When the ancient Greeks needed answers, they consulted oracles. Oracles were priestly men and women at designated locations, like stone temples, who offered wise counsel or predictions about the future. The source of this wisdom and predictive powers was said to be the gods. That is, the oracles used a form of divination to guide others.
Imagine wrestling with a difficult problem where no single answer seems to present itself. Maybe you are considering a new vocation, starting a family, going on an extended trip, or invading a foreign land. What to do, what to do.
When our minds wrestle with difficult problems, it can be mentally and emotionally draining, leading to physical fatigue. Decision-making is hard work. We don’t know what the decision will mean to us.
We tend to fear making the wrong decision. The Latin root of decision means to cut off or kill; to decide is to cut off or kill other options, which our minds dislike doing. So we often avoid making difficult decisions. This, of course, only prolongs our anguish.
Instead of wrestling with the problem or decision, imagine letting an oracle bring clarity to the issue. And because you trust that oracle wholeheartedly, you know that he or she will provide proper guidance. Problem solved. Tension resolved.
The Source of the Oracle’s Wisdom
Did the source of the oracle’s wisdom stem from some external source like the gods? (Pythia, the oracle at Delphi, apparently had a pretty good track record; she was considered to be infallible.)
From a modern psychological perspective, we would say these oracles were attuned to their personal unconscious and perhaps the unconscious of the collective. That is, these ancient intuitives were connected to their inner worlds and the collective inner world of their culture.
It can be comforting and supportive to get outside guidance and wise counsel when problems arise. And I’m not suggesting otherwise. There are many psychologists, social workers, coaches, mentors, teachers, pastors, rabbis, friends, and parents who can offer wise counsel in times of need.
External Wisdom Versus Internal Guidance
But Abraham Maslow and other humanistic psychologists found that self-actualizing people—those that tend to have more positive mental health—are less dependent on others and tend to be more autonomous and self-directed in making life decisions.
Instead of consulting others about their problems, they tend to direct their attention in the opposite direction: inward. They call on their own deeper nature and latent resources and creative impulses to solve their problems.
Tapping Into Our Deeper Nature
Coming to trust one’s own inner guidance, however, doesn’t happen overnight or by simply deciding to. Much of our inner, deeper nature is unconscious to us.
Freud explained that our deeper nature is actively repressed because it is feared, disapproved of, or foreign to our conscious egos. And many aspects of this inner nature are simply forgotten, that is, neglected, unused, overlooked, or suppressed. This process begins early in life, largely as a response to parental and cultural disapproval.
Instincts Lost and Regained
Before we can come to trust our inner center, we must first connect with it and open up to it. That is, we must forge a bond with our personal unconscious.
As modern folks living in a technological age where many of us live in urban dwellings, we have largely become divorced from nature and our instincts. Maslow writes in Toward a Psychology of Being, “Humans no longer have instincts in the animal sense, powerful, unmistakable inner voices which tell them unequivocally what to do, when, where, how and with whom.”
Yet, “Authentic selfhood,” Maslow continues, “can be defined in part as being able to hear these impulse-voices within oneself, that is, to know what one really wants or doesn’t want, what one is fit for and what one is not fit for, etc.”
Maslow’s perspective is actually reminiscent of the ancient Greeks’ who saw the soul as an inner organizing principle that gives meaning and direction to each life.
Locating Your Inner Oracle
Just as there are many pathways for travelers on the road to authentic selfhood, there are many practices to begin tapping into these impulse-voices and intuitive messages.
Here are few paths worth exploring:
- Carl Jung offered the practices of dream work and active imagination to help connect, communicate, and integrate your divine inner center.
- Eastern practices like Qigong and Yoga have their own integrative methods that connect the body’s instincts with the mind’s higher capacities.
- An active journaling process and integrative therapies like Internal Family Systems can help get us acquainted with our inner voices.
- Communing with nature is another suitable means for reconnecting with our instincts.
- Being still, staying quiet, and listening carefully can be the most basic yet highly effective means for reconnecting with our soul (that is, practice mindfulness meditation).
The challenge is that connecting with our inner nature takes practice, that is, ongoing work. It’s easy to think or believe that we’re tapped into our higher self when we’re, in fact, simply listening to our ego’s wishes. Make no mistake; without effort, our inner oracle remains elusive.
Why is practice and development so important? Maslow and others assert that mentally healthy individuals (self-actualizing, individuating) naturally make better choices than the rest of us. That is, when you’re mentally healthy—when you’re not driven by neurotic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—you can naturally make choices in favor of your biological, social, and self-actualizing needs.
True mental health does not happen by accident. Becoming an integrated, mature adult takes effort: owning your shadow, meeting your basic needs, resolving internal tensions, healing your psyche, and so on.
But with practice, we can begin opening up to an infinite wellspring of inner guidance and wisdom that flows effortlessly, feeding our souls and leading us on a meaningful journey through this precious life.
On the Walls of Delphi
Let’s go back to Ancient Greece for a moment. The term “γνῶθι σεαυτόν” was apparently inscribed in the front courtyard at Delphi. This translates to the famous Greek aphorism found throughout the writings of Plato: know thyself.
More than just an idea or principle, “know thyself” is instruction. Through inner work, we can actualize this aphorism and locate the oracle within.