Narcissism or Self-realisation?


"He who knows others is wise, he who knows himself is enlightened."

A mystical perspective

The mystics state that the ego or separate self is an illusion and that this illusion is the source of all our unhappiness. Thus Wei Wu Wei wrote:
Why are you unhappy?/ Because 99.9 percent,/ Of everything you think, and/ Of everything you do,/ Is for yourself -/ And there isn't one.

Ken Wilber points out that only parts suffer, not the Whole. The cause of suffering is the illusion that there is a self which can suffer in the first place.

A paradox

On the other hand, these same mystics also tell us that enlightenment is a process of self-realisation, that we achieve the ultimate goal of life by looking deep within ourselves to discover the divine that is within. This is in accord with the core tenet of Indian mysticism, which can be variously rendered as: the self is one with Being, the soul is the ultimate reality, self and world are one, or that there is no difference between subject and object.

What interests me in this article is the apparent contradiction between these two views. In other words, is enlightenment to be found by seeking the self or by dismissing it as an illusion?

Even if we discard mysticism, we are faced by the same question on a psychological level: is it wise to pursue self-understanding, or is this the path of unhealthy self-absorption? Does the voyage of self-discovery lead to enlightenment or to sterile narcissism? (Narcissism is neurotically excessive admiration and preoccupation with oneself.)

Is personal growth a sham?

By personal growth I mean psychological work on oneself in the New Age sense, as distinct say, from mystical self-realisation. Personal growth is a process of self-change through acquiring self-knowledge. The aim is to transform one's attitudes, paradigms and behaviours so that one lives more wisely. To do this it is necessary to work against certain unconscious patterns, such as compulsions, complexes and negative beliefs. Personal growth is often referred to as working on oneself. It is an active approach of controlling and shaping one's thoughts and behaviours, rather than passively accepting that, "This is how I am and that's that."

Is personal growth a valid pursuit? Those who answer negatively either believe that one's character is fixed in childhood, and hence attempts at self-change are a waste of time, or else that focus on one's psyche is both unnecessary and unhealthy, maybe even dangerous. By contrast, those who pursue personal growth find such views self-evidently wrong.

Perhaps the right question is not whether or not to look inward but how to look. Mystical insight and self-realisation come from looking in a detached, non-egocentric way. By contrast, the self-absorbed person is like a child, who instead of perceiving the reality within, sees what they want to see, or else is captured by the complexes buried there. Introspection for such a person may be harmful. It is also worth noting that meditation is quite different from introspection. Introspection means thinking about oneself, meditation is an activity whose aim is to go beyond thinking altogether.

Penny Berlin suggested a criterion for healthy introspection: if you reject the answers you don't like, that's narcissism. Personal growth depends on being scrupulous and honest in one's enquiry into self and necessitates facing one's fears and the shadow side of the personality.

Here are some thoughts on self-observation as a discipline, gleaned from Raynor Johnson. The idea is to continually supervise the play of our emotional experience in order to break down the habit of responding automatically to our feelings and emotions. Immediately we are aware of a feeling such as anger, instead of submitting to it we study it objectively, whereupon we can deliberatedly choose whether to be angry or not. With practice, all emotions are increasingly perceived as objective experiences, like physical sensations. This leads to control of emotions. We become able to discard at will the sense of identity with experience. It is good to recall each emotion one has been identified with. This shows that a conscious choice - to resist or submit - was presented. This is most easily seen on those occasions when we feel irritation rising inside us (eg while driving), but successfully dismiss it by seeing that it is petty or unwarranted. When we ignore the moment of choice - whether to be angry or not to be angry - but instead respond automatically to the impulse to anger, we afterwards feel ashamed.

The pursuit of personal growth is an inward looking process. Some of the techniques include: becoming aware of, and then letting go of resentments against others, forgiving one's parents, making contact with one's inner child, learning how others see one, becoming aware of the artificial limits one places on oneself, interpreting one's dreams, meditation, and positive thinking. To many people much of this tends to look like nonsense.

By contrast, one of my friends said he learns about himself by forgetting about himself.

What criteria decide whether personal growth has occurred? Here is a possible list: a lessening of fears and resentments; that one is happier and more accepting of one's personal situation; a diminution of negative patterns of behaviour, such as futile conflicts or destructive compulsions; getting on better with others; being generally more positive and increased self-esteem; realising more of one's potential; a greater sense of purpose and meaning in one's life.

