July 5, 2004
The Art of Self-Reflection
by Gregg Krech
The practice of self-reflection goes back many centuries and is rooted in the world's great spiritual traditions. Early adherents of such practices include the Christian desert hermits and Japanese samurai. More contemporary proponents included Albert Schweitzer, Ben Franklin, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Franklin, in particular, had a rather comprehensive and systematic approach to self-reflection. He developed a list of thirteen virtues and each day he would evaluate his conduct relative to a particular virtue. Daily self-reflection was a fundamental aspect of Franklin's life.
Formal methods of self-reflection generally involve certain basic characteristics. First, there is the requirement for time which is set aside exclusively for the purpose of self-reflection. Second, use of a space, preferably with some degree of isolation that limits external distraction. And third, the application of questions or structure which helps us examine our lives with an emphasis on our conduct in relation to other people, creatures and objects.
Naikan is a method of self-reflection developed in Japan by Yoshimoto Ishin. Its structure uses our relationships with other as the mirror in which we can see ourselves. We reflect on what we have received from others, what we have given, and what troubles we have caused. Genuine self-reflection affects so many aspects of our life—the presence of gratitude, our relationships with our loved ones, the degree of judgment we place on other's faults, our mental health, lifestyle choices, investment decisions, even our faith in a supreme being or force.
A sincere examination of ourselves is not an easy task. It requires attention to what has not been attended to. It involves a willingness to squarely face our mistakes, failure and weakness. It requires us to acknowledge our transgressions and actions which have caused difficulty to others. The fourth step of the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step program asks us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. Albert Schweitzer's suggestion was to "make a secret account of what you have neglected in thoughtlessness or in consideration of some other person's existence." Such self-reflection leaves little room for blaming others or complaining about how we have been treated.
As human being we possess the heartfelt desire to know ourselves and find meaning in our lives. And we have the capacity to do so. We may be the only creatures in the universe who can reflect on ourselves. We can observe our own thoughts and feelings and recall the actions and events of the past as if observing ourselves in a mirror. This capacity for self-reflection holds the key to our freedom, while, at the same time, residing in the roots of our own suffering.
So let us embark on a journey of self-reflection. On this journey we'll destroy false myths, do battle with ego-centered dragons, get snared in traps of pride, swim in serene ponds of gratitude, and get stuck in the quicksand of selfishness. Yet even as we travel, we may become aware that the path, and the ability, even desire, to ravel it are gifts themselves.
Gregg Krech is the Director of the ToDo Institute near Middlebury, Vermont.Posted on July 5, 2004 5:41 PM