Anyone who would seek to know anything on this spiritual path, will eventually come across the maxim ‘know thyself’. Of all the knowledge we seek, none is greater, more profound, or more deeply life-changing than self-knowledge. And yet, equally, those who seek to know will also discover that, to quote Aristotle (in translation), “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” What is knowledge, what is the best way to nurture it and can you ever really possess it?

A memento mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio in Rome, featuring the Greek motto: Know thyself

I grew up with the belief that knowledge was power. My dad valued knowledge, spending a lifetime studying. His journey began at age 16 in a small library in Lewis in Sussex, where he found and studied the entire Secret Doctrines of HP Blavatsky. By the time I knew him he’d left the Theosophists behind and undertaken a lifelong journey of study with the Rosicrucians.

I grew up with the habit of studying – both esoteric and exoteric studies – as a lifelong practice. I was exposed to the spiritual teachings of many of the world’s religions, and have studied and practiced as a Druid, Shaman and, more recently, as an alchemist, although now I reflect on it, the alchemy is a coming home – it’s where I began, all those years ago, with my dad. But unlike the alchemy of the Rosicrucians, which is treated as a sacred knowledge to be kept in secret, jealously guarded, and drip fed over many, many years to students who would dedicate their lives to the path, the alchemy I now study is open to all. Dedication is still required, but the secrecy and the slow drip feed are not. It tends, after all, to be self-regulating. One can take on board only what one is ready for, and as the journey deepens, so too does one’s capacity for knowledge.

Alchemical process

This path of study comes down the blue ray, to use a Theosophist term. It has an intellectual energy and a tendency toward solitude. Uncoupled from practical application to one’s life, however, it is of little value. Knowledge gained for the sake of knowledge alone is valueless. It’s like gathering a full and rich larder but refusing to eat. Much in all as this might be implied as an ideal in the parable of the apple taken from the tree of knowledge, the truth is that we must eat of the knowledge, and transform through that process. Where that leads us, is up to us. That is the nature of free will.

Knowledge, in order to be integrated, needs to be contemplated, deeply considered within the context of one’s own life experiences, and then applied to one’s life in practical terms – causing transformation. That done, it is now truly knowledge, rather than just information.

This is the Great Work of alchemy – this transformation of the self – a transformation that comes through the practical application of knowledge. This is the true meaning of the maxim “know thyself” – not a static recognition, but a transformative one. This is how we nurture knowledge within ourselves.

Gundestrup cauldron

But what of Aristotle? It is certainly true that the deeper we go with knowledge, and the closer we get to the truth, the more we realize that there is so much we do not understand, so much that is beyond our capacity, as mortal beings, to comprehend. We often begin with certainty, with a sense of knowledge as tangible, as something we can grasp and use like a tool, but we eventually realize that it is not tangible, that it writhes in our grip and can evaporate suddenly, leaving us less certain, and seemingly more ignorant than ever. But this is one of the great paradoxes of life. For the less we know we know, the more we know. Zen Buddhism is based on paradox, as were the triads of the ancient Celts. The ability to hold paradox within us, without trying to resolve it, brings us closest to the truth.

Knowledge is not a possession. It is not something we own, or should ever jealously guard. Indeed, one of the Druidic triads states:
“There are three people accursed: they who work against the Laws of Nature without concern, they who know nothing of the Mighty Ones and do not seek to learn, and they who know much and do not share their knowledge with any other.”
Knowledge should be shared freely. Those who are ready for it will step forward and eat of it. Those who are not, will let if fall from their fingers. Having eaten of it, we become it. And so the ‘know’, in “know thyself” is an active and truly powerful verb.

Rhiannon Beolens is an alchemist and writer who lives on Waiheke Island. An eclectic life of study has been boiled down to a journey with alchemy – a willing leap into the cauldron of transformation. Like any form of cooking, it gets a bit messy at times, and can get uncomfortably hot. Things have to get chopped up, the cauldron has to bubble and spit, but the process, painful as it may be at times, is worth it.