Introspection and Reflection (Self-Help & Inner-Work)
In the therapy and coaching practice, dreamwork sessions, as well as in self development workshops, my colleague and I often discuss the importance of ‘Introspection & Reflection’ as processes for self-help and inner-work. Here, I attempt to share my own perspectives on these processes along with a practical way forward. I will focus on:
- What do we mean by introspection and reflection?
- How do they differ from regular thinking?
- How does one engage in them?
- What are the process steps for this exercise?
- What benefits can be expected?
- How does the practice help daily life?
- What tools can support the process?
- Are there any prerequisites and/or precautions?
- A suggested way forward: process steps…
Introspection and Reflection
If you have read my blogs, you will know that I love etymology. This is because it helps me drill down to the core meaning of the word and to understand the issue at hand better.
The word ‘introspection’ comes from Latin, introspicere (intro = inwards + specere = to look at – from the root spek = to observe). Literally, it is the act of looking inwards and observing. It is the process of holding on to a particular thought attentively (ob = in front of + servare = to watch, keep safe) with a focus on oneself.
In this instance, if you take in a slow deep breath and gently exhale bringing attention to yourself, you will notice some or the other thought going through the head. It could be a curiosity about this blog, or a worry about your pet, or a question mark about milk in the refrigerator. Almost always, something is going on in the mental faculty colloquially referred to as ‘the mind’. I will not belabour the point about the ‘mind monkey’ here but focus on inner examination. Therefore, I invite you to go ahead and see what’s filled in your head right now – in addition to this blog. Just watch those multiple thoughts floating about in your head, the myriad feelings and the sensations in the body.
Now, take a pause and by that I mean: look around where you are seated, and let your gaze fall upon any object in your vicinity – for ease, let it be your phone or the laptop or the tablet on which you are reading this. I am going to use the word gadget as an illustration for your phone / laptop / tablet. As you look at this electronic gadget, pay attention to the minor details. What are some of your thoughts about the physical dimensions, cost, model and make, year of acquisition etc. You might also have some feelings about it e.g., if it’s a gift from a loved one.
If you now notice, your mind has become a wee bit more focused on only this gadget and the other contents floating in your mind just a while ago have receded to the background. It is as if you are bit more present to and attentive to this gadget. If you continue examining only this gadget and focus on thoughts/feelings/sensations to exclusion of everything else (e.g., your family, kitchen, office work etc.), then you are paying attention to this gadget. This focused attention is the first step to introspection.
The first steps
Introspection demands a steadfastness of discipline for the act of holding onto a thought (paying attention) requires relinquishing others. However, that itself is not enough. As the etymology informs us, we have to take it inside. Now what does that mean? How do you convert your current awareness about external objects inwards?
With all the information you already have, I now invite you to focus again on this object (the gadget) and ask yourself these questions. Take your time and do it a bit slowly. For a complete experience, grab a pen and paper and write down your responses by hand:
- What body ‘sensations’ do I experience as I see / hold this gadget?
- What do my eyes experience? Are they wet or dry?
- What is my posture – straight, curled, in bed, comfortable, crooked?
- What is my heartbeat like in the moment? What is my breath like?
- What do I ‘feel’ as I see / hold this gadget?
- Was it a gift or a purchase? Either ways, was I proud of it, or happy about it, or sad?
- What have been the good moment in my association with the gadget (e.g., watching a favourite movie with a loved one)? What have been the bad moments (e.g., a letter with bad news)?
- What is the relationship of the gadget and me?
- What is its role in my life – in addition to the utilitarian purpose it serves?
- How does the gadget change my life – for better or for worse? What aspects of my life are better off (e.g., ease of connectivity)? What are worse off (e.g., radiation impacting health)?
- What is my overall understanding now about this gadget?
- Do I now see the gadget as just a gadget, or has something changed in how the gadget and I interact?
- If something has changed, what has changed?
Now take a pause and see how you sense, feel, think and intuit. Do you find that the object in front of you while remaining the same is also slightly different? In addition to ‘knowing’ about it, you now also have a relationship with it and a different kind of knowing. In my view, the act of taking a pause and holding onto one object – or a cluster of them – and then focusing on them to form an inner relationship, is the process of introspection. While the object remains the same externally, something changes internally. In this instance we had an object, but this applies to everything – events, persons, memories etc.
Reflection & the subject-object distancing
Reflection is a close cousin and usually a concurrent process to introspection. From Latin reflexionem (re = back and flectere = to bend), it is the literally the act of bending backwards. In physics, it pretty much is the act of bending backwards of light i.e., a turning away (this stands in contrast to absorption, where light enters an object and the object takes it all in). Reflection is the process by which the object reflecting the light can shed light on itself through the use of other’s light. We would not have known the moon were the sun’s light not being reflected off it’s surface.
