(This post is part of the Labors of the Month teaching. To learn more about this teaching, watch the introductory video here)
We lay one brick over another to build a house. We match one note to another to compose a tune. We rhyme one word with another to write a poem. Anything meaningfully whole is made of meaningfully small parts. The farming of our own psychological acre — the most meaningful asset we have — should follow this very pattern. It should be approached with the same gravity that an architect brings to her magnum opus, drafting a grand blueprint that can then be downscaled into small and definite tasks.
“What do you want?”
“I want to know myself.”
“How does your self-ignorance manifest?”
“In many ways.”
Then start with one of these ways. An aim that stays too large remains impractical. One that begins too small is unemotional. If I’d like to stop talking unnecessarily then I must avoid a specific topic. If I’d like to become more sensitive to others then I must focus on a specific person. If I’d like to stop judging everyone then I must detect a specific trigger. The war on habit is waged through moment-to-moment battles. Win a single battle and gain an edge on the entire war. We advance in the pursuit of self-knowledge by dissipating the fog of vagueness from around why we sought to know ourselves in the first place, so that our aim stands crystal-clear in our minds as an inspiration and guide.
“Are there areas in which you already know yourself?”
“A few isolated areas.”
“Did this self-knowledge come by chance of by your own effort?”
“The self-knowledge that came by your own efforts — can you think of how you obtained it?”
“By seeing the consequences of my sleep.”
Then one dimension of your aim is to see the consequences of your sleep. “Something we have and don’t need has to die,” says Rodney Collin, “and something we have not but do need has to be born.” Our aim must encompass both these elements. In the process of its formulation, we should consider what we must acquire and shed. This will lend our aim a price and underscore the value effort.
“What prevents you from seeing the consequences of your sleep?”
Then another dimension of your aim is to compile a photo album of excuses. We’re too accustomed to populating our photo-streams with flattery: “Here I am eating ice cream in Florence; Here I am riding a gondola in Venice.” But in the pursuit of self-knowledge, a stream of unflattering portraits is much more useful. “Here I am making an excuse for why I’m late; Here I am making an excuse for why I hurt someone.” The obvious resistance to compiling an album of this kind only proves its value. We cannot work with what we do not see. If I seek to become objective about myself, I must study my beauty and beast, bearing in mind that what observes both is independent from either.
Our labor for January, therefore, is to reexamine where we stand — ask ourselves, what do I really want — and downscale that answer into efforts that fit the moment. Another year spreads before us, a full cycle of psychological farming. If you’re new to this work, examine the urge that brought you here and formulate an aim around it. Don’t worry too much about the precision of your formulation; you’ll refine your aim as we progress through each month of the year. If you’re already involved in this work, consult your photo album to see where you presently stand, where you’ve come from, and in which direction you might proceed.
Share your aim in the commentary below.