The art and practice of introspection

One of the best ways of growing and maturing is through introspection. The other is through experience. In fact, both are needed. This mind of ours is not born with wisdom. It has to grow into wisdom and maturity through introspection and experience.

But what do we introspect upon? We need to have clarity on when, what, and how to introspect and also what not to introspect. The goal of introspection can be many. It can be anything from a shift of identity to changing our responses, from improving our relationships to earning more money, from becoming healthier to going up the career ladder. We need to introspect both on our short-term and long-term interests.

Introspection is about one’s life

It is about making the unconscious activities of the mind conscious

It is about becoming free from automaticity

It is about becoming self-aware

It is about channeling our thoughts in the direction we want them to go

It is about re-conditioning our minds

It is about the art of discernment

Left to itself the mind will keep acting out its conditioning and programming, which may not be in our best interests. The mind has to be given direction consciously every moment. It should not be left to its own devices. We should dictate to the mind and not be dictated by it. This is best done during introspection when the mind is sober and receptive.

We use thoughts to introspect, but thoughts can mislead us. We may believe that what our mind is telling us is true whereas it may not be so. Thoughts come to us, we don’t go to it. We don’t know where thoughts come from, who produces them and why the mind keeps chattering. When thoughts show up we claim ownership of them and imagine that we produced those thoughts. Once thoughts arise in our consciousness, we have to use our discerning intelligence to reject those that are not useful. As our practice of introspection progresses more insightful thoughts will start appearing on their own. Introspection will then be a joy unto itself

Introspection involves contemplation. But contemplation is a much wider term. You can contemplate anything under the sun. Introspection is more personal. It is about you and your life.

Why introspect?

Introspection is a necessity because most of the time our lives are run on autopilot. Our conditioned subconscious mind is in charge of our lives and controls and directs our thoughts and actions. We don’t know how this subconscious mind works and what its agenda is. We also don’t know why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe, and why we have certain desires. Our minds are heavily conditioned, highly suggestible, and it gathers all kinds of information from sources we are scarcely aware of. Introspection helps us understand what is going on in our minds. We become aware of what drives us. We cannot allow subconscious processes to control our lives. We have to live conscious, mindful lives. This will be possible only through the practice of introspection. Otherwise, we will be living under the illusion that we had a choice in whatever we thought or did. To make wise choices, which is the key to a successful life, we need to override the irrational and emotional choices made by the sub-conscious.

What happens when we introspect?

We all have an innate intelligence gifted to us by nature. This innate intelligence uses thoughts to introspect. When we put forth a question to this intelligence such as: how could I have responded differently in the situation? the intelligence comes up with answers. It also ponders over its own answers. Introspection is the act of challenging this intelligence through appropriate questions. This intelligence is not being tested sufficiently. Introspection stirs up and activates this intelligence to come up with innovative answers. This intelligence needs to be nudged and prodded. Otherwise, it will remain stuck in a groove. As it matures this intelligence will guide us wisely.

When to introspect

On a daily basis. It has to become a habit. Preferably at the same time and the same place every day, so that the mind is prepared for it. Never introspect when you are not in a good mood, worried, agitated, ill, or in pain. The thoughts that come to you will be colored by your state of mind and body. We need to introspect when the mind is reasonably stable and calm. One needs to get into an introspective mood. We, therefore, need to be alone during this period. Writing down our thoughts is very useful during introspection. Thoughts can be clarified and rewritten while writing. Mere thinking has the disadvantage of forgetfulness. Alternatively, key points that arise during introspection can be jotted down. Keeping a log of our introspection will go a long way in determining how we have progressed. Given the amount of time we have every day, we must be choosy as to what we want to introspect. But the goal is to cover all areas of life over a period of time.

How to introspect

By asking questions, even if we don’t get answers. Keeping the question alive is important as answers will come as the mind matures. Questions should not be speculative or hypothetical. Questions need to be practical so that the answers that emanate can be implemented. Introspection is not about discussing whether there is extra-terrestrial intelligence or what is the ultimate purpose of life. Practical questions would be something like: what went wrong in my communication today, why did I get irritated over trivia? The question has to be related to something that happened in your life. Instead of asking: should I marry? ask what are the pros and cons of marrying. Framing the question is critical. It has to be specific and not a generalization. Which is the best meditation? is a wrong question. Instead ask: Which meditation will be most suitable for a person with my temperament? Why am I restless vs what activities make me restful? What is the meaning of life vs how can I make my life meaningful? The answers to the questions should result in action or a change in behavior and attitudes.

Introspection requires a level of objectivity. There has to be a distance between us and our thoughts so that we can examine them without bias. To reduce subjectivity, we have to see the issue impersonally, as a scientist. It is not easy to do so in the beginning but with practice, we will get the hang of it. We will view thoughts as thoughts and not as ‘my’ thoughts. Thoughts don’t ‘belong’ to anybody. We will stop claiming ownership of every thought that pops into our heads. Thoughts will be viewed as tools to be used for practical purposes. This single shift in our relationship to ephemeral thoughts will make our introspection highly objective.

