The Ideal of Introspection

The Ideal of Introspection

by David A. Beardsley


This work is copyrighted © 2013 under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Death said: ‘The Self-existent pierced the openings (of the senses) so that they turn forward: therefore man looks forward, not backward into himself. Some wise man, however, with his eyes closed and wishing for immortality, saw the Self behind.’  Katha Upanishad (II:1,1) , trans. Müller

 Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind, if the sentiment of duty is there. But if he would know what the great God speaketh, he must `go into his closet and shut the door,’ as Jesus said. God will not make himself manifest to cowards. He must greatly listen to himself, withdrawing himself from all the accents of other men’s devotion.  The Over-Soul, Ralph Waldo Emerson

 One theme that is common to all works in the spiritual tradition is the need for introspection.  But “looking within” raises some immediate questions:  Who is doing the looking?  What is it looking for, or at?  If looking for something, how will it know it when it sees it?  These are some of the questions I hope to consider in this essay.

But first, some of our standard etymological considerations.  “Introspection” is given its own word because it is not the usual condition.  Technically there is a word “extrospection,” which means pretty much what you might “expect,” but to use it is usually redundant.  It’s the normal state–we look out.  We “look forward” to the physical world in all its manifestations and take it to be real.  We measure it, classify it, study it, and manipulate it.

Introspection, on the other hand, we treat with some suspicion, a wariness that has to do with anything involving the prefix “intr.”  Extroversion is seen as a positive state–we associate it with people who are successful, who make friends easily, who are popular.  Introversion however is a psychological diagnosis.   We worry about people who spend too much time “navel gazing” “in their own little world.”  “Extramarital” has connotations of excitement, of the forbidden fruit.  Intramarital, not so much.

It also betrays our prejudice for seeing.  There are of course inner states that are represented by the phrases “It touched my heart.”  “I smell a rat.”  “I acquired a taste for it.”  But to “hear voices” also has an association with psychopathology, even though any writer or composer who is honest will say that she is really just writing down something she is hearing with an inner ear.  “Seeing” still has the connotation of knowing and understanding.  Seeing is believing; the other senses just provide the data.  Thus the senses are the servants of the mind, and the mind (or minds), I would say, is the servant of consciousness, which can be said to be our real subject.

Again, we are faced with immediate questions: What is it?  How can it observe itself?  Is it synonymous with soul?  Is it, as some would have, just a by-product of brain activity (the “epiphenomenon” or “spandrel” model), or as others would have, with a capital “C,” the source of all the physical world and the continuum that runs through it all?

Well, if you’re reading this, you probably will know that I’m in the latter camp, although I can’t really offer any “evidence” that could “prove” that consciousness exists independent of our brain.  (Has anyone ever proved that there is such a thing as proof?)  I will use the terms consciousness and soul pretty much interchangeably, knowing that the word soul will put some people off.  But as discussed in The Ideal of Hierarchy, there is something in us that knows we exist in a fundamental sense, independent of any descriptions we then attach to ourselves.  The question “What am I?” is said to be the master question of the philosopher, but even it assumes the existence of the “I.”  If you deny your own existence, well, then, what can we talk about?

In his book Why Teach?, Mark Edmundson has a chapter called “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?,” which I think would qualify as two of the basic questions of the philosopher.  When you ask “What am I?” however you are immediately taken into the realm of introspection.   I prefer “What am I?” to “Who am I?” because it’s not as easy to stop with the superficial.  Who=name, sex, job, race, opinions etc.  What=human, dreamer, lover, soul, mortal.  The same with “What Are You Doing Here?”  It can be answered superficially (“I’m reading this book which I wish would get to the point.”) or it can be answered in terms of why I’m on the planet, what is my purpose–is there a purpose at all?  Most people, I think it’s safe to say, would rather have dental surgery than consider these questions.  And I certainly can’t answer them–I may perhaps make some helpful allusions–but unless we ask them, we may as well be squirrels.

Our ability to ask questions, to evoke an inner world, is the fundamental quality that separates us from other animals.  We are the only species that knows it exists, and that it will die.  In other words, it is our ability to be introspective, to be contemplative, that makes us unique.  And I would go so far as to say that it is our consciousness that serves as our connection to what we have been calling the One, the Good, the Over-Soul.  Our discursive mind with which we normally approach the world, which helps us to observe, to analyze, to “problem-solve”–to read in fact and comprehend–can be seen from one point of view as the crowning achievement of that random and mechanistic process called evolution, or from another as the entry level consciousness at the bottom of Plato’s “vast sea of beauty.”  The spiritual equivalent of whale poop.  That sea is within, but to see it within “you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use.”  (Plotinus, Enneads I:6:8)

 Platonic Introspection

                While there is little in Plato that speaks to introspection explicitly, I believe it is implicit in all he says regarding self-knowledge.  The fundamental distinction that Plato makes is that of the world known through the senses and that known through the intellect.  This is most explicit in his description of the Divided Line from the Republic, which has been discussed elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here.  But it’s clear from Plato’s description that the material or visible world is known through extrospection and the intellectual or intelligible through introspection.  In the same way, the progress of the prisoners in the Allegory of the Cave is a result of their turning away from the dim shadows before them, and receiving instruction in learning to see the light of the sun directly.  Unless this is seen as an actual process of realizing a greater sense of inner unity through the letting go of partial and limited opinions, it will remain a topic of analysis and discussion for the discursive mind: another shadow on the wall.

               Just as there are senses that allow us to perceive the material world–sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell–there are inner senses that perform a similar function for navigating the intelligible world.  Perhaps the most important tool in Plato’s Ideal of Introspection, if you will, is that of memory.  It goes without saying that this is not the utilitarian memory at the level of where I left my keys, of past events, although this is important; in fact it’s one of the qualities Plato ascribes to a would-be philosopher.

On a deeper level though it is a form of recollection that brings us into the knowledge of the Ideal at this present moment.  It is ανάμνησις, an-amnesis, “not forgetting,” (literally “not not remembering”), a key part of Plato’s teaching that is developed in several dialogues.  He uses it in the Meno to support his argument for the immortality of the soul, showing how an uneducated slave boy can be made to comprehend principles of geometry by being asked a series of questions; the point being that he could not know the truth of these principles if he was not remembering them from a previous life.  Socrates: “Now watch his progress in recollecting, by the proper use of memory.”  (Meno, 82e)

He goes on to make it more explicit in his well-known metaphor of the philosopher’s wings, which are grown in order to “fly up” to the divine:

For a human being must understand a general conception formed by collecting into a unity by means of reason the many perceptions of the senses; and this is a recollection of those things which our soul once beheld, when it journeyed with God and, lifting its vision above the things which we now say exist, rose up into real being. And therefore it is just that the mind of the philosopher only has wings, for he is always, so far as he is able, in communion through memory with those things the communion with which causes God to be divine. Now a man who employs such memories rightly is always being initiated into perfect mysteries and he alone becomes truly perfect….  (Phaedrus, 249b-c)

 The “sense” of memory helps the philosopher to perceive, however dimly, “those things the communion with which causes God to be divine.”  It brings us into the presence of this god, and is replaced by a sense of “inspiration,”[1] which allows them to communicate with it,  and to be themselves infused with divine qualities:

… when they search eagerly within themselves to find the nature of their god, they are successful, because they have been compelled to keep their eyes fixed upon the god, and as they reach and grasp him by memory they are inspired and receive from him character and habits, so far as it is possible for a man to have part in God.  (Phaedrus, 253a)

 In the Phaedo he elaborates on the “character and habits” that are received from having part in God through catharsis (“cleansing” or “purification”):

….self-restraint and justice and courage and wisdom itself are a kind of purification. And I fancy that those men who established the mysteries were not unenlightened, but in reality had a hidden meaning when they said long ago that whoever goes uninitiated and unsanctified to the other world will lie in the mire, but he who arrives there initiated and purified will dwell with the gods. For as they say in the mysteries, ‘the thyrsus-bearers are many, but the mystics few’….  (Phaedo, 69c)

So unlike the physical senses which are separated (except in cases of synesthesia, also taken to be a disorder), the inner senses can all be seen as aspects of a unity that is the prime quality of our divine nature.

The lovers of knowledge, then, I say, perceive that philosophy, taking possession of the soul when it is in this state, encourages it gently and tries to set it free, pointing out that the eyes and the ears and the other senses are full of deceit, and urging it to withdraw from these, except in so far as their use is unavoidable, and exhorting it to collect and concentrate itself within itself, and to trust nothing except itself and its own abstract thought of abstract existence; and to believe that there is no truth in that which it sees by other means and which varies with the various objects in which it appears, since everything of that kind is visible and apprehended by the senses, whereas the soul itself sees that which is invisible and apprehended by the mind.  (Phaedo, 83a-b)


Plotinus is more explicit about the need for introspection, and more practical about the process of navigating the world within.  This is appropriate for him whose works were generally delivered to a live audience which was in search of this inner divinity.  We certainly can’t quote all his words on the subject, but some will be helpful.  He is consistent with Plato in declaring that the material world is just a shadow or reflection of the Intelligible, and he cautions his listeners against taking it at face value.  The particular sense-objects we perceive should, he says, always serve as reminders of the Universal.

He that has the strength, let him arise and withdraw into himself, foregoing all that is known by the eyes, turning away for ever from the material beauty that once made his joy. When he perceives those shapes of grace that show in body, let him not pursue: he must know them for copies, vestiges, shadows, and hasten away towards That they tell of.  (Enneads I:6:8)

 The source of this material beauty is not something external and alien to us: it is in fact what we are.  But again, like the prisoners in the cave, we are not capable of seeing that source without a systematic process of training–seeing the limitations and distortions that have been imposed upon us, that we normally think of as who we are, and letting go of them.

And this inner vision, what is its operation?

Newly awakened it is all too feeble to bear the ultimate splendour. Therefore the Soul must be trained- to the habit of remarking, first, all noble pursuits, then the works of beauty produced not by the labour of the arts but by the virtue of men known for their goodness: lastly, you must search the souls of those that have shaped these beautiful forms.

But how are you to see into a virtuous soul and know its loveliness?

Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine. (Enneads I:6:9)

 Practical Introspection

In talking about this process of introspection, Plotinus, like many others, makes the distinction between the you who is doing the looking and the you at whom the other you is looking.  (Confused? The you which is seen is the shadow of the you which sees.)  So let us run a thought experiment and do some looking within.  The first thing would be to recognize the existence of this new seer, this observer.  (Again, it’s not actually new.)  Almost everyone has had some experience of it, but it often takes some crisis before we are aware of it.  We can pass hours mentally surfing, and only occasionally ‘wake up” and see that we have not been present, have not been where we actually are.  When this observer does wake up, we will note that it is qualitatively different from our usual self-righteous and self-justifying ego; rather it has an air of “compassionate dispassion” to it.  We can “see ourselves as others see us,” or as we see a friend in need.  It makes no judgments, but rather seems to hold things up to the light so that we can see them ourselves for what they are.  We realize that this observer is a friend, that it wants what is best for us, that it seeks only our happiness.  It is in fact a glimpse of who we really are.

However, we soon realize that this happiness is not the same as the condition we normally seek.  Honestly, I’m rather at a loss for a word to describe this “destate,” since it is taken as the normal and therefore not acknowledged or named.  But it has something to do with “winning;” with always needing ourselves to be in a superior position, “one-up.”  We need to be right in our opinions; in order to feel superior we need to make judgments about other people’s actions and to justify our own; we harbor grudges if we’ve been slighted until we can “get even;” we are on the alert for insults to ourselves or our family, but are fine with criticizing others in ways we would not do in their presence.  When we are in this superior state we are “happy,” but any number of events can knock us out into a state of anger, resentment, jealousy, fear or depression.  We are at the mercy of other people or of circumstances, which are often merciless.

Another part of this condition is the extent to which we allow ourselves to be influenced by what I would call the Dissatis Faction, also known as the media and marketing complex.  You know them–they operate the Dissatis Factory–the news of events over which we have no control, but that keeps us in a state of continuous anxiety.  The magazines and TV shows that tell us we are not “living our best life,” unless we become thinner, better looking, smarter, sexier, more in the know.  Of course they helpfully contain advertisements for the products and services–fashion, sports, entertainments, best-sellers, “health and beauty aids,” video games–that can help us out of this dissatisfied state.  Until tomorrow or next month.  We know they are jive, but we fall for them anyway.  Participation in this cargo cult is accepted as the norm, and people like Socrates and Thoreau who reject it are seen as oddballs.