I have often been on the defensive when discussing with my parents my own changes after doing some personal growth courses. I can now see the reason: my parents wanted external evidence of change, whereas personal growth is primarily an internal process. It may or may not manifest on the outside as changed behaviour. In effect they were looking at personal growth through the wrong end of the telescope. The main point of personal growth is to change how you feel inside, in the privacy of your feelings.


Seeking after personal growth can degenerate into self-absorption, i.e. excessive focusing on oneself, detrimental to healthy functioning. Some of the unhappiest and most neurotic individuals I have come across have been highly self-absorbed people. They always seem to be seeking both to 'find themselves' and for a solution to their psychological problems, so that they could cope with life. This can lead to a "What's in it for me?" orientation, which is self-defeating. It can lead to trivial obsessions with one's appearance or personal habits, and to egocentricity. The self-absorbed person is highly vulnerable because they interpret everything as reflecting on themselves, creating feelings of being rejected, or criticised and compared when this was not intended by others. It also makes them liable to feel dependent on others, with the resentment this inevitably engenders. Some people assume a posture of being the victim, which badly skews their perception of reality.

When people speak about spiritual problems in their lives, I often have the impression they are really referring to emotional problems. I believe some individuals take recourse to seeing themselves as being spiritual to justify their inability to cope. They are abetted in this by writers like Louise Hay, who ascribes 'metaphysical' causes to illnesses, whereas she is actually talking about emotions. Some individuals strive to achieve cosmic consciousness even though they can't handle normal human relationships. This is like skipping primary school to go to university. A related confusion is that between psychic and spiritual levels of experience.

The inner world

One of the few capacities that distinguish humans from other inhabitants of the third planet is self-consciousness, the ability to make oneself the object of one's thought, i.e. basically the capacity for introspection.

Human beings live simultaneously in two separate worlds: the inner and the outer. The inner world is that of thought, imagination, intuition and feeling - all that happens in our heart and mind, apart from sensory input. The outer is the world of the senses, the realm of physical reality. Nearly all our experience comprises a mix of inner and outer. We experience mostly inner when we meditate, fantasize and especially when dreaming. Our experience is nearly entirely outer when we engage in physical exertion, such as playing squash, or in some other activity that completely captures our attention, entirely absorbing our mind in what is happening around us.

A random list of subjective or internal phenomena illustrates its range: emotion, hallucination, Near Death Experience (NDE), mystical vision, reverie, dream, fantasy, imagination, point of view, planning, recall of memories (spontaneous or willed), internal dialogue, mental chatter, depression, madness, worry, inspiration, intuition, reaction, opinion, attitudes, belief, doubt. Rilke wrote, "The world is large, but in us it is as deep as the sea." According to Jung, the entire human potential, every possible variation of human nature, is contained, or is at least accessible to every one of us.

Falling inside

To gain an idea of the magnitude of the inner world that we so easily underestimate, let us briefly look at schizophrenia. The schizophrenic is a person who has fallen into the deep sea Rilke refers to. Joseph Campbell describes schizophrenic breakdown as

... the condition of one who has lost touch with the life and thought of his community and is compulsively fantasizing out of his own completely cut-off base... The usual pattern is, first, of a break away or departure from the local social order and context; next, a long, deep retreat inward and backward... a chaotic series of encounters there, darkly terrifying experiences, and presently (if the victim is fortunate) encounters of a centering kind, fulfilling, harmonizing, giving new courage; and then finally, in such fortunate cases, a return journey of rebirth to life.

Dr Perry writes, "A schizophrenic breakdown is an inward and backward journey to recover something missed or lost, and to restore, thereby, a vital balance."

Campbell describes the situation of the schizophrenic who

... has dropped into a snake pit deep within. His whole attention, his whole being, is down there, engaged in a life-and-death battle with the terrible apparitions of unmastered psychological energies.

He draws a convincing analogy between the schizophrenic plunge and the initiation into shamanism among hunting peoples. An Eskimo shaman, Igjugarjuk, said, "The only true wisdom lives far form mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone open the mind of a man to all that is hidden from others."

