The Art Of Introspection
For Spiritual Progress
by Sri Mrinalini Mata (Excerpts)
Along with spiritual study — as a very necessary complement to it — Gurudeva [Paramahansa Yogananda] taught us the art of daily introspection, self-analysis.
Introspection, he taught us, is best practiced after one's evening meditation, as the day closes. After our period of calm communion with God, then we begin introspection — reliving our whole day from the moment we awakened. Start by asking yourself,
"What kind of a thought did I awaken with this morning?"
Then proceed quickly through the day's events: not pondering long on each thing, but just briefly reviewing all your activities, all the circumstances with which you have been faced — and, most importantly, the attitude you had in each situation that God and your karma brought into your life this day.
Using A Spiritual Diary
To Record Your Own "Mahabharata"
As you do this, you will note many faults; you will also note many virtues. All of these you should record in a spiritual diary. By making a habit of noting these over a period of months and years, you will see the progress you are making as well as the errors you keep repeating — the things to which you need to give more attention. This diary will be a guide; it will be the voice of Guru, because in it you are going to record the instances wherein you didn't quite live up to the Guru's guidance and principles; and also those points where you have succeeded in winning your day's spiritual battle. …
Overcoming The Ego And Freeing The Soul
The purpose of introspection is to become aware of our faults, to become aware of the weaknesses within us that need correction, so that we can progress spiritually. We find out which unwanted character traits need more of our attention, which ones we need to exert more will power to overcome in our spiritual life, and which we need to seek more guidance on in order to conquer them.
Actually, we only have one fault, and that is ego. If we can get rid of just that one fault, we will have God instantaneously. But my, what a many-faceted fault it is! Ego manifests in all the limiting habits of thought and behavior that spring from our identification with the body and that delude us into forgetting we are in truth a divine soul made in the ever-perfect image of God.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Master tells of meeting one saintly soul who had this to say about introspection: "I have long exercised an honest introspection, the exquisitely painful approach to wisdom. Self-scrutiny, relentless observance of one's thoughts, is a stark and shattering experience. It pulverizes the stoutest ego. But true self-analysis mathematically operates to produce seers. The way of 'self-expression,' individual acknowledgments, results in egotists, sure or the right to their private interpretations of God and the universe." …
Real introspection means to examine not only our actions and reactions, but to go deeper, down into our attitudes and underlying motives. We should analyze not just what we have done during the day, not only what we have been able to control outwardly, but what was below that: "What was my motive? I might have said or done the right thing to such-and-so, but was my motive truly pure? Was my attitude toward that person or situation the right one?" …
Understanding The Power Of Habits
…By introspection you discover your faults, but then what do you do? You analyze: "What is exactly the opposite quality to this particular fault?" For instance, say you have the fault of a quick temper. All right, then concentrate on the opposite of temper, which is calmness and self-controlled speech. It is not helpful to think, "Oh, I am so terrible. I've got so much anger. I just can't control it. I've got to control my bad temper." When you think in this way, you give strength to that imperfection by identifying with it. Don't even admit that it is a part of you. Master taught us to do just the opposite: You discover a fault and recognize it for what it is — a temporary graft of the ego upon the pure nature of the soul. Then, instead of thinking, "I've got to get rid of my bad temper," you start thinking about and working toward its opposite: "I will manifest calmness and self-control." In the concentrated state of meditation, you impinge that thought in your mind, so that as you go about your daily activities and duties and association with other people, even when facing difficult circumstances you are constantly remembering: "Remain calm; act in a calm, self-controlled way; watch your speech; speak kindly as you would want others to speak kindly to you; show understanding as you expect others to show understanding to you." Keep on until that becomes a habit.
“Weaken a bad habit by avoiding everything that occasioned it or stimulated it without concentrating upon it in your zeal to avoid it.” – Paramahansa Yogananda
Our Guru gave the following illustration about habits: If you have a thorn in your skin, you can take another thorn and dig out the bad thorn that is hurting you; and then you can throw both thorns away. So, when you have a bad habit, you can get rid of it by cultivating a good habit. Ultimately you will come to the point of the saint or sage, who can throw both thorns away." He is no longer bound by any kind of habit, good or bad; he is always operating from the plane of soul discrimination, able to act rightly by wisdom-guided free choice in all situations, not governed by habits of the ego.
"To be compelled to act in a certain way by the dictates of one's instincts and habits is slavery. To be good because you are habitually good, or to refrain from evil because you are accustomed to shunning wrong actions, is not true freedom either. When your will is guided by soul discrimination to choose good instead of evil — anytime, anywhere — because you sincerely want good for its own sake, then you are really free." …
Identify Neither With Faults Nor Virtues:
You Are The Soul
As we look at ourselves in the mirror of daily introspection, we should never identify with either our faults or our virtues. This is another principle that is very important in connection with the art of introspection: Remember always what you really are: a soul, absolutely perfect — an individualized spark of God; a spark of Spirit. The mortal limitations we have gathered around us in the form of habits, tendencies, moods, and so forth are nothing but maya*, cosmic delusion. [*Cosmic illusion; literally, "the measurer." Maya is the magical power in creation by which limitations and divisions are apparently present in the Immeasurable and Inseparable.]
This maya is everywhere. Without the delusion of maya, the universe could not exist. It is the influence of delusive ignorance that makes us imagine we have a separate existence apart from God and lose sight of the native perfection of our souls. But we are not this maya. We are not these faults, we are not these imperfections; they belong not to the soul but to the ego — the soul in its mortal state of identification with the little human body and mind and their limitations. We are already a perfect being. What we are trying to do on the spiritual path is to restore that perfect nature which God has already given to us as a part of His own being, and allow it to express itself. …
Understand The Spirit Of Spiritual Discipline
When we come to that point in our spiritual evolution when we are ready to find God — that point where we are willing to devote our wholehearted attention, our sincere effort, toward realizing that Divine Goal — then God brings us to a guru. The guru prescribes for us our sadhana. Sadhana means all of those things the guru prescribes for us as our particular path toward salvation.