Objective knowledge requires subjective distancing – a necessary condition for discernment. This is one of the reasons why your friends reach out for support in times of distress and vice-versa. As humans with complex mental faculties, we live a life of self-absorbed entanglement. We all are familiar with situations in life where our own proximity interfered with our capacity to see things clearly. Among other things, this is the basis of successful therapy, coaching and counselling – the presence of a therapist who has not only the relevant training, but also the required psychological distance. Under regular circumstances – for the regular ups and downs of life – with the passage of time, we begin to see aspects to a situation / person / issue, which in the first instance were alien to us. Sure, we can let time help us, but we can also help ourselves by wilfully engaging in the practice of introspection and reflection.
The disciplined and focused use of our mental faculties to throw light on our own actions, thoughts, emotions and behaviours enables us to increase the subject-object distance. This in turn, helps us understand ourselves a shade bit better, and see those aspects of ourselves that were hitherto unknown to us. Thus, when we turn the light of our minds onto our own mental processes (reflect) and examine from a distance our thoughts, feelings, actions, behaviours etc. (introspect), we discover parts of ourselves that were earlier a stranger to us.
Simply put, we are trying to become an object of our own observation. Thought we are the one unitary subject, we have within us the capacity for objective distancing and detachment. Subject – Object differentiation enables us to gain knowledge easily in the field of hard sciences. But when it comes to the social sciences and more closely to ourselves, the reduced subject-object distance becomes an obstacle. We try to practice an increased differentiation through the processes of introspection and reflection.
Importance of Reflection & Introspection
In our busy life, we forget how inner knowledge is as important as outer. We are more than the sum of our parts. We feel we are the thinking / feeling self, but we have parts we are absolutely unaware of. More often than not, when an event happens, we react. Reaction is the uncritical instinctual response to an external stimulus. But what does that event mean for us and what is its significance? That is the domain of introspection and reflection. These processes allow us to give a response – an informed and examined approach to the incoming stimulus. By the practice of introspection and reflection, we distance ourselves from our subjectivity to examine ourselves objectively.
Let us take a concrete example. Recall a fight with an office colleague. One option is to forget it. The other is to seethe and conclude that the person is a pain in the ‘you know where’, which may well be true. The other is to ask questions of oneself – questions that force us to pause and examine our own actions, viz.
- What happened actually? What are the ‘facts’ of the case? If there was a movie camera replay available, what would it have captured?
- What did I wish to do in that instance?
- What did I actually do in that moment? How did I feel? How was my body sensation?
- Was I in control of what was happening, or did my action/feeling come and overtake me in its grip?
- Was there something that I wished to do in that instance, but could not / did not? What stopped me?
- What was/is the difference between the two (i.e., what I wished to do and what I actually ended up doing)?
- What are my feelings about the issue? What particular feelings are still strong and alive? Have they changed from the moment the actual event happened?
- What are my body sensations as I recall the issue? Notice in particular the heartbeat, breathing, sweating (hands and feet), blood pressure.
- What could I have done otherwise, in hindsight? What alternatives were available to me? Did they occur to me? What may have stopped me for accessing those options?
- Is there a pattern to my behaviour / action / reaction / response? Is there a consistency or inconsistency? If this was new and the first time, what was new about it?
- What happens in the process of responding to these questions? Is there a fresh perspective that arises?
When we ask these questions, we are able to separate the event and ourselves and through that attempt to have a little more objective distance. Over time, we gain additional knowledge of our own inner world(s). Perhaps we may discover that it was not really our colleague but our unspent anger on the boss that got directed to her. Or we might find that certain specific words trigger us – then we can work upon it. Or we might find that the person is biased and can take more informed steps to protect ourselves. Many possibilities exist and it is only with practice, we can uncover what unfolds for us.
Modern management practices especially in business organisations include what is called a 360-degree feedback. Not just the boss, but the peers and the team working for the manager provides feedback and inputs about the manager’s behaviours, attitudes and personality. The process of introspection and reflection is our own inner 360-degree exploration.
We learn to bring to conscious awareness the automatic reactive parts of ourselves to be closer to the inner centre of stillness within. This inner centre within is what the Swiss psychiatrist, Dr Carl Gustav Jung – borrowing from the Upaniśads – called the ‘Self’. In a nutshell, we can say that this inner centre, ‘the Self’, in addition to its capacity to direct our life, has the ability to be a silent witness to the vagaries of la vie quotidian. The processes of introspection and reflection enable us to access this witness consciousness for just a little while and in the long run facilitate a wholesome and holistic perspective to our life in the moment.
The only person we live with 24*7 is our own self but do we really know ourselves? Whether we want or not, we grow and we change. Life events and circumstances outside our control shape us in tandem with our volitional efforts. For e.g., the way we understood ‘darkness’ was different as a child and now when we are an adult. What has changed is not darkness or its nature but the real nature of darkness within us – our mental schema / our concept has changed. This is part and parcel of the unfolding natural development.