Referring to shamanism, mystical experience, LSD trips and schizophrenia, Campbell observes, "The plunges are all into the same inward sea; of that there can be no doubt. The symbolic figures encountered are in many instances identical... They are the waters of the universal archetypes of mythology," which are the same the world over. The schizophrenic descends into the collective unconscious. While the yogi or shaman is able to swim, the schizophrenic is drowning there.

These are the same internal depths that Jung entered and dwelt in during the years 1914-18. He later wrote:

The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life - in them everything essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarifications of the material that burst forth from the unconscious, and at first swamped me. It was the prima materia for a lifetime's work.

He added:
It has taken me virtually forty-five years to distil within the vessel of my scientific work the things I experienced and wrote down at that time.

The function of introspection

What is introspection? It is paying attention to the inner world, to my feelings, thoughts and reactions. It includes examining my reactions and behaviour and reflecting on them. Introspection may also involve a pre-occupation with thinking about how I want to change myself, about my relationship to others etc. It could encompass an active interest in dreams, fantasies and sub-personalities.

Introspection is only one part of the internal life, namely the conscious focusing on internal experience. Yet that internal experience will continue even if we ignore it, or try to. For instance, it is well known that the suppression of 'negative' feelings is ultimately counter-productive.

Introspection is a particular kind of reflection - the reflection on self. Michael Leunig observed, "A lot of people attack psychology, because you no longer leave unsaid the things you want to express." He continued, "Many people never learn how to contemplate and reflect and say they are bored... The loss of contemplation leads to fidgeting, all this cultural and emotional fidgeting that is going on. A lack of contemplation is like not having a digestive system."

A crucial point is that meaning or purpose resides only in the internal world. We humans create meaning in our minds and hearts. There is no meaning out there in the world of things, to be discovered by objective science. Even if we work out exactly how the universe came into being, this would not help us to understand the purpose of an individual human life. It is the task and challenge of each of us to discover meaning in our own life.

Effect of introspection

I am writing an inner autobiography, which consists of thoughts, feelings and reactions. I recently asked myself whether this autobiography is helpful or harmful. I think it is useful as Rogerian therapy, helping me to work myself out, especially by disentangling complex reactions and ambivalences. In writing about my experience I am putting things out where I can see them, giving myself a measure of perspective. As for being harmful, I don't think I am becoming more narcissistic or self-preoccupied as a result of this writing. Though as a good friend helpfully suggested, I may already be narcissistic.

The role of introspection in philosophy

Bertrand Russell points out that the genius of the Greeks, who created philosophy and deductive mathematics from scratch, was one-sided. They would begin with axioms they thought were self-evident and make logical deductions from these. They were not inclined to reason inductively from what had been observed. What we call the scientific method was alien to their temper of mind. The Greeks thought deductively, not inductively. In other words, they were interested in looking within, in examining the contents of their own minds, rather than without, at the world. They held that the eternal world revealed to the intellect was more important than the temporal world revealed to the senses. Essentially, they believed that thought was nobler than sense. It took some two thousand years for men of intellect to grasp the limitations of the Greek mode of thinking.

Is the subjective real?

To assess the value of introspection, one needs to ask whether the internal world is as real, and hence as important as the external. There is an obvious problem with inherently subjective experience, namely how do you tell whether it is 'real'? For a start, I assert that subjective experience is as real as the externally verifiable variety, which we call 'objective'. It makes no sense to me that a thought, memory or feeling immediately experienced is less real than the chair I touch, even though one is private and fleeting, the other public and stable. Yet it seems worthwhile to enquire into the realness of subjective experience.

With objective experience the criterion of realness is that other observers (or better, other experiencers) also undergo the experience in question. Of course group hallucinations are possible, but this criterion is satisfactory in the vast majority of cases, especially if coupled with repeatability and the use of mechanical devices, such as cameras.

What could serve as a criterion of realness for subjective experience? Repeatability is one factor. But first, what do I mean by a subjective experience being real? Perhaps it is best to start with some examples of real and false experiences.

First the experiences I deem real. If I remember a dream on waking then that dream was a real subjective experience. When I think about myself playing soccer then I have a real experience of visualising myself playing that sport. If I feel pleasure at the recollection of an enjoyable experience then that pleasure is real.

Unreal subjective experiences include the following. I think I am hearing an inner voice whereas in fact it is the radio. I think I am sharing deep mutual connectedness and loving with another person, whereas they feel nothing.

