Updated: Aug 19, 2022
Introspection is the key to so many of our problems, both our individual problems, as well as our societal and cultural problems - because our social problems are generated through individuals acting “en masse,” which takes those seemingly personal issues, obstacles, obsessions, addictions, pathologies and difficulties, that we all struggle with, and projects and magnifies them out into the world. Our personal character flaws, and dysfunctional behaviors synergize and resonate with those around us, as well as clash and conflict with others. Since these dysfunctions are happening at the most fundamental level of our society, and culture, namely, within each of us individually, that is the only place where any solution will be found.
Looking inside of ourselves, and finding solutions to the most basic problems underlying our own dysfunctions and pathologies is the only hope for our world. This exploration and responsibility to ourselves is the most worthwhile thing that any of us can do to help make our world a better place. It is not selfish; our own improvement will inherently help serve the greater good of our world. But this is no small task. Introspection may be the solution, but this solution is perhaps the hardest thing we humans have to learn.
Introspection is NOT the Same as Thinking
Most thinking is simply an imagining of external events, past or future, or an intellectualization of ideas as they relate to an external construct - even if that external construct is ourselves, for example thinking about a psychological idea is not necessarily the same as considering how that psychological idea relates to and informs my own actions in the world.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of awareness practices such as meditation and prayer. Often people will say “I’m always thinking about stuff.” This is not introspection.
This is thinking about “stuff;” things out there.
Introspection is thinking about things inside, a consideration of our feelings, our sensations, our motivations, our beliefs, our ideas. It is not thinking or considering what we did, or what we intend to do, these are external actions - it is certainly not thinking about what someone else did.
It’s also not considering “how” we will do these things, but rather considering “why” we did them, or why we want to do them. This is an entirely different question and one that immediately requires an account of us, me, myself, of the “I” who only I can truly know.
This type of process is introspection. A definition could be that introspection is the process of mental awareness that depicts and defines our identity, our beliefs, our worldview, as well as how these components come together to motivate our actions and the externalization of those beliefs, worldview and our identity. In simpler terms, introspection is the process of learning about ourselves through asking “why?”
“Why do I believe that?”
“Why do I feel like that?”
“Why am I mad?”
“Why am I upset by that?”
“Why does that person bother me?”
Awareness as a Prerequisite
Within this definition is a key skill that is required for introspection to exist. It is a skill that can be taught and cultivated, though it is a skill which most of us do not utilize often enough in our everyday lives to make it useful. This skill is the skill of awareness.
The process of introspection inherently requires a certain level of awareness. It is impossible to consider the underlying motivations behind thoughts, actions, emotions, compulsions, or other experiences without first being aware they exist.
On the surface, it is easy to pretend we are aware of what we are doing. However, how many times have we fallen into a pattern of arguing or conflict with another person without even realizing that we were becoming agitated, without any warning whatsoever. And how long did the conflict continue before we realized that we were arguing, that we were upset.
This thought experiment can be conducted with all sorts of other scenarios. How frequently do we find ourselves thinking about something that causes us some sort of suffering - anxiety, depression, anger, frustration? Are we aware of what causes these thoughts? Are we aware of the entire context of this type of thinking? How it makes our body feel, what emotions come up, how relationships with others are altered after we’ve been thinking about a certain topic on our drive home?
Being able to be aware of our own thinking, emotional state, behaviors, and how these aspects of ourselves interact with the world around us, including those other people who are all having their own experiences, this is the type of awareness that allows us to begin being introspective.
A Tool for Building Awareness and Introspection
Both awareness and introspection are so similar that it is very difficult to talk about one without almost immediately considering the other; like two sides to the same coin.
And there is an incredibly simple tool, which all by itself can help anyone begin to build these skills in their life. It is a tool which requires zero money to utilize, and has been scientifically researched to be one of the absolute most beneficial tools for depression, anxiety and creating a greater sense of well-being in your life.
This tool is meditation.
Meditation, which is the practice of becoming mindful of the present moment, is the most simplest of simple tools. And yet, it is one of the most painstakingly difficult practices for individuals to adhere to.
Meditation deserves its own entire article, and so, I won’t go into detail here, but I will say that meditation is a mandatory practice for individuals who want to build greater awareness, and introspection in their lives.
There are many excuses I’ve heard over the years of why people don’t or can’t meditate. And all of that is fine. However, If you do not already have a high level of awareness and introspective capability, meditation is likely the only way you will be able to build this skill level.
“WAKING UP” App - by Sam Harris
If you are new to meditation and curious how it could significantly benefit your life, I would recommend the meditation app: “Wake Up,” produced by Sam Harris, philosopher and neuroscientist. It is an excellent app, which walks individuals through the practice of meditation, as well as the theory and science behind meditation, and includes conversations with individuals in bite sized chunks that will instruct without boring you. I have utilized other meditation apps before, an
d none of them have the type of simple and accessible instruction that the “Wake Up” app provides.
Here’s a link to the app - hope you enjoy:
Thank you Sam Harris, great work, brother!