Dr Jung also coined a term ‘complexes’ by which he meant affect laden reaction to a stimulus i.e., an emotionally mediated outlook to an incoming stimulus. Using a simple time control method, Dr Jung noted people’s responses to a series of words in what is called a ‘Word Association Experiment.’ The longer the response, the greater the probability of an intrinsic inner pattern of emotion and thoughts entanglement (complex).
We use this word in daily life as well e.g., superiority complex, inferiority complex etc. though it has a specific psychological meaning. To keep things simple here, imagine a complex as an entanglement of thoughts and emotions that colours our perception of, and response to a particular situation. We all have complexes – for they are the basic substratum of our personality – a necessary outcome of our personal-familial-socio-cultural-religious-political-economic upbringing. In the long run however, we become victims of those complexes as they interfere with our capacity for an informed response.
Given that change is inevitable, now it is a matter of choice whether to participate in our inner growth consciously or to let it happen automatically without awareness. The processes of introspection and reflection allow us to accelerate our conscious inner development. A long standing effort in this direction helps us uncover our patterns, lets us learn about things that trigger us, permits us to avoid situations we can, gives us an early warning alarm about situations that trip us. In short, it permits us to respond, as opposed to react thereby enabling inner growth and wholeness. We develop ‘in-sight’ to ourselves !
The processes of introspection and reflection initially do require some discipline. It is much like exercising an unused muscle. Try to sign with your non dominant hand and see how it feels? Most of us have not exercised this mental muscle within us. We all have this ability. But to begin with, we need time for a pause and some alone time. In the midst of an emotional affect, it is not easy to distance ourselves from the event. Therefore, we may have to schedule it much like we plan our workday or grocery shopping. Along with focused time – away from all electronic gadgets – we need privacy. It won’t be as effective if you are worried that your spouse or work colleague will be reading through your notes.
Concurrently, we need continuity and a steadfastness of practice. I don’t want to sound glib, but it is true, ‘practice makes perfect.’ The more we practice, the more it became easier. Consistency enables an increased outer objectivity to the subjective experience. It helps us transition from ‘reflection on action’ (post) to ‘reflection in action’ (during), thereby providing us with a helpful witnessing presence to ourselves.
The process steps – a recap
Here is a sequential list of process steps to be followed. Please go ahead and experiment – these work for me and you will find what you need to amend.
- Keep a private notebook. Let this be your journal for introspection and reflection.
- Schedule a time weekly, bi-weekly or daily – as it suits you. But stick to it, especially till you feel you’ve built some muscle.
- On the allotted time, stay away from your gadgets and find a quiet space away from disturbance.
- Sit back and scan your own body internally – from the tip of your toe to the top of your head.
- Let your mind wander to the recent events – at work, home, social setting – wherever your mind goes.
- Pick up one instance / event that has an energy charge for you. By that I mean, something which evokes a strong emotion within. Perhaps you feel angry, or you feel hurt, or you find your heart suddenly pumping more and you breathing short. Or pick any one event which you feel was an important one.
- In your journal, write down the current (reflection/introspection) date and respond to the questions as stated above in the example. Add or reduce the questions, as it suits right to you.
- After you are done, take a pause and take a break.
- Then come back and check (same day / next day) if you get any new insights about yourself.
- Write down the insight(s) thus obtained.
Modern lifestyle conditions us to an external unconscious thought orientation. We are often asked to be quick and fast. We are expected to be unitary and firm in our thoughts and feelings. What is not acknowledged is the inner capacity of presence to the multitudes within.
The processes of introspection and reflection, when worked upon consciously enable us to examine the contents of our awareness and permit us to find a deeper connect with our authentic Self – separate from the automatic reactions of our daily living. These processes build, albeit slowly, an objective distance, which in due course allows us to question ourselves and give expression to the multiple voices within. Done diligently, they allow us to examine our feelings, thoughts, sensations, and intuitions (the four fundamental aspects of conscious awareness) and in some measure enable us to be alive to the present moment – living neither in the grip of the past, nor in the fantasy of a wishful future. We are able to step aside from our auto-pilot to a more centred and wholesome presence. We will also be able to experience a sense of humour in the quirks of our personality – and hopefully also that of others – thereby allowing a lightness of being. Wearing the lens of curiosity to the multitudes within – with ever expanding objectivity – has the potential to slowly liberate us from the grip of our complexes and be present to the ‘here and now’ richness of life.
“The present day shows with appalling clarity how little able people are to let the other man’s argument count, although this capacity is a fundamental and indispensable condition for any human community. Everyone who proposes to come to terms with himself must reckon with this basic problem. For, to the degree that he does not admit the validity of the other person, he denies the ‘other’ within himself the right to exist – and vice-versa. The capacity for inner dialogue is a touchstone for outer objectivity.”
– Carl Gustav Jung, 1875-1961 (Collected Works, Vol. 8, para. 187).