In one of the most beautiful myths of ancient times, Plato describes the journey of the soul from the spiritual to the material plane. As the soul descends from the heavens to earth, it pays a visit to each planet and receives a gift from them. When it reaches earth it is loaded with all these presents that count for it's abilities and virtues. So the soul "lands on" earth covered with layers and layers of "garments."
The same thing happens with the human. As we go along life we go through different situations and we also collect different "garments" with our studies, various jobs, friendships, relationships, hardships, illnesses and so on. Some of these garments are light and beautiful and others are heavy and hard, but none of them are easy to take off. They represent part of who we are, and they accompany us through our whole life. What's wrong with that, you may ask.
They have the same effect on us as the layers of "garment" have on the soul. They conceal the true self and they don't let it move freely and do the things that it wishes to do. As the years go by, they become heavier and heavier, even the ones that used to be light and pleasant. There comes a time when you want to get rid of everything that weighs you down.
The question is if there exists, as Democritus said, a firm steering wheel that will help us navigate ourselves safely even through the wildest storm. One can find guidance of course in the numerous systems that exist today, theological or otherwise, with teachers, gurus or yogis. For the ancient Greeks though, things were much simpler: The only safe guide and teacher is our own Self.
As a reminder, it was written on the lintel of the temple of Apollo at Delphi: "Know thy self." This famous axiom meant that one ought to discover and learn all about the real self. But who is this self, and where can we find it if it's buried under all these garments?
Clearing the way
So, we have the real self and the acquired self and we need to put aside all the things that block our way to our reality. This is going to take some time. Over the years, we have accumulated so much stuff, that before we even try to make a tiny step towards our true nature, we need to first make some space. We kind of get this feeling of "clearness" when we go into the sea or when we feel a light breeze, preferably somewhere in nature. The thoughts "wash away," the feelings calm down, the mind eases and we feel "lighter."
The way to do that is to get rid of all the ideas and conceptions that we have. We have to free our mind from opinions and tendencies and feel our soul getting lighter and lighter... feel the core of our inner being. We have to free ourselves from emotions and all kinds of illusions that we collected along the way.
By doing that we experience a way of life that leads to a higher self and to a new kind of thinking, one that is lighter but deeper.
The great observer
Now, how do we clear ourselves from all the different attachments? One of the most effective ways to do that is by observing the self. We notice our reactions and thoughts on different situations and we take mental notes: "This is what we do in a certain situation and this is the effect of our reaction on us." This way we learn and understand ourselves a little better.
Slowly, we will start to recognize our behavior, our negative and strong points and gain better control of our thoughts and attitudes. The ancient philosophers knew this practice really well and they were really diligent exercising it.
There is another way to find out about ourselves though and this is to ask the people we know to tell us what they think of us. This was the method used for selecting the neophytes in the Eleusinian mysteries, where the parents and teachers of the candidate where called upon and asked to talk about his character.
So we ask the people we appreciate and trust to tell us what sort of people we are. We only have to listen, we don't have to defend ourselves or criticize them. When we have the information we need, when we know that certain attitudes, thoughts, opinions, practices are wrong, we make a conscious decision to go pass them.
That's when we actually clear the way. That's when we take control of our own self. It is as if we change the course of the ship that we call life. We hold the steering wheel and we turn it towards brighter skies. We turn it towards the real self.
A life choice
To go pass all the wrong practices we need to occupy the mind with good practices.
There are two ways to do that: One is to turn to philosophy and live life according to its dogmas. The other is to become excellent in something which is pure and honest. It could be anything from medicine to carpentry, as long as we do it with an open heart. By immersing ourselves in a noble avocation we keep all the ugly stuff away from us. "Always strive for excellence," suggests Homer in Iliad, showing the way to a higher living.
An example of someone following the path of philosophy would be the story of Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoicism. Zeno was a merchant, who according to Diogenes Laertius, was shipwrecked near Athens. Having lost everything but his life, he found refuge in a bookstore where he started reading a book of Plato. Feeling overly enthusiastic about what he had just read he asked the bookseller where he could find such a person as Socrates. That's when he decided to study philosophy and acquire a new life.
So why not change the course of our lives before the disaster occurs? We have a choice to get closer to our real self and discover the wonders and gifts of a meaningful life.