Of course, each guru prescribes in a different way. What is important for us as disciples is that we follow this sadhana that Master has given to us as our guru. The SRF meditation techniques, and the principles of spiritual living that we learn in Master's writings — along with whatever special vows we have taken (for example, the vow taken during Kriya Yoga initiation, or the SRF marriage vows, or the vows taken by SRF monastics) — these constitute our sadhana or path of spiritual discipline. If we follow it one hundred percent — not only the letter but the spirit of Master's words, the spirit of Master's principles — then we find we are led nuerringly to the Supreme Goal. If we fail in any way to attain the God-communion, the transformation of consciousness, that we are seeking, the fault can lie only within ourselves, because the sadhana of the Self-Realization Fellowship path has been prescribed by one who has followed this way himself and has realized the goal. The efficacy of this path and the results of this particular sadhana have been proven in the lives of our divine Guru and of his devotees who have followed him.
There is a spiritual reason for each rule that Master emphasized for devotees of this path. And he always stressed the importance of understanding the purpose of these rules, because understanding will help you to follow the spirit of the rule — not just its outer observance. By understanding the "why" of what is expected of us on the spiritual path, we find that we are more inclined to exert our own will, our own initiative, to do what is right according to the prescription that Master has given to us. That understanding of the path grows in us as we deeply study his teachings each day, using the method I have already described to you of inwardly assimilating the truths behind his words. …
Keep Your Spiritual Enthusiasm Strong
Therefore, part of our daily introspection is to remind ourselves — throughout our life on the spiritual path, year after year, decade after decade — to strive to keep that initial enthusiasm and joy with which we began on the path. Thereby we reinforce in our minds the importance of putting our whole being, our full concentration and our full willingness, into every facet of the life, into every aspect of the routine, into the application of every one of the vital principles that Gurudeva has outlined for us as a part of our spiritual life.
Focus On Your Own Relationship With God,
Not On What Others Are Doing
Sometimes in the beginning of our sadhana, when we are very enthusiastic, we look around at other devotees and we begin to say to ourselves:
"Well, that person doesn't seem to be following this rule, so I don't see why I have to."
And you begin to excuse yourself. Does this do you any good? Even if someone else has lapsed in a duty, if you neglect that duty too, who has to reap the consequences? You do.
It is human nature to excuse ourselves. I don't think there is anyone who at some time or another hasn't felt thus justified; this is human thinking. But remember why we are on the spiritual path: We are here to overcome that human nature and to develop our divine nature. And that divine nature, the voice of the, soul within in us, says, My only concern I on the spiritual path is whether or not I am pleasing God and Guru. What others do or don't do has nothing to do with me. It is only God with whom I have to do."
Have the determination that you will go on making the effort even if the whole world forsakes God, even if everyone around you seems to be neglecting what the Guru says. You will find that when you are looking not to what others are doing, but to what you yourself are doing to follow Guru's guidance, his principles, the rules and guideposts he has set for you, you will be the one that will be blessed. You will be the one who gains the benefits that Guru has promised from such a life.
Remember, when you begin on the spiritual path and as you go along on the spiritual path, you are establishing a direct relationship between yourself and God. What you do, what you think, how you act, what your attitudes are, the depth of your enthusiasm, joy, and initiative on the path, or your lack thereof— these are what God watches. These are what are either building you gradually into a perfect devotee who one day will merit the blessing of God's presence — the blessing of constant attunement, constant oneness with God — or whose lack will cause you to fail on the spiritual path.
So never, never look around;
never analyze or judge anyone else's life
on the spiritual path.
That is one of the greatest pitfalls,
one of the greatest mistakes that you can make.
Sri Gyanamata trained us so wonderfully in this regard. It was one of the first things she spoke about to each of us young disciples who came to the ashram — especially if we ever criticized or began to judge another devotee on the path. She used to say to us,
"You can have only what is yours; and your own will surely come to you."
In other words, don't want, don't desire, don't even analyze or think about what anyone else has or does on the spiritual path — what circumstances or experiences come to them but perhaps not to you — because what is yours, what God wants you to have, what God feels you need to progress, that will inevitably come to you.
You will find that as you cultivate this attitude every day, and as you begin to gain the blessings from following the sadhana, then your understanding will also increase and you will begin to see the good, the divine, within others. You will begin to see God in all circumstances and conditions of your life — the beauty and the perfection in whatever conditions or situations God sends to you each day to hasten the unfoldment of your divine nature and your progress toward liberation.
Devotees who adopt the attitude of inward criticism of others and their activities — not even criticism, but just judging or analyzing what someone is or isn't doing— or resentment of the circumstances and conditions in which they are placed each day, will build up in their consciousness a wall that shuts them off from attunement with God.
Attitudes are very subtle things, and we don't always even know when we are harboring wrong ones. That is again why self-analysis, daily introspection, is so vitally important — to always watch our motives, to always watch our actions and our thoughts, to always observe what we are and what we are becoming, so that when we begin to go off into negative directions in life, immediately we can correct our course. Otherwise it will be to our detriment. We will fail to reach the goal of the spiritual path.
But those who steadfastly apply the Guru-given principles of sadhana, they cannot fail. Every devotee who devotedly, sincerely, ever more perfectly applies what Guru has said will reach the goal of God-realization that he has promised, with out fail.