Perhaps it is futile to search for such a criterion - all subjective experience is real in the sense that something has happened inside our psyche. The difficulty is one of interpretation, of deciding what actually happened. The problem is what meaning to assign to the subjective event. It is also important to distinguish a subjective experience from an objective one, else we suffer from hallucination.

I once had the experience of mistaking my own feeling of sadness for the levity I unconsciously masked it with. A counsellor was able to point this out to me. This showed me that the boundary between subjective and objective is not as firm as I had hitherto thought. In particular, a skilful counsellor can sometimes have a more accurate perception of another's internal state than that person themselves.

Perhaps the most important and puzzling area where the question of the reality of subjective experience arises is that of the Near Death Experience (NDE). A person who has an NDE approaches or reaches clinical death, but later returns to life, afterwards reporting having gone out of their body and passing through a dark tunnel towards a being of light. Some recount meeting relatives or friends who had previously died.

What would it mean to say that an NDE of meeting the light and conversing with deceased relatives were real, i.e. correctly interpreted as not being a fantasy? Essentially, it would mean that there is an after-life, so that interaction with people who have died years ago is possible.

I am reading yet another book about NDEs (us sceptics never rest). I think that only three explanations are possible: that the events are genuine experiences; that the phenomenon is due to the activation of an archetype in the human psyche; or that a number of authors are manufacturing the evidence. The last possibility seems unlikely but feasible, seeing that all my knowledge of the subject is from a few books. Basically I have an open mind on the topic - I don't think the evidence for life after death is convincing, but neither do I think that one can dismiss it.

Thought versus experience

Even if we grant that the subjective world is as real as the objective one, we are faced by a tricky problem: that of having a true understanding of what goes on within us. It is all too easy to confuse our thoughts about what happens in the world inside us with the actual events. Of course a thought is also an experience. My point is that the thought of an experience is not that experience, just as the name is not the thing being named. Thinking of an image is not the same as visualising it in one's mind.

New Age people often seem to think that visualising something is the same as experiencing it. Eg they visualise mystical union with the ocean or feel the energy of the earth flowing through them and mistake this for the real experience. I am not saying that the experiencing of energy or mystical feelings are not real. What I am saying is that they are not automatically produced every time someone visualises them. Even if the person feels what seems to be the sensation corresponding to what they want to experience, this proves nothing except the power of suggestion. A similar confusion arises with regard to belief and wanting to believe. The intention to believe something is not equivalent to the state of believing it.

Fromm made me aware of a seemingly subtle but actually fundamental difference. He pointed out that thinking about something is not the same as being aware of it. (Krishnamurti would add that the first precludes the second.) For example, I was instructed to 'focus on my breathing' during meditation. What I was actually doing was thinking about my breathing. The same applies to what is called witness consciousness. Thus I can sit in a chair and think about myself sitting, as though I were observing myself, yet this is not the experience of witnessing myself.

I may be well aware that I have a rejection complex or that I project nastiness onto another person, but this is not the sort of awareness that allows me to eliminate my psychological problem. My thinking about an unconscious process does not render it conscious, nor does my knowledge stop its operation.

By contrast, Carl Rogers writes about effective therapy,

These moments of immediate, full, accepted experiencing are in some sense almost irreversible... Once an experience is fully in awareness, fully accepted, then it can be coped with effectively, like any other clear reality... It is always recognised for what it is when it recurs.

Two orientations

The value one places on introspection turns out to be a distinguishing aspect of one's personality. According to Jung, each person's personality is either turned outwards or turned inwards. The first is primarily oriented to external reality, towards the objective. The second is primarily oriented towards inner reality, towards the subjective. While Freud believed that the introverted type was an individual morbidly concerned with himself, in Jung's view, neither approach is superior or more realistic than the other. However, our culture places a much higher value on the external orientation and heavily devalues the internal. "It's only in your mind," or "That's subjective," are sufficient to dismiss something as being of no importance, or even as not being real. For example, most people assign no importance to dreams, mainly because these are 'only' mental phenomena. Yet in Indian thought the distinction between 'objective' and 'subjective' is thought unimportant, so that dreams are not regarded as being less real than waking experience.

It is much harder for the person with an external orientation to understand a person with an internal orientation than vice versa. This is because the outward-oriented person denies the importance of the very world in which the inward-oriented person is most at home. On the other hand, short of becoming psychotic or catatonic, those with an inward orientation have little choice but to acknowledge and value the external world. Society is predicated on the external, as are earning money and physical survival. In consequence, people with an internal orientation tend to be on the defensive (hence this article!)

