On Introspection

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A reflection on the Shvetashvatara Upanishad

I have previously examined the importance of understanding the self, sifting through the layers of apparent consciousness and seeking to uncover the internal will which grants us the ability to make decisions – a will which if left uncultivated bends and twists in the winds of desire and emotions. However, what is the manner by which we should attempt to find this will? In this reflection, I posit introspection as the tool for this task, both examining its substance and then its utility.

To begin with, we should ask: what is introspection? I would suggest that this is the action of turning inwards and examining oneself. I would caveat, however, that this does not exactly entail a similar withdrawal from the world. Introspection is an activity that can, and has, been conducted in many traditions – including in its ranks politicians, military leaders and philosophers, not only ascetics.  Thus having defused the first accusation of introspection only being a tool of the hermit, I will turn to the next most pressing query: why should we go through the arduous process of self-examination?

As I have previously argued (see on Smashing Idols) it is easy to find flaws in the beliefs of others, but much more difficult to examine those held close to our heart. In particular, the closer an opinion cleaves to the identity of an individual, the more likely a person will default to argument rather than discussion when confronted. However, becoming offended and angry merely shows the emotional baggage one ties to a belief – it proves nothing of its intrinsic worth. Thus, I posit that the only way that an individual can begin to unpick toxic beliefs from their personality is through this process of introspection.

If we truly apply introspection to ourselves, we can reshape our minds through conscious effort. We must first accept that a large part of our personalities, as opposed to our will, is formed by the fleshy layers of conditioning that wrap around the instinctual mind (see on the Self). With this understanding, we can implement the small portion of our agency in overcoming our conditioning, rewriting it into a shape more in line with our idealised version of self.

This line of reasoning comes once again to a halt when the question is asked: why should we seek to conform the actual and the ideal? For surely, if we don’t understand what is good and evil due to our warped perspectives, then any action could result in regression rather than progression. My answer to this is that without motion, progression is impossible. If we act, we will experience either a negative or positive reaction. With this new information, we can reorientate our efforts, refine our techniques and continue to progress – a path only available to an individual able to both act and remain open to new ideas, as well as the destruction of their previously held truths. Thus, in our path to introspection, we should cast aside any pre-conceived notions of our identity and submit even the most dearly held idols to the sharp light of inquiry.

Original text

the Shvetashvatara Upanishad


S. H. Raza, Manavadhikar, 2003

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