Introspection is a four-fold process

1. Asking questions

2. Waiting for the innate intelligence to throw up answers

3. Dissecting and analyzing the answers based on consequences

4. Choosing the best answer and course of action

If no answer satisfies us then we have to wait for another time or consult a wiser person or read deeply on the subject. Sometimes the answers may feel correct but may not be implementable with our current level of maturity and skillsets. Then we need to rise to the level of maturity required before attempting to implement.

What to introspect

We need to prioritize what we want to introspect every day. To be clear about our priorities we should first make an inventory of areas where we feel the need for transformation. In these areas, we may be failing or not doing as well as we want to do. Unless we attend to them, they will keep nagging us. They will keep demanding our time and attention.

Some matters are urgent and need to be attended to immediately so that a decision can be taken. Others that are not urgent can wait. If we don’t attend to matters that are urgent, they will prevent us from thinking clearly.

Areas for introspection

The present

Some suggest that we should recollect all that happened during the course of the day in reverse order without comment and judgment. Though a good practice, just recollection is not sufficient. Our aim is to learn from our experiences and for this, we have to contemplate.

The most important question to ponder over is the way we spent our time during the day. Did we waste too much time doing nothing or in frivolous pursuits and in daydreaming without any value addition? Some amount of wastage is allowed, but not too much. In what other pursuits could we have spent our time on to have made the day productive?

We also need to recollect the way we reacted to situations and to people. Why did I react the way I reacted? Was I provoked? Was there a pattern to the reactions? Did I hurt anyone in the process? Did I feel bad myself? Did it leave a bitter taste behind? Could I have reacted or responded in a different and more effective manner, given the circumstances? The answer to such questions will lead to our growth. Our reactions/responses generally follow a pattern and we need to break that pattern. Experimenting with new responses will happen only during introspection when we choose a different response and act it out mentally. Next time when a similar situation arises the memory of the response we rehearsed will come into play. Here we must avoid the blame game. We can feel satisfied putting the blame for our reactions on someone else. But maturity lies in not in looking for someone to blame but how a wise and mature person would have responded in a similar situation.

We grow into maturity only by changing our responses. If we keep responding in the same patterned way, then we are in the grip of our conditioned mind. Only by bringing in mindfulness during introspection can we break the unconscious repetitive forces that control us.

We also need to dwell on how our mood was during the day. Were we grumpy, ebullient, dull, or fresh? Then we ask ourselves why we were the way we were. Our goal is to be energetic, lively, and enthused. What is preventing us from being that way? Answers may not come easily, but we need to keep asking. The answers our mind tells us may not always be right either. We have to learn by trial and error. We need to introspect on what is engaging our attention currently and whether it is affecting our health.

If we made errors of judgment or were too quick to judge a situation, we must note it down. The frequency with which such things happen will reveal a lot about our minds.

The past

Introspecting about the past has to be done carefully. The past holds treasures as well as skeletons. We must be choosy as to what we want to stir up from the past. It should not generate regrets, misgivings, and ‘if only’ thoughts. There is no point in introspecting about the past unless it will have a positive impact on our future. Here again, we can recollect our responses to situations in the past that could have been handled differently. From our current level of maturity, the past reactions and responses may seem immature, and naturally so. But then, we were a different person at that time. No judgments should be passed on the past. We go back into the past only to see if we are responding in the same immature manner even today. The past is for learning so that we do not repeat our mistakes. It reveals whether we have matured over time or just the same. It is not to rekindle guilt or shame.

In examining the past what we are trying to do is to see if we are the same person today we were earlier. Otherwise, it is futile to criticize our previous selves from the vantage point of our current self. Most of our regrets are based on this illusion. We think we could have acted otherwise in the past. We could not have. Introspection has to be about our current self, not all our previous selves. We should only be amused at our previous selves and the way it dealt with the world at that period in our lives.

The future

The future is what we can control and alter. It is good to introspect as to what and who we would want to be and the direction we want our lives to take in the future. We have to cover all areas of our life such as health, money, career, relationships, spirituality, society. We should introspect on our immediate future as well as our long-term future and both have to be aligned.

The future is determined by our past to a great extent and vice versa. They are interlinked. We cannot change our personalities overnight. We have to be realistic as to what we can change and what we cannot. Personality changes take time and we cannot be in a hurry.

Goals

Thinking about the future also means thinking about our goals. We need to introspect about our goals periodically, which will help keep them in mind and reinforce them. Reviewing our goals will help us to know whether we have progressed adequately and the remedial measures to be taken. We can also think of new goals to pursue. But there is a danger in overthinking about our goals. Goals take time to fructify. Thinking about them every day may prove counterproductive and create anxiety. Just as corporates make five-year business plans we can also do so, with half-yearly goal posts, and review them once a quarter.

Relationships

Here introspection would mean evaluating whether our relationships are satisfying and if not what we need to do about them. What can I do to make my family happy? is a question we need to ponder over frequently. Relationships may seem OK but could they be taken to the next level is what we need to introspect about. Or if they are not satisfactory in spite of our efforts, whether we need to take counseling from an expert.

