by DT Strain
Introspection, as we are calling it here, is another kind of attention practice. While the purpose of breathing meditation is to develop still mind and powerful focus, and the purpose of contemplation is to deeply assess principles, virtues, life issues, and situations – the purpose of introspection is to listen deeply to ourselves. Like meditation and contemplation, we first aim to being ourselves into an appropriate mindset. Just as with contemplation therefore, meditation makes an excellent prelude to introspection.
Once we have stillness of mind, and have sharpened our focus with a brief meditation, we can move into introspection. At this point, we cease focusing exclusively on the breath. Unlike contemplation, where we move our focus to some specific matter, here we instead purposely allow our focus to drift, without directing it consciously.
In our article on meditation, the tendency of the mind to wander and the effort to bring it back into focus was described. In this case, we allow that process to take place. Here we are taking advantage of our stillness of mind to notice what comes up when there are no other distractions. Unlike contemplation, where we control our thought process and move orderly through a matter to be contemplated, here we do not attempt to guide our thoughts. The one exception to this is that we try to keep our thoughts internal, and not on any happenings in our surroundings (sounds, sensations, and so on). This is not too much unlike hypnagogia – the lucid quasi dreamlike state we often experience when we are on the edge of consciousness as we go to sleep.
Out of that stillness, you will witness several matters coming up in your mind. Sometimes these will move from one unconnected matter to another, and other times you will be taken from thought to thought as one reminds you of another. In this, a sense of ‘voyaging’ deeper and deeper may come about. These thoughts may be intellectual, emotional, visual, or otherwise. It will be important not to try and judge yourself or the thoughts, or to exert an external thought about the thoughts – but simply to witness them.
Some traditions involve listening to repetitive chanting or drumming, or other stimuli which will help the practitioner enter an altered state. These traditions may refer to these rituals as vision quests or other names, and supernatural beliefs about these rituals can vary. But naturalists may find this kind of practice, for psychological reasons, will help one get to know themselves.
Some of the thoughts that arise will be things you expect – the things you know are on your mind, bothering or exciting you. In these cases, the details of exactly what you think about these things can be important. But you will also find that sometimes surprising things will come into your consciousness. Whatever they may be, let them rise and subside naturally and simply be an uninvolved witness to them.
As this happens, you may eventually begin to feel your mind has become very hectic. People in this state who come instantly out of it due to interruption can sometimes feel as though they’ve just been in a very noisy room, only to find the stark contrast of silence when they snap out of it. But if your mind is getting too chaotic, you can always return to meditation and to the breath, stilling your mind yet again. Once you have achieved a calm still mind again, this will often be a good time to come out of your introspection. But, if you prefer, you can instead enter another introspection from your second still mind. In any case, when you have decided to end your introspection, it may be helpful to enter meditation first, and still your mind before coming out of it.
Once you have completed an introspection, you can think about what thoughts arose, or even journal them. You should try to recall them as accurately as possible, even those that might be uncomfortable. But after having done so, this is the time to consider what you think and feel about them (unlike during the introspection, where you simply observed without judgment). You can think about why a thought came up and what that may mean. You can consider whether certain things have been in your concern, of which you may not have been aware. There are any number of other ways to assess what these thoughts mean to where you are at the moment. Some may be an indication of a character trait needing more development, or an external matter that needs to be resolved, and so on. It might be helpful to discuss your introspection with other practitioners in order to get fresh perspectives and questions to ask yourself.
One thing to note: sometimes people are suffering from periods of chronic ruminations that are causing them distress – the cyclical and unproductive dwelling on fears and worries. If this is your situation, then introspection may only be an invitation for you mind to indulge in such further. Meditation is the better path for such people, as that will help them still their minds. Introspection is more of a deeper self-exploration tool when not so vexed.