According to legend, a prince was deeply agitated. He couldn’t make sense of the human affliction he witnessed outside the palace where he had led a sheltered life. His father the king had surrounded the boy with every worldly pleasure and kept him in ignorance of sickness, decrepitude and death. But keeping the truth about life from someone is near nigh impossible and inevitably the prince eventually saw some people suffering severe medical conditions.
The prince’s name was Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. He resolved to retire from the world in search of peace of mind but six years of extreme ascetic practice by itself proved futile. Tradition says he finally succeeded in his quest by means of deep recollections and inner struggles as well as various austerities. Self-understanding was thus an important part of the key to finding meaning and purpose in his life.
Siddhartha developed a capacity for self-examination and as a result life became more deeply meaningful for him. Today we talk about this in terms of using honest self-reflection to gain insights into who we are, where we come from and where we are going.
Benefits of self-reflection for finding a meaning and purpose
Modern neuroscience has found that the processing of emotional experience takes place in the area of the brain known as the frontal lobes. The same goes for the capacity for empathy and moral insight as well as self-consciousness.
It is said that the awareness of self-reflection enables you to search for a meaning and purpose — to find direction, to clarify goals and to judge and plan. As a result you place yourself in a better position to choose priorities and values. You can adopt a position about social issues more easily. You see yourself as unique and not just someone who copies others opinions and ways.
Difficulties of self-reflection
However, introspection does not come naturally to all even when they have intact brains. Some people are too anxious to calmly contemplate their experiences in a dispassionate way. They fear self-condemnation. They have not yet learned to be non-judgmental towards themselves, having been exposed to harsh criticism in the past. Others lack sufficient empathy or are too closed-minded, rigid, and defensive to easily open themselves to self-reflection. Such a person is one every counsellor dreads trying to help.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.“ (Socrates)
A life without self-reflection is just existing. So, if you want to gain some understanding of life and your place in it, and to find a meaning and purpose, but find it difficult to look back and question aspects of your experience, how can self-reflection be made easier for you?
Not everyone has the luxury of having time on their hands for a programme of self-reflection. However in his book The Natural Depth in Man, clinical psychologist, Wilson Van Dusen, suggests all it needs is a brief time of leisure in a busy day — say when going for an evening stroll, taking a warm bath, or digging in the garden. He suggests one be like an animal about to snuggle down — it turns, sniffs and leisurely assesses where it can sleep. Similarly, one should not hurry oneself but take mild pleasure snuggling down in one’s sanctuary.
When back in the grip of circumstances, the sanctuary of self-reflection seems evanescent, thin, almost a foolish waste of time. Just a pleasant escape. But within self-reflection, the grip of circumstances seems unnecessarily tight, limiting and blinding. The bottom line is one does need to create time for self-reflection — albeit a few minutes each day.
You can start by gazing at your life and circumstances as though it were a painting to be examined, felt and appreciated. Usually there is a concern, a problem, a question or just a vague feeling that beckons one; whatever is uppermost in one’s mind. Mulling over something just means letting your mind wander as it pleases but always returning to the central issue.
Engaging the rational mind
From a reflective perspective, it isn’t enough just to produce feelings or images. Also ask why these subjective experiences are happening now? What do they imply for you? The tangled forest of possibilities will lose you unless you engage your rational mind. Sometimes you will be examining your values, what matters most to you or where you take a stand. When having troubles with others, it would be well to examine your own reactions, attempt to formulate their position and set an appropriate course of action. One needs to address the feelings and thoughts that arise into one’s awareness with one’s rational mind.
Looking above self
However, the human higher capacity for rational understanding doesn’t necessarily lead to wise conclusions unless it unites itself with a desire for a higher truth. A sense of meaning and purpose doesn’t just come on a plate.
Spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg distinguishes between ‘looking above self’ from ‘looking below self’. He says that ‘Looking above self’ is having as one’s end in view what is good for others. He means one’s friends, family, and community. People who have the good of others within their hearts, also love themselves. We should all love ourselves. But he says to do so solely as the means to an end. With such people, self-love looks to the source of all that is good and true. This is because they love themselves only as a means to an end which is that they may serve a useful role.
On the other hand, Swedenborg maintained that ‘looking below self’ comes from desiring only one’s own welfare as an end in itself. And this severely limits the meaning and purpose one can personally discover for one’s life.
“If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, our uncertainty, our craving, how can we have the time to stop and look deeply into the situation — our own situation, the situation of our beloved one, the situation of our family and of our community, and the situation of our nation and of the other nations?” (Thich Nhat Hanh Qu)
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems