Every faith I’m familiar with encourages self-reflection in some form as an element of spiritual practice. Reflecting on our behavior in a neutral and objective way is an important way of acknowledging and learning from our mistakes. It calls us to look beneath the surface of our actions to the intentions behind them, and to consider if we are acting with the well-being of everyone in mind or thinking only of ourselves.
This practice is inherent in a teaching from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali called svadhyaya. While svadhyaya is often translated as the study of scriptures, it is clear that such study is meant to guide us in reflecting on our behavior. By observing ourselves carefully, we can see where our behavior or thinking is not in harmony with spiritual truths, and causes us to struggle with life.
Self-reflection can reveal to us the very roots of our suffering by examining the relationships we have with people, objects and our goals. If, for example, I get upset by someone’s behavior, I may see them as the cause for my disturbed condition. They may have acted inappropriately, but do I have to be upset? Is my state of mind in their hands? If I reflect honestly on my relationship to that person, I will see that it was my expectation, my desire for them to act in a certain way, that caused me to be disturbed.
If we become anxious as we are pursuing some goal, reflecting on the cause of our anxiety will reveal that we are counting on some result in an unhealthy way. There is nothing wrong with giving our all to achieve something, but if we depend on our envisioned outcome as a source of happiness, we lose our ability to stay focused and perform at an optimal level. Any athlete or performer knows that worrying will cause them to freeze up.
Another significant benefit to looking deeply this way is that it empowers us to change. As soon we become aware that we are attached to someone or thing in a way hurts us, we have the choice to let go or change the way we feel. We all must learn, for example, that we cannot please everyone and we must do what we believe in our hearts to be right even if someone else doesn’t like it. The more I can let go of trying to please others or win their affection, the freer I am to do the right thing and have peace in my heart.
In this way, self-reflection becomes a companion to the other spiritual practices we do, and to our daily activities. Observing ourselves carefully gives us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and make amends for any harm we’ve done. Ultimately, even our missteps can be seen as part of our step-by-step progress on the spiritual path.