The quality of our relationships is largely dependent on fulfilling one’s own and others’ expectations. We, therefore, need to introspect deeply as to whether our expectations are realistic and can be fulfilled by the other. Maybe they do not possess the kind of personality that can fulfill our expectations. The same is the case about others’ expectations of us. Can I meet their expectations given the person that I am? Can I change myself, and to what extent, to meet their expectations? If expectations are unrealistic then honest communication with the other may be needed.

Conflicts in relationships can arise. But if they are too frequent, we must introspect the deeper causes. If we do not resolve the conflicts and let them drift, we may begin to dislike the person. Am I expecting a change in behavior or a change in personality is the most important question to ask? Behavioral changes are easier than personality changes. One can practice being less angry but an introvert cannot become an extrovert.

In introspection, the most important question we need to ask ourselves is: What will a mature person do in such a situation.

Learnings

What have I learned in the past week? is a good question to ask. Whether by reading books or listening to talks or conversing with people learning is always happening. What do I need to know to ensure that I am healthy, financially secure, have better relationships, work more effectively, and contribute to society is a question that needs introspecting. Without the right kind of knowledge, we will not know what to do. We must also know where to get this knowledge

Contemplating our learnings is the most efficient way of strengthening them. We can also add our bit of knowledge to what we have learned. We cannot mature merely by reading other people’s thoughts but also by contributing our own.

Health

This is one area we never think about consciously. As long as we are healthy, we think that nothing more needs to be done. We have to plan for the future, for old age and it has to begin now. How has my energy level been in the last week? What hereditary diseases could I be prone to and what precautions must I take now? For instance, if you have a family history of diabetes better to cut down on sugar right now. If there is a history of heart ailments better to keep cholesterol under control. We generally tend to postpone such things and live in denial. Have I been too harsh on my body or have I given it sufficient rest? is one of the most important introspective questions.

We also need to contemplate the state of our mental health and whether it could be bettered. If necessary, we may need to take expert help. The only person who knows about the state of our body and mind is us. Learning about our health is a lifelong endeavor. Keeping a record of our health will go a long way in learning about ourselves.

Money matters

Where most people fail is in the area of investments. We rely on bankers and agents who have their own agenda and will suggest products where they can make the maximum money and don’t act in our best interests. Knowledge of investments is an ongoing learning process throughout life. While introspecting we have to determine our relationship with money. Are we feeling a constant lack of money, are we greedy for high returns, are we spending beyond our means? We have to strike the right balance between saving and spending. We have to think about our long-term and short-term goals. We have to keep retirement in mind while introspecting.

Society

Questions we need to ask ourselves are: am I contributing to society and the community or am I self-centered? In what way can I contribute to the community at large? These questions will hopefully kindle our sense of duty towards society.

Career

Introspecting about our career or profession should be done at regular intervals and not daily. Where would I like to be in my career five years from now? What action should I take to achieve this? Am I growing in my job and learning new skills? How is my relationship with my colleagues and bosses? Could it be improved and how? What do I need to learn and develop to grow in my job? How can I contribute to the existing body of knowledge in my profession?

Once we contemplate on these questions, we need to have an action plan that we can execute and keep monitoring its progress

Self

This is one area where we need to introspect deeply and regularly. Questions that we can ask ourselves are: What are my values and am I living by them? Have I transgressed them in the last week? What are my attitudes towards people, money, career, health, growth? Are they getting me into difficulties? Do I need to change some of my attitudes? What beliefs am I living from? What superstitions control me?

Am I growing spiritually? Am I restless and uncomfortable with silence? Are people merely a means to an end for me? Am I a morally responsible person? Am I able to connect with something that is larger than me?

Contemplating our self will involve discovering the causes of our behavior. Why am I constantly angry, complaining, hurried, justifying, envious? Answers will not come easy when it comes to causes or the answers may be too simplistic. But unless we keep probing no transformation will happen

What we should not introspect

Past regrets

What we could have done but did not

What we did but should not have

Missed opportunities

Failures

Humiliations faced

Betrayals

Huge losses made

Periods of bad health

Speculation

Fantasies

Hypotheses

Conjectures

Misgivings

If there are any learnings from these experiences, note them down but don’t revisit these experiences again. Once is enough.

Reviewing our introspection

How is my introspection progressing is a question we need to ask once in a while. Is it bringing about any perceptible change in my beliefs, perspectives, attitudes, and behavior? Am I enjoying the process? It is good to make an inventory of the areas in which you have benefited. The review should also include where the focus has been so far and whether it requires a shift. What can I do to improve the quality of my introspection? Is there any inner resistance to certain topics during my introspection? Am I avoiding any unpleasant subjects? Am I maturing and growing in my introspection?

For most people introspection may seem to be a painful process. They may not like to confront difficult questions. Contemplation, for many, is not a pleasurable activity. Like any skill, it will take time to develop a taste for introspection. Once we see its benefits we will be motivated. In the beginning, if there is inner resistance from the mind then we can introspect in the company of a friend. The friend simply listens and maybe asks a few questions, but does not suggest answers. The answers will have to come from our own innate intelligence.

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