It is interesting to reflect that psychological problems are little in evidence in poor countries, or in our own culture before the advent of affluence and leisure. When the struggle to meet external demands is the paramount concern, internal needs tend to receive little notice. Instead, the external world consumes all our attention.

People with an external orientation tend to think that psychological problems are self-created. They believe that awareness of self is what causes problems. It doesn't - it only reveals them. It's like blaming the high incidence of rape on women's increasing willingness to report it. Psychological problems are there whether we are aware of them or not, though it may be more comfortable to ignore their presence. Surely it is obvious that no-one's personality is without flaws. What is a flaw of character if not a psychological problem?

The external orientation is readily rewarded. Provided one succeeds in the world it leads to power, wealth and admiration by others. Unless one is as successful as the Buddha, no such tangible rewards await those who aspire to inner development. Yet a purely external orientation is badly one-sided and may result in a painful mid-life crisis, during which long-suppressed internal needs make themselves felt. Some people are only able to acknowledge the importance of the inner life after suffering an extremity such as nervous collapse. "If a man won't deal with his psyche, his psyche will deal with him."

We can see that some people develop themselves through unselfish service to others, which is fulfilling and strengthens character. This is the external orientation. Yet such people can be dangerously unconscious of their own needs and underlying motivations. If we are here to help others then what are the others here for?

The interior orientation leads to discovering and meeting one's own true needs. Since this means realising the primacy of love and connectedness, the results are similar.

Roger Woolger wrote, "Jung regarded the neuroses of modern people as a kind of punishment for failing to honour the archetypal powers that dominate our lives from the unconscious." Jung memorably observed, "The gods have become diseases."

It is instructive to compare old-fashioned ideas about psychological healing with Jung's. Many psychiatrists thought that their primary task was to eliminate neurosis, which they understood as maladjustment to society. Jung formulated the idea of individuation, the process by which a person fulfils their individual human potential. The older view embodies an external orientation, of the patient conforming to their environment. Jung's is an internal view, of the patient developing the autonomous reality of their own psyche. My objection to the old approach is that if the society itself is sick then we are trying to make a healthy individual conform to its sickness. An obvious example of this is the old Chinese custom of mutilating women's feet by the extremely painful procedure of footbinding. Another is the current practice whereby Serb soldiers create male bonding by raping Bosnian women.

Relationship seems to be one area where the internal orientation is more successful than the external. Although externally-oriented people are better at making superficial contact with others, they may have trouble achieving depth. They may also have trouble with intimacy, if only because they are not intimate with themselves, not being fully aware of their own feelings.

An unreflective person does not normally become reflective when life gives them a hard lesson. They'll try to handle it in their normal way, i.e. through action or denial. Putting it crudely, there are two kinds of people in the world: those with psychological problems and those who are unaware they have psychological problems. As for the dangers of the internal orientation, these are obvious: withdrawal, narcissism and schizophrenia.

The external view

Certain people appear to have very little capacity or inclination for self-reflection. They seem to be happier, as a rule, than those who are continually seeking to discover who they are. The external orientation, which is so dominant in our culture, may be summed up in, "Don't worry about how you feel, just chop the wood."

Joan Didion wrote, "We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves." We have all been programmed by someone like Jessica Mitford's governess: "You're the least important person in the room and don't forget it."

Michael Korda is an exponent of such views:

One is inclined to ask whether a journey into oneself isn't in fact the definition of an "ego trip," but I suspect KP suffers from the modern American delusion that it is more important to spend your time thinking about yourself than trying to learn something about and from other people, a belief in the efficacy of introspection that seems as little likely to make for human happiness on this earth as St. Paul's belief in the efficacy of prayer.

Korda's dismissal of self-knowledge while lauding the attempt to understand others reminds me of the Catholic who aspired to love others but constantly flagellated himself with guilt. Why should I, the person I can be the most intimately acquainted with, be the only member of the human race I should not seek to understand? It amounts to minding other people's business and neglecting one's own.

I suspect that some people fear to look inside themselves and rationalise this fear by making a virtue of the refusal to look. Carl Rogers gives the opposite view, "The facts are always friendly. Every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true... Being closer to the truth can never be harmful or unsatisfying."