This “mind-set” was put into motion a long time ago, and we have come to accept it as the status quo.  It takes on the shape of the myriad forces that work on it every day.  We can see that young children–for the most part, until the adults get their hands on them–are cheerful, free, generous.  They live in a world of love and wonder.  But as we get older and acquire egos, we start to take on the “weight of the world.”  The image often used by Plato or Plotinus is a statue from under the sea which has become encrusted with barnacles and other sea-life and no longer has its original shape.  What had been generous now expects something in return.  What had been naturally cheerful becomes guarded.  What had been free is now weighed down under a burden of cares, real or not.

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of this limited you is the constant stream of thoughts and feelings that run on all day as if on auto-pilot.  For the most part we are unaware of it, but when we engage in this practice of introspection it will be the first thing seen, and it is usually not pretty.  Another quality of the “observer you” is one of restful attention, a quality which is totally at odds with the external forces that work to keep our attention span short and scattered.  We are, as observed by T. S. Eliot some time ago, “Distracted from distraction by distraction/Filled with fancies and empty of meaning…,” particularly now that we have access to a whole new generation of distraction machines and their apps that are designed to keep us permanently elsewhere.  The cumulative effect of all this distraction is to turn our inner government into one of chaos and perpetual churn.  Each “noumenon,” each thought-thing, is equal to all others in this “stream of unconsciousness;” bits of news, fragments of songs, passing desires, worries, “I-should-have-saids,” fantasies of the future, to-do lists, insults given and received, all the uprooted trees and dead cows.  Especially in the stillness at 4 AM.  The purpose of introspection is not to change or try to dam this flow–that would be to take it as real.  Introspection does just “see” this stream for the shadow it is, a mind moving in time, and is not swept along by it.  We cease to identify with it, to be limited by it, and over time can learn to identify with the observer of it.

But most of the time we are identified with the limited I, which we have been calling the ego, or what is called in the Hermetica, without putting too fine a point on it, “the portable tomb, the resident thief.”  Even when we think we are looking within, what we see are the walls of this tomb, the cell of this thief.  All the “self-help” advice we are normally given is designed just to dress it up a bit.  What we need is to return to that childlike state before we acquired all our adjectives: man, woman, gay, straight, black, white, brown, Jew, Christian, Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Buddhist, rich, poor, smart, dumb, on and on.  To put it plainly, your belief that you are less than the One is the cause of all the trouble in the world. (“The only sin is limitation.”  Emerson)  It is all ego, and it will necessarily always be in conflict with other egos, however much you want them to just go away, and no amount of negotiation will change that.  It is up to you.  You can look within and remember that you are the most beautiful and blissful Source of all that is, or you can go on trying to perpetuate the belief that your Karass will triumph, at the expense of all the others.  Well, we can’t afford that kind of arrogance any more.  Put down the gun.  It’s over.

But when this is realized, we can know that there really is no distinction between seeing within and seeing without: it is all just seeing, it is all the Seer.  And…

Behold, it saith, I am born into the great, the universal mind. I, the imperfect, adore my own Perfect. I am somehow receptive of the great soul, and thereby I do overlook the sun and the stars, and feel them to be the fair accidents and effects which change and pass. More and more the surges of everlasting nature enter into me, and I become public and human in my regards and actions. So come I to live in thoughts, and act with energies, which are immortal. Thus revering the soul, and learning, as the ancient said, that “its beauty is immense,” man will come to see that the world is the perennial miracle which the soul worketh, and be less astonished at particular wonders; he will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the universe is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life, and be content with all places and with any service he can render. He will calmly front the morrow in the negligency of that trust which carries God with it, and so hath already the whole future in the bottom of the heart.  (Emerson, The Over-Soul)

[1] This connection between memory and inspiration is also established in the Greek pantheon, in which Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is also the mother, by Zeus, of the nine muses, including Καλλιόπη, Calliope, “beautiful-voice” who was Homer’s muse .  Artistic or scientific inspiration then is more strictly not so much a creation as a remembering.