may be necessary, but is absolutely inadequate in our search. For this search, the self-knowledge we need is above all an inner experience, consciously lived, of what we are, including the whole range of impressions of oneself which one receives.
A person cannot attain knowledge of this order except at the price of long work and patient efforts. Self-knowledge is inseparable from the Great Knowledge, objective Knowledge. It goes by stages, the first of which may appear simple to start with; however, even for one who recognizes the need of it, it soon comes to seem an immense undertaking with an almost unreachable goal. Little by little an unsuspected complexity is revealed.
It gradually becomes clear that the study of the human being has no meaning unless it is placed in the context of life as a whole and of the whole world in which we live. This study is inseparable from a living study of the cosmos. Thus, obstacles never cease to arise, and this search, which at first may appear straightforward, opens up finally onto horizons of which we could hardly have had the slightest idea when we began.
To have any chance of reaching our aim without going astray or getting lost, we need a guide for the study of ourselves here as elsewhere, we must learn from those who know, and accept to be guided by those who have already trodden the same path. Real self-knowledge requires a school. It cannot be found in books, which can give only theoretical data, mere information, leaving the whole of the real work still to be done, transforming the information into understanding, and then the understanding into self-knowledge.
In the beginning, the only thing that can be asked of a person who engages in this search is that he or she should understand the necessity of making their way tirelessly along the path whatever happens, and that they should understand that nothing but self-study, rightly conducted, can lead one to self-knowledge and the great Knowledge.
Adapted from Toward Awakening by Jean Vaysse