The Value Of Introspection For Personal And Spiritual Growth
The world is full of distractions. Bright, shiny objects are always competing to grab our attention, be it our phones, TV screens, our work, our relationships, social media, billboards, shopping malls, supermarket aisles. Smells, sounds, sensations, sights, the richness of the external world is alluring, enticing, demanding.
There’s a lot of beauty in the world, and focusing attention on the external is absolutely vital to live as an engaged member of society. However, when all of our attention is fixed on the external, at all times, we miss the richness and beauty of the inner world. Turning attention within, in a process of introspection, is the key to all forms of self-knowledge and self-growth.
From the most profound spiritual teaching to experimental social psychology research, many solutions and insights rely on introspection and self insight. But there’s more to introspection than thinking, or being caught in your own thoughts, or daydreaming about potential futures. As a purposeful act, introspection illuminates the fullness of your truest essence, shining a light on your wants, desires, shortcomings, and the fullness of your unique expression.
This article will cover the main qualities of introspection — self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-knowledge — along with the benefits of introspection for self fulfillment. By the end, you’ll have a clearer sense of how to turn attention inwards with intent and purpose.
The history of psychology and introspection
Introspection, in its simplest term, is examining your own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and inner life. The word itself translates from the Latin introspicere, meaning “to look within.”
In psychology, it’s a form of meta-cognition, of observing the inner world and how it operates. It’s a way of understanding conscious experience and offers an overlap between the “objective” world and the subjective experience of being.
Introspection has been part of the fabric of human understanding for thousands of years, stretching back to ancient Greece. Socrates, who died around 399 BCE, was an advocate of the maxim “Know Thyself.” Plato, his famed student, also saw introspection as a path to wisdom, truth and greater well being.
Science, as the strict discipline we know it to be today, originated in the 17th century, thousands of years after ancient teachings of the value of introspection. Psychology is a relatively new scientific discipline, forming in the 19th century.
Around that time, in the 1800s, German psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt introduced introspection to the field of experimental psychology, which uses the scientific method to research and find data on the human experience.
The introspection illusion and objectivity
Wundt’s approach, of objectively observing people’s processes to understand the mind, led to psychology becoming closer aligned to the scientific method.
Wundt believed that a great deal of the problem for introspection in psychology is the introspection illusion. Most people have inherent cognitive biases within their own minds, making self-reports difficult. Psychology became less introspective with fields such as behavioral psychology, although more recent cognitive psychology and positive psychology place value on subjective experience.
This is the curious paradox of psychology as a discipline — although a verifiable scientific method, psychology is reliant on the subjective in nature. You can’t strip away the subjective conscious experience from the human experience. William James, a pioneer of modern psychology, articulates this issue beautifully. He wrote:
“That unshareable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune’s wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills up the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such a feeling, or its analogue. would be a piece of reality only half made up.”
That’s where behavioral psychology falls short. Looking at people’s outward behavior and motivation from outside, relying on self-reporting, is a reality only half made up, and the wrong way to go about it. That means introspection, and exploring the truth of being, is a personal experience of self observation.
Whereas the use of introspection can help understand the components of our psychology, it can also go a step further, to understand the soul.
Introspection and spiritual growth
Mainstream Western psychology is a recent discipline, but look to the East, and the subjective nature of the self has been studied extensively in many ancient traditions. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, for example, lists Svadhyaya as one of the Niyamas, the qualities of living a spiritual life according to yogic philosophy.
Svadhyaya comes from Sva (Self) and Adhyaya (lesson, lecture or reading). The translation of the term, then, means self-study. Patanjali’s sutra proclaims: “Study thyself, discover the divine.” This is a step beyond a lot of conventional Western approaches. Eastern esoteric traditions (eso – inner) teach that divinity itself, our pure true essence beyond all objects, is attained through introspection.
In this context, introspection isn’t a practice only to view the objects of mind and understand our individual psychology, but to connect to the soul. This is supported by a wider worldview that explains consciousness as part of the fabric of reality, which is in its own right objective and knowable through inward focus.
Introspection and self-reflection
William James coined the term reflective awareness as a mechanism of mind. Not only are humans able to witness their inner-process, and are self-aware of their place in the Earth and wider cosmos, but are able to analyze and assess these processes. Part of this is sense-making. In other words, many people self-reflect to understand themselves deeper, to know why they did or felt things in the past.
Reflection is a practice that is careful and attentive. For me, introspection and self-reflection go hand in hand, as self-reflection is an introspective process and can lead to positive change. I view self-reflection as linked to past events, in a process of looking back and reflecting on behaviors and processes to create a deeper understanding in the present.
The biggest benefit of this is that, so often in life, we become caught up in reactivity, emotion, or distraction. It’s only upon careful reflection do we uncover deeper truths. When setting aside time to reflect, then we view past situations from a more balanced and grounded perspective.
Introspection and self-awareness
As well as reflecting on past behavior, introspective improves self-awareness. That’s because not all information is available to us, consciously, at any given moment. As Carl Jung said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
The power of introspection is that, by turning attention within, unconscious contents become conscious. Information that isn’t available to us is revealed, igniting a journey of self-discovery.
When we self-reflect and become aware of this information, or the particular tendencies or personality traits, we become more self-aware. As the practice of mindfulness reminds us, this process of introspection and observation is best achieved with non-judgment. The information revealed isn’t there to be seen as good or bad, but simply acknowledged, leading to a process of self-acceptance.