Some proponents of the external view argue that our life purpose is to help others. I believe that a person's life purpose cannot be just to help others. It is true that each of us can contribute in some way to improving the lot of other people who are less fortunate. Yet there is a circularity here, a displacement of human worth away from oneself onto someone else. As if everyone else is more important than oneself. Why is it important to help others? Because they are suffering and are deserving of help, since they are human beings just like us. But what about the elimination of our own sufferings, much smaller though they may be? Also, it is a fundamentally negative view of human existence to see it as one great battle against suffering.

RD Laing comments on prevailing social attitudes:

Some people... are thrown into more or less total inner space and time. We are socially conditioned to regard total immersion in outer space and time as normal and healthy. Immersion in inner space and time tends to be regarded as anti-social withdrawal, a deviancy, invalid, pathological per se, in some sense discreditable.

He ascribes this attitude to our being both terrified and unconscious of the inner world. At the same time we are starved for the inner. He continues:
We do not regard it as pathologically deviant to explore a jungle, or to climb Mount Everest. We feel that Columbus was entitled to be mistaken in his construction of what he discovered when he came to the New World. We are far more out of touch with even the nearest approaches to the infinite reaches of inner space than we now are with the reaches of outer space. We respect the voyager, the explorer, the climber, the space man. It makes far more sense to me as a valid project - indeed, as a desperately urgently required project for our time, to explore the inner space and time of consciousness.

In contrast to the West, Hindu philosophy deprecates the external world, seeing it as illusory, while deeming only spirit real. Thus it favours an internal, contemplative knowing, leading to the realisation of spirit and the unreality of matter. Our culture does not advocate self-knowledge as a path to salvation. Orthodox Christianity has always discouraged mysticism. So our exploratory drive has been directed to the external world of the senses rather than the internal world of consciousness.

With its emphasis on looking inwards, the New Age movement seeks to alter the prevailing external view. Critics of New Age thinking charge the movement with being narcissistic. The internal orientation is often viewed as a form of unhealthy self-indulgence, selfishness, triviality, and pointless navel-gazing.

Stephen Covey has written a valuable book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". One of his key ideas is that of visualizing the elegy at your own funeral. The point is to imagine what you want to have said at the grave-side and then to work back from there to decide your priorities in life. There is merit in this idea, but it is a one-sided approach. It focuses entirely on how others might see you, altogether ignoring the inner dimension. It is a criterion devised by a man of action, a man with an external orientation. A more balanced approach would be to combine Covey's visualisation with an imagined death-bed life review, during which you ask yourself questions such as, "Was I happy? Did I satisfy my own needs? Was I motivated by love? Did I follow a path with heart?"

The other problem with Covey's device is that it replaces self-assessment by the assessment of others. Though the judgement of others needs to be taken into account, ultimately we need to make our own assessment of our lives from the inside. Covey's blind spot is to the internal view. Ideally, one would balance the external with the internal orientation. Covey puts primary value on how we manifest ourselves in the world. This needs to be balanced with how we think and feel within the privacy of our minds. The challenge is to create a healthy synthesis of the two partial views.

From outward to inward and back

After decades of agitation as a feminist, Gloria Steinem stopped looking outward to social causes, and began to look inward. She decided that all the demonstrations and urging for political change will not solve women's problems if they did not sort out their inner conflicts first: "I always assumed that if the outward condition were changed, the inward shadow of that would change automatically." She had believed the past to be dead and gone: "I thought, 'Well, I've survived that... Good, now I can get on with life.' I did not ever look at what was continuing to live in my life."

No human society will ever be a utopia. The failure of communism, Christianity and Islam as working social models illustrates this, as does the relative failure of liberal democracy and the welfare state, in which people remain dissatisfied and self-destructive. Raynor Johnson observed that this conclusion is unwelcome to those who

... are earnestly struggling for social reform, believing that some day the ideal society will be achieved through the efforts of men of goodwill... A critical analysis of good works is called for. When the hungry are fed, when sick are cared for, when slums are abolished... You have provided, perhaps, a more favourable opportunity for happiness to follow; but happiness is a state of mind which you cannot command in another... The fact is, of course, that with all the difficulties of life removed, and with nothing left to improve except the character of men, it is difficult to see how character itself would be improved.

It is up to individual people to change the realities in their own heads. It is here that we are happy or miserable. The world is in the violent mess that it is in precisely because it is, in large part, composed of violent and messed-up individuals. These people are the ones who hate, are intolerant and fanatical, sit on mountains of resentment, and project their shadow sides onto their neighbours. Such psychological problems manifest as violence in the external world. This violence breeds more violence and the cycle continues. A clear example is the war in Bosnia.

As a child, Saddam Hussein was daily beaten and tortured by his stepfather. He grew up to enjoy the tortures of others. Ceausescu spent his early years in one room with nine siblings and an alcoholic, sadistic father. As president of Rumania he normalised these conditions by means of a brutal police state. In Iran the brutalities of the Shah's secret police have been extended and continued by the Islamic revolution. The truth is that we tend to treat others as we ourselves have been treated.

Scott Peck points out that we only know the world through our relationship to it, so that to know the world we need not only examine it but also the examiner. There is a growing awareness that most of the worst problems in the world are of human creation. If we are to resolve these problems it is imperative that we look within to discover why we are creating them and how to stop.

Being and doing

The internal and external orientations give rise to two different ways of experiencing life - being and doing. On the one hand, one cannot just 'be'. Some doing is needed, if only to insure our physical survival. Likewise, a life devoted entirely to action is like planting, raising and reaping a crop, but never consuming it. At least that's how it seems to me, a veteran non-doer.

My own experience shows that introspection is inimical to action, to getting things done. Yet as a wise person observed, "There is a time to fish and a time to mend the nets." Activeness can be a substitute or diversion from working on oneself. Ashly Brilliant quips, "I'm too busy to do anything important."

Two paths

Returning to mysticism, my tentative conclusion is that many roads lead to enlightenment. This is reflected in the existence of diverse yogic schools, such as tantra and asceticism, which seek the same destination, yet follow opposite paths. Jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, trains the aspirant to disidentify from mind, body and senses, until they know themselves as nothing but the Self. By contrast, karma yoga, the yoga of action, seeks liberation through forgetting the self in selfless action. As Capra showed in "The Tao of Physics", there is also an analogy between the poles of mysticism and physics - any enquiry that is pursued honestly and diligently enough eventually leads to truth.

It seems that we can achieve enlightenment through self-realisation or through the opposing approach of dissolution of self. The end result is the same: the world and the self become identical. Whether the method is one of subtraction (dissolving the illusion of self) or addition (enlarging the sense of self) is irrelevant. Wilber points out that the ultimate experience of mysticism is one where "The subject and the object don't vanish, but the gap between them does".

Both paths have their dangers. The path of self-realisation or seeking one's true self can lead to narcissism. Being self-critical and especially valuing the criticism of others can protect us from this pitfall. The path of denial of self, called asceticism, is also perilous, as Meister Eckhart observed, "Asceticism is of no great importance, for it creates more self-consciousness instead of less and reveals a greater ego rather than a lesser one."


Introspection is one of the highest human faculties. Unlike animals, we have the gift of being conscious of ourselves. Whether introspection is healthy and productive depends on how we look inside. Used intelligently, it can help us to live more wisely.

We all live in two worlds, each equally real, the internal and the external. Most of us focus mainly on only one of these. Society overwhelmingly values the external, while introspection is the compensatory valuing of the internal. Meaning is an internal quality. Intimacy with others requires one to be intimate with oneself. To dismiss the importance of self-knowledge seems absurd, like wanting to drive a car without learning how it operates. After all, the task of each of us is to drive an individual self through the streets and roads of life.

Having it both ways

Being and doing are the results of the internal and external orientations respectively. These two orientations need to be in balance. Though each can lead to fulfilment, it is better to integrate the two. The challenge is to create a healthy synthesis of the two partial views. I think that most of us are stuck with the basic orientation of our personality - internal or external - and no amount of striving can alter it. However, my suggestion is that we try to balance action with reflection, introspection with productive work, listening to music with painting the bathroom, focus on self with focus on the world, thus achieving a happy balance between doing and being. A highly integrated person would strive to give equal value to internal and external reality. To value only external or only internal experience is narrowly one-sided, denigrating half of what life offers us.

Let Plutarch have the last say, "There are two sentences inscribed upon the ancient oracle: 'Know thyself' and 'Nothing too much'; and upon these all other precepts depend."

Tad Boniecki

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