As self-study begins to create a clear picture of unconscious processes and self-awareness increases, then we’re able to change, grow, and to move beyond limitations. “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude,” wrote William James.
Greater self-awareness leads to conscious decisions to act in ways that aren’t on autopilot, or dictated by the unconscious. Then, and only then, do we become truly in control of our lives, resulting in stronger relationships and a happier life.
Introspection and self-knowledge
Because mainstream psychology, at one point, merged with the scientific method, it placed a lot of emphasis on objective validation. However, stretch back to Socrates and Plato, and look at Eastern traditions, and you’ll find that introspection has always been seen as a way to gain knowledge. Not only of the Self, but of the wider cosmos and nature of reality.
Christianity, too, saw introspection as a means to attain knowledge. Gnosis, which translates from the Greek “knowing,” talks to the divine knowledge or understanding that is found within. What does introspection mean on a personal level? Self-knowledge is a path of discovery. At the very least, because information becomes conscious, the process of self-discovery leads to surprising revelations and insights about yourself.
Keep in mind, the latest scientific estimates believe unconscious processes make up for 95 percent of mental activity. There’s a whole universe to explore, metaphorically and, maybe, literally.
Four practices of introspection
Anyone who has spent time ruminating or replaying past events in mind will know not all introspection is equal. That’s not to say introspection is good or bad. The practice itself is neutral, but the way it is applied makes a world of difference to what benefits are found.
Below are a few practices of introspection you can try, to boost self-knowledge and begin the process of knowing yourself.
1. The “Who Are You” exercise
Studies into self-awareness have found that most people believe themselves to be more self-aware than they actually are. It’s not surprising, considering the magnitude of the unconscious mind, and the low value society places on skilled introspection. Although it can feel frightening to accept that there could be much more to “You” than you’re consciously aware of, the process of self-discovery often leads to deeper fulfillment and joy in life.
One exercise is the “Who Are You” exercise. This involves the repetition of the question, followed by as many answers as you can find. You might begin with many I am… statements, such as: I am Ricky. I am 31-years-old. I am a writer. I am a son. I am a brother. Eventually, though, you will reveal deeper and deeper beliefs about who you are.
The purpose of this exercise is to highlight ego-based stories about your identity. The answer reveals the building blocks of the self-image that you hold in mind. Ultimately, who you really are is constantly changing. You can never be reduced to a thought or a belief. And there’s always more to discover.
2. Observe thoughts without judgment
We touched upon the value of mindfulness and meditation in revealing the nature of mind through introspection. The basic practice of mindfulness is to allow the mind to be, without interference. Often, we either run away or chase thoughts or feelings. If something is unpleasant, we don’t enjoy the experience and want it to end. If something is pleasant, we want it to last forever.
Take time to start a meditation practice where you observe the thoughts, emotions, and sensations running through your conscious experience. Can you observe these without labeling them, or turning them into stories? Can you view these as “objects” that aren’t actually “You”? The more you do this, the more you’re able to identify with the witness, the unchanging, incorruptible nature of the self.
3. Start a self-study routine
In our hyper-productive society, it’s easy to be drawn into the desire to attain knowledge from the outside world. This might be learning new skills, or reading up on philosophy or psychology to add to our repertoire of information. But as we know, for thousands of years, great scholars and spiritual teachers have taught that self-study is a valid form of knowledge. I recommend self-study make up the majority of your self-development practice.
It helps to understand the role of knowledge and the purpose for learning. This article, for example, provides context around self-knowledge, explains its value, and offers instruction to boost your level of introspection. This knowledge is gained with the purpose of directing you back to yourself. It’s a form of instruction.
Learning about psychology alone is purely entertainment unless applied to yourself. Remember this at all times. And make sure to balance the process of learning and discovering the nuances of your inner world with learning new information. Many people avoid actually facing themselves by instead stocking up on facts, theories, or concepts, feeling that is the work.
4. The “this thought isn’t mine” exercise
Do your thoughts belong to you? Take a moment to ponder this question. The default state is to identity, unconsciously, with all of our inner processes and thoughts as if we own them, as if they make up who we are.
In truth, most of our thoughts aren’t even ours, but a symptom of being conditioned from a number of outside sources. This includes our family, our peers, our education, our government, our media.
This is a powerful exercise because it creates a sense of objectivity towards the nature of mind. When you experience a thought process, know it’s not who you are, it’s an experience you’re having. Then ask the question: is this thought mine? Did I choose it? Or did someone else choose it for me?
A big part of spiritual growth and self-development is unlearning. Let’s face it, collective psychology is a mess. We’re disconnected from ourselves, mental illness is growing, bigotry and hate rule supreme, and we’re instilled with unconscious biases from racism to sexism or selfishness.
The process of identifying when thoughts have been internalized from outside allows you to begin to discern and distill the authentic you from the external noise. You’ll be amazed how much junk is in there, and what’s more, often that junk influences our behavior from the unconscious! Ditching the junk, and purifying the mind, is a true path of self-discovery.
The world is full of distractions. Bright, shiny objects are always competing to grab our attention. However, having read through this article, my wish is that you see the value of turning your attention within, and taking time to turn away from distractions.
Through the process of introspection, suddenly those objects become less shiny when compared to the blistering light of your